Startup Spotlight: KnowEm

KnowEm?

Today we feature an interview with the founders of KnowEm, a rapidly-growing startup that has found great success without venture capital or outside funding.

KnowEm is a brand protection service that allows you to create your brand's user account on 300 popular social media sites and will not only help you secure your name but they can also show you how to contact each site in order to have the name released and returned to you in the case where someone creates an account in your brand's name.

KnowEm is headquartered in Morristown, New Jersey and was started by Michael Streko and Barry Wise after a user account-checking website they had been using went offline. They decided to create their own and improved on the concept.

Enjoy the interview:

How did your business get started?

Michael: We launched CheckUserNames.com in February, 2009, and the site received over 150,000 unique hits in the first 48 hours after launch. Almost instantly we started getting emails requesting full signups and profile creations from people in the marketing world and also some large brands who wanted to secure their trademarked terms and intellectual properties on all of the social networks. The idea for KnowEm was born. We launched a beta April 1st 2009 to a select group of friends and beta testers, and then publicly launched on April 20th 2009.

Did you build this service in your spare time, or did you quit your jobs to do it?

Michael: I actually was laid off March 3rd. I was working as director of internet marketing for a affiliate network in New York City. The company saw a bit of a dry spell due to the current economic times so they offered me a package and I took it. KnowEm was my hail mary play before I was going to attempt to rejoin the working world.
Besides that I had always worked on affiliate sites as well as consulting with Barry.
Barry: I've been developing and launching startups since 1997 as a professional developer and leader of the ITCN (IT Consultants Network). Since Michael and I had already worked on a number of successful projects, it was just a natural lateral migration to work with Michael on Knowem.

Your site looks great. Did you use an in-house designer, one of you, or did you hire a designer?

Barry: We kicked around a few ideas in-house, but when it came time for the final polished revision we turned to The Oatmeal, Matt Inman. Matt turned our basic functional framework into a much more attractive site, and gave us a few new ideas for features in the process.

You've had no outside funding. How much did you have to invest personally before your business became profitable? How long did it take to get profitable?

Michael: Barry and I split the initial funding. We spent around $3,000, and I am proud to say we were profitable about 6 hours after launch. It was at that time we realized we had something on our hands that was going to be big.

In the beginning, how did you declare your business (partnership, LLC, etc)? And has it changed?

Barry: We formed as an LLC Partnership, and still remain that way. As our employee base and revenue grows, we are moving towards forming an S-Corp to handle the growth.

From our discussions, your business grew very quickly. How did you advertise in the beginning to spread the word and get such a fast response?

Michael: We used a lot of favor cards to get some of the media attention initially. With a background in Marketing I still had some connections that I was able to utilize that brought us some traditional media coverage, but I was still shocked to see a reporter from Fox News contact us in less then 48 hours after launch for a quote.

I saw you've been featured on Techcrunch and Mashable. How did you make that happen?

Barry: Due to the momentum the traditional media gave us after launch, we were just naturally in the sights of some tech reporters. They either saw stories about us on CNET or the Washington Post, and contacted us to write about our site.

I saw some news about BizSpark and Knowem at SXSW. Tell me more about that. So you used BizSpark to outfit your startup in the beginning? Or did you migrate to Microsoft products from something else?

Barry: We were honored to be a finalist in the Microsoft BizSpark event at SXSW, but at the current time we don't use any Microsoft software for our technology. That was simply a contest that the BizSpark Accelerator folks thought we deserved to be in, and we were happy to oblige.

What free or low-cost programs or resources do you employ (that would be helpful to other startups)?

Barry: We almost exclusively utilize open source software for all our server technology, and all of the software KnowEm runs on was specifically developed by us, for us. We don't outsource anything, as we have some very sensitive proprietary code which powers our backend systems.

Is PayPal your sole payment processor? How has that worked for you? Do you have any suggestions to startups seeking to accept one-time or recurring payments?

Michael: PayPal has worked out great for us. Our account representative is very helpful and actually will call to check in with us to see if we have any questions or if they can be of assistance. We are actually starting to work with integrating the PayPal-X API for both initial and reoccurring payments.

You recently acquired FriendsCall.Me. How did that come about?

Michael: Friendscall.me was a side project of the owner of the social media site colourlovers.com. He didn't have the time to focus on the project and we were interested in some of his technology. He reached out to us and we felt it would be a good move.

You've relatively recently moved into office space and you have 27 employees. Who was your first hire and what warranted it? What event made you decide on leasing office space?

Barry: We've hired (and fired) quite a few employees over the course of the past year. From the beginning we realized we would need a sizable office staff to handle the demand. We knew we were dealing with sensitive information (passwords, etc.), so there was simply no way any of this work could be outsourced to offshore labor. You simply can't trust it, and we knew the large clients we work for would not stand for it. We developed a secure method with our lawyers to vet and restrict any local employees we hired to ensure having them create profiles with this data would not be a legal liability. I am proud to say we are now trusted by some of the biggest names in the Fortune 100 to work with their Social Media departments.

Are you currently seeking funding? Do you plan on continuing to build and scale based on revenue, or do you foresee the need to get a round of funding to push to the next level?

Michael: We have never really needed a reason to seek funding. Our company usually gets two or three contacts a month from VC firms that are interested in what we are doing and want to speak with us about possibly funding the project, but it's something that we don't need. We have always wanted to own our business and run it our way, not answering to someone who has given us cash in exchange for equity.

Tell me briefly about your advisors and how they became a part of your business.

Barry: All of our advisors are people we knew and respected and wanted to be part of our team. Paige Craig knows how to run a startup; Brian Solis knows how to engage with publicity and social media, and Robert Siciliano is an expert in both traditional and Social Media Identity Theft. These seemed like a natural fit to work with us and help grow the company.

Are you looking for a big exit (buyout, etc)? Or is this something you want to continue to build on for the long run?

Michael: Right now we are staying focused on building the best company possible. If a buyout or exit opportunity ever presents itself we will worry about it then. Until that day happens we want to take this company to the highest level possible and so far we feel we are on that track.

Closing

Thanks to Michael and Barry for the interview, and for taking the time to discuss your business with me and share your experience with our readers.

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