Interview with Justyn Howard (Sprout Social)
Sprout Social provides a set of tools for social media management.
I interviewed Justyn Howard, Sprout Social founder to find out more. This is the hundred and ninetieth in a series of DW startup interviews. Big thank you to Justyn!
How would you describe Sprout Social in under 50 words?
Sprout is a social media management platform for business. Our engagement, publishing and analytics features bring social presence into one powerful tool and turn keystrokes into happier customers, followers and fans. Sprout gives one user the power of twenty and large teams surgical precision to create exceptional brand experiences.
How did you meet CTO Aaron Rankin?
That was a lucky bit of chance. Aaron and I met on a double date in 2009. While our dates caught up, we started talking about liquor and eventually about a software idea Gil Lara (Creative Director and co-founder) and I were tossing around at the time. The conversation went well and we decided to meet a few days later – things moved pretty quickly from there.
What gap in the market did you discover that persuaded you to launch Sprout Social in 2010?
In late 2009, I was working for an enterprise software company and trying to find tools to help me use social media to connect with my customers. Everything in the market was focused on consumers and lacked the business layer that would make it really work for professional use. The idea has evolved a lot, but that was the original itch. It wasn’t even clear at the time that consumers would ever want to communicate with brands through Twitter or Facebook, but we (and our investors) made a pretty big bet that they would.
What made you think of the name Sprout Social?
It wasn’t a very involved process. Gil and I were just throwing around name ideas to help bring our design concepts to life. I think we ended up with 4-5 options and Sprout Social fit the best with our brand direction. After some back and forth and an occasional second guess, it began to feel right. Now it sounds perfect.
Who do you see as your target audience? How are you reaching them?
Our customers are very diverse. We work with big brands that have large teams, like McDonald’s; complex programs like the Obama for America 2012 presidential campaign; brands with smaller teams; and even our favorite local businesses. The common thread to each client is their desire to make meaningful connections with their audience and the recognition that social media is another way to build a relationship with their customers and fans.
A large part of our business comes from word-of-mouth, as our customers are social by nature. Happy customers multiply. We also find new customers through integrated campaigns across the typical digital marketing channels, as well as through our popular blog, Sprout Insights.
What technologies have you used to develop Sprout Social and which were the most technically challenging development problems?
Our technology mix is pretty intense but our approach is simple – pick the best tool for the job. So we have a healthy blend of bleeding-edge and trusted technologies. That goes for our front-end tech and back-end stack.
We process more than 6 million interactions per day for our customers and support heavy daily use across tens of thousands of users. In addition to scaling for that volume, we build against a requirement list that develops in real-time. There is no precedent for our features and the social media ecosystem changes overnight. Agility is critical to our success and remaining nimble has been harder than any singular technology problem.
How successful has your 30 day free trial been and why?
The world becomes pretty clear when you can rely on actual use of your product to convert prospects to paying customers. There is no such thing as buyer’s remorse when you’ve fully experienced something before you buy it. We know exactly how much value we bring to the table and get immediate feedback on changes and enhancements. It’s like running a school where every kid loves being there. For us, every customer relationship starts with a fair value exchange and great rapport and that makes a big difference.
You’ve received over $10M in funding, how long did this take to secure? What was the process like?
This is one of those answers that will be relevant to no one. We’ve raised two rounds of financing and both were done over the course of a few days (not counting contracts/legal). In each round you optimize for different things and when both parties find the right fit it’s pretty clear. We didn’t do a lot of frog kissing.
What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?
Our biggest hurdle has always been being ahead of a roadmap where the industry is developing in real-time. Corporate adoption of social media has changed and moved so quickly throughout the past 2-3 years, it’s crazy. We have to constantly find ways to innovate against a moving target and do it at break-neck speeds.
You employee over 35 people, have you had any difficulties in finding talented developers and managers?
Finding great people anywhere is tough. Our team is about 65 now and has grown pretty steadily over the past 3 years. We have an exceptional group and with each great addition it becomes easier to attract the next. As we become more specialized, certain roles take longer to fill, but we’ve definitely had a lot of good fortune.
Has Sprout Social got the feedback and growth you expected since launching three years ago?
I think we had a vague idea of how big we wanted to be 3 years ago, but it wasn’t based in any reality. We had no point of reference from similar SaaS companies, so it was all wild guesses. I do remember telling Aaron in one of those first meetings that I thought we could eventually hit a certain revenue number, which sounded crazy at the time. We’re doing about 10x that now.
How do you differentiate yourselves from your competitors?
Everyone in our space uses the same buzzwords and the same value statements. At some point, the only differentiation that matters is the product and service. That has consistently been our biggest strength – we’ve built a top-notch platform and it speaks or itself. We’ve always been pretty understated in our marketing/positioning, but we’re starting to open up more about our success and capabilities this year. Most people wouldn’t know for example that our Enterprise customer roster is as large as it is, but our product is incredibly powerful.
What is your primary focus in terms of new developments at the moment?
We spend a lot of time thinking about how to make social effective across an organization. Two years ago, a small team handled social – today social teams are regularly in the dozens to hundreds. Two years from now, it will touch more employees than most other types of business software. Our team is focused on anticipating the needs across an organization as social media adoption and implementation become more sophisticated.
Do you have any upcoming features for Sprout Social that you would like to mention?
We just introduced new engagement metrics in our app and also the opportunity for any brand to run a free engagement report. All they have to do is visit mustbepresent.com, authorize with Twitter and run a report. The new metrics detail average response rates, typical response times and more. It’s a great way to get a pulse on your performance; you can even compare your brand to vertical benchmarks.
There’s another feature I’d love to mention as our customers are begging for it. Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to talk about it and contractually we can’t even say that it’s almost finished. Aside from that, we’re totally revamping our reporting engine and opening up some internal tools that we’ve built. We’ve had a very aggressive roadmap the past two years, but 2013 will bring twice as much new functionality.
Can you convince the reader to start using Sprout Social in under 50 words?
Happy customers are the only currency that matter in business. Sprout helps you get and keep more of them. It’s free to try, so please do.
Finished reading? Check out Sprout Social!