Ryan Holmes is an investor, an entrepreneur and inventor. He's founded cool companies like Oristand, an affordable standing desk solution, but is best-known as the founder & CEO of Hootsuite. Hootsuite is the most popular social media management tool and services over 10 million users. We chatted with Ryan about the beginnings of Hootsuite and his favorite tools.
Why did you start Hootsuite?
I started Hootsuite out of an agency that I founded called Invoke in Vancouver. We founded Invoke in 2000 and we were a hybrid of a services agency and a product company, so we built a number of different products over the years.
We ended up having customers on the service side of the business that were asking us to help them with their social media presence. This was about 2008, and we decided that as we were helping manage customer accounts with multiple team members, we needed a better tool to manage social. That was really the “aha!” moment for us to start Hootsuite.
We wireframed and launched a product in a short period of time. We put it out to market and had really great feedback and response, and the rest kind of went from there.
How did the landscape look at that point? Were you the first ones or were there other competitors doing this?
We were empowering individuals to manage their own social media, but there wasn’t a tool for teams. That’s what we really wanted to build.
My goal was to build a “Basecamp for social media” and that’s how we kind of oriented and launched it out. There weren’t a lot of competitors who were doing that and that’s what differentiated us out of the gates.
We had a business model versus the other guys. TweetDeck was kind of trying to build the browser of social media for individuals, and we wanted to build the tool for businesses for social media.
It sounds like you were trying to go for a “workflow for social media” kind of philosophy there.
Yes, absolutely! Teams manage multiple accounts, and the workflow that goes along with that was our initial goal.
I’d love to hear about how you were making decisions about tools and infrastructure in the beginning. Did you have a Google Apps approach, or did you have specific tools you already knew how to use?
Well, Invoke was a 21 person team. We had 2 people on it—an engineer/architect and a designer. But we started ramping it pretty quickly and we ended up having 7 people out of our 21 person team working on Hootsuite.
And a lot of the tools on your front page are tools we were using at an early stage. We used Google Apps for our mail and calendar. They are free, inexpensive and integrated into an overall ecosystem. Those were all things we loved and our product is a reflection of that.
I assume in the early days you were the one making a lot of these decisions. At this point is it all team decisions? How have these decisions progressed as Hootsuite grew?
We try to give our team the ability to make tool decisions and empower them to make them. Now, as a bigger company, we have IT that help us think about the broader interoperability between the products, and security that has a sniff on some of the stuff.
We use hundreds of different apps across our different departments, some of them are kind of broader enterprise deployments, while some of them are discretionary credit card type deployments. So we have a blend of the two.
Is there any base philosophy about how you choose the tools? You said it’s pretty team based but do you tend to be cost sensitive? Does cost matter at this point or do you tend to go with what other people recommend? Or at this size, you probably have individual visits from many SaaS companies!
Yeah, all of the above! But, at the end of the day, if teams are excited about a product and love it, that’s usually our biggest indicator.
They’ll source it from a number of different places: from word of mouth, from you guys (Stacklist) and often, self-assessed usability becomes a huge part of the selection process and I think that’s been an interesting trend.
I think it’s put a lot of pressure on enterprise application to really consider their usability of the product in a way like never before and this ultimately benefits the consumers and customers.
Do you find that with size Hootsuite find it hard to integrate new or cutting edge products that come to market? Does Hootsuite have enough space to incorporate some of the more new to market tools, or is too big to incorporate them?
There’s absolutely space. I think that if we’re not able to incorporate and explore tools like that, that’s probably the beginning of the end.
I think it’s a bad point in a business (especially as a software company) if you are not able to. If you’re not out there trying the latest and greatest products, I’d say you’re getting stale. I would suggest that we have different teams and groups in our companies that I think of as small businesses or startups and those teams are empowered to find tools that will make their lives easier.
Some tools might not be appropriate for us at this stage. For example, an accounting tool that’s targeted at small businesses just isn’t going to make sense for us, but team or workflow management and other tools that kind of make sense, our teams will champion them in terms of usage.
"If you’re not out there trying the latest and greatest products, I’d say you’re getting stale."
Do you have any tools, like internal communication or workflow tools that you use across all of Hootsuite?
Yeah, we use Facebook at Work which is a really good tool for us. We have some usage of Slack and that’s more on a small departmental scale. We communicate in a number of different ways like emails and call lists, but we have been really happy with Facebook at Work.
When it comes to your own life as an entrepreneur, both at Hootsuite, your other businesses, and personally, are there tools that are absolutely critical to your day?
Boring stuff like email and calendar!
I use Google Apps and it’s pretty good. Right now I’m trying out not bringing my laptop with me when I go on trips. It’s been an interesting challenge to see how much you can get away with and I think it’s been pretty effective.
I’ve also been able to be pretty effective with solely my iPhone, but on it I use a lot of the Google stack, like Google Photos, Google Keep. But I also use fun apps like Snapchat.
So I’m obviously on social networks like Instagram. And I use Prisma to make pretty photos. I’ve got hundreds of different apps installed on my phone at any one point, but I don’t think I use anything you haven’t heard of before.
There was an announcement about Google Apps upgrading and getting rebranded as GSuite. There have been improvements to things like Drive, which is core the businesses we work with.
Interesting, it seems that the branding is the biggest news here. From a high level, getting it bigger and under a brand is smart. That’s one reason why we are “Hootsuite.” It’s more of a branding exercise than anything else.
Going back to Hootsuite, can you tell us about your target audience? Would you say startups are the main customers or larger companies? What can you tell us about your marketplace?
Hootsuite is primarily targeted towards businesses to help them manage their social. We have over 15 million customers, more than 800 are Fortune 1000s, and they’re using us to engage with their customers on social. They spend hours every day managing millions of messages going through their customers and so it's a pretty exciting venue to be in.
We are helping our customers connect with their customers through marketing and sales channels. As we look at the trend of customer engagement, it’s all happening on social websites. It’s where people live and breathe and brands really need to go there to interact with their customers and potential customers.
If they are not there, then their competitors are going to be there and eating their lunch. We help them get there and drive the ROI they spend on social.
"As we look at the trend of customer engagement, it’s all happening on social websites. It’s where people live and breathe and brands really need to go there to interact with their customers and potential customers."
When it comes to keeping up with social, you had a different landscape now than when you started in 2008. How do you as a company follow the increasing number of social networks, and how do you plan for the next one-two years product wise in a dynamic landscape?
That’s a great question. We have a platform concept, and we have got APIs, app directories and integrations with around 200 apps throughout marketing, sales and social. A big focus on what we have been doing and will continue to do is increase and expand our platform. We really want to help empower teams and get our customers everything they need through our platform.
This is something absolutely unique to us and it’s a differentiator because it gives us value in the long term. Why does a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) want to buy Hootsuite for their business? They buy Hootsuite because they know over the next few years what our platform is going to provide in terms of APIs and integrations with ERPs, CRMS and any other service they need, and that is a big part of our planning.
For products and companies like those listed on Stacklist, activity on those apps is really important as well and we really want to connect to the ecosystem, and that’s another big focus for us. Going back to the CMO perspective, engaging ROI for their work and their teams is what’s really important, and that’s the same for smaller businesses too. We want to help them with their ROI and their time spent on social too.
I should say we are Hootsuite users at Stacklist, that is our social media management platform of choice.
We and other startups appreciate what you were saying about the integration with other applications. Other companies like Segment and HubSpot tout the same features. What are your insights on how you have gotten people to use these apps and integrations? Any marketing hurdles to get people using them and liking them?
We have had pretty amazing adoption of our apps in our apps directory, and we have had over a million installs in pretty breakneck speed. We actually did a little mapping of our adoption of our app versus Salesforce’s app adoption, and we came to a million at a much quicker clip.
And as you talk about HubSpot, they’ve got a couple of years on us but I think we are going to be at 800 integrations quicker. We are actually over 250 integrations with business applications, but this is a huge differentiator since I believe that winners come out of platform.
If you think about, it’s why Apple beat Blackberry. It was because there are over a million, quality apps on the iPhone and when you think about it from that perspective, that adds huge value to the customers, and big value to all the people building the apps. They monetize and you’ve got a big vibrant ecosystem there.
And then users get logged into Apple because of installing and using those apps. It becomes sticky. We think it’s a key importance to our customers whether they are small, medium or enterprise to have various integrations, and it provides so much more velocity to development.
One of the pieces of feedback, people have trouble differentiating between different social media management software, even though Hootsuite is the leader among startups. So what are the key differentiators for Hootsuite?
There’s a lot of differentiators with what we’re doing! If you’re looking for a product at a self-serve level that you can start for free and get a team on board, that lets you have the ability to grow on your company as it grows and ultimately can over 800 of the Fortune 1000, then you know it has that end of range power, there is no product in the market that is able to do that. If you are anticipating being a solo entrepreneur for your whole life, then that isn’t a value to you. But people out there who want to grow their business, we provide a frictionless way for them to grow their product.
We continue to build out a lot on our analytics side. Our customers want more and more and have a lot of hunger for analytics so we do a lot of work there.
Scheduling & engagement is another key differentiator. The ability to manage all of that in one place is critical.
And then the platform has the extensibility and the ability to integrate into other places. We are a tool for sophisticated users, if people want a very very simple tool, we may not be the best for them. But we think we have very good functionality for people who want power in what they are doing.
Any important tools you were using that have taken your team to really long, efficient, productive rides?
GSuite is an absolutely incredible tool. I do angel investing and if I find a company not using it I scratch my head a little bit and wonder “what’s going on with these guys?”
Facebook at Work has been really valuable for us too, and I know it’s a platform that everyone launches on.