A few years ago, when we just started working on a cool one-page site editor, we focused on the problem of instant online publishing: how do you get your content online fast? Over time, the idea of instant, stylish pages lent itself to the small business website market. A fast, frictionless, pretty alternative to clunky SMB site builders? Who wouldn’t want that? Tack on a cheap price tag and a free option, and we thought we were really on to something.
Then came TechStars. We took our MVP and showed it to actual businesses. Boy was that a rude awakening. It turns out that despite liking our product, single-page websites aren’t really a good fit for most businesses. Even people that liked Smore a lot, and wanted to use it, didn’t really see it replacing their main site. We sat down and had a few burgers in downtown Seattle and decided to work through the many pages of feedback and figure out what comes next.
Even though Smore wasn’t solving the website problem, it was hinting at a different one, and the more we thought about it, the more it seemed to fit. The problem is online promotion and marketing. Not how you build a website, but how do you get traffic. Not how you set up a Facebook page or a mailing list, but how do you create and spread compelling, viral content there, and how do you get that content to get you actual business results?
After some helpful advice from various TechStars mentors and Seattle folk, we spent our time reworking everything we’ve been doing: changing the goal from publishing to promotion; focusing Smore not only on easy-to-design, but on easy-to-get-results. We had over a thousand sign ups in time for Demo Day, 10,000 in time for launch and over 100,000 by the end of the first year: all coming in virally after seeing other users’ promotions, or through word of mouth.
We launched Smore Pro around that time. We wanted to prove that our usage was business oriented, so we decided to start charging businesses for it, while leaving it free for everyone else. The learning experience of turning a website into something that can actually make money was a transformative and challenging one for me. Turning on the pay wall for the first time forces you to confront that inner nagging voice: “what if no one actually finds this useful enough to actually pay for? What if I’ve been wasting my time?”
Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. Flash forward another year to today and Smore has 500,000 users, 1,000,000 “online flyers,” and thousands of happy, paying customers. One lesson that I personally learned is that by forcing engaged users to pay, you learn who your engaged users are. You don’t only prove that the usage you want is there, you also learn what problems to focus on, what feedback to listen to, and what’s most important to do next.
Another bonus from actually making money is being able to fundraise on our own terms. Raising to grow and not just to survive is a privilege and that position is one I highly recommend. Given our growing revenue and usage, we were actually considering if we should raise more money at all.
In the end we decided to do it. While we could grow Smore out gradually over a few years, we feel the opportunity in online promotion for the masses is here and now. It all goes back to that initial realization in the Seattle burger joint years ago: offline businesses are asking, many for the first time, “how do I start promoting my business online?”
Managing Facebook pages, promoting content, sales, events and products, using mailing lists to send newsletters, and in general creating viral promotions online is becoming an itch that more and more businesses need to scratch. Think about it, how many small business owners do you know? Now, how many of them are either trying to or actually promoting online? How many of them need help with it?
Smore is raising money to help make that easy, accessible and within reach for them. In other words, Smore is out to solve the problem of “how do I get the word out online?” for businesses that until now have done most of their marketing offline. We’re doing it by creating clever, easy to use, beautiful tools that are built with the masses in mind.
This last year, since we launched Smore Pro, has been mostly about getting Smore to not only work for businesses, but to be a sustainable, profitable business in its own right. We’ve achieved that. This coming year is about taking that model and expanding it rapidly. We’re going to get in front of new markets, provide better solutions to solve this fundamental problem, and go even deeper in empowering our customers build a growing business. That includes simplified paid promotion on different platforms, expanding our mailing list product to become a real contender and enabling content creation on mobile.
We’re doing what we do, and we’re hungry to do it because we believe in the power of small business to make a big difference. We think that in this world of global brands and more and more of the things we do and buy turning into cheap commodities, local businesses make the world a better, more interesting place. We think that for these businesses to succeed they need to have tools to make their audience care about them and support them, and we believe that empowering them to promote themselves, with the right content and the right brand, is the key to that success. That empowerment is what Smore is about and that is why we’re excited to come to work every morning.