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The Flyover Series: SparkReel with Adam Hirsen and Matt Gibbs

What is SparkReel?

Adam: SparkReel helps brands harness user-generated content, more specifically photo and video content. We help our partners, brands, publishers, and marketing agencies figure out who's sharing great content, what it means for the brand, and how they can really position those assets as marketing tools for the company.


What was the genesis behind the company originally? How did it come to be?

Adam: It all started with user-generated video. We could see on the horizon that user-generated video was going to be the next popular form of media sharing. This was before Instagram for video and Vine even existed. We knew there was this desire in the consumer marketplace to create short form video and to be able to share it really, really easily, whether it be with friends, family, or a brand for that matter.


You say you saw it coming, but where were you before SparkReel? How did you come together to start the company? 

Matt: It started as a side project and idea that we put together. I was working as Director of Social Media at Playboy at the time. Before that, I worked at a number of different advertising agency jobs.

Adam: I was working at a Chicago private equity firm called Sterling Partners. We both had the itch to do something interesting in technology with media. I went to Matt several times and said, "We should really think about a business in this arena." I knew Matt had much expertise with media. It started off as a consumer sharing platform. We both drew a line in the sand early on that we wanted to build a real business around providing a solution and become this software as a service for brands and publishers to really help them with user-generated content.


How did you get started? What was the first thing you did when you decided to start this company? 

Adam: I would say we did it wrong. The biggest mistake that I've made in, that we've made this over and over again in technology, is if you build it they will come. It's almost like "Field of Dreams," right? Turns out, it's not like that at all. Everything we've done successfully, from a product standpoint, has been something that our customers have asked for that we've evolved. The first thing we actually did was build our beta, we thought it was amazing and that it was going to turn into Instagram overnight. It was going to be the next hot thing. Of course, that was dead wrong. That's what we did first though. We linked up with a technologist who I had done some past projects with. We started building what, at the time, was this really interesting consumer product. 

Tell me about your process for building out an idea. You have a product, how did you turn it into something viable?

Adam: Now, we've learned a lot. We start with a solution first. Either we have an idea that we think is a great problem solver, or service, or solution for our partners, or that our partners have come to us and said, "Hey. We really need this, and here's why." We start with a concept first, and say, "Wow. That is a good idea. This could really solve a problem, so what's special about this solution?" We start to architect the technology and the marketing strategy behind it, and what additional strategies and services are going to make this product successful. Then, we go ahead and build it, test it. Then we pilot it with our customers. It's a little bit more of an informed process around problem solving versus building cool stuff and seeing if our partners like it. It's more of a top down approach.


On a tactical level, how do you communicate with your tech team? How does that process actually work?

Adam: On a good day, we put together requirements, documents, and our CTO gives us feedback. It goes through multiple iterations before we think we have it right. We think we have both the business and technical requirements right. On a bad day, when we're really excited and we've had too much coffee, we just have a group pow wow with our CTO. Sometimes, he dives in and starts running. That's only on special, fun, and experimental products.


How do you convey your vision of the product? How do you turn the concept in your head into something that you can communicate and convey to people to get them to understand what you’re trying to do?

Adam: It's really tough for two reasons. One is, when you're in an early stage company, what you're trying to do, and your vision for the company, is always changing. That's a tough number one. I've also learned that one of the biggest mistakes we've made is we always try to say we're doing too much. We always want to be everything to everyone. For us, the challenge has been, "How do we narrow it down? How do we be a niche solutions provider and creative partner for people who want user-generated content solutions?" It's just evolving the vision and figuring out how to distill that down to something really, really simple.

Matt: Like you said, it's about having that focus, but then making sure that the focus is all about solving problems. We're in the social media tech space. It's easy, and a lot of companies do that, to just get obsessed with creating shiny objects that everyone will think is cool. But in the end, is it actually driving any business value? Will companies actually pay for it? That's what it's all about.


How do you measure that and decide if it’s driving business value or not?

Matt: Finding customers, obviously, is an important one. Also, identifying the willingness to pay and getting customers on board. Then, driving long-term relationships. For us, a lot of times with our technology, we might get a partner signed on for a short-term, three-month project.  What really shows us that we're building something special on the technology platform is that somebody signs on for a year or two years beyond that.


How has your product evolved since you began? Have you made any big pivots since you originally started? If so, what were they?

Adam: The technology road map has been one big evolution, all under the same common goal. You start with a product and you think that's going to be your mainstay, your premiere product. Then I think you realize, when you look back 12 to 18 months, that product always ends up being the core leg of the stool, you end up evolving new products based on comments and demand, and feedback from your customers.


Do you have any specific examples of that? What you thought it would be and what it evolved into, after feedback?

Adam: Here's an example. Most of our products started out as user-generated content solutions that help a brand on their website or their Facebook page. We recently did a pilot with the LA Angels to test out a live events screen. The live events screen is a perfect example of, hey, there's something here. There's something about the way a brand can impact its audience with a large, live events screen that can reach a lot of people. There's something about the way social amplification happens when people want to share at the Bulls game. They want to share a photo of the view at the baseball game. That's an example of an opportunity that we saw to evolve a new product that's complimentary. Then, our customers actually do have demand for it because we pre-sold it before we even built it.


Are there any helpful resources around Chicago that you have found particularly helpful? Resources that would be helpful for others to use as well?

Matt: For us, getting our start out of 1871 was a tremendous help in the early days of SparkReel. Not just for a co-working space and a shiny environment, but for all the doors that it opens and all of the office hours available. We were able to meet with a number of different leaders that have become advisers to us. Also, it opened some roads for us with Google and the YouTube team, which as a user-generated content company was really important.

Adam: We literally curated our own incubator program out of 1871. We just did that by talking to everyone whose experience we thought could lend some feedback, or some value, or some learning in terms of what we were trying to do as a business.


What was your approach when you went in to talk to people who were advising you during these office hours? Did you go in with specific things to talk about?

Matt: I think that the most important thing for any of those office hours, especially driven through a space like 1871, is to understand the person and their background and how they can add value.

You can tell when you meet with these people that they've met with a number of start ups that just show up and say, "What do you think about my idea?" Our approach is always the opposite of that. We have a pow wow before the meeting, we understand "Is this person marketing? Are they tech? Are they finance? What is our objective to get from them?" That led to a lot of productive meetings. If you have a great meeting like that, that can open up some more doors. They'll be willing to introduce you to other people.

Adam: It led to some really great longstanding customer relationships, too. We met a gentleman who was the president of Classified Ventures. That led to a really great relationship with That's part of the way we got introduced to other publishers like the Tribune. It was a really good platform for us.


How do you get the word out about SparkReel? How did you get your first 50 users or customers? 500? A Thousand?

Matt: Customer-base wise, we've always been on the hustle. We pound the pavement. There's a number of different ways but it starts like any business with your existing network. My background very much was in the media and advertising space. Chicago's a great city for media and advertising. For us, it was trying to tap into existing relationships. From that, it's thinking about, "Who is our technology a really good fit for? Who are the lifestyle passion brands that could use and really turn user-generated content into marketing assets?" Then, it's just us being clever with our outreach and stalking approach to get on people's radar to get conversations going and close some deals.

SparkReel seems to do customer development really well. What’s your process for getting in the door and finding people to talk to in the first place?

Adam: Easier said than done. It's definitely a stalk process.

Matt: It's a focused stalk process. If it starts with an agency or brand, we've got a good sense of what the right title or what the right role is going to be. What we do once we identify the person in that role, we're not going to say, "Hey. Can we get a meeting? We want to talk about user-generated content." Like Adam was saying earlier, it's all about leading with specific creative ideas. If we're going to a person that's a brand's manager and saying, "Here. We've got this awesome idea." We're able to quantify it with some data as to why it's a good idea. They're going to say, "That's interesting. I'd like to talk to these guys." That's what we've found to be successful. Not only in shortening the sales cycle, like Adam mentioned, but also just getting meetings. The idea is just to show, "Hey. We're SparkReel. We're really creative guys with creative ideas. Here's the idea. Let's have a conversation about it and how user-generated content can add value to your business."

Adam: The rule is, don't reach out as a vendor. Think about, "How can we help this person in their job? What are they thinking about now?" Whereas, when Matt said, if we come in and swoop in with some ideas, they're going to think, "Wow. This could help my job. This could make me look smart. This could help the company." That’s worked for us.

Where is SparkReel going next?

Adam: Again, there's always been evolution. One of our biggest problems early on was that we were selling software as a service in the emerging media and technology space. That's a tough sales cycle. There's a ton of things going on. There's a ton of products that are like us, but not quite. It's a tough buying decision for the customer and that comes with a longer sales cycle. We have done a lot of thinking about, "How do we get over that hurdle? How do we shorten the sales cycle?" One of the things we've done that's been really successful for us is to compare creative marketing services without technology.  We don't just go to prospective customers and say, "Here's our technology platform, and here's how it works. Call us if you have any ideas." We go to them with a creative idea that they can use immediately in the realm of user-generated content. We say, "Here's the idea. Here's why you should be capitalizing on this now. Oh, by the way we have the technology platform and the process to manage this." We've evolved to be a little bit more full service in that respect. That's been really helpful for us.


How do you feel Chicago compares to other startup hotspots?

Adam: There is this grassroots network of mentors, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists here that you don't have in other mid-tier markets. That's been really helpful for us as we've grown the business. The mentorship here in Chicago, we feel, is really really strong.


What is your biggest take away from SparkReel so far?

Matt: Simply said, I'd say stick with it, stay focused, and solve problems. It's so easy to lose your focus, or to just go down a specific path that might be a rabbit hole. If you stay focused, and you're dedicated to solving problems with whatever you're building, I think you'll be successful.

Adam: I was going to say something in the same vein, which is, it always takes longer than you think. People read about these businesses. Uber's been around four or five years. What? Its worth is $17 billion. People read about that and then they feel that if the traction and momentum doesn't happen instantly, that it's a lost cause.