Understand and Engage With Your Consumers At the Speed of Social
By Ulrik Bo LarsenSep 28
Learn how L’Oréal improved their market share by equipping themselves
with deep consumer insights from Brandwatch Consumer Research
Published February 26th 2021
“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
– Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
So, 13 and a half years after launching Brandwatch, I’m delighted to announce that we are being acquired by Cision. For the business scoop, you can read the details here. And while this may be the headline, behind it lies much of the narrative of my professional life… so far at least.
There’s way too much to say about this whole journey for one blog post, but I’ve tried to pick out the important moments in an attempt to describe what it has taken to build this company and to acknowledge some of the amazing people I have had the pleasure of working alongside.
“Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle.”
At the age of 29, I was really not sure what I wanted to do with my life. I’m 52 now, so that was a while ago, but for anyone getting close to 30 who doesn’t feel like they’ve figured out what instrument they play in the soundtrack of their life, don’t panic. You just need to try some other things out.
For me, that other thing was starting a ‘tech business’.
Steve Crossan and I met during a failed startup in 1999. We attempted to build a perfume and cosmetics etailer – or rather an interactive tv-tailer? – called 5Senses (and thank you Jeremy Stakol for taking the plunge with me on that). Terrible name, I know, but it was that three month experience that made me realize my talents, such as they are, lay in entrepreneurship. There were only five of us, but in that short period of time in a small office on Oxford Street, we created electricity. It was exciting and it didn’t feel like work. I had a small child at home and another on the way, so it was a terrible time to start a business. But I had to try it and I think I realized quite quickly that I had found the thing I wanted to do – create a startup.
5Senses failed (a story for another day), so Steve introduced me to two of his friends Oli Sharpe and Guilaume Barreau – both PhD computer scientists and wonderful human beings to boot – and we four started Runtime Collective. We were young, idealistic and thought open source software was going to change the world. Over time we wanted to build upon open source projects, create lots of freely reusable software and bring benefit to people everywhere. It kind of worked and it kind of didn’t. We did build lots of great systems but we also got pulled in lots of different directions not knowing how to balance the client needs with the idea of building an open source suite that we weren’t getting paid for. We did learn however how to build software, which would come in handy later and we learned a lot more besides. One thing in particular for me was that starting a company without a clear goal of what you want to achieve – having a clear mission – is a recipe for lots of wasted time and frustration.
So after five years, with just Steve and I left from the founding team, we had to face a tough question. What are we doing? Why are we really here?
It was one of those defining moments.
We were both frustrated and a little bored. We were fractious with each other. We didn’t have purpose.
I decided that I wanted to build a product company. Steve wanted to go and work at Google. We went our separate ways.
“Where should I go?” asked Alice.
“That depends on where you want to end up.” said the Cheshire Cat.
So it was, after spending a year going down a dead-end with an idea around building a vertical search product, that back in 2006 the idea of Brandwatch was sparked during a conversation I had with Ray Richards and Arjo Ghosh. They are friends who had built the SEO agency Spannerworks over the previous eight years – one of Brighton’s first technology successes, now part of iCrossing.
Steve had introduced me to The Cluetrain Manifesto back in 2000 and its message resonated deeply – ‘markets are conversations’ it said. I flipped that around in my head to ‘conversations are markets’. Having seen the explosion of online conversations over the past five years, I was convinced that brands who didn’t know about the content of those conversations were missing out on a market opportunity. Ray pointed out that Spannerworks’ clients wanted to understand the sentiment surrounding their brands – it’s not so great getting your clients to the top of the search engine results page (their primary job as an SEO agency) if the post is saying ‘this product is terrible’.
In that moment of discussion, the flame was lit, the name christened, and a new chapter of my journey began.
This time I was starting with a clear purpose – to help brands understand online conversations so they can be consumer-focused and successful. Over time, we’ve iterated on that. Our current mission statement is “To create a new kind of intelligence with products that bring structure and meaning to the voices of billions of people, so our customers can make decisions that truly fit with consumer and buyer needs,” which is not so different. As the CEO, having this core mission to continuously come back to has been vital as we have scaled the company.
“She generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it).”
– (About Alice)
A few moments stick in my mind from back then. Towards the beginning, I spoke to one of our developers Berkan Eskikaya, another PhD computer scientist, and asked him how easy it would be to automatically analyze sentiment on web pages. He said something like ‘If the domain is specific (like say all the discussion around a product) and the posts have similar structure, it could be doable, but really not so much in general conversation.’ ‘Damn,’ I thought, ‘....let’s do it anyway.’
To be honest, 13 years later, he’s still right. But we have made a lot of progress. I like going after hard problems – you’re never done and there’s scope for lots of innovation, which is difficult but fun. But that may be the pig-headed side of my nature. It's definitely safe to say that when a problem is as broad as sentiment analysis of the whole of social media, breaking that down into discrete solvable chunks is a very good idea. We should have done that a lot earlier.
I thought that we’d come up with an original idea with Brandwatch, but it didn’t take long to find other companies that were doing something similar and were, in the case of Nielsen with their Buzzmetrics product, a couple of years ahead of us. That was another moment of doubt. The rational mind said we can’t compete with them so why bother, but the bloodyminded entrepreneurial mind said I don't care, we’re going to go after them and create something better. In this case the entrepreneurial mind was right as 13 years later Brandwatch is the clear leader in the space and Buzzmetrics no longer exists. Books and books have been written on why some companies fail and others succeed. All I would say here is that whilst Nielsen Buzzmetrics was part of a big company with lots of stuff going on, we had no plan B – our existence depended on us being successful and that’s quite motivational!
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!”
– The Queen
We raised some seed funding – £500k, led by Jason Ball – and we built Brandwatch v1 which launched in August 2007 as a SaaS product. Alliance & Leicester was our first customer (thank you Jonathan Wright). In hindsight we didn’t mark that moment anywhere near enough. ‘Right, what’s next?’ is what the voice in the back of my head says whenever we’ve hit a landmark. I wish I had taken the time to stop, breathe, reflect, and mark those moments with the team. I’m trying to do that here :)
Then we entered the grind. 2nd customer, 3rd, raise a second seed round, be constantly under-resourced, tell the devs to be on standby whenever I did a demo, pray the R&D tax credit comes in on time, collect debts by phoning clients accounts departments every week, desperately try to negotiate 90-day payment terms down with customer procurement teams who don’t give a damn about your cash flow… the day-to-day grind of startup land. Unglamourous, testing, two steps forward, 1.9 steps back. It’s the sandpaper that rubs off your surface of bullshit to leave the honest core that’s needed to keep going with optimism yes, but also a deep grounding in reality. ‘You get what you deserve’ said Mark Heeley, an angel investor and my mentor. Thank you Mark for travelling this journey with me, alternately pushing me and propping me up when I needed it.
Three years into the journey, two things happened that were pivotal:
So far the core founding team had been me; my now partner Katja Garrood, who looked after product design, branding, and our website; and Fabrice Retkowsky, our CTO. It was at this point that we hired the phenomenal Bryan Tookey as our COO. He joined Fabrice and I on our board and we took Brandwatch into the next phase.
To VC or not to VC?
Fast forward to the end of 2011. We’re growing at around 80% per annum and the company is at a run rate of around £250k MRR. Pretty good. But we were getting our asses kicked by Radian6, a strangely-named startup from North East Canada. They had a good product and they had great marketing. I now believe that having competition – especially in a new emerging market – is a good thing. Without them, I don’t think this market would be what it is today. They pushed us and we learnt a lot from them.
I believed we were faced with a choice – do we expand to North America and try to take on Radian6 in their home market or not? If we did, we were going to need more resources. That meant raising money from a Venture Capitalist. If we didn’t, they were going to grow more quickly than us and in the long term we would be in trouble. That’s what I thought.
But Bryan and Fabrice weren’t keen. We liked what we had. We were executing well. The three of us were a good team.
I pitched this idea of raising VC funding to them at least four times. Softly at first, then a little more forcefully. After about five months of discussion, I remember Bryan saying ‘Well Giles, you seem pretty set on this, so if we can’t change your mind, let’s do it.’ Fabrice shrugged and went along with it. I think the mutual respect we had for each other helped us navigate that period of indecision. But that might be just me with rose tinted glasses as in the end I got my way.
I look back on that moment as a turning point. We decided to try to raise VC and go on that journey without really knowing what it would be like. The task of raising the money fell mainly to me, but I hadn’t done it before and I didn’t have a big list of names to call. I got hold of the book containing all the firms in the UK but it was huge and I didn’t know where to start. In the end I put a business plan together and sent it to a few. I also met Alex McCracken at SVB who introduced me to six more (SVB has become a great banking and debt partner for us over the years) and in the end we managed to get a few term sheets. We chose Carles Ferrer at Nauta because his was the equal best offer and we really liked him. Thank you Carles for showing faith in us and being a devoted supporter over the last nine years.
€4m raised, now to open in the US. We had a good product but zero brand recognition stateside and no contacts that we could draw upon. I decided to make Seb Hempstead, our sales director, an offer he couldn’t refuse to go and start an office in New York. Seb threw himself into it and booked $1m of revenue in the first year from a standing start. We were international and the success of our business in the US can be traced back to the incredible job Seb did starting things there.
“Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."
The next four years were when we started to professionalize the business. Lots to say about that, but that’s another blog. That said, I do need to mention and thank some people who made it possible. Alex Sloley fixed our finance team with incredible attention to detail, Will McInnes brought his unreasonable level of charisma to our marketing team and created our Now You Know conference, Dave Jones organized our engineering function into a predictable engine for innovation, and all over the company Brandwatchers, young and reasonably young, leveled up, built their professional skills and confidence, and helped us transform our young business into something that could scale. Our Alumni network is packed with incredibly talented people, many of whom have gone on to make a big impact in their subsequent companies. I’m proud that Brandwatch has played a part in their and our current staff’s professional journey.
With the same core mission, we found two more Venture investors for two growth rounds. Sam Brooks at Highland Europe and Omri Benayoun at Partech have been fantastic supporters and board members – thank you both. Then in 2018 we made a big decision to merge with our biggest competitor, Crimson Hexagon. The last two years have been probably the most intense of all as we integrated two companies, two products, two sets of customers, and two cultures. At the same time, I built a new leadership team full of fabulously talented people (Dan, Chris, Hind, Dylan, Katja, Will, Bex, Ian, and Maddy, thank you). And thank you to everyone who has helped us bring that ambitious idea to where we are today.
“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
And speaking of that, we’ve now decided to start a new chapter. Why now? Simply put, because we’re ready. The company is extremely healthy. We have a fantastic product and we’re executing at an efficiency I’ve never seen before. We’re hungry to operate on a bigger scale. Enter Cision. A company with scale, resources, ambition, and a new leadership team that I think will, when we add Brandwatch’s strengths, create a landmark organization. Please read why I am so excited about that here.
As for me, I haven’t worked so hard for so long on something that I care so much about to walk away. I’m going to work with Abel Clark and his team to bring these companies together, upscale our ambition and innovation, and do whatever I can to make sure that Brandwatch and Brandwatchers can maximize their potential.
I might take a couple of weeks off first though.
Two final thank yous
Firstly to my EA, Hannah Tregear – you’ve kept me organized and on time and done a whole lot more besides. And finally Katja – only you know how much it takes to start from scratch and build what we’ve built – I couldn’t have, nor wouldn’t have wanted to do it without you.
And one final message:
To our customers, many of whom have become personal friends. Thank you for supporting us over the years – it means everything to me and the team. We will continue to listen to you and work to create products and services that help you do what you do better.
“Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”
– The Duchess
Onwards to the next chapter.