Ricky Yean emigrated from Taiwan to LA with his father at the age of 11. The logic was that the US would be a better place for Ricky. A hard-working kid, Ricky helped support his family financially through after-school jobs, and looked forward to when he could have the type of job where he could make them all comfortable. He went to Stanford on a scholarship, while his joined the permanently unemployed. Upon graduation, Ricky could have gone into investment banking like a lot of his friends. That would have fulfilled the American dream for his family. Why didn’t he? Because that part of the dream wasn’t what Ricky wanted. He was destined for the entrepreneurial life.
Ricky knew that, for him, starting a company was the right thing to do. He tells me, “I just couldn’t see myself doing the corporate thing. I had my own dreams and I wanted to seize the opportunity.”
The dream started on Stanford’s campus. Ricky and David Tran (co-founders with Mark Linsey) had been working on various ideas since the beginning of 2009 while still in school. They were all about exploring ideas and trying different things, not knowing what would stick in the longer term.
Part of a group of other entrepreneurially-inclined students, they would congregate in Stanford’s prayer room and stay up half the night brainstorming ideas for startups. Both Ricky and David got involved in BASES, (Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students), and cycled through multiple startup ideas before settling on the one that formed the basis for their startup: Crowdbooster, a social media dashboard that uses analytics data to guide marketers on how they can improve their influence using Facebook and Twitter.
Startup. Founded in April 2010, the company was first called Conversely but the name was changed within six months. Crowdbooster provides detailed analytics and recommendations to show customers how to better reach important influencers, create content that resonates with their audience, and send content at the most effective times. With Crowdbooster you can analyze the performance of your individual tweets and posts with an interactive graph and table to quickly understand what’s working. You can customize the date range to understand the impact of your campaign. And you can drill down to view engagement and reach metrics on Facebook and Twitter.
Ricky describes the problem that Crowdbooster solves: “There are all these different pockets where there are communities of people, bloggers, personal brands, etc., and they all need a way to effectively market to people and engage people on those different channels. Our product helps you increase influence on social media sites and become effective and optimal in your marketing.” He continues, “Social media is so new and everyone is trying to figure out how to make it work for businesses. Most users have no idea how to navigate this. We solve that with data.”
Upon graduation in May, 2010, Crowdbooster was accepted into Y Combinator, where they honed their business, raised an angel round, and continued with product development in preparation for their private beta launch in November, 2010. The product got coverage from Mashable, which lauded the company and the product: “Crowdbooster, the brainchild of three Stanford guys, gives its users ‘tweet-level analysis’ to understand the exact performance metrics of individual tweets — all within a user-friendly, color-coded UI that quickly and simply highlights your best tweets and areas for improvement.”
Ricky and his team raised seed funding from SV notables: Steven Chen, founder of YouTube; Esther Dyson; Nils Johnson of Beautylish; George Zachary, a 15-year VC from Charles River Ventures who invested in Twitter; Quest Venture Partners; StartupAngel; Royce DisiniRoy, formerly of Myspace; Tony Pham, formerly of Slide; Brian Shire formerly of Facebook; Adora Cheung formerly of Slide; and Jonathan Pines, formerly of Facebook.
The company was launched, going and growing fast.
Building the team. College is a great place to meet co-founders. The three Crowdbooster founders met at Stanford. In the beginning they spent a lot of time figuring out what to do. And they spent a lot of time talking to people, trying to find the right problem to solve in social media. Ricky tells me that, “In school, we stopped doing everything like going to parties to focus on startup stuff. We knew that to get there we had to really commit so other things had to fall by the wayside.”
Ricky’s co-founder, David, chimes in, “Finding the right people and executing is so hard. When we made up their minds to do this, we wanted to do this with co-founders that we love and respect, to work together towards a common goal.”
There is a complementary set of skills among the founders. Ricky was a Science, Technology and Society major (Stanford does not offer an undergraduate business degree), while David and Mark were CS majors. As a result, Ricky takes care of the business, while David and Mark share the CTO slot with corresponding duties relating to the front and backend of the product.
Before Crowdbooster, David had done a few tech internships. But he didn’t really like the way they went: “I would be working on one thing that was a small part of the product. I wanted to do more, to produce more, to have more impact.”
Like Ricky, David comes from immigrant stock. His parents came here to offer their children a better life. Today, David’s mom works in a Laundromat, and his dad is a janitor. David grew up in the Bay Area, and while he heard about people like Bill Gates, companies like HP, and universities like Stanford, he didn’t think that any of them applied to him or his life. But that all changed when he was accepted into Stanford, also with a scholarship.
At the end of his freshman year, David attended startup school (Y Combinator workshop) and got involved in BASES. And he realized, “Anyone can go and try to do it [entrepreneurship].” But explaining this to his parents is hard: “The expectation is that you go work at Google and make all this money. My parents never had the choice; they had to make sacrifices.” But David has these choices. “I want to do something that I am really passionate about, that has meaning,” he tells me.
Growth. Employing a freemium revenue model, Crowdbooster has attracted some major brands, celebrities, plus small and medium sized businesses which use the service to boost their social media marketing. Some of Crowdbooster’s current customers include: Los Angeles Times, JetBlue, Education Week, Ben & Jerry’s, The Roxy Theatre, Crowd Surf (Britney Spears’ agency), Red Magnet Media (Duran Duran’s agency), and Stussy, plus various rappers (or their managers).
Crowdbooster garnered a huge amount of press upon their recent public beta launch at the end of August 2011:
- Crowdbooster’s Social Media Appeal: From Esther Dyson to Lil Wayne (Tomio Geron, Forbes)
- Crowdbooster Makes Social Media Campaigns Smarter (Ryan Kim, GigaOm, NY Times, CNNMoney)
- YC-backed Crowdbooster Launches Social Media Monitoring Dashboard That Does the Thinking For You (Leena Rao, TechCrunch)
- Crowdbooster Tells You When Is Best to Tweet, And More (Liz Gannes, AllThingsD)
- Has Crowdbooster just launched the future of social analytics? (Lauren Fisher, SimplyZesty)
- Crowdbooster rolls out social analytics tool (Beth Krietsch, PRWeek)
- Social Media Management for Dummies: Crowdbooster Tells You What to Do (Matt Wilhalme, LAUNCH)
- Crowdbooster Offers Recommendations, Analytics for Social Media (Abe Brown, Inc. Magazine)
What they do well. Crowdbooster is in a highly competitive space of tools for social media marketing. Their key strength lies in what Ricky calls, “our ability to stay very close to our users.” Ricky and his team are hyper-focused on the customer and they let that drive product development. As Ricky describes, “We have to do right by our users. The social media professional has only had the job for two years. Those channels didn’t exist before. So, there are no rules. We have to stay really close to those people. They need results to keep their jobs. They need their numbers to go up. And they have to convince their bosses that social media is worthwhile. This means that companies are forced to open up and be transparent and communicate, to humanize their brand – and this is new.”
Challenges. Ricky laughs when I ask him about what he is most afraid of for Crowdbooster, “I am afraid of everything! I get afraid when I wake up and open TechCrunch. Did something happen that makes us irrelevant? Ricky tells me that, “This attitude encourages me to move faster to establish some relevance in the marketplace before we get knocked out.”
Ricky then lists Crowdbooster’s biggest challenges:
- Creating something that is useful. Ricky cites Paul Graham (founder of Y Combinator) who always says, “Make something people want.” And Ricky tells me, “I am always afraid to lose touch with that. So I have to keep customers always in the top of my mind.”
- Their youth and inexperience. Crowdbooster is 18 months old and the team is young. Ricky and David are now 23; Mark is 26. Ricky thinks that the team’s lack of experience is a big disadvantage: “Our youth is a disadvantage when it comes to understanding the customer. People don’t know what they want. But they know what their problems are and how they combat their problems.” Flipping to the other side, Ricky adds, “Actually, our youth is both an advantage and disadvantage. I mean we have Stanford and Y Combinator, and those bring us credibility. We have great investors. And it helps to be young. Everyone is helpful. They want to listen to you. They can’t wait to see what you come up with. Ignorance is an advantage.”
- Staying the course. On a personal level biggest challenge Ricky tells me that it’s “about being your own boss, how to stay efficient and learn things when you need to, and how to have the confidence to be able to go out there.”
Advice. Like many of the Generation Yers, Ricky wants to help society through his entrepreneurial endeavors. He is a mentor for Stanford’s student incubator/accelerator, StartX. This is actually where I met Ricky. Although I had interviewed him by phone in the summer of 2010, I caught up with him in person in the summer or 2011 when I visited StartX, located in the AOL building in Palo Alto. StartX houses 13 early-stage Stanford-affiliated companies and five to six EIRs, including Ricky. Ricky believes strongly in the concept of give-back.
His advice to other young entrepreneurs: “Just do it. Find role models and mentors to help you move forward. Summon up the confidence to find out what you are good at and what you are not good at.”
David adds, “Talk to people. A lot of people. Don’t be afraid to share your idea. Tell everyone you know and network like crazy.”
Ricky concludes with, “Entrepreneurship is hard because when you start you don’t know anything. You can’t read a book or take a test, and then know it. Today a company does what it does; tomorrow the company could be doing something different, so enjoy the ride and aim for highest impact.”
Final thoughts. For all of you up-and-coming entrepreneurs, achieving happiness in your careers and professional lives is about the balance between risk and reward, between doing the right thing and knowing what the right thing is. Ricky could have gone after more short-term lucrative opportunities to help out his family. He confesses to me that he has had some misgivings that it might be pretty irresponsible of him to pursue this dream. But he also knows that path was not right for him.
You never want to wake up 10, 15, 20 years later and have regrets that you didn’t take the risk of starting something that you believe in. Even at Ricky’s age and situation, he and his co-founders believe that they are taking significant risk personally and professionally. So, it was important to them that they do it right, that they had the right support, that they listened to their customers and built them something that they needed. If they did that much, they would be ok.
And I add that we need to consider the young Ricky’s of the US and future Rickys of the US to encourage our country to allow immigration that helps spur innovation and entrepreneurship. Without our educated, technology-savvy immigrant population we would be without many of our great, money making, tax-paying, core-t0-US-innovation-that-makes-us-globally-competitive companies today. Yes, I believe in immigration reform, focused around the future entrepreneurs, the entrepreneurs of tomorrow, subjects of this blog.
The future. The publicly unveiling of the Crowdbooster toolset was the culmination of almost 10 months of work. Crowdbooster is now starting to hire. They are putting word out there for people to join the team.
And, they are beginning work on the next generation product. Ricky tells me, “We are taking what we have learned about what marketers of social media are looking for in terms of guidance and signals. They don’t want just a bunch of noise. I foresee that the next generation of Crowdbooster will focus more on intelligence to help our customers even more.”
I suspect that Ricky and his team at Crowdbooster will find a plethora of customers out there needing what they provide. Good luck, Ricky!