This post is part of the “Small Business, Big Ideas” series, in which business leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators share their stories of overcoming obstacles and achieving success. “Small Business, Big Ideas” is sponsored by Chase.
Sometimes a great business idea isn’t the result of years of planning, a lifelong dream, or a sudden magical flash of insight. It’s about seeing a trend and jumping on it.
That’s what happened with Apu Gupta, the co-founder and CEO of Curalate, a company that provides advanced image analytics for social networks like Pinterest and Instagram, with clients including retailers like Gap and top ad agencies like Ogilvy.
Curalate does pixel-level analysis to understand why images do well, building algorithms to consume and interpret 30 million images a day. It’s a unique concept, and largely uncharted territory. Brands and engineers are intrigued.
But Gupta made a huge pivot in order to come upon the idea.
“When we first started the company, we started as a company called Storably. Storably was an Airbnb for parking and storage, so if you had spare space in your basement or driveway you could rent it out to your neighbour for parking or storage.”
It’s an appealing idea, but the market is the ultimate judge. And that idea simply didn’t work.
Shutdown, brainstorm, and pivot
After Gupta shut down Storably, he sat down with his employees, and spent a whole month brainstorming. They tested 70 different ideas, and narrowed it down to seven.
One idea rose to the very top. It started with a simple observation about a popular social network that grew into a full-fledged business that’s now Curalate, based in Philadelphia.
- First came relatively small insight that people were flocking to what was then a new social network, Pinterest, and it didn’t just look like a fad.
- Second, brands want to be where their consumers are.
- Once they’re there, brands needed some way to actually measure and make sense of a totally new medium.
- Finally, there’s the idea that Gupta hopes will make Curalate a key marketing player: that there is a fundamental change in how consumers were interacting with brands. They’re using pictures, not words.
“The offering we’re bringing to market was very different than simply providing analytics for a specific social network,” says Gupta. “If consumers are going to communicate using pictures and they’re not going to use a lot of words, then you can’t rely on text-based methods to understand the conversation.”
And Gupta plans to move beyond analysing Pinterest and Instagram for brands. If an image is resonating with customers, brands can turn it into an ad, or use it to inform what inventory they carry. For example, Nordstrom’s is experimenting with in-store merchandise based on what people are pinning, Gupta told us.
“(The data) lends social proof and it makes the entire experience a lot more engaging and a lot more relevant. It’s about what people care about right now.”
An unlikely path for a tech entrepreneur
After that came an attempt at a network security startup that didn’t work out. Then he took a detour to go get an MBA at Wharton. From there, he and a classmate had the idea to build a pharmacy chain in India. They ended up building 650 stores in three years, in what became the second-largest pharmacy chain in India.
It was serving as COO and CMO of that company that helped prepare him for his current role. By operating physical stores, he got a chance to see and interact with consumers, and figure out what you have to care about as both a retailer and a marketer.
It’s not the most straightforward career path, but it’s given him the experience he needed. Any business takes a great team. Gupta might have the experience running a business and dealing with marketers, but he couldn’t do it without people supporting him. His co-founder is a big data guy, and one of the earliest hires was a “social media maven.”
The tech talent crunch One of Gupta’s biggest challenges is something that most tech entrepreneurs face: the “talent crunch” for great engineers. “We have an incredibly talented team, but the bar to get on the team is incredibly high. We’re very sensitive about diluting the talent. I think it’s hard everywhere,” Gupta says. “We get a lot of inbound requests to come join the team. But yes, there’s a fairly substantial gap between the type of résumés we’re getting and the kind of people we want to hire.”
That means they have to work harder to find people, wait longer, even leave jobs they need people for unfilled. But it’s worth it to wait, to avoid lowering the bar, which maintains a culture of excellence.
Looking to the future
The future of Curalate is to grow in two directions, Gupta says. The first is to expand the networks from which they consume imagery. And the second is to not just provide the data, but provide the business insight needed to become a more powerful marketer.
There are a few takeaways from looking at this burgeoning company. You need to realise when things aren’t working, and make a change. You need to find a real pain point for customers, solve it thoroughly, and become more than just another vendor. And finally, that you can’t let your standards fall at any point, especially when it’s the easiest thing to do.
They’re simple lessons when laid out, but the failure to follow them is one of the reasons so many businesses don’t make it.
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