The news about Ascential’s partner’s activity (see our story this week) is another little justification for everyone’s online privacy and security fears. Combined with noisy concern about the provenance of digital news, it seems (among much else) to emphasise the need for businesses to stop sharing social media with consumers. Like it or not, consumers might not always care about privacy, accuracy and probity. But companies must.
That is the pitch of an ambitious UK startup which modestly claims to be “the world’s best business messaging app”. But, then, it’s competing with Facebook’s mighty WhatsApp which is not meant to be for business at all. And that’s the point.
“Guild” is a branding throwback to Britain’s medieval trade associations. Its founder is Ashley Friedlein who once dreamed of being a TV producer and edged into his role as a digital entrepreneur via a student directory for musicians seeking gigs.
He and Matt O’Riordan founded Econsultancy in 1999, not a consultancy at all but an eye-catching domain in the early days of the web. The company built a strong UK B2B brand and customer base by helping to guide the digital re-engineering of businesses with no-nonsense information, research, and ideas: “Econsultancy was set up as a way for marketing or digital marketing people to share insight, tips, and contacts, and we built a B2B media business around that.” It had some free, some paid content, and some subscription member access. It added events and training over the years, and opened up offices in New York and Singapore.
More than anything else, though, Econsultancy really de-mystifed information around digital, marketing and e-commerce in ways that amused sniffy magazine-centric competitors. But Friedlein’s broad global view and stylish branding illuminated his company.
In 2012, he sold to Centaur Media, and Econsultancy became the beating heart of the B2B company’s transformation into a marketing-media information specialist. The £24m eventual price (Friedlein got £6m) was some 50% of the earn-out maximum. But it was still 37x operating profit and 4x the revenue in 2011.
By 2015, under Centaur ownership but still with Friedlein’s direct involvement, Econsultancy was fulfilling its promise with £3.5m operating profit on £9.1m revenue. Whether or not O’Riordan and Friedlein regretted selling early in the growth of their clever company, they were always likely to have a much bigger idea, a real global business. Perhaps Guild is it.
Many things about Guild are different, including the daredevil comparisons with WhatsApp. Friedlein’s chat and web site are punctuated by competitor taunting which he might once have advised marketing people against: “We think of the business use of WhatsApp as our ‘public enemy no.1’. They are our Goliath.” It sounds almost too daring, but the Guild claims are pretty compelling:
- As easy to use as Whats App – but just for professionals
- Groups moderated by Hosts who invite – and pay for – members
- A platform on which users control their own data – and the company they keep
- No advertising ever
- Full compliance with the EU’s GDPR data protection law
Guild is built for any professional group, network or community where its members want to communicate, share, learn from each other, stay in touch, develop and nurture valuable professional relationships – both internal to the company and externally. It’s a native messaging app but has easy web access.
The company raised its funding from 41 private investors including Friedlein and O’Riordan. The story was a neatly-crafted ambition to have 10m users paying (or being paid for) at £10 per year within 10 years. As the founders admit, £100m revenue (particularly in a decade from now) is a very small share of a market currently defined by LinkedIn’s 600m users and 30m business pages, and some 600m WhatsApp users who also use it professionally.
Guild sees itself as being as strong on relationships and functionality as WhatsApp, but comparable for privacy and security with trusted enterprise collaborative tools.
This time, the former Econsultancy founders may really be under-selling the potential, with their list of the things you can’t do with What’sApp, including: professional profiles that are unencumbered by pictures of cats and dogs, strong default privacy, neat design and organisation of conversations, and the ability simply to delete all your data at any time.
Then there are nice touches like the ability for companies to customise and brand their groups – which LinkedIn will just have to replicate. But only Guild will enable you fully to control access to your group or your information. And, just to burnish Guild’s credentials, the Gaelic Athletic Association, in Ireland, this week told member clubs to stop using WhatsApp because it is not GDPR compliant. Maybe that’s just the start.
The serious business motivations behind Guild are to create an environment where professionals can be open and honest with people they trust. It chimes with the powering growth of single-sector global B2B media specialists which have been able to create valuable learning relationships among peers and rivals. Perhaps it even complements the expanson of face-to-face networking through professional events.
As Friedlein puts it: “None of the messaging apps, WhatsApp being most common in the West, offer the right environment for professionals to share and bond. Their focus is instead on adoption and usage to sell more ads or harvest more data. The control lies not with the human hosts, the ‘village elders’, of the community or professional group you belong to, but with algorithms owned by ‘big tech’ that operate beyond, or at least ahead of, the law.” Ouch.
The Guild ethos could not be more different: “From a technology point of view, this is all still quite new. But our belief is that, in the end, this isn’t about an arms-race on features or functionality, but about re-applying the almost old-fashioned aspects of human behaviour that make groups, networks and communities work.”
The soft stuff doesn’t stop: “We have built upon a realtime messaging infrastructure and designed the front-end experience with leaders from the world of design, art and fashion.”
For all the tech skill and startup enthusiasm, Ashley Friedlein (who owns 40% of Guild) knows he’s in for a hell of a fight even to get to that £100m. He has now raised £1.5m through three funding rounds. The business currently employs 10 people (some part-time) with operating costs of £75k per month divided almost equally between marketing, tech and staff/office.
After tiny revenues and £350k losses last year, he expects 2020 revenue of some £400k (and, therefore, losses of £500k) from a customer base that is currently some 50 customers (businesses with accounts, running groups) and 3,500 end users, 75% in the UK.
We should assume Guild expects to breakeven during 2022 and take-off in 2023. But there will plenty of thunder and lightning before then.