Startup Mantra: Expanding the presence and reach of brands

Published on Nov 12, 2022 04:08 PM IST

“Influencer Marketing” is redefining marketing by brands, especially direct-to-consumers and ecommerce

Yash Chavan, founder of SARAL. (Shankar Narayan/HT PHOTO)
Yash Chavan, founder of SARAL. (Shankar Narayan/HT PHOTO)
BySalil Urunkar

“Influencer Marketing” is redefining marketing by brands, especially direct-to-consumers and ecommerce. The micro and nano-influencers are the new celebs, but the key question is how to discover them and engage them in the shortest span of time. Manually, it becomes clumsy and difficult to run an influencer marketing campaign, juggle with multiple creator conversations, negotiate deals and track performance across campaigns.

It was, until Yash Chavan, founded his startup SARAL (CHVN Software Pvt Ltd) providing relationship-focused and high-impact influencer marketing software-as-a-service (SaaS) for ecommerce brands. According to Yash, SARAL will soon become the “operating system for influencer marketing” campaigns.

SARAL helps brands manage their workflow from saving influencers to outreach lists, sending emails, negotiating deals, sending goodies, and tracking performance under one roof. SARAL has features that help brands build a relationship with creators on social media without any unfair annual contracts, messy Google Sheets or cards for the trial.

Growth consultant

While in his second and third year of engineering education, Mumbai-based Yash realised that although he liked engineering and technology it was not meant for him. He stopped attending college and instead worked with a startup in sales and marketing team. Meanwhile, coronavirus outbreak in 2020 forced Yash to work remotely.

Yash said, “While at job, I also began freelancing for companies and helping them in digital marketing services. Since I understood the technology, I could also write codes, and with knowledge of businesses, sales, and marketing, I turned into a growth consultant for startups. The SaaS model interested me since I preferred the recurring revenue model. Meanwhile, with respect to privacy of user data, Apple introduced an update to their operating systems due to which Facebook Ads product stopped working. Brands using this model had their revenues falling sharply. Hence, we had to adapt and figure out alternate channels.”

Influencer marketing

Yash stumbled upon influencer marketing while looking for alternatives to Facebook advertisements. Working with influencers and driving traffic to client’s sites to get more users, generated more interest in this domain for Yash.

He said, “While it was a good experience, it also meant working on lot of Excel Sheets, Google Sheets and tracking multiple conversations. This becomes very complex when we do it for more than 25-30 influencers. So, we started looking for tools to manage these tasks. We realised most of such tools were US-based and were charging exorbitantly as their primary clients were big enterprises. Some tools which we used were very complex and required a dedicated human resource to operate them. As a result, most of the brands avoided doing influencer marketing as this service was not easy to use for smaller brands.”

Market-product fit

Yash decided to make influencer marketing easier for smaller brands. “It is a problem in the market and nobody was providing solution for small brand segment. It was not my idea. I had the market understanding, but I did not know exactly how to build a product for this. Entrepreneurs usually design a solution and then go out in the market, tweak their product features to find a fit. It is ultimately a sunk cost. What we did was unusual – a market to product fit. We did not write a single line of code, but instead we sent cold emails, spoke to some founders to get their feedback. Once feedback started coming in, we came up with a simple website in December 2021.”

Pre-launch sales

The website was designed in a pre-launch listing and pricing of $99 ( 7,900) per month. Yash also offered startup founders a deal of giving one-month free access in the same pricing if they paid in advance. Of the 50 founders that he approached, Yash managed to get five founders to pay 7,900 for the yet-to-be-launched product.

Yash said, “This was a strong market validation for me. Since people had paid in advance, I needed to deliver the product in time. So, I went for a development agency instead of hiring developers in-house. After onboarding a Nepal-based agency, I hired some developers. In April 2022, one of my college friends saw my post on a professional networking platform and offered to help me to build the product. He joined me as a part-time resource initially and recently has been working full-time with SARAL.”

“Product development however took a bit longer than expected. Instead of the promised 60 days, it took us nearly five months to come out with the product. The founders who had paid us also understood our problems since they were experienced entrepreneurs themselves. It was a technically complex product to build. In hindsight, I think I made a mistake. I should have launched a lean MVP (minimum viable product) within a month or two and then develop the advance features of the product. Finally, in September 2022, we launched our product and so far, the traction has been good. We have 100 brands using our product on trial basis and, of them, 10 are paying us monthly fee.”

What is SARAL?

At present, Yash aims at direct to consumer (D2C) ecommerce brands. SARAL helps these brands simplify their influencer marketing campaigns. Influencer marketing means working with social media influencers and sending them products so that they can promote it on their social media handles.

Yash said, “SARAL has more than 100 million influencers in its database. Anyone with a public profile and more than 3,000 followers or subscribers on Instagram, TikTok or YouTube can be found using SARAL discovery tools. We have done integrations with APIs (application programming interface) of Facebook, YouTube and TikTok and it helped to tap into influencers’ social media accounts and pull-out contact details and other relevant information. The influencer does not know whether the brand has approached them using SARAL software.”

“Without SARAL the process is entirely manual. Users find out contact details of each influencer by reading their bio on social accounts, then emailing them separately and further conducting conversations with them and tracking each conversation. Brands spend at least 20 hours every week on this task using a dedicated resource and it would cost anywhere between $3,000 ( 2,40,000) to $5,000 ( 4,00,000) in markets like the US. With SARAL, brands need to spend only $150 ( 12,000) per month and save time too. Influencer contact details are auto-fetched with algorithms and scrapers, bulk emails can be delivered with customised content using email templates in SARAL and further automated follow-up emails are also available,” he said.

Checking authenticity of influencers

Recruiting influencers to promote your product is just like a sales cycle. There’s prospecting, qualification, outreach, negotiation, onboarding, tracking performance, and payments. There is no simple and affordable way to manage this whole process.

Yash said, “Users want simplicity. Brands do not necessarily know about best practices in influencer marketing. Since they are not experts in this domain, we need to guide and help them in making decisions. Brands give up on influencer marketing as a channel because it’s so high-friction to start and the tools that exist don’t equip them with best practices and flows that make influencer marketing work for them.”

“We have a feature called ‘authenticity checker’ within the SARAL software with about 15 filters to categorise and rank influencers on various metrics. We have profile data of influencers, what kind of posts they are publishing and at what intervals. We can check the relevance of these posts to the terms searched by brands on our platform. Based on this, the authenticity score is displayed to the users in terms of bad, decent, good, best, and excellent, etc,” Yash said.

On raising funds, Yash said, “I am against raising capital especially through the venture capital route. I may raise angel funds and some HNIs and angel investors have shown interest in us. They are waiting for us to get more traction. Till then, we are selling services on top like Influencer-Marketing-as-a-Service (IMaaS). Under this service, brands outsource their entire influence marketing campaigns to us and we charge a higher retainer fee for this. We want to build a lean business.”

Competitive landscape

According to Yash, the market is plagued with mid-market and enterprise tools that cost between $10k ( 8 lakh)-$100k ( 80 lakh) and lock companies into annual contracts. Hence, it is extremely difficult for a small and emerging ecommerce business to build a proper influencer programme

“The fixed cost drives most brands away from it. Tools and marketplaces focus too much on the transactional nature of influencers (almost treating them as one-time salespeople) instead of enabling relationships and long-term partnerships between brands and creators,” he said.

Future plans

SARAL will become the “operating system for influencer marketing” campaigns. It will be a tool that fits right into the workflow of an influencer marketing manager without trying to change their behaviour and allows them to find detailed creator information such as engagement rate, growth rate, and authentic follower percentage right from their browser window with a Chrome extension.

Yash said, “For context, there are close to 3 million advertisers on Facebook right now. SARAL aims to becomes the bread and butter of a business. Without it, they stop doing influencer outreach, stop tracking ROI (return on investment), and turn off a major revenue driver for their brand. By next year, our target is to achieve 40 lakh monthly recurring revenue.”

“Within a few months, we are adding podcasts and also plan to integrate with Shopify. With Shopify’s integration, brands will not need to ship products separately to each influencer. Brands can simply select a list and ship all products to influencers in a customised manner,” Yash said.

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