When looking for guidance on large or infrequent purchases, some people (not many, statistically) will click on ads. More will turn to Google. But most will seek advice from experts they trust.
That’s the essential insight behind influencer marketing, which began to really take off in late 2015.
Marketers started making efforts to identify the most influential people online in their market space, reach out to those individuals, and build business relationships. It was often effective, but also an inefficient, time-consuming, exhausting manual process.
Realizing there had to be a better, more organized way to approach this strategy, three entrepreneurial influencer marketing professionals decided to build a platform that would streamline and simplify these efforts. Here’s the story of James Creech and the team behind Paladin Software.
Tom: Welcome to the founders interview on Webbiquity. Today’s episode is sponsored by Shindig. Forget the fatigue. Quit hopin’ around. Create virtual events that make people say “you had to be there.” Check them out at Shindig.com.
Today, I’m talking with James Creech from Paladin Software. Welcome, James!
James: Thanks, Tom. Excited to be here, nice to see you again. It’s always a pleasure when we get to hang out and chat about everything going on in the B2B marketing space.
Tom: It is. I should mention James is also the host of the All Things Video Podcast, which is a definite must-listen.
James: That’s right. There have been some illustrious guests on there, including the very knowledgeable and handsome, Tom Pick. So, everyone, we’ll point you there to go listen to those episodes.
Tom: Some very smart people as well. So do check that out. Anyway, James, let’s jump into it here.
Paladin is an influencer marketing platform for brands and agencies. The company founders came from the influencer marketing space early on. Back in 2014, marketers had to run influencer campaigns manually: chasing down social media stars, trying to find the right people, using screenshots for reporting, putting it all together in Excel or PowerPoint.
Realizing there had to be a better way to do this, the team created their own solution. And then recognizing it could help anyone doing influencer marketing, they launched Paladin to build a software product to streamline the process.
Today, the platform helps brands and agencies run more successful influencer marketing campaigns, save them time and headaches finding the right influencers; managing the contacts; and reporting across Instagram, Tik Tok, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Twitch.
Customers are primarily B2C given the broad familiarity with influencer marketing on Instagram and Tik Tok—consumer brands that are trying to reach an audience. But the company is seeing more traction on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Clubhouse, where B2B marketing experts and brands are leveraging the power of influencers to promote their products.
Year founded: 2016
Funding rounds: Bootstrapped. (Per James, “I always joke, we have a little bit of a different model: we raise money from our customers and we call it revenue.”)
Company size: 100+ customers in over 30 countries across six continents, 26 employees.
Tom: What inspired you to work on a solution to this particular problem?
James: There’s a critical moment every entrepreneur faces that I call “taking the leap.” For us, you know, it came in April 2016. We had been doing this in a part-time capacity as an experiment, and started to wonder: “Is there a business here? Can we validate product-market fit and that people will pay for this?”
I think you have to be a little bit crazy. You have to have the conviction to bet on yourself, knowing you don’t have everything figured out, but confident you’ll be able to put the pieces together as you’re going along.
We got to a point where we felt like we had a good idea, and that we were uniquely positioned to solve this problem. We were early to influencer marketing. We were practitioners. We had peers in the industry who would be great customers for a product like this.
We knew we didn’t know everything about the commercial model but would figure that out as we went along. So we scraped together our savings and bet on ourselves. And never looked back. We decided to roll the dice. And so far it’s worked out.
Tom: What were the most effective channels or methods for you to get the word out to prospective customers when you first launched your product?
James: A lot of it was relationships. We leaned on our networks, any people we knew who could benefit from our product. We had a lot of coffee meetings, asking people how they were solving their influencer marketing problems at that time.
And especially in the early days, people were very open. One of the most amazing things about digital media and the influencer marketing ecosystem is people seem willing to share, and collaborate, and learn from one another. So that’s been a big part of our success.
Beyond that, events and trade shows are always huge, especially for a B2B business like ours: VidCon, Digital Entertainment World, all of these specialty trade shows around digital media and influencer marketing have been important in helping us find customers.
Targeted travel, too. As I mentioned, we have business all over the world. We have an office in Europe. We have an office in Asia. So when I would go visit our engineering teams overseas, we would make it a habit of visiting some customers. Or meeting with prospects in those countries to learn about their challenges.
But, at the end of the day, it’s all hand-to-hand combat. It’s trying to find out what marketing channels work for us, what content marketing strategy can be successful, and how we can get in front of the right people through referrals and our network. That’s what’s helped us get to where we are today.
Tom: To what extent did you actually use influencer marketing to help launch this? And then also what role, if any, does the All Things Video podcast play as a content marketing tactic?
James: We really don’t do influencer marketing for Paladin. We probably should. It’s funny. It’s one of those cobbler’s-kids-have-no-shoes situations. So maybe it’s just time or attention. We never really put much energy into that.
Having said that, I do share insights from people on the podcast and I post on LinkedIn daily. It’s not that I think of myself as an influencer or a thought leader, but I do enjoy connecting with other people in the industry and sharing perspectives.
More than anything, I like highlighting the other smart people I know, just asking, “Hey, can I interview you? Can I ask five questions and feature them in a LinkedIn post?” And, “Tom, will you come on my podcast and share your expertise around B2B marketing that you’ve gathered for 25 years?” That’s what I feel most comfortable with, highlighting the incredible things that other people are doing.
I’m not out beating the drum of talent all the time and pounding my chest saying, “Hey, look at us. Look at this product. Buy, buy, buy.” It’s really more about leading with value and being part of the conversation that I think is helpful.
I don’t know if the podcast has directly led to sales. I started the podcast really more as a personal side project even before I launched Paladin. I was doing it because I enjoyed talking with other founders at my prior company. I was in this unique position where I was meeting fascinating people from all over the world and kind of selfishly just wanted to ask them more questions and learn about their journey.
And I asked a few friends, “Would you mind if we recorded this and I turn it into a podcast? Because I think what you have to say is really interesting and I’d like to be able to share it with more people.” And enough of them said yes, that I started the podcast six years ago, even before podcasts were cool, and that whole trend caught on.
But I do it more as a creative passion project, Sure , it probably does have beneficial aspects for me or for Paladin. I hope so. But I don’t know that there’s as much of a causal link making people sign up to use Paladin as I would hope—but if they do that’s, that’s just gravy. That’s awesome if they find it interesting.
Tom: Please finish this sentence: “Knowing what I know now, if I were to start over today, what I would do differently is…”
James: There are so many things. The most immediate piece of advice I give to other entrepreneurs is, “Go deep before you go wide.” I repeat this all the time. And I still need to remind myself to continue to keep this practice top of mind.
I find it so easy to say, “Let’s build this,” then, “Let’s do that. And we’ll offer this service.” There’s a temptation to try to be all things to everyone, and that just waters down your value proposition. What’s most compelling is to be the best at something. So how can we be the leader in influencer discovery? Let’s just take one problem and solve it, alleviate a 10X pain point, be a leader in that.
From there, sure, it’s a natural extension to build an influencer CRM, royalty accounting and payments so that influencers can get paid on time, and campaign reporting. Let those things be an expansion on your initial product. But “go deep before you go wide” is my biggest headline advice.
Beyond that, there are so many things you learn in your first year, your first time starting a business that are going to be unique to everyone. Read books, listen to podcasts, and talk to other entrepreneurs to learn as much as you can. Still, sometimes you have to make your own mistakes.
The other thing we keep coming back to is we didn’t really invest heavily enough in marketing at the outset. We were focused on having our sales team pound the pavement and going to these conferences. When we first started out, it was a small pond and we were a well-known entity in that small pond.
But then influencer marketing just kept exploding. And in order to share that story and continue to stay top of mind, we needed to have a bigger megaphone. We needed to be doing more marketing from the outset. It’s something we’re trying to remedy now, but we’re starting late. I wish we had started doing that four or five years ago.
Tom: What’s the most important or valuable advice you could offer to an entrepreneur starting out today?
James: I think the first thing is to be very experimental in your approach. One of the mistakes I made as an entrepreneur was, when you come into the business you are both a founder but also have some sort of day-to-day responsibility. You can’t escape the fact that you’re still expected to be an individual contributor in some capacity.
For me, it was strategy, sales, business development, all the things I had a skill set around and I needed to bring to the company. For my co-founders, we had a CTO who was working with the engineering team, he needed to hire developers, he needed to do code reviews, he needed to ship a product on time. For our COO, he’s got to make sure the trains run on time, there’s got to be a budget, we’ve got to make sure that the product vision is architected correctly.
So we all had our core responsibilities as individual contributors. As anyone who’s worked in businesses for a few years before you start your first company, it’s what you’re used to doing.
I get the dopamine hit every time I close the deal, every time I have a really good sales call. That’s awesome. I’m excited. I feel like I’m pushing the business forward. But what you need to do is also carve out the time to work on the strategic elements of your business, not just the tactical parts of the day-to-day.
Switching between those two modes, having both the strategic and the tactical interface, is very challenging. But you need to create the space to actually work on your founder responsibilities in addition to your day to day responsibilities. You need to spend time thinking about the business just as much as you spend time doing work in the business. I definitely got caught up in activity and not thinking about the business in a really deep way as much as I would have liked to in the early days.
Tom: James, this has been awesome. I really appreciate you spending some time with us today. Last question before I let you go, how can people find you and connect with you?
James: Number one is LinkedIn. I post every weekday with some updates and try to share some fun, valuable stuff there. To learn more about Paladin, check out our website, paladinsoftware.com. The last thing I’ll mention is the podcast, All Things Video, which features interviews with entrepreneurs and innovators in digital media, music, entertainment, technology, anything that’s fascinating. I encourage people to check out and listen to that as well.