Italian Irish startup MySmark moved to Dublin in 2011 to take advantage of a more advanced digital support system that did not exist in Italy at that time. Nicola Farronato and his co-founder Paolo Panizza took the big decision to relocate to the Guinness Enterprise Center in Dublin to build their new age marketing company.
This week the company signed a strategic partnership with one of the most disruptive italian agencies LIFE Interaction, with the aim of launching MySmark as a key marketing service for italian brands internationally.
What kind of changes did the company/product go through in early stages?
Generally I would say quite a few changes, though around the same core business idea: emotions matters, in marketing and in business too. Very often you start with a consumer App/product, and then most of the times you end up redirecting to its enterprise solution, in order to keep on doing, make it appealing to investor and sustainable in the mid run.
In 2010 me and my co-founder Paolo (Panizza) decided to test an SMS based idea in the area of mood-tracking. Basically we have built our prototype codifying a numeric response to a text message to record the mood of some friends in certain hours during the day. This first trial gave us some useful feedback, we discovered what was interesting and what absolutely not working. In 2011 we started from scratch moving from Italy to Ireland (in bad shape, but with a far better digital ecosystem) to develop MySmark, also thanks to the admission to LaunchPad acceleration programme at NDRC.ie. Our main focus was to develop an online tool to "tag content emotionally", thus providing a user a new widget to do it with one-click. It was not a social network idea though, rather a utility to be used as a social plugin (for FB and TW), a bookmarklet, an improved comment box for blogs (http://wordpress.org/plugins/mysmark/).
From here we understood that we could not take off as a consumer product with that setup. So we kept on iterating and evolved developing all the business proposition, looking at insight-driven marketing as a segment, and actionable insights as main deliverable.
In 2012 we have piloted few business early adopters with MySmark as a marketing tool, and in 2013 we have kept on adding features and fine tuning the spectrum of the value proposition in the most captive sectors we could find: tourism, art, events.
Do you have investors? Are you looking for further investment?
We have raised $ 500K keeping a lean management and startup approach. Our investors are italian private investors and some irish seed funds.
We are working on a new round, in 2014, targeting $ 1 million to accelerate our developments and go-to-market targeting Europe and US.
What kind of growth has your company experienced?
MySmark is a venture willing to unlock new potential within the emotional marketing and consumer interaction space. So I would focus the term growth not in users number (we do not have a community) but in prospects and marketing brand owners that are showing great interest in what we are doing and starting to ask us for MySmark. Consider that many startups have tried to connect a user with a brand emotionally, most of them could not survive, so the challenge is set high. We have been working silently for the last 3 years and now we think we have really something to say in this regard. We expect 2014 as a great year for achieving market endorsement.
How many customers do you have now?
We have got a pilot phase with some 15 different projects (hightlights here: http://www.b-smark.com/services/usecases/) and now we have about 10-15 serious prospects in discussion for a project in 2014 (all high profile brands and organizations in Europe). We are also in advanced talks with a couple of relevant US brands, and plan to get our first US customer in the second half of 2014.
Tell us about your industry: What was it like to break into?
1. Market Research: for so many years brands have been spending a fortune in old school market research, buying well known researches for very expensive prices. Digital has accelerated time and space of data acquisition, starting changing the rules of the market research game and shifting to new paradigms. Though, surveys are still nowadays boring and very poor in terms of appeal. This is a market problem to us, and with MySmark new survey capacity we aim at contributing to fix it, leveraging instant consumer understanding, rich data, fun survey experience. See MySmark widgets attached.
2. Digital engagement: brands and social media specialists are (still) measuring engagement counting the # of like, RT, +1, pin etc. We think this is quite poor and raw data to take major decisions in terms of (social) CRM. Sentiment analysis is very accurate on its side, but cannot show a positive engagement, since it is about data harvesting. With MySmark we are capable of measuring emotional engagement and bring the richness of this information to the next level.
3. Media: reputation, loyalty, NPS... many way to measure the positive/negative virality of a customer for marketing. We think opinions for the media industry are important, and we would definitely like to contribute to empower each and every user with more powerful tools to express themselves. MySmark has this feature too, thanks to the widgets designed to keep into account users subjectivity while posting a comment, sharing a link or giving feedback. In other words, we would be able to understand the difference in between 2 like, given by 2 different users.
How many employees do you have now?
At the moment we have 5 full time people and some external collaborations.
We are planning to grow our organization in the coming months, looking at doubling it by the end of the year, in accordance with our new investors.
What's the biggest challenge you've faced so far? The greatest victory?
I think the greatest victory for such a venture is to be able to shape the vision and the direction of the journey every day, funnel in a lot of energy and empathy with your team, and help each of them to deliver. Externally it is fundamental to keep the public profile relevant with good PRs and continue the discussions and meetings with target customers and partners in order to really involve them in the idea development. As many (if not all) other startup projects we have got many ups and downs in the past 3 years. We have been able to pass through difficult times together and attract a lot of great people to back us in this project. I disagree with the motto "fails fast is better" since I think that no entrepreneur is prepared to fail. I agree with a good combination of lean approach and strong entrepreneurial motivation. Continuity is the greatest victory. Look at how many stories of entrepreneurs who decided to keep on doing even if the reality looked like a failure out there. Many of them did it, in desperate conditions. If you feel what you are doing is right, don't stop and do it.
What's been the most important lesson?
Most of the teams just think that their idea is unique and their product is the best, and all the world has simply to understand it. Well, after a while you realise that none of this is properly real, and that you need to go back and do a constant competitive analysis and prior art for your idea, try to make one of the best executions, and stay constantly in touch with your potential users and customers, since your product will need quite a lot of iteration and fine tuning. So the most important lesson to me is the need of changing a little something every day, and ultimately be flexible and realistic with your vision, which has to be connected with state of the art of innovation (Moore's Law) and rapid market changes.
What are your plans for 2014?
In 2014 our main target is to build the best showroom of use cases for MySmark and provide the team with the proper resources to boost the venture. We are working very close with irish and italian markets, and that is quite unique since we are one of the very few italian startups in Ireland (actually I don't know any other). On the other hand we think that UK and US can really be great opportunities for us, since we are positioning MySmark as a marketing proposition, and London-NY are 2 of the most important places of marketing decision making. So our idea is to be soon in both cities to promote our services and acquire new customers.
What advice do you have for other people/companies starting out in your industry?
Marketing is a crowded space. It is also at the crossroad of a huge metamorphosis, which will bring a lot of new opportunities. You can decide to catch a trend and go for an incremental innovation, or you can decide to fix in a great new way old problems. Especially if you start outside of US, I think you have to carefully build something new, unique and smart. We are trying to do it through S-marketing, smart marketing. Finger crossed :)