Need a status update on the latest player in marketing? Lincoln-based Hurrdat Social Media ready for a breakout
Four years ago, Blake Lawrence was an outside linebacker for the Nebraska Cornhuskers; his teammate, Adi Kunalic, served as the football team's kickoff specialist.
Today, the company they started in August 2010 is an up-and-comer in the hot social media market. Lincoln-based Hurrdat Social Media (the name comes from a streetwise pronunciation of "heard that") has worked with 45 mostly small businesses in 35 different industries throughout Nebraska and beyond. Some of their clients hail from Kansas City, New York City, and even Australia and the United Kingdom, riding the crest of a global wave in cutting edge marketing.
"Here's the value of social media," Lawrence said. "I can talk to you here right now, but once I’m out of here, our communication stops. But if you’re part of social media, you’re still part of the conversation. We're teaching companies they have to use both to get their message across. The big thing is, we tweet, we blog, we post on Facebook for our companies every single day."
What started with an internship led to starting own firm
A Kansas City native, Lawrence came to Nebraska on a full scholarship, and started seven games in 2008 and 2009 for the Blackshirts before being sidelined as a junior from the effects of suffering concussions. Still, he left school not only with an undergraduate degree but an MBA, and after graduation took an internship with a Lincoln-based document management solutions firm. His task: create an online community around the firm's brand. The company's managers knew the firm needed to be part of the fast-moving conversations out there.
"Social media creates an opportunity for these brands to no longer be a sign on the wall or a sales caller," he said. "It's a chance to create a one-on-one relationship with their target market to help grow the brand, and ultimately have more loyal customers."
In six months, Lawrence's model for social media marketing created $600,000 of new leads and $200,000 of new revenue for the company. After he returned to Nebraska after an internship in New York City working with some of the top marketing firms there, he sat down with his business partner, Kunalic, who had an idea to break out on their own.
During his internship in NYC, Lawrence hungrily devoured everything he could on creative marketing, strategy development, and analysis, and learned something crucial when it came to selling their services to small businesses.
"If their clients loved their campaigns, loved the way it looked and felt, but if it didn’t deliver quality results they weren’t going to invest," Lawrence said. What he brought back to Hurrdat from his Big Apple experience was a method to determine the return on a company's investment, an important metric to convince otherwise conservative businesses to take the plunge into social media marketing.
Hurrdat's first client? The same Lincoln document management solutions firm which employed Lawrence as an intern. But the CEO did more than just sign Hurrdat up to do its social media work; he provided them office space in Lincoln with internet access, a phone line and tech support for as long as the start-up needed it.
Lawrence and Kunalic sought as many ways to keep costs low for his business as he could, bartering social media marketing to an event venue in Kansas City in exchange for free office space there, and similar efforts to a KC law firm for help with contracts and setting up the start-up's incorporation documents.
The firm has seen some impressive growth, hiring their first employee in January 2011 to handle technology development duties, graduated a couple of interns to full-time status four months later, and by May 2011, wrote the company's first payroll check. Three more hires by late summer brought the team to nine.
'This is what social media looks like'
Lawrence also is the perfect picture of a Millennial generation entrepreneur--sport jacket, button down shirt worn outside his jeans, even down to his tennis shoes. That's his uniform when meeting with businesses people, bankers and clients.
"This is what social media looks like," he said. "This is where we're coming from. Our oldest employee is 25 years old. Our work for our customers is the most serious thing we do."
And they've already become a name in town; Lawrence was on Lincoln's KFOR-AM business program "Pursuit of Success" recently to explain how his company has enjoyed quick success with facilitating two-way dialogue between customers and a company's brand image
"They asked 'how do you define success?' Everyone is going to point to dollar figures, raising a lot of money, revenue," Lawrence said. "I define success as a happy company culture, where when people come to work they enjoy it. The biggest thing is providing environment that they enjoy what they do."
SBA helps bail Hurrdat out of a bind
But not all was smooth for Hurrdat Social Media; for a while this fall, the nascent firm struggled to find an answer to a vexing cash flow problem. The lag in accounts receivable and need to bring full-time employees on the payroll put the company in a bind. They turned to US Bank, and the lender turned to the SBA to get Hurrdat into a loan to help.
"We had no credit history, and there were some things we needed to do," Lawrence said, "so we went to our bank, said, 'here’s our books, here’s how much we’re making, here’s how much we’re waiting to collect.' And they saw it as an opportunity to help a small business."
The firm was approved Dec. 1 for an SBA Express financed line of credit.
"If we had not gotten an SBA loan? We would have been freaking out," said Lawrence, who added they're also looking to raise some investor capital this year. " You know, we're still dependent on our customers, but as a young business to be seen by the SBA as credible, and to know if we ever got to a point where cash flow wasn’t there, we have this for us, it's comforting."
Social media bringing endorsements directly to fans
Pursuing new markets may also prove to be crucial to Hurrdat Social Media's growth. They've spun off a subsidiary that offers about 120 pro athletes an opportunity to engage with their thousands of fans all over the internet -- and make some coin in the process.
"We work within social media to connect brands with these athletes to create social media endorsements," said Lawrence, adding his company can knock the cost of a commercial placement way down for a business client. "We realize these athletes have influence on their social media pages, possibly influencing thousands of customers so we have a platform where your business can pay athletes for an endorsement. You can go to our site and tell us that you want this product, this athlete, what you want them to say, and the endorsement happens on that athlete's Twitter, Facebook, whatever, right away." It takes less than a week, sometimes as little as 24 hours to approve a message; Hurrdat is careful not to clutter an athlete's social media brand, limiting endorsement posts to three a week.
"People will pay for that contact," Lawrence added. "Fans are the most engaged with athletes." In fact, they deliver for their advertising clients a click-through rate from a social media post about 10 times than other online marketing efforts.
And Lawrence knows this generation can sniff out a cynical post by their favorite athlete designed to sell something, so his firm spends hours studying a particular athlete's "voice" on social media to make sure the endorsement seems like the natural flow of the conversation.
Hurrdat also has teamed with Husker Sports Marketing as their social media partner, offering another important outlet beyond their ability to market brands to the university's sports fans through radio, TV, in-game signage and program guides. Hurrdat provides the social media platform and the athletes, and Husker Sports Marketing sells that access to their corporate customers. The arrangement has worked so well that the goal for Hurrdat this year is to reach out to all 72 similar entities partnered with university sports across the country; Husker Sports Marketing manages millions of dollars in contracts, and with the social media firm involved in about 10 percent of that, "you can see where we can have a high growth potential in the next year."
But Hurrdat faces a turning point this year in the loss of its co-founder Kunalic to another organization: the Carolina Panthers of the NFL.
"We were sitting down talking about our business plans for the new year," Lawrence said, and a week later, Kunalic signed a three-year contract as the NFL team's kicker.
Not too many small businesses have to compete with the NFL for its talented employees.
Regardless of the challenges, Lawrence and his Hurrdat Social Media team seem poised to leverage a growing demand for that two-way dialogue between a business and its customers.
"On the internet, everyone becomes their own brand, with an ability to create their own identity, and everyone’s an expert when it comes to their own online brand," Lawrence said. "There’s a demand and we believe we do it right. We’re good at one thing, social media, and focus on that and we’re going to become very good at it."