Starting a Social Networking Company

Entrepreneur Interview with Qlubb Founder Sophia Chiang

Social networking is all the rage. We talk with a leader in the industry, the founder of Qlubb. Entrepreneur Sophia Chiang shares a few insights and lessons learned.

We love talking to entrepreneurs and hearing what they have to say.

We feel very lucky to be able to have Sophia Chiang, CEO and founder of Qlubb, partake in one of our entrepreneur interviews.

Sophia, thanks for joining us. Tell us about your current business. What are you doing exactly?

Qlubb is an easy-to-use solution to create social networks for real-life groups. Real-life groups are groups of people in the physical world who not only interact digitally but also in real-life. Some people call these off-line groups. They can range from sports teams, to playgroups to professional associations to book clubs to families. These groups often have common goals that involve getting things done in the real world. Qlubb is designed to help any group of people get online so that they can communicate, collaborate and organize.

When did you start the business?

I founded the company in November of 2007.

Where is your business located?

We're located in Burlingame, California, just south of San Francisco.

What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?

I've worked in a number of industries prior to founding Qlubb.

I started off my career as a technologist at Oracle Corporation. I worked on Wall Street at Goldman Sachs as a equity analyst covering the Technology sector during the mid to late 90's playing a part in many significant banking transactions (such as the Netscape-AOL merger).

After a number of years on Wall Street I decided to move to Silicon Valley to help build companies from the inside. I served in several executive roles at several supply chain companies.

Recently I've also been active in the community being on the board of my city's mother's club, board member of my son's preschool and room parent to my daughter's class. While I've been a part of many startup companies, this is my first that I founded.

That's a great track record. Where did you get the startup money for this venture?

I bootstrapped the company through my own personal finances initially. We recently closed an Angel round of funding two months ago.

That's great. Seems like they are investing in a good company. So, who are your main competitors? How do you compete against them?

Our biggest competitor is the "use-nothing" crowd.

People have solutions to help groups of people succeed in their working lives, but don't have a solution for their own personal lives. Yet, the need for Web tools to help people get things done is massive.

Take just one example, like a sign up sheet. Having a physical sign up sheet is painful because you have to physically pass it to everyone. What about the people who couldn't commit at the time of the meeting, or the people who didn't make it to the meeting at all? Managing changes to the signup sheet over time is also painful. This process often cascades into many unnecessary emails and significant overhead. Yet millions of people suffer through it every day because there isn't an easy to use solution out there.

Many people use Yahoogroups or Google Groups to manage their group activities but for the majority of people, they use only the group email features because the other features aren't easy enough to use. Not surprisingly, using just group email results in more emails being exchanged, more confusion and eventually email overload.

How has your experience in running the business been different from what you expected?

I've been in several startups before so I had a good sense for what to expect. In fact, it was somewhat easier than I expected because the cost of starting a business seems to have dropped. That's not to make light of the hard work we are doing in making a viable business, but in this business you don't need anywhere near $10M in funding to start delivering true value to users.

I have also been pleasantly surprised at how vital and active our user base is. Despite only publicly launching in August 2008, we receive daily emails from users who are thrilled with our service and are constantly suggesting new features, and functionality. The Internet has made customer relationship management a daily and interactive process.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

I think traditional public relations is going through a sea change. Using traditional public relation techniques may work for some larger established businesses but the industry has changed significantly for startups.

The powerful influence bloggers has completely changed the way young companies can reach their audiences. Focusing on establishing relationships with the blogging community in an effective manner earlier would have helped us gain marketing traction earlier than we did and in the process saved a lot of time, money and resources.

What have you done that has been very effective in helping to grow the business?

I would say it boils down to three things.

  • Focusing on the blogger community in an honest and transparent way that engages with the audience, has helped our growth immensely. While each hit is not as big as an article in say the New York Times, the cost of obtaining each hit is significantly less in the blogging world. Honesty and transparency is essential to developing the needed relationship to build awareness.
  • From a product perspective, we focus on busy, multi-tasking people who like things organized and yet don't have the time (or tolerance) to figure out a new solution and to do heavy administration. Our relentless focus on usability, ease-of-use and lowering the cost of both evaluation and usage of our service has differentiated us from the other alternatives. When it takes just a few seconds to get started, and there's no customization, you're going to get more people trying the service, particularly those who are just too busy to learn a new solution.
  • Cultivating close relationships with our users. At the end of the day, Qlubb's mission is to help busy people participate and interact more with their real-life groups. To ensure we keep to our mission, we are constantly talking to our users -- getting their feedback -- the good and the bad. For every major release we interview dozens of our users to ensure we are on the right track.

What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?

First, keep it lean. Especially with Web2.0 companies, you don't need a lot of capital to get going and make an impact. When you first start out, don't allocate a huge marketing and advertising budget, spend some time to analyze what it takes to meet the first milestone and stick to that plan. While you may not be able to control top-line revenue, you are able to control expenses.

Second, actively engage in the blogosphere/twitter/friendfeed... Blogs and online news feeds are a very vital vehicle for getting the word out about new services, especially with early adopters who are also plugged in.

Third, keep it focused. As a lean, startup, be very clear on your objective and your users. It's easy to be distracted, and expand the scope of your company or product. Be willing to say "no" to functionality or projects that are not core to reaching your previously specified milestones.

Those are three great pieces of advice. Thanks so much for sharing your entrepreneurial experience with us, and good luck in growing your business.

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