YBF Success Stories: Gleam.io, the Most Successful Aussie Startup You’ve Never Heard Of

You know you’ve made it when start-ups pitch their idea relative to your business. We’ve seen this effect with Uber and AirBnB, where share economy services call themselves “The Uber of Photography”, or “The AirBnB of Coworking”. For Gleam.io, as the industry incumbents in the SaaS marketing growth tool sector, copycat services have started marketing themselves as “Gleam but different”, says co-founder John Sherwood.

The tool is a self-service platform for marketers, comprised of four major applications:

  • Competitions – contestants perform an action, such as following on Twitter, posting on Instagram, uploading photos or using certain hashtags, to enter a competition
  • Rewards – customers perform actions and are immediately given rewards (i.e. checkout discount codes or downloads)
  • Gallery – displays the uploaded or imported data
  • Lead Capture – adds bars, pop-ups, or intersections throughout the page based on a set of behavioural browser rules.

These apps are designed to help marketers grow their business and engage their customers.

Gleam’s genius lies in its scalability and wide range of applications. The app is used by an incredibly broad range of clients, from YouTube vloggers to gamers, e-commerce shops to musicians.

In fact, most of us would have interacted with Gleam at some point, perhaps when accessing that SoundCloud artist’s track by liking their Facebook page, or entering your email for a discount code while shopping online. It’s this ubiquity that catapulted Gleam to the upper echelons of the Alexa rankings, beating Australian tech giant Atlassian in global web traffic, and edging ahead of other Aussie startups Envato and Freelancer in US web traffic rankings.

But how did this tiny Melbourne company, comprised of two co-founders, Stuart McKeown and John Sherwood, and their distributed team of 12 employees, win such a large market share of the online competitions marketplace?

In part, it’s the killer combination of technical and non-technical co-founders that recurs in the most successful startups. The technical founder, John, built an unbeatable and reliable platform, while the non-technical co-founder, Stuart, put the fantastic product in front of as many eyes as possible.

“Finding a tech co-founder that can execute has played a large part in our story”, Stu wrote in his 2015 Reddit AMA. “Likewise, John… would say that without the sales/marketing co-founder, his ideas wouldn’t get seen by anyone”.

 

Pre-Gleam – 7th time lucky

Their journey to success was by no means an overnight phenomenon. The two have worked on seven different startup ideas together since 2009, with Gleam.io being the one that stuck. This reflects the typical startup “iceberg” problem, of the perceived success rate of a tech startup being much higher than the actual success rate.

Stu and John had dabbled in various iterations of Gleam’s product, moonlighting in building online marketing tools as a side-hustle to their corporate jobs since 2009. Once they earned enough money to pay their own wages as Gleam employees, they left the security of their day jobs to pursue Gleam full time.

In fact, this reveals another astonishing aspect to Gleam’s story – the company is completely bootstrapped, having never accepted a cent of venture capital. “We basically have been profitable the whole time”, says John, of their transition from full-time corporate jobs to running Gleam.

“We wanted to build an app that sits outside all the ecosystems”, Stu explains. “Our competitors were building on top of Facebook or Google, but that leaves you vulnerable to algorithm or rule changes.”

This is something Stu and John experienced first hand in their early ventures, which relied on Google’s old algorithm for ad revenue. The capsizing of these early companies with Google’s 2011 Panda update forced Stu and John to pivot into what is now Gleam’s independent competition and reward platform.

Ultimately, Gleam’s core vision is to “make a promo platform that works really well”, where marketers can take action through the platform. Competitors will often be “listening platforms”, while Gleam instead aims to replace the PR link between brands and influencers. Marketers can now reach out to a blogger or influencer directly, and host a social media competition with them, without PR agencies taking commission in the middle.

Sales, self service, and growth

Meanwhile, the app’s in-built virality has seen Gleam take over industry after industry. “Our widget comes up with the ‘Powered by Gleam’ logo down the bottom, so when a company uses us, all their competitors tend to come on board really quickly”, he says. This enables Gleam to take over industries with a domino effect, which has been critical in winning Gleam’s 800k+ user base.

Now, Gleam’s sales have become so viral and self-serviced that they can have upwards of 25 new customers building campaigns even before they start work at 9am. With 10-30 enquiries per day and automation of the on-boarding process, the company spends less and less time on acquiring leads, giving them the sort of exponential growth and decreasing cost of acquisition that most start-ups dream of.

However, success hasn’t always come so easy as it does today for the co-founders. Getting Gleam’s name out there was initially something that Stuart spent the majority of his time on.

Targeting a minimum of 10 prospects a day, Stu’s most effective acquisition method in Gleam’s infancy was to find companies running competitions on Twitter by browsing the hashtags for #contest, #competition and the like, and rebuild their whole campaign using Gleam. He’d send the company their new and improved competition campaign, and arrange a call where he’d then capture the lead.

A secondary source of growth in these early days was the Gleam blog. The content reaches over 40,000 views per blog post for their case studies on Gleam users, and tips for using the Gleam tool for maximum growth.

Today, however, Gleam’s inherent quality, consistency, and virality, is passed by word of mouth, which drives most customer acquisition these days. This has helped Gleam hit a landmark 1 billion actions last April, from 900 million users.

 

Get close to the customer

Another pocket ace in their growth has been the fact that Stuart and John handle the majority of customer service themselves. This means that they are as close to their customer as you can be, allowing them to be hyper-responsive to changing demand.

Shortening the chain of communication from the customer to decision makers and developers means that Gleam can stay relevant and ahead of the curve, helping them build a better platform compared to other large market players.

“It’ll be three queries about something before Stu asks ‘Why hasn’t it been fixed? I don’t want to be bothered about this again’”, John says of their approach to customer needs. Meanwhile, competitors will “take $50mil in funding and all of a sudden you have this 400 person sales team, and their product ends up being [terrible] because they’ve gone for massive enterprise plays with weird features and disconnects between teams”.

Staying on customer support isn’t a decision Stuart and John made for lack of resources, either. The two decided that “we’re never going to get off support, even if it becomes a 200 person company”, so that they can remain as responsive as possible to the customer.

Big companies will often have a specialised customer service team, where if an issue is identified, it has to go “up the chain, which then goes sideways into a workflow for the developers, if they’re incredibly lucky”. Most of the time, the issue isn’t passed on.

 

Developers and distributed teams

For Gleam, the geographic dispersion of their team means their focus is simply on getting the job done. Cultural fit is less relevant, with John’s hiring mentality summed up as, “if they can actually do the job, we don’t really care [about culture fit]”. He says they have one culture document, culture.txt, that has four lines in it, one of which is, “Say good morning in the chat room when you start”.

This might come as quite a shock to larger, office-sharing teams, but the task-oriented, checklist-style work of software building does tend to err to a “culture vacuum”, regardless of the company involved in the build. Recently, John has introduced weekly updates on what the company is doing, and given employees a book-buying budget.

On their day-to-day strategy, John highlights the difference between an older company retro-fitting an innovative mindset to their business, and Gleam’s in-built leanness and constant evolution to stay competitive. “I don’t think we’ve ever considered it like, ‘let’s be innovative today’”, he says. “we just do one thing at a time based on, this is the situation, what do you think you should do? Here are some options, let’s go with that one.”

To describe the management style as “light on process”, as John calls it, would be an understatement. This is an active choice on behalf of the Gleam co-founders, who experienced a level of “culture shock” when on-boarding foreign developers that they “aren’t particularly social in the work setting”. Which is fine by the founders, who adjusted by bringing communications to a casual, on-line chat-room level of communication, rather than forcing their team to communicate at a co-working level of chumminess.

One way of avoiding the need to develop an internal culture is to hire only at senior levels. As they don’t have the capacity to train employees remotely, the co-founders resolved to only hire senior, highly experienced developers at wages far above market rate. “Good wages keep people happy, they work hard, and so they do good work”, Stuart explains.

Despite their 15 employees, the team’s geographic distribution means John sometimes works completely alone for months at a time. “That’s why I came to YBF”, he says, “because I was going mad”.

 

Future

Gleam’s ultimate vision is to become a “the only app you need to build actionable marketing campaigns”. This includes opening a marketplace that will disrupt the user-generated content model by handing more power to content creators, who are often given products worth little more than $80 for two full days work.

Regarding future features, the rise of live-streaming is something marketers will look to capitalise on, and therefore something Gleam will pursue. Running competitions during live events has enormous potential, not only in the rapidly growing e-Sports sphere, but also through Instagram and Facebook’s new high-growth Live features.

Stuart points to four factors that indicate your product is taking off – revenue increases, delighted users, traction in market, and copycats springing up. Judging from the adulation from anonymous Redditors, their users most certainly are delighted, and with solid 7-figure year-on-year revenue, the two can be confident their $39 per month subscription has decent traction.

That’s if you were doubting that 1 billion actions means anything but market traction.