Social networks have always existed in one form or another, Kealan Lennon assures me, we just didn’t have a name for them. Humans are inherently social and we are naturally inclined to want to share our lives with others.
It is this inclination that Lennon wants to tap into with his new Dublin-based startup company, Cleverbug. Speaking to me late last week on what was a windy, wet day in Dublin, where he was, and New York, where I was, Lennon told me about his motivations and ambitions for the company, his past involvement in startups and the future of Dublin as a startup city.
Cleverbug is the company behind CleverCards, a greeting card company that fully harnesses the power of modern day social media. Lennon describes CleverCards as the twenty-first century answer to greeting cards, bypassing the standard, impersonal cards you find on store shelves to provide customers with a unique, personalized approach to sending cards.
CleverCards pulls public data from your Facebook, including your friends and their birthdays and photos. It filters this information into a calendar and then sends you a reminder email roughly a week before a friend’s birthday, asking you if you would like to send them a birthday card.
CleverCards goes one step further than Facebook however, and this was a point Lennon stressed: CleverCards understands the relationship between you and your Facebook friends at a higher level – it recognizes the relationship between parents and kids, between partners and between siblings, and will create a card personalized to that. The company truly enters futuristic territory when Lennon tells me about the algorithm CleverCards uses, based off user interactions on Facebook, to handpick the best photos of you and the card recipient to display on the card.
The very concept of the thing is genius and with the right leadership, CleverCards could be set for greeting card global domination. Lennon is no stranger to the high octane world of startups, having spent the past twenty years working in and creating various startup ventures. For CleverCards in particular, Lennon’s experience seems especially well-suited. He has worked in the media and display sector for two decades, selling his first company for a cool €20 million ($27 million) and then investing his money in various print and packaging companies, and radio stations. This helped him develop his keen entrepreneurial senses and an ability to see opportunities in industries that other people cannot.
This led Lennon to the realization that the greeting card industry hadn’t really evolved or changed in any substantive way in the past hundred years. He knew he could be the disruptive force in this seemingly safe industry, and so far it seems to have paid off: close to 150 million people have interacted with CleverCards, either through the app or online to date, according to Lennon’s own figures.
A much touted figure by the company is the fact that people in over 200 countries have used CleverCards. This exceptionally high figure has been driven by continued investment and expansion in the company. Lennon and his team managed to raise over €4.4 million ($6 million) in 2014 and are hoping to raise another round of investment in early 2015. The money has been put to good use, as Cleverbug has created partnerships with large scale printing centers around the world to ensure efficient, timely delivery of greeting cards. You can send a card from Ireland to America much faster than traditional greeting cards – you draft and order the card in Ireland, and it is then printed in America and posted to the delivery address.
For Lennon though, CleverCards is only the beginning in a complete transformation of the greeting card industry. Most recently CleverBug has branched off into making yearly calendars with CleverCalendar. Of course now is the perfect time of year for both calendars and greeting cards, with Christmas just ahead, but Lennon is confident that their offering is unique enough to attract buyers throughout the year.
Taking a similar tact to the cards, CleverCalendar populates a year calendar with information pulled from Facebook, including photos, birthdays and other notable events and days. Lennon and Cleverbug have added video and audio greetings and messages to the CleverCards package. This goes hand-in-hand with recent trends in how people consume information online, with the rise of image-based media such as Snapchat and Instagram, and the switch from desktop to mobile. Lennon mentions that 84% of growth by mobile operators was driven by data. As part of Cleverbug’s plans for 2015, Lennon plans to further ongoing discussions with these operators on partnerships with Cleverbug.
What Lennon has managed to put together with Cleverbug and its affiliated companies is very impressive, essentially monetizing a niche in the market in a way that hasn’t been done before.
What Cleverbug does not have to worry about, at least for the moment, is the threat of any direct competitor. While the likes of Shutterfly do operate in photo-based greeting cards, they lack the social aspect that gives CleverCards its edge. Lennon believes the modus operandi of CleverCards is unique enough to separate it from the pack of other image-based printing services and to cement their status as a market leader.
As stated already, CleverCards has customers in over two hundred countries worldwide, but somewhat surprisingly, at least to the interviewer, over half of their business comes from the United States. The surprise comes from the fact that the company has managed to make such a huge impact in America already, when the twenty five staff employed by Cleverbug are all based in Dublin.
In many ways it speaks to how universally marketable the concept is. Despite being an Irish company, its early success in America proves that there is room for a new player like CleverCards in the staid greeting card arena. Dublin has seen a tremendous growth to its startup industry in the past few years, going from a nascent community with a few companies to one that can boast dozens of successful startups. Startups have become such a staple of Dublin that Dublin City Council recently installed a Commissioner of Startups, Niamh Bushnell. Lennon spoke highly of the supportive, collaborative nature of the Dublin startup community. When asked if he would recommend it as a city for startups to set up, he said:
“Well yes, I’ve been around the scene in Dublin a long time and it is easier when you know the people you are pitching to… With all of the tech giants [Google, Facebook, Twitter] moving into Dublin, there is has been a huge swell in talented people who are interested in starting their own company… We are seeing people come over here with these companies and then leaving the companies to set up their own business, while staying in Dublin. It has helped foster a great community in the city… Compared to the cut throat nature of startups in somewhere like Silicon Valley, I think Dublin is a healthier, more positive environment.”
Before finishing up our interview, I asked Kealan if he had any advice to give to budding startup entrepreneurs. He replied:
“I suppose if there was one piece of advice I was to give people out there at the very start of their journey… it would be to believe in your work and be willing to take risks. You need to be passionate about it because there are going to be a lot of challenges in front of you... I have been involved in many different kinds of startups over the years and the common thing between all of them is that you need to work hard, very hard, to get anywhere. You need to be prepared to work seven days a week, morning, noon and night for as long as it takes.”
So, a proclivity for hard work, a willingness to take risks and passion and belief in what you do are the prerequisites for a successful career in startup enterprise. Lennon has displayed this time and again in his extensive career in the industry and it looks like he is on to another winner with Cleverbug and CleverCards, with a strong performance in 2014 behind them and a bright 2015 to look forward to.