A Q&A with Bislr co-founder and CEO Michael Sharkey. The San Francisco-based startup, which offers a suite of marketing applications bundled into its ‘intelligent marketing OS’, secured an additional $1.5 million in Series A funding earlier this month (bringing its Series A total to $5 million). Investors include Southern Cross Venture Partners, Tim Draper and Terry Garnett.
SUB: Please describe Bislr and your primary innovation.
Sharkey: Our primary innovation is in building technology that marketers can leverage each and every day to generate more qualified leads. To do this, we built an entire operating system that runs in the browser—we call it the ‘intelligent marketing OS.’ Running on top of our OS are applications for marketing automation, content management, and real-time result tracking and analytics. All of the applications take advantage of intelligence and context that is collected in real-time, as prospects interact with your website and respond to your communications and offers.
SUB: Who are your target markets and users?
Sharkey: Our sweet spot is a business-to-business company with 20-to-200 employees that either has a first-generation marketing automation product they are unhappy with, or are considering investing in marketing automation for the first time.
SUB: Who do you consider to be your competition, and what differentiates Bislr from the competition?
Sharkey: We compete with Marketo and Eloqua—enterprise—and Hubspot—midmarket. Customers tell us that ours is the first solution they could envision themselves and their team really using. So, our differentiation is in bringing to market a product where the features and functionality are trivially easy to access. We make it possible for customers to create a hard-hitting, branded landing page in less than nine minutes.
Also, we’re not naïve. We know that our customers have pre-existing investment in CRMs and other systems. So, we built Bislr with connectors into Salesforce, NetSuite, and Demandbase. Connectivity is huge for our customers. Our ability to build these connectors very quickly, on-demand for our customers, is part of our secret sauce.
Finally, we give customers a real-time feed—that allows them to see results happen in real time so they can ‘lean in’ as needed to accelerate the sale. The Bislr feed is addictive—so much so that the average customer logs in 27 times per week to view results as they happen and take action. Our customers grew up with Facebook and Twitter and expect their marketing automation and other products to work similarly.
SUB: When was the company founded, and what were the first steps you took in establishing it?
Sharkey: The company was founded in 2011 out of Sydney, Australia. Our founding story is actually kind of funny. We started out as an agency servicing business-to-business customers. Over time, we found ourselves building out technology so good that our customers wanted to purchase it. So, the next step for us—to commercialize the software—was to get financing from the Australian government made available for that exact purpose. But first we had to prove that we had been rejected by a commercial VC. And lo-and-behold, our first VC meeting—with Southern Cross Ventures—met with success. Funny how things worked out! Within two weeks, we found ourselves recreating the company around our commercial software, and moving the entire team to Australia.
SUB: What was the inspiration behind the idea for Bislr? Was there an ‘aha’ moment, or was the idea more gradual in developing?
Sharkey: The idea came from our own pain. We were trying to service business-to-business customers through our agency, Sharkey Media, and frustrated with the state of the technology solutions available at the time. To succeed with business-to-business marketing, there are a lot of moving parts you need: forms, landing pages, A/B testing, lead nurturing, CRM integration, contact intelligence. We looked at what businesses were spending on the various point solutions and found that the average customer invested in 7-to-10 products and spent $150,000 on solutions that didn’t talk to each other.
Our conclusion was that this was a market that was and is ripe for disruption with an integrated product that brought all the functionality together in one place and, at the same time, could connect into the other systems our business customers were using. It’s way too much money, for one thing. And integration is required to make the most of the context and intelligence you can gather about the prospect to help build the kind of relationships you need to close the sale.
SUB: How did you come up with the name? What is the story or meaning behind it
Sharkey: Well, you know Bislr was founded by three brothers. My brother Chris—Chris Sharkey—is perhaps best known as the technologist behind Stayz, the Australian version of HomeAway. Because of Stayz, we developed a real affinity—some would say a bias even—for five-letter URLs.
The reality is that most of the five letter URLs that end in ‘.com’ are simply not available. We came up with Bislr because it was: a.) available, b.) was only five letters long, and c.) seemed to say ‘Business.’ Only later did we realize that Bislr is also easy to misspell—but that’s another story. It’s pronounced ‘Biz-ler,’ by the way—but that’s six letters!
SUB: You just announced that you raised $1.5 million more in Series A funding. Why was this a particularly good time to extend your Series A round?
Sharkey: We just launched Autopilot, our application for marketing automation, campaign planning, and lead nurturing. This was a major milestone for the company. The marketing automation category is growing very quickly, and while there are entrenched competitors, none of these competitors have what we have in terms of a modern architecture, trivial ease-of-use, and the ability to connect into various solutions without involving IT.
SUB: How do you plan to use the funds?
Sharkey: To expand sales and marketing now that we are seeing some initial success in the marketplace.
SUB: Are you going to seek additional outside funding in the near future?
Sharkey: Absolutely. The $1.5 million we just raised tops off our Series A financing to total out at $5 million. We expect to go out for another round of financing—our Series B growth round—some time in late 2013 or 2014.
SUB: What have the most significant challenges been so far to building the company?
Sharkey: Figuring out how to take the technology we’ve built and apply it to the right customer problem.
SUB: How do you generate revenue or plan to generate revenue?
Sharkey: We sell based on a SaaS [Software-as-a-Service] model that ranges from $500-to-$1,000-to-$2,500-plus per month depending on the exact set of applications you need, email volume, and also whether you need any specialized connectors that go beyond the usual suspects: Demandbase, Salesforce, NetSuite.
SUB: What are your goals for Bislr over the next year or so?
Sharkey: Great question. Companies exist for one reason only—to serve customers. So for us, the next year or so is all about acquiring new customers. To do this, we will continue to innovate, to bring new and exciting applications like Autopilot to market. We have some exciting new products on the drawing board right now, but it would be premature for me to talk about them. What I can say is that most marketing technologies focus way too much on automating communications versus understanding the digital body language and signals that the prospect sends out. We feel—strongly—that the next wave of innovation in marketing technology will come from predictive technologies that leverage context and intelligence to predict what prospects will do next. The idea is to enable our customers to anticipate what their prospects will do so we can insert them into the conversation in real time. For lack of a better term, we’ve started calling this ‘slipstream’ marketing—slipping your company into the conversation in a way that accelerates the sale.
Bislr – www.bislr.com