Brian Zuercher had a precocious interest in business for a boy from the Buckeye State. He likes his sports, too, but ever since the days of running the school store, the entrepreneurial path has beckoned him to take a road less obvious. That’s not to say his travels as a startup CEO and founder have always gone smoothly or that his vision of the journey has always been clear. But what would there be to learn–where would the satisfaction be–if an entrepreneur’s life was straightforward or easy.
Zuercher’s latest company, VenueSeen, is a toolkit for recognizing customers and interacting with them. VenueSeen collects and organizes location-specific photos shared via social media–Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Foursquare, Foodspotting, and more. Access to this content allows businesses and marketers to better engage with customers as well as take a more active role in shaping social identity.
At the crossroads of tradition and innovation, big brands and small startups, high-tech and down-to-earth, Zuercher steered KillerStartups to this peculiar Midwestern intersection and talked about how his startup emerged to coordinate photo traffic.
How did you go about starting your company? How did the idea first come to you?
VenueSeen has been in evolution as many companies are. It wasn’t the original kernel of an idea that we had. Originally, we had a product that we built called FlyMuch. That product was in the consumer travel industry and was designed to let people more seamlessly make recommendations on places to go and visit while they were traveling, and to then store and share those recommendations in the future.
As we went down that path, one of the things we started to explore closely was how to overlap a lot of the location data being generated through photography, check-ins and different things, along with the ability to transfer it via email and what not. And we started publishing quite a bit of the data. We took Instagram and mashed up location databases, and we published places like a restaurant and all of the recent photos taken inside of it.
We started doing that and we began receiving calls from some of the businesses themselves asking where we’d gotten the photos, what they could do with them, where the could share or track or do all these kind of things. At that point, we realized quickly that the person who had the most value for the product was likely to end up being the business, and honestly it had a better revenue model for us, for our infrastructure that we had here.
So, we took the feedback of people that started coming along, and then we made the decision to put FlyMuch on the back burner and go full force at delivering VenueSeen as a B to B product.
Did you find it exciting to pivot from your initial idea or was it frustrating to embrace change?
Excitement might not be the right word for what happened. [Laughs] You know it was frustrating because you’re ripping a lot of the roots out of something you’ve been working on. The team experiences a lot of resistance and pain. Ultimately, it’s about survival as a company and also delivering a product that has the most value. It was challenging. One of the layers of challenges was the decision to revamp the entire team. It really had nothing to do with many of the members. We decided that a combination of different skill sets and a fresh start was going to be necessary to properly attack the new plan.
It was tough. I will say that our transparency and our openness with everyone–we looked out for everyone, did our best to find jobs for everyone we were transitioning out–from my frame of reference, I think we tried to ease the pain as much as possible. But it’s never fun to go through that, as you might imagine.
What first drew you to technology and entrepreneurship?
I don’t have a family that has any kind of entrepreneurial or engineering background, but I’ve been an experiential kind of person. I’ve been in a lot of situations, courtesy of my parents, where I was forced to solve a problem myself or learn something myself. They were always like, “Your siblings are older, so go.” And they were like ten years older. I wasn’t that close in age to them, so it put me in a lot of situations where I was sort of catching up with everyone else.
Eventually I started my career at GE right out of undergraduate. While I learned a ton there in terms of best practices and all the goodness that comes with a really well-run company, I also really hated not feeling that my impact was super meaningful on a day to day basis.
Simultaneously, I like products, stuff, building stuff, building companies. I’ve been somewhat obsessed with business since I was a kid. I’m it if there’s ever been someone who thinks like, “I want to be in business when I grow up”–it’s not something that kids really think about. I actually did want to do this. It was geeky. I was running the school store and stuff as a kid.
As far as technology itself, it always felt like the possibilities were going to be much greater with newer things. So, I went to Rensselaer [Polytechnic Institute] for my MBA, which is a technology school here. And I took that path sort of contrarian to an MBA, as a way to really dive deep into a technical atmosphere and work mostly with engineers, trying to get a better understanding of how I could fit into that puzzle.
Columbus, Ohio, isn’t an area that we have come up on the radar often. What can you tell us about the startup community there?
It’s evolving. The city does a terrible job of marketing itself. It’s not as small as everyone thinks. There’s a million and a half to two million people in the metro area. We have at any moment the largest university in the country in the middle of the city in Ohio State, the largest private research firm in the world, Battelle. It’s an interesting town.
There’s a great workforce here. It’s a relatively new city in the Midwest, because it was never a manufacturing city. So it’s always been sort of white collar, with service-based industry. In Columbus, the backbone was not in technology. So it’s sort of in this weird transition from businesses like retail. Express, Abercrombie, Bath and Body Works, The Limited, they’re all headquartered here. They were founded here. So we have a lot of big companies here, but the backbone of technology entrepreneurship is just sort of developing now. Ohio State is opening up, all these places are opening up [to technology]. It has a ways to go, but the infrastructure is generally young and that’s not very common in the Midwest.
Those big companies in the area you mentioned, have they been receptive to VenueSeen?
Yeah, they have. Honestly, one of the awesome benefits to being here, for us in particular, is that there is a large thriving market of early customers. And most people feel pretty nostalgic when they get face to face time with a technology provider–one that’s in Columbus, which is still pretty rare.
How did launching in April feel, more like just the beginning or a momentous occasion?
Both. We had a lot of confidence because of feedback, and thought that we would probably gain some more traction from being public. We had several customers working in our alpha stage with us prior to launch, so we had enough feedback along the way that we thought that the MVP was satisfactory.
Yes, it was momentous. As many startups go through, you’re sort of chopping down the path in the forest as you go along. And when you feel like you find the opening and you’re able to move faster, everybody is excited and it feels like you do know exactly where you’re going. So for us, the ability to sort of crisply see the vision of where we could keep going–we knew that we were just at the beginning and building on to something that had to get bigger and more expensive and more interesting and all that–but it was great. It was a good feeling to release something that you already knew you were going to have some success with.
What are some of your sources of personal inspiration?
I have a ton of very close mentors, some who are involved with the company and on our board, some who are just people from along the journey of life. One of the things that I use for inspiration: I generally try new things. I like sports; I’ve played sports my whole life.
From a personal challenge perspective, I just make sure I’m traveling and seeing new things. Making sure that the worldview stays broad is critical. I don’t have a lot of reading time any more, but I tap into listening to just about anything I can. I’m an avid listener of the Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Seminar Series, Brad Feld, and a lot of the thought leaders who are around the technology community. I’m not sure what I take from them, but hearing more stories helps craft your own perspective on where you’re at.
I think what’s cool about all those types of things, whether its personal experiences traveling, or sports and stuff–I’ve noticed throughout this whole time–is that I tend to see, hear, listen, or read things through a slightly different lens depending on where we’re at in the business. So, I’ll go back and reread or listen to those things all over again.
Has VenueSeen been a solo venture so far, self-funded? Have you had additional support?
Jim Kamnikar, a co-founder originally, is still on the Board of Directors. I started a company previously called ClearWish, and he had been on our Board of Advisors. We teamed up and started talking through some of the problem sets I had thoughts on. We eventually did seek early stage funding, and we were funded primarily out of the Ohio TechAngel Funds and through some private investors.
What would you say you find most satisfying about VenueSeen work so far?
I think the most satisfying moments are when some one is delighted by using the product. With VenueSeen, typically we enable a marketer to better connect with a new customer or an existing customer. I love the service business. I worked in restaurants growing up, and there’s nothing better than having a satisfied customer. So the more we can enable our customers to have that experience with their customers, it’s great. We’ve had lots of those moments over the last four or five months. That’s really really satisfying.
What does your five-year vision of the company look like?
I don’t know if I have a five-year vision. I may have a five-month vision. And I say that because this space, the intersection of social media and customer relationship management is just getting started. So what we see are the possibilities… For us, mobile photography being the centerpiece of our platform, what we see is a really incredible way for a business to build campaigns and engagement and find new customers while leveraging a behavior that the consumers already enjoy exhibiting.
It feels like business are not having to push advertising at us as much, but engage us in a mutually interesting experience–that kind of organically builds the brand instead of consumers just taking what has been given to them. Our vision is to build a tool set that allows for this intersection to take place, where consumers can have a great relationship with businesses and not even know they’re doing it.
Have you experienced any resistance on the consumer end from having pictures shared?
We really haven’t. Part of the reason we have not is that we are very conscious of making sure that that engagement is natural and not sought out in a way that would feel like at any point it would violate privacy. Unless the brand has been in some way engaged in the process, the brand would not be notified that this content is available.
The consumers are usually quite delighted that a brand cares, sort of like, “Oh, wow, that’s great.” And if the business does it right, they’re really promoting the person more than themselves. The consumer loves that. As strange as it is, even to me now, I get excited if I tweet to Starbucks a photo and they respond. That feels great, and I think, “O, my God, I should know that–that’s what I’m trying to create.” But it’s a really cool experience to know that you can carry on that conversation with the brands you love. Most customers like it.
Is there anything else about VenueSeen you’d like to share?
For business, for marketers, I think the expectation from the consumer’s standpoint is to be engaged creatively and personally. That’s our goal. Our goal is to assist marketers and help them craft this personal and intimate relationship with other customers. And I think now it’s more possible than ever with the evolution of phones and social media. It’s a pretty exciting time.
Any cheerleaders who’ve helped you along the way?
My mom. As you know and a lot of people probably say, you don’t just wake up one day and you’re here. Your family supports you a lot. I would say that I have been very fortunate that both teachers and family members, and parents and wife and everyone has enabled me to pursue my dreams, which is pretty rare.
Our Board of Directors stuck with us through the change the business underwent. I think if you guys publicize the pivot, the lean, the Steve Blank stuff, one of the things that I think goes over everyone’s head in the whole thing is that everybody has got to be on board. We’ve been extremely fortunate that we’ve had that alignment, especially in a place like Columbus where it’s not always so easy to understand, where there are much more brick-and-mortar traditional businesses. We feel pretty lucky.
Do have any advice for other startup entrepreneurs?
You have the opportunity to write the story of your life. Write your dream obituary and then write down your current state of being. Find the disconnect. Then make it happen.