How this Aussie medical school dropout now turns over millions with the help of 90 smartphones posting to Instagram

An Australian medical school dropout is now head of a multimillion dollar business, in part due to Instagram’s refusal to allow users to schedule posts.

Surely it can’t last forever, but so far Hugh Stephens has enjoyed a two-and-a-half-year run of managing clients’ Instagram accounts using walls of Android smartphones. At the moment, it’s anywhere between 75 and 90 phones running at once:

All the Moto Es you can handle. Picture: Dialogue Consulting

It looks horrifically impractical, and in December, 2013 Stephens would have agreed – until he actually tried it.

First, here’s why it’s a thing. Instagram doesn’t allow users to schedule posts in the same way as, say, its owner Facebook does. It believes that scheduling opens the service up to too much promotional spam, and it would prefer to remain a service liked for being a highly curated, attractive and relevant feed.

There are ways around it. Hootsuite, for example, will schedule posts on your behalf, but it can’t automate the whole process. It can only line posts up, then send you a notification when the time is right. It’s still up to the user to press the publish button.

Which can be inconvenient if you want to spread the word four times an hour.

So in January 2014, after dropping his medicine PhD, Stephens launched Schedugram and within just months, discovered that yes, people would actually pay for someone else to post Instagram updates on their behalf. “Thousands” of people, including some of the biggest fashion and media brands, as well as global agency groups.

‘A ridiculous idea’

Funded mostly out of credit card debt and cash flow from the consulting side of his business, Dialogue Consulting, Stephens initially thought he could build Schedugram using software emulators which tried to mimic the Andorid smartphone experience on computers.

“Our experience was that the technology platform itself wasn’t close enough to a real phone to really work,” Stephens said.

“I discussed a whole series of ideas with my housemate who suggested to me that I should just create a service to fix the problem using actual phones to do the heavy lifting.

“I told him it was a ridiculous idea, it would never scale, it would fall flat on its face and be practically impossible to do.”

Director of Dialogue Consulting, Hugh Stephens. Picture: Supplied

But in a quiet six-week period, Stephens decided to give it a shot anyway.

It took a couple of months of finding a reliable internet service, lots of apologies to frustrated clients and disk space emergencies to forge a reliable service.

But Stephens got there and now has a small team spread out across India, the Philippines, Bulgaria and the US.

And no, they don’t actually run from phone to phone pressing “Post”. A secure server sends the instructions.

Revenue from Schedugram has helped Dialogue Group, which also counts after-hours online community manager SocialSitter and employee sentiment tracker Barometrics in its suite, grow turnover to $3 million for FY 2014/15.

Schedugram’s customer base is growing at 5-10 per cent month-on-month, Stephens said. Cost depends on an Instagram account’s number of followers and starts at $20 per month.

“It was never really something I expected would become quite as big as it did,” Stephens said.

“And a lot of that is because we know that some day Facebook will probably release or open the API for this kind of thing and then we will probably go from having a small number of competitors to essentially having the entire industry as competitors.”

Look, no VCs!

As for that spectacular smartphone wall, Stephens said after a poor start experimenting with tablets and finding they used too much power, he settled on the Motorola Moto E. With the screens dimmed and “a number of other settings adjusted to save on costs”.

The Moto Es typically last 11 months before they need to be replaced.

Best of all, Stephens said, it has all come about without the help of venture capital.

“It’s nice to not have venture funding because at the same time it means we can make product decisions based on what we think is most important, not necessarily what is going to have the greatest impact on revenue,” he said.

“So we can play a bit of a longer term game as far as things like that go. We also don’t have people breathing down our necks about growth goals.

“Our focus to date has been on building out the product based on a lot of customer feedback, and we’ve got some exciting things in the pipeline.”

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