Social media has become an inescapable part of our lives, and businesses are increasingly using Facebook Lives and Instagram Stories to target users. With the myriad formats and different challenges out there, it is often only companies who can afford the best photographers, graphic designers, and marketers that stand out in the saturated field.
According to a report by Buffer, more than 50 percent of brands surveyed feel that the Stories format, popularised by Snapchat and Instagram, have been “somewhat effective” or “very effective” in drumming up business. However, the report also said despite social media becoming a key part of marketing, there was low awareness on how to measure effectiveness of a social media campaign, and only half the companies surveyed had a defined social media strategy.
In order to bring social media marketing to businesses at affordable prices by breaking down the components of a successful social media strategy, 24-year old Armand Poonawala founded @ (pronounced as at) in 2017.
The Mumbai-based startup brings freelancers, specialists in their own fields of creative design, and clients under one roof, and has become the latest company to apply the gig model to social media marketing.
The founding story
A graduate of NYU, Armand noticed that American companies, especially small and micro ones, didn’t have the budget for pricey creative content. While businesses in the US were shelling out more than $5,000 to promote themselves on social media, back home, creatives were being paid a fraction of that - roughly $150 - for high-quality content.
“There’s no rocket science behind it. Everyone under 25 knows how to market themselves,” says Armand.
In order to bring down the costs of social media marketing for small businesses, while also ensuring content creators were getting a fair price, Armand decided to build a platform to connect these companies with verified creatives.
Armand thought of the idea in 2015, and even convinced three New York-based companies to sign up. But he soon realised it would be illegal to do that while in America on a student visa. He toyed with the idea of dropping out of NYU, but after some pushback from his parents, he completed his bachelors. Never forgetting his entrepreneurial spirit, Armand even changed his major from Economics to Computer Science. The moment he graduated in 2017, he put his plan into place.
Without a dollar to his name, Armand worked hard to sell his idea to businesses in the US. Later, he came back to Mumbai and bootstrapped the business, and started building the company from the ground up.
The company, which was more focused on restaurants in NYC, was earlier known as “Crave”. It was renamed @ only in April 2019.
“We started with servicing restaurants in NYC and people tend to “Crave” food they see on social media. When we decided the idea was much bigger than we had previously imagined, and that we’d actually organise the entire social media industry rather than be a service provider, we just felt right. @ is “where social media happens (at)” and is obviously symbolic of @ usage on social media. For example, every handle starts with it,” says Armand.
The science of creativity
The company claims to have identified six strategies that work with social media marketing - content that has a human connection, is engaging, aspirational or trendy, aesthetically driven, and “crave-worthy”.
@ also broke down social media marketing into a few divisions - content strategy, photography, surveillance, graphic design, influencer marketing, ad management, and analytics.
“It’s more of an art than a science. We’re breaking it down in a scientific way.” he says.
Armand believes, it is hard to consistently deliver high-quality content that is accessible to everyone. In that sense, he sees the company as more of an OYO Rooms, which works both as an aggregator, but also ensures certain standards are met.
@ charges companies a subscription model broken into different brackets to let customers choose options best suited to their needs and budgets. For example, the company’s ‘Cute package’, which costs $250 in the United States or Rs 18,000 a month in India, gives clients 15 posts on Instagram or Facebook, social media surveillance, and analytics. Its ‘Disrupt package’, which costs $800 or Rs 60,000 per month, gives users 30 posts on Instagram or Facebook, a four-hour photography or videography session, social media surveillance, ad management or influencer marketing, analytics and engagement strategy. @ also offers a custom package, where customers get to pick and choose the solutions they want.
“We’re not standardising in the sense that we’re making all creative work done similar. We’re making sure that true creativity is actually being used and originality comes through every single time,” says Armand.
However, looking back, Armand feels he could have done a few things differently earlier such as changing the structure and processes to make it more attuned to the fickle flow of creativity.
“I studied computer science. I look at things scientifically. We used to have strict deadlines, then we learned that sometimes the creative flow needs space,” he says.
Organising the industry
Armand says, @ will not be a component of the industry, but rather, it will organise it. Armand claims, till now there are no companies that have been successful at organising social marketing as a whole.
Armand managed to set up a meeting with Anupam Mittal, Ola’s first investor and CEO of shaadi.com, who was quite impressed with the company’s larger vision and decided to invest.
He was part of @’s $330,000 seed round, which was raised on May 27, that valued the company at $1.25 million. The startup will now use this funding to build its platform and work on planned marketing efforts as well.
@ is now in talks with a few venture capital firms and is aiming for a valuation of $10 million in its next round. It is also developing an app to allow freelancers and clients to commission content, set out a strategy, and schedule events. @’s app, which is slated for release in two months, will also make it easier to match the client with the right creative for their requirements.
The startup, which has about 50 clients at present, is spread almost evenly between the US and India. Some of its major clients include Shaadi.com, Organic Riot, and US-based Mediterranean restaurant chain Dill & Parsley. Currently, @ has 30 employees, and nearly 30 freelancers, who are not all based in India.
The platform expects monthly gross revenue of $82,500 by March 2020, an almost 4-fold rise from its projected June 2019 revenue of $22,000. It expects a rise in its client base from 40 to 150 in the same period.
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