Few companies grow exactly as their founders expect them to. That was certainly the case for Shafqat Islam and NewsCred. After leaving Merril Lynch, Islam, an engineer by training, started the company as a consumer facing news site.realising that tools for publishers to syndicate and licence content were inefficient and painful, they changed their business and started to create better tools. Now, they’ve built a fully formed, syndication platform, licensing content from over 1,500 sources, including The Economist and Bloomberg. (Full disclosure: Business Insider is a NewsCred customer)
Now, just a few years later, that pivot’s paid off tremendously. Because they had so much content, and made it so accessible, they were in a perfect position to serve companies that use content for marketing, for emails, and for their consumer facing websites.
The company’s become increasingly dominant in content marketing, a rapidly growing business that barely existed when they started. They now do more business with consumer brands and companies than they do with publishers, including global giants like Pepsi and Orange Telecom.
They were in the right place and the right time, and the market came calling.
From a big pivot to rapid growth
It’s been a wild ride, Islam says. “If you just look at 2012 that’s a pretty good indicator of how fast we’re growing. We were a handful of people in New York, now we have 75 people in 3 office. Our revenue has gone up about eleven and a half time over the course of a year.”
The rise of their customer base has been extremely rapid as well. They saw 570 per cent growth last year.
It all goes to show that you rarely end up in the business you think you will. It’s not always a fully formed and brilliant initial idea that gets rewarded, but rather patience, the ability to adapt, and being in the right place at the right time. The company wouldn’t be in the position it was now if it hadn’t been so diligent and so patient in building its content partnerships and technology.
“We had nearly 12X revenue growth last year, but that was about 3 and a half years after the founding of the company,” Islam says. “You have to be extremely patient and extremely meticulous about the fundamentals of the company, about building out the core assets.”
The best products are the ones the market pulls out of you
You really know you have the right product, the one that can propel you to the next level, when the market starts to demand it from you, rather than facing a constant to convince the world it needs it. “It wasn’t a deliberate thing that we predicted four years ago that content marketing would emerge like it has,” Islam says.
“There’s a great quote from Marc Andreessen that perfectly sums it up, Islam says. “He said that ‘In a great market — a market with lots of real potential customers — the market pulls product out of the startup.'”
Islam and his team didn’t have a sudden realisation that their product was perfect for brands, the market just came calling.
And once you get the product right, that’s when the growth really starts. That takes as much discipline as getting through the tough early years. Last year, NewsCred acquired DayLife, in a move Islam generally wouldn’t recommend.
“The main tip I would give is that startups really shouldn’t be buying other startups,” Islam says. “It’s not a good idea. In this case, it was such a good synergistic fit in terms of the product base that we decided to go ahead with it.”
He wouldn’t have done it if the fit hadn’t been so great. But something that’s as important as the fit is bringing the two companies together afterwards.
“That’s not easy for a startup to execute,” Islam says. “If you are going to do it you have to be extremely disciplined about the post acquisition period, integrating their people, infrastructure, and the technology stack.”
Keeping a startup culture intact
And as a company grows, they have to be more, not less focused on keeping the culture that makes them unique.
“Probably the number one thing is to hire well, and hire using the right criteria,” Islam says. “Any role that we hire for, this might sound trite, but its important to not get seduced by things on resume. We hire for culture first. Will we get along? Can they play hard and work hard?”
And more than that, they have to have a real and tangible passion for the company’s overall goal, which is to help the media industry and journalism survive and thrive by building new ways for content to be used and shared.
But you know when you get the culture right, Islam says. He works extremely hard, but as a founder, “it shouldn’t ever feel like a job, I feel like paid to hang out with my friends,” he says.
Something that also helped was the fact that Islam “had a job before joining a startup.” He spent 6 years at Merrill Lynch working on big technology projects, which gave him experience running big teams and big budgets.
When you get funding and have a bunch of money in the bank account, it “gets pretty easy to spend a lot,” Islam says. It’s important to know how to be disciplined.
Islam has a positive outlook for his business, and an ambitious plan for the company. “My view is that we’re just scratching the surface when it comes to content marketing.”
His goal for the next few years is to “transform Fortune 500 companies,” and grow from hundreds of customers to thousands.
“We’re fortunate that we’re the leaders here,” Islam says. “We’re going to run as fast as possible to continue to lead the market.”
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