Just Started – Rob Illidge: Vulse

We all know the power of social media. But how can SMEs get the most from their platforms? Vulse is the new software prototype aiming to answer that question.

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

Name of founder: Rob Illidge
Age of the founder: 35
Location: Manchester
Date launched: 18 October 2021
Number of employees: 3

What does your business do?

Vulse is a software as a service (SaaS) prototype that helps small business owners who lack the time, knowledge or resources to create outstanding social media content, by delivering an easy to understand, step-by-step process.

Our mission is to help small business owners compete more effectively in today’s digital economy by providing them with the resources they need to stand out online – without having to hire an expensive agency or rely on overpriced, self-service tools. We strive to be innovative, engaging, diverse, empowering and accessible.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

Having worked in the social media industry since 2008, we have witnessed three issues startups face when trying to create engaging social media content:
1) Creativity- what to post, where and when, spending 10 hours per week trying to maximise activity.
2) Knowledge- understanding complex algorithms, 40% of owners are unaware of how to advertise their business.
3) Budget- the average 10.5% of revenue allocated to social media marketing is wasted due to a lack of efficient tools. 25% of entrepreneurs don’t use social media due to a lack of easy-to-use content creation tools and the ability to calculate the value of their investment.

How did you know there was a market for it?

We spoke to 3,500 startup owners, to discover their social media problems, inviting them to participate in a four-stage design process, improving the user experience of our prototype. 96% said they struggle on a daily basis to create engaging content that promotes their business.

Rob Illidge

What were you doing before launching your business?

I have been working in the social media industry since 2008 having graduated from universities in the UK and USA and becoming one of the first British users of Facebook.

I am the founder and CEO of the global social media agency, Social Republic, which I launched in 2015 with zero capital, bootstrapping the agency to develop it into a seven-figure revenue company with over 500 staff worldwide.

My career has helped me to become a recognised social media expert reaching millions of users every month including over 26,000 LinkedIn followers. I have previously been featured by Forbes, BBC, Sky News and Management Today.

Our mission is to help small business owners compete more effectively in today's digital economy.

Have you always dreamed of starting a business?

My parents were what I would now call entrepreneurs, despite not recognising it at the time. I was always impressed by their sacrifice and dedication to building businesses and I’m glad I have followed in their footsteps. Starting a business is not easy, but the payoff, for me is flexibility and being able to choose the path I go down.

How did you finance your business?

Vulse has been fully bootstrapped since day one and has only grown using personal capital. It has also been supported by the Greater Manchester AI Foundry, a collaboration between Manchester Metropolitan University, Lancaster University, The University of Manchester and University of Salford which aims to support 150 businesses are at the forefront of the evolution of Artificial Intelligence in Greater Manchester.

The foundry is funded with £3m from the European Regional Development Fund via the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, with partners delivering a further £3m in matched funding.

Explain your business model and how you make money.

Vulse is free forever for startup owners. In the future, we plan to implement a hybrid freemium model whereby users are given free access to all advanced AI features for 14 days. Once this expires users have the option to continue using a limited version for free or pay £20 per month to upgrade.

What are the main challenges you have faced? And how did you overcome them?

As a new market entrant offering a game-changing product that uses AI-led content creation, we have faced four key challenges of which we’re continually working hard to overcome. These include:

  1. Converting loyal competitor customers using our experience of where target users are active, understanding of pain points and applying competitive price points.
  2. Standing out against competitors by introducing game-changing technologies created during the project to help users develop highly engaging posts
  3. Achieving scale in the market by utilising our experience of bootstrapping a business to seven-figure revenues, building a 500+ team, developing cutting-edge AI technologies and promoting SaaS products.
  4. Leveraging our partnerships with social networks such as LinkedIn and small business organisations like Barclays Eagle Labs to help with prototype development and support growing businesses.

What has your experience been of starting a business during a pandemic?

The journey has been an interesting one, but positive, as startups look to find new, cost-effective way to promote their business. Budgets are being moved from traditional marketing methods such as print and direct mail, and being allocated to social media activity where more customers can be reached, faster and at a lower cost.

The time is now for UK small businesses to get moving again. It is reported that Covid-19 will cost SMEs an estimated £126.6 billion, double what owners predicted it would cost them when asked a year ago. This highlights the stark realisation that businesses do not have budgets to work with specialist agencies, and will not have the time to learn how complex social media algorithms work as they focus on areas of recovery following the pandemic. They risk being left behind.

I was always impressed by my parents’ sacrifice and dedication to building businesses and I'm glad I have followed in their footsteps.

Describe your first breakthrough.

Our first major breakthrough was gaining access to LinkedIn’s marketing API which allowed our MVP users to login to their account, create content and schedule, saving them precious time which can be spent on other areas of their business.

This breakthrough acted as a springboard to work alongside other social networks using their APIs, test our offering and develop advanced AI features which set us apart from competitors.

What advice would you give to other aspiring business owners?

If it were easy, everybody would do it. Starting a business can be straightforward but growing it into something to be proud of is the challenge. You have to start somewhere and there’s no reason why today can’t be that day. Go out and achieve what you dream of.

How has Brexit impacted your business? Do you think it will in the future?

We are positive that with our product offering being a digital one, Brexit will not have an adverse effect on business. It’s important for us to understand that we are not necessarily immune, and it may have an impact on investment, GDPR compliance, the definition of professional qualifications and the cross-border provision of services.

Starting a business can be straightforward but growing it into something to be proud of is the challenge.

What is one resolution you have for your business this year?

To grow and continue to do so. We want to utilise cutting-edge AI technologies and offer the best features for our users.

How do you see your business developing in the next three years?

In 3 years, Vulse will be the world’s leading, AI-powered social media post creation platform setting the bar for digital marketing innovation, offering products for all major social networks and serving over 149,000 users.

If you’re a business owner with a startup that’s less than six months old, apply now to feature as one of our Just Started business profiles.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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