Profile - Dan Sullivan: Crowdly Founder & CEO Takes Advocate Marketing to New Levels

Earlier this month Crowdly, the innovative advocate marketing platform, announced strong company momentum, a new platform launch and customers wins that include SodaStream and William Grant & Sons’ brands: Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Hendrick’s Gin and Sailor Jerry. The accelerated motion comes with the launch of Crowdly 2.0, which provides actionable ways for leading brands and their agencies to surface, identify and build relationships with their best fans. 

In light of this announcement and exciting growth I caught up with the man at the helm of it all, serial entrepreneur, Massachusetts native and Boston College graduate, Dan Sullivan, Crowdly’s Founder & CEO.

Sullivan has had quite the run in his career that, geographically, spans across the country, but carries a common thread workwise – social and community.

After graduation, Sullivan moved to California in 1999 for a role as a community manager with CollegeClub, a Friendster predecessor.  In his three years at the startup that targeted 16-25 year olds and whose motto was “By College Kids for College Kids,” they went from 30 employees to 400 and were just 11 days (if he recalls correctly the exact time line) from their IPO when the bubble burst. 

Obviously a tough time for many and difficult to swallow being just days away from an IPO, but Sullivan says he “learned a tremendous amount.” Managing community channels and building great experiences in content, relationships and product functionality he learned the importance and value of identifying key brand ambassadors. 

Following CollegeClub, Sullivan co-founded Speak With A Geek, a 24/7 tech support company. He quickly grew this membership-based company to over 50 employees by engineering a community to sustain itself. 

Three years in, Speak With A Geek caught the eye of Dell, who came looking for, and landed, Sullivan. In what he called a “partial acquisition,” Sullivan headed to Dell as a strategy consultant and helped them form Dell On Call. Implementing a forum where Dell customers could provide uncensored feedback about the company, consumers now had a voice. This form of involving customers was new at the time and in part is what sparked My Starbucks Idea, a website to share, vote and discuss ideas and see them Starbucks put them in action. 

Sullivan’s role with Dell, which would take him to Austin, Texas for a period of time and eventually back to Boston, provided him with “knowledge of how big companies think and move” he told me. 

In 2009, now back in Boston and living in Southie, Sullivan founded Appswell, a crowdsourcing platform enabling genuine, engaging conversations about ideas between brands and their fans. Or as Sullivan put it, “American Idol for iPhone Apps.” With Appswell, they were building about one new app per month based on community ideas, one of which (a UV detector) was featured on The Today Show alongside other much more prominent apps. 

How the app came to be featured on The Today Show is eventually what sparked the light bulb in Sullivan’s head for where he is today. 

A reporter had been researching apps through users, not creators, and the passion for this UV detector app shined through. Sullivan noticed “people work most passionately on things they’re a part of.” 

Having trouble scaling the business, yet receiving interest from the likes of GE and Kraft Foods, the light bulb went off. “What I know is how to get a community involved to champion an idea,” Sullivan told me. These major brands already have a large following, but struggle on the engagement and capitalization of it. Kraft exceeded at customer acquisition, Sullivan and Appswell exceeded at activating those customers. 

Sullivan began working closely with Kraft Foods on engaging their following and in 2010 he entered Techstars, still under the Appswell name.  Kraft wanted to reach customers outside of just one app and leverage the full audience on any issue necessary. 

With the same team in place, Appswell became Crowdly and their focus was turned to finding core advocates for brands and helping those brand connect with them in an authentic and meaningful way. 

Crowdly Today 

Crowdly’s advocate marketing platform empowers large consumer brands to identify, segment, rank and make real connections with the advocates that love them. Crowdly can surface and connect a brand with all of the existing advocates hidden within their Facebook community.

Laurie Warden, Director of Strategy at MMB, said “Crowdly’s new platform capabilities allow us to track individual fan engagement and influence over time, and connect with true brand loyalists.“ 

Crowdly 2.0 allows brands to make information on their most influential organic fans immediately actionable, using simple ways to not only identify, but now also to connect with advocates on a one-to-one or one-to-many basis. The new release builds on the existing advocate marketing platform and helps companies create a direct owned channel to reach their top advocates. 

Sullivan told me how an epiphany in Q1 sparked this new platform and rapid growth. Previously, they were looking to help brands get more value out of Facebook. Now, they are using the brand advocates to do so. Simple, but clearly effective. 

Before Crowdly, these brands didn’t know how to identify advocates, now they can easily find, engage and empower them. 

Crowdly Moving Forward 

Growing, to put it simply. And on that growth, Sullivan said, “It’s been rewarding to see our traction skyrocket over the past year. The accelerating shift in brand priorities from purely high volume reach to high value interactions gives us plenty of reason to be optimistic.” 

Crowdly has increased its customer base by 400% from H1 2013 to H1 2014 and experienced 300% YoY revenue growth. The team is eight strong now and Sullivan anticipates at least 4-5 new hires in the short-term with more to follow beyond that. The focus now is on senior engineers and sales force (ideally sales folks with experience in marketing platforms).  They are also expanding their office, which is a shared space with CoachUp on Congress Street in the Innovation District. 

As for Boston… of course I had to ask Sullivan’s take on our fine City, seeing he spent his early years with our cross-country rivals. 

Sullivan really highlighted the people when comparing the two cities. Saying Boston has a great network of people that succeed based on character where as San Francisco has changed so much so that it’s become trendy. Sullivan also compared Boston in 2009 to now and says “it’s easy to take for granted what we have here now.” 

Josh Boyle is Director of Community & Marketing, VentureFizz.  You can follow him on Twitter @jb_sid
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