Cube Social: Mark Bower and Linda Cheung
The co-founders on winning business through social media and the turmoils of Christmas recruitment
Tell us what your business does:
CubeSocial is a piece of software which helps time-starved professionals to win business through social media.
It turns email contacts into social profiles, so businesses can see which social media sites their contacts are using, enabling companies to invest in the right platforms and speak where their contacts want to listen. It also manages online conversations, so teams don't need to second guess what's already been said, and finds new leads by finding the right online conversations to join. Where did the idea for your business come from?
We set out to ask businesses what they wanted. The overwhelming answer was new ways to win new business.
At the same time, we were experimenting with social media and achieving surprising results. We saw how traditional best practices still applied online, and how we were able to reach a much larger – yet more targeted – audience. This formed the basis for CubeSocial.
How did you know there was a market for it?
We did our research and found an untapped part of the market. We are the only product specifically designed for professionals (eg financial services, lawyers, consultants) to interact with social media.
What were you doing before starting up?
Linda was a COO at Morgan Stanley. Mark was a Program Manager at Microsoft.
Between the two of us we knew we had the right combination of skills for this business.
What appealed most about being your own boss?
We had both always wanted to run our own business. We wanted to take the things we had learned in years of corporate work and put them into practice with smaller businesses. More personally, we both lost our fathers within a few months of each other. The last thing we wanted to feel was that we were treading water when life was so short.
What planning did you do before you started up?
We did our research and asked companies what they wanted.
We got some great advice from the folk at Thames Valley Innovation and Growth, and Henley Business School.
We put together a plan and financial forecast. Then we just had to go for it.
How did you raise the money?
We are self-funded to-date but we will consider taking funding to accelerate growth.
How did you find suppliers?
We have used social media to research and ask for recommendations, then fired off queries via Twitter.
If they respond quickly and helpfully, there's a great chance they treat their customers well and we'll have found a gem.
What challenges have you faced how have you overcome them?
Staffing has been a major challenge. We learned the hard way that starting to recruit in November, when the rest of the country is thinking of their holidays, is not a good plan!
We have also learned that hiring for attitude as much as talent is vital for start-ups.
How have you promoted your business?
We have used CubeSocial – to the exclusion of anything else – to promote our business through social media. To date we have gained local (Basingstoke Gazette), national (The Guardian) and international (Wall Street Journal) press coverage, all without spending a penny on marketing or PR!
How much do you charge?
Like many software businesses we have a freemium model. There is a free account that's ideal for people getting started with social media. If you have more than 1,000 contacts you can upgrade to one of the paid accounts. Pricing for these accounts starts from £29 per month.
What about staff – how many do you have? Is it burdensome?
We have two employees now and are very pleased with the people we have hired, so being an employer is not really so burdensome. There are simple software packages that take care of all the logistics.
Much more burdensome is the hiring process itself. That's one reason why we want to work with our staff to make sure we retain them for the long haul.
What has your growth been like?
We launched a limited version of CubeSocial in July and are really pleased with the buzz and endorsements to date. It's still early days for us but we are on plan with where we wanted to be.
What's the impact on your home life been like?
Starting up is all consuming. We find it almost impossible to switch off.
Some of our friends think we are mad. Sometimes we do too! What would you say the greatest difficulty has been in starting up?
The biggest challenge has been the emotional highs and lows that come with starting up. A huge breakthrough success one day is almost inevitably followed by something falling through the next.
It helps that there are two of us leading the business. Usually one can pick the other up again.
What was your first big breakthrough?
Our biggest breakthrough was getting a 45-minute slot on BBC Radio to talk about our business. People often ask us how that came about and the answer is a random tweet!
A journalist tweeted about passing though grim Basingstoke on a train and asked if there was anything good about it. Linda replied saying she had just left the City to live there and it wasn't all bad. That led to an email exchange and Linda was asked to write an article on ‘Why I left the City for a startup in Basingstoke.' A couple of days after that was published, the BBC phoned – so we have a lot to thank social media for!
What would you do differently?
We have learned to identify and cut out time-wasters much more quickly.
Lots of people will ask you for free advice. The reality is that you can't go around giving your time for free if you want to make a living.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
Ask people early on what their budget is. If they avoid the question, politely and quickly move on to the next prospect.
Where do you want to be in five years' time?
We want to see professionals using CubeSocial as the defacto standard for interacting with social networking sites.
Regarding an exit plan, we have a plan but we are not transfixed by it. If there is one thing we have learned so far, it's to enjoy the journey because where you end up will almost certainly not be where you set out to be!