The world of the startup is evolving on a daily basis. Until a few years ago (and the increased popularity of Shark Tank), many Americans couldn't even tell you what VC, seed funding, and angel investors were; today, they're part of daily conversation.
This has extended the borders of the startup scene. A great business plan can come from anywhere, right? But in his article for the Harvard Business Review, Maxwell Wessell advises against building a startup outside of the major hubs (California, Massachusetts, New York), for the reasons that it takes longer to raise money and decreased chances for success.
Not everyone feels this way, though. Anita Newton, startup advisor and VP of marketing at Adknowledge, preaches that startup life may be better outside of the Valley. She cites advantages such as lower costs, and a different angle in the war for talent.
I spoke with Tom Popomaronis, founder and CEO of OpiaTalk, which is based in Baltimore. OpiaTalk's primary product is an eCommerce widget that releases a "disappearing promo." Once a certain amount of visitors "click" the widget, a promo code appears that disappears in 15 minutes, enticing visitors to take advantage of the deal. This helps convert more potential customers and capture more leads. Many companies like it because it's quick and easy to implement, keeps potential customers on their site, and doesn't change the appearance of their Web page. (This nifty video explains it better than I can.)
The company has enjoyed relative success: They landed Skype as their first enterprise client, have closed almost a million dollars in funding, and are raising another $1.5 million as we speak.
And of course, they're doing all of this outside of the major hubs.
So what's it like creating a stellar startup in a smaller market?
I asked Tom a few questions:
So how did you end up in Baltimore?
I was born and raised here. I went to school in Virginia Beach, but came back to Maryland--my heart will always be here.
Did you consider going to a bigger market?
Of course we thought about it, but there's something appealing about being a "bigger" fish in a "smaller" pond. We also really want to support the tech scene here and bring more attention and resources to the area. There's a lot of local talent, and we want to prove it's possible to "make it" even if you're not in NYC or the Valley. Baltimore is fiercely emerging, and we like being a part of that.
What advice would you give to startups in smaller markets?
1. Get connected. I used LinkedIn InMails to reach out to the high-ups in my field. I chose the recipients specifically because of their expertise and experience. Every time I got a response I was thrilled, because I was only sending them to ballers in the industry. Perhaps most importantly, there's a potentially exponential ROI if someone does respond. One in five people wrote back, and many, many of those went on to become mentors, advisors, friends...or at least respected connections. Additionally, the contacts we garnered through two job postings we listed on LinkedIn ended up netting us our Chairman of the Board and over 10 Advisory Board members.
Whatever industry you're in, advisors are valuable. Having very well-connected people back you brings a sense of validity and confidence.
2. Develop a content strategy. We've worked hard to utilize LinkedIn's publishing platform to put out high-quality, relevant content. Our Communications and Marketing Director Melanie Curtin has been crushing it; to date, her articles have been viewed over a million times. The rest of the team's posts have garnered another 100,000 views.
We're obviously quite content-centric and have been since the beginning. It's something entrepreneurs can start doing immediately without a budget, utilizing thought leadership to start a conversation without over-soliciting. The way we see it, we want to relate to the reader. If they enjoy our content, they naturally want to know more about us, and now we're in dialogue. [It's worth noting that I first discovered Tom and his company after reading one of his articles on LinkedIn.]
3. Get creative. On the sales side, we use creativity to get through the clutter. These initiatives are spearheaded by Dave Horn, our Director of Sales. He infuses humor by attaching a picture of himself interacting with a brand logo (like the one here), along with multiple choice quizzes to answer. It's fun and evokes an emotional reaction.
Where do you see OpiaTalk in 5 years?
The "big data" play is very real for us. We're already mining data captured by our widget to see what people like about our clients' products or services, then delivering that feedback to the client. We want to expand this beyond the eCommerce world--to bring value to brick and mortar stores, the travel and hospitality industry, even the health care industry. We have a very specific vision to make all this happen.
As the talent war heats up, it seems that Tom is working hard to develop a culture he can be proud of. When Curtin (who affectionately refers to her CEO as 'TPop') writes a post entitled 6 Things I Love About My Boss, it sounds sincere. People seem to really love working for Tom.
If you're building a startup outside Silicon Valley, or even within, maybe that's the best advice Tom could give: Get other people to like you.
Easier said than done. But a look at the results might lead you to say that this company has been, to borrow a phrase from TPop...