Richard Whelan BComm '11 & Gavin Hayes BSc '11
Deemed a success
Making the difficult decision to let go of their first business ‘StudyBuddy’ has paid off in spades for Richard Whelan (BComm ‘11) and Gavin Hayes (BSc ‘11), who have since set up Popdeem, an influencer marketing platform that raised €500,000 in its most recent funding round and is in the process of white labelling its technology to help brands drive peer-to-peer engagement across social networks.
About Richard Whelan & Gavin Hayes
Whelan developed StudyBuddy – a desktop application that allows students set up schedules to temporarily block their own access to social networks and other distractions on their computers – in his final year at college along with Kevin Glynn and Declan Egan, who were in their second year of commerce at the time. “We won the UCD Apprentice competition, which had a €2,500 prize and that gave us the initial funding to kick StudyBuddy off. Gav then joined the company after we finished college.”
Early in 2012, StudyBuddy was one of 15 start-ups to be accepted onto the NDRC three-month Launchpad accelerator programme. NDRC also invested €20,000 in the company. “They call it the tech start-up MBA and it’s three months of intense mentorship in different areas like finance, sales and development,” says Whelan. “It was great for us because we were straight out of college. We got to meet other people who were setting up companies who maybe had 10 or 15 years’ experience so we could leverage off that community.”
While the intention had been to look at different ways of using the application and to scale it up, Whelan says technical challenges soon began to emerge. “We had been looking at applications for the product in schools but then teachers were starting to say they wanted to bring iPads into the classroom. Students were increasingly using their phones to go on to Facebook.”
Coming up with a new idea wasn’t as difficult as letting go of the initial one, he says. “We did feel we had ways to pivot StudyBuddy and turn it into something else but still in the education space. Because we had built a brand and we’d been doing it for 18 months, it was really hard to let go of it. It will make a return some time – maybe 10 years from now!
“We were always dissecting problems with social networks. That’s what we had been doing with StudyBuddy in the first place. So another problem we identified was advertising and the way brands connect to users online – they’re still dependent on banner and text ads and that’s intrusive if you’re talking to friends. We wanted to find a way that brands could integrate into the conversation.”
Whelan and Hayes came up with the idea of incentivising people to share brand messages and generate positive word-of-mouth by offering discounts and vouchers in return. “So, instead of the brand pushing their message down your throat, it’s your friends talking about it. And that is something you do want to engage with.”
In September 2012, the company raised €100,000 and was accepted into the Telefonica Wayra academy. “Then we built two mobile apps for local businesses that allowed you to claim rewards. If you went into a local business – say a burrito bar – you could check in on Facebook or share a photo and get a reward through a voucher on your phone.”
Popdeem initially launched with 15 local businesses, which enabled it to build up a series of successful case studies that the company was then able to bring to bigger brands and agencies in Ireland.
Based on the strong interest they received, Whelan and Hayes decided in March of this year to white label the technology to essentially allow large brands to use the platform and integrate it into their own existing mobile apps. They subsequently secured €500,000 from investors including Delta Partners, Enterprise Ireland and Rick Kelley, one of Facebook’s global directors, to build a technology team and speed up the company’s commercial development.
He’s not naming names – yet – but Whelan says the company is currently talking to most of the bigger brands in Ireland and some in the UK and is on the verge of closing one or two of the bigger deals. “We wouldn’t have been able to get the funding without having that traction,” he says.
He expects to be able to announce the first big customer in the coming weeks. “But I’ve been saying that for a long time. That’s one thing we’ve noticed in going from the local businesses to the bigger brands. We’ve essentially got yeses, but it takes time going through different people and different legals and data protection and all these kinds of things.”
Whelan also says that Popdeem has developed from being a reward technology into quite an advanced social marketing platform. “It gives brands the ability to identify who their most influential customers are. It gives them a social profile of their users and what they’re interested in. So, during the World Cup, for example, a major brand can target people who are specifically interested in football and are male influencers between the ages of 21 to 25. That gives them hyper-targeting and is done through their own mobile application.”
Looking to the US
He believes Popdeem will have even bigger appeal in the US market. “The influencer marketing space is a term that’s been thrown around a lot lately but it’s massive in the US at the moment. We’ve already made a couple of trips out. We were in Las Vegas at the Collision conference a few weeks ago and met US investors and technology partners and got a lot of interest from some of the biggest social marketing companies in the world.
“That’s always been our focus. We think American brands will be able to use our technology at the next level. The platform can go into such detail that US brands will be able to take advantage of it even more than Irish brands.”
At the moment, Popdeem is fully functional on Facebook and there are plans to launch on Instagram over the next few months. “We’ll do that before Twitter because you can create a lot of cool brand experiences on Instagram and brands are looking at that right now.”
There’s no immediate exit strategy, according to Whelan. “We have a tonne of ideas that we’d like to put on top of it, more layers,” he says. “It’s quite easy to see Popdeem branching out into a few different social marketing products. For that, we both feel we’ve got another couple of years to go before we get it to where we want it to be. You can’t really tell what’s going to happen in 18 months, but we definitely have a big vision for where we want to be and a lot of ideas to go on top of Popdeem.”