Former President of Harvard Ventures, Brian Truong, launches startup to empower independent content creators by replacing paywalls and ads with market research.
I first met Brian Truong in January of this year at the culmination of Winter Xcelerate, a program put on by Harvard Ventures, of which Truong was President at the time (now an Advisor). That afternoon Truong presented a project he was in the early stages of validating and building out. I was as intrigued then as I am now, both by the idea and the founder.
In the several months since that demo day, Truong, a Dallas, Texas native who is fluent in five languages, has officially launched hellotoken, a product that enables publishers to earn exponentially more per visitor than ads and paywalls through a one-click question that serves as a micropayment.
Giving power and opportunity to content creators is the core vision for Truong and co-founder, Kevin Vora, also a Harvard grad (PhD in Applied Physics), but publishers aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from hellotoken.
As consumers of content, there’s not much that ruins the experience more than intrusive advertisements or worse, a paywall. Conversion rates on such are typically below 2%, so not only are they bad for the reader, but they’re hardly effective for a publisher. hellotoken replaces these obstructions with a simple, aesthetically pleasing, one-click survey question – allowing the reader to quickly jump right into the content.
This method opens up the door to an entire new market as well – researchers. Brands spend big bucks on customer / market research. Be it through self-promoted surveys using Survey Monkey or Google or, more expensively, focus groups. Not only are these methods not cost effective or timely, but also the audience can be biased or skewed in favor of the researching brand as they’re often incentivized monetarily to answer questions and provide feedback.
The research side of the puzzle also plays a part into the origin of hellotoken for Truong, who, while working as an Investor for Rothenberg Ventures, came to realize the vast amount of capital that was being spent on consumer research. This experience, coupled with a previous venture Truong explored while enrolled at Harvard, an app called Downtime, is how the current state of his product came to be.
“Downtime was a news aggregator and it was monetized through advertising, just like the publishers whose content we pulled in. It didn’t take long for us to realize that not only was this advertising method ineffective and unsustainable for publishers overall, but there weren’t any legitimate alternatives, either.”
The implementation process is simple – for both researchers and publishers. A blogger can jump on hellotoken.com, download the plugin, and begin earning real money through their site in a matter of minutes. Researchers and marketers can begin gaining valuable consumer insight just as quickly. Vora tells me hellotoken can reach 1 million consumers per month through their current partners.
User dashboards are clean and to-the-point and settings for both parties are standard and straightforward as well. User-friendliness is clearly a key component for the startup.
On the publisher side, hellotoken provides a dashboard of real-time data and insights into views and money earned. The user can key in on specific articles to utilize the tool, while leaving others completely unobstructed.
For researchers, the tool has preloaded questions in place to streamline the process. A campaign is launched in minutes after simplified question creation and selection of key components, such as demographics and budget.
One real key takeaway from my time with Truong and Vora was their focus on truly helping smaller publishers and independent bloggers.
“Maybe someone moonlights as a blogger and pulls in $50 a month. hellotoken will help them turn that into $500 or more per month and hopefully one day help them go full-time on their passion,” Truong said.
What’s cool with this is the fact that it actually gives readers the opportunity to really support sites and bloggers they appreciate. As it stands today a reader’s only real opportunity to support such a site is by sharing and helping to attract other readers, but with hellotoken they can actually make a monetary contribution – with someone else’s money!
“It’s like tipping your blogger,” Truong put it to me.
Truong and Vora, currently working out of the Harvard i-Lab, are in the process of closing out an angel round, which Truong tells me will be used to expand the team (specifically biz dev) and get the product compatible with more platforms. As of now, hellotoken is a plugin for WordPress, but others, such as Drupal and iOS/Android, will be available soon.
This is a space that hasn’t seen much innovation, yet constantly receives consumer pushback and negativity. Investors often say it’s all about the entrepreneur first, market second and product third. Well, what if you have all three? I guess time will tell…
In the meantime, Boston, when you see a one-question survey drop in front of your desired content, give it some attention, click and answer rather than X’ing out and Tip Your Blogger!