The ‘ridiculous, impossible’ Instagram fix that Hugh Stephens made a viable, global business


Launched in January 2014, ScheduGram is a software as a service (SaaS) that exists because Instagram missed a beat; namely, the platform’s standard Application Programming Interface (API) doesn’t allow people to schedule posts. Well, one company’s oversight is someone else’s gain.

Founded by Melbourne-based entrepreneur Hugh Stephens, Schedugram schedules Instagram posts on the behalf of its clients, which include small businesses. The service now has thousands of users all over the globe – and this customer base grows by 5 to 10% per month. While the biggest markets are the US and Europe, Schedugram also has customers in Asia, the Middle East and Australia, which accounts for 15 to 20% of the customer base.

Last financial year, the business contributed substantially to the $3m revenue generated by its parent company Dialogue Consulting – the social and digital media consulting business Hugh started in September 2011 while studying medicine at Monash University.

[Side note: While it now counts small businesses, ASX200 companies and federal government amongst its clients, Dialogue Consulting had somewhat of an unconventional origin. Hugh explained, “It evolved out of my experience consulting with mental health professionals about how to apply medico-legal risk management principles to their use of social media to engage with their colleagues, those under their care, and the broader public – yes, it’s very specific!” Phew! We now return to our main feature…]

“Market demand was apparent – we addressed a pain point”

The 26-year-old Melburnian told Dynamic Business that ScheduGram was spun out of conversations he had with Dialogue Consulting clients about time-wasting marketing activities.

“Quite a few mentioned the process of managing their Instagram accounts,” he said. “It was seen as time-intensive, difficult – even impossible (e.g. you can’t post while you’re asleep!).”

“I began discussing a whole series of potential solutions with my housemate who suggested I create a service that fixed the problem using smartphones rather than what you’d normally do – integrate with an API. Unfortunately, there isn’t an API to do it. I told him it was a ridiculous idea; it would never scale; and it would be practically impossible to do. Well, when the consulting business began gearing down for Christmas in 2013, we had an opportunity to build a prototype and get some people testing it. Eight weeks in, we landed our first paying customer – and from there is just grew. Market demand for the service became apparent after only a couple of months due to the explosion of Instagram as a core channel coupled with the massive pain point of having to manually post to it.”

Although services already exist to help businesses manage their social media accounts, Hugh is confident that ScheduGram offers a superior Instagram experience.

“We actually post on Instagram for our customers whereas other services like Hootsuite send the account holder a push notification/reminder when it’s time to post – and the account holder still needs to have their phone on them to physically post it themselves,” he said.

“Unlike us, Hootsuite does support other platforms… but that also means that it’s hard for them to provide the kind of features that best suit a highly visual platform like Instagram as compared to (more) text-based services like Facebook or Twitter.”

“Being a quasi-developer helped me bootstrap the business”

Schedugram is run by a team of six distributed around the world: development occurs in India and Bulgaria; customer support in the Philippines; and account management in the US. Hugh said that employing an offshore development team has enabled Schedugram to tap into a bigger talent pool while servicing a global customer base around the clock “without having to embrace strange sleeping habits”.

One downside, Hugh explained, is that Schedugram can’t claim the R&D concession for the work performed by staff outside Australia: “While we can make some minor cost savings, it probably ends up costing us more in the long run to hire overseas, but that’s offset by not needing to work as hard to get the right kind of talent.”

Rather than turning to venture capitalists, Hugh bootstrapped Schedugram using revenue from Dialogue Consulting, his credit card and his skills as a quasi-developer.

“I’m self-taught, having had a knack for it since I was a kid, and although I’d never be able to work as a software engineer full time, I was able to create the MVP myself,” he said.

“Later, once we’d generated enough revenue, we were able to hire “proper” dedicated technical talent. Simply put, I Bootstrapped the business because I could. By doing so, I’ve avoided having to deal with other people or entities, meaning all the strategic decisions remain with the business.”

 

“Focusing on one project at a time is challenging”

 In the immediate future, Hugh and the ScheduGram team are responding to consumer research they conducted into Schedugram: “It has informed a big rewrite of our underlying ‘engine’ and user interface. And in the longer term? “Who knows,” Hugh said. “Some customers have been asking us to head into Pinterest, which has similar challenges to what Instagram was like several years ago (visually-focussed and emerging as a channel).”

While Schedugram’s future is wide-open, one thing is for certain: Hugh will be keeping busy.  He is also behind SocialSitter, which like Schedugram is part of the Dialogue Consulting family.

“We launched SocialSitter in 2013 because some of our government clients who needed some kind of cost-effective solution for after-hours social media monitoring/moderation. It was never a ‘big thing’ in terms of revenue or number of customers (the market is relatively small) but it continues to be a profitable business for us, because it scales pretty well linearly.

“As for our other projects, there are always little bits and pieces that I tinker with. Whether it’s HR analytics (we are beta testing a different way of measuring employee engagement, but I don’t know if it will end up launching or not – we’ve discovered a lot of things along the way!) or health technology, my biggest challenge is usually maintaining focus on one thing at a time.”


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