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Harnessing the power of public data as a startup with Thomas Slabbers, Founder & CEO of SocialDatabase

SocialDatabase is an Amsterdam-based startup helping brands tap into valuable, custom-built audiences assembled using publicly available data. Using their own revolutionary tool, SocialDatabase is able to handpick and collate precise demographics from social media platforms based on a business’ specific target audience.

“Eight Years ago, Roland Rijpma, Peter Versteegen and I started to gain interest in understanding Twitter users in a much deeper way. The public nature of Twitter allowed us to better understand its users by analysing behaviors in a way no one else was.

“We basically realised that your public behaviour on Social Media says a lot about you. 

“Once we discovered that, we started to realise how much power there was in the public data available through social media. You can really understand who those people are, where they live, what they like, how old they are, where they work and so on. 

“We figured that by analysing all of this, understanding who someone is and what they like based on public behaviour, there was so much insight on offer. From there we said let’s try to make this happen and let’s start building a database using this information. 

“We had no clue on what we were going to do because social advertising was not even available in the Netherlands back then. Despite that, we said hey, this is interesting and we can potentially apply this to more than a billion social media accounts. 

“So we started to build this database of potential target audiences. It was mostly focused on Twitter, because Twitter is the most open database in the world and from a data perspective, it’s the most interesting platform. 

“We began scraping through millions of users ourselves before we actually became an Ads API partner of the platform in 2015. After that, we got far more access to the Twitter database, which enabled us to grow rapidly to hundreds of millions of users. 

“Fast-forward to now and we have 1.4 billion social media users stored in our database, we analyse 21 trillion data points to understand who those users are and what they like. All of these are based on publicly available data, which is especially relevant in this era of privacy protection. All of this puts us in a unique position when it comes to helping advertisers reach better, more valuable target audiences.”

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Crafting a target audience in the wake of GDPR

Becoming an official partner of Twitter was naturally a huge milestone for SocialDatabase, one that paved the way for much more expansive possibilities. 

“We are living in an era of increased privacy protection. Data privacy; GDPR and more recently, ios14 are just the beginning. Advertisers need to rethink how they reach a relevant audience.

“Data privacy and the sensitive use of data has always been a number one priority for us. We have always limited ourselves by excluding third-party data sources. Also, we have 10 strict rules that we follow when we build audiences for our clients. Rule number one is my favourite: we don’t create any audience that one of our team members does not feel comfortable with. You can find all of our rules here.

“We use public data and public data only. We don’t have email addresses, credit card details or travel details from users - we only have access to public data that is available to basically anyone with internet access. Because of that, it was relatively easy for us to become GDPR compliant. 

“The latest development which could have been another issue was the introduction of ios14. By default, anyone running that software doesn’t have their data shared by Apple with the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

“That means lookalike audiences and conversion attribution, that’s all getting more difficult to pull together, because there is simply less data shared with the channels, something which has impacted our industry significantly. Again though, we’ve not been affected and that comes down to us only utilising public data from the platforms themselves.

While the business’ compliance with new GDPR rules came as a pleasant surprise, another unexpected turn came when Twitter approached SocialDatabase with a request to purchase their own information which the business had gathered from their platform.

“At one point Twitter put in a request to buy their own data from us. That’s something which is happening every day now, but when it happened for the first time, it came as a shock that they would pay us to purchase data that had come from their own platform but ran through our system.”

Unlocking Twitter’s ‘hidden superpower’ 

All things considered then, it became obvious that Socialdatabase’s attention should focus primarily on Twitter to build these audiences. The instantaneous and current nature of the platform makes it the ideal source for what and who is currently relevant to a business’ needs. 

“Twitter has a hidden superpower. It makes it the most relevant channel in your marketing arsenal.

“It’s about what’s happening in the world right now. This unique ability serves an audience with a discovery mindset. However, it’s no secret that marketers are already using this knowledge to optimise their messaging - so how do we tap into that hidden superpower that others cannot?

“The secret is that Twitter is more than just a platform to communicate, it’s a treasure trove of consumer insight and understanding.

“Every day, hundreds of millions of users produce billions of tweets and trillions of data points. This immensely rich data is available to anyone, at any moment. When you learn how to leverage the largest pool of public data in the world, you start to get a feeling for Twitter’s undiscovered superpower; The Superaudience.

Socialdatabase harnesses this superpower of insight and understanding. Superaudiences are a new way to reach consumers at a relevance never seen before, naturally improving any campaign significantly. Best of all, it's based on public data, which is especially beneficial in this era of privacy protection.”

A unique approach to startup hiring

Thomas explained how his business takes an innovative approach to the hiring process, by actually utilising its own product when searching for new talent. 

“We’re lucky when it comes to recruitment, because we can find everyone we want to hire through our database. So for every role we try to fill, we first go through our direct relations as a team. In cases where we can’t find someone through our network, we will set up a campaign, build a relevant audience of the exact people and expertise that are required, we run the campaign and then the CVs come in.

“So sourcing talent is relatively easy for us because we use our own technology to do so.”

Thomas also revealed that he still ensures he is always part of the interview process himself, and stresses that this period should be seen as a long-term investment in your business’ future.

“When we’ve found a potential candidate, we arrange an initial meeting with the team lead of the department we’re hiring for to check they’re a good fit. Then I’ll always speak with them myself on the second call. Up until now, I’ve spoken with every single person that we’ve hired and I’ll try to do that as long as I possibly can because I find it incredibly important.”

Thomas also highlights that the recruitment process isn’t somewhere you should be cutting corners, as it’ll only prove counterproductive down the line. 

“Someone once said to me, ‘don’t save money on good people’. Spending a bit more money on good people, experienced people, always saves more than it costs. That’s something that every entrepreneur will figure out at some point.”

SocialDatabase also offers a creative way to breed a culture of self-growth within the business, by offering the team access to training sessions with elite athletes and coaches.

“We have a ‘Top Sport Committee’ which features a professional golf player and a professional water polo coach. These guys train our teams in the elite sporting mindset, for example, trying to improve yourself every single day by 1%. We have them hosting events, team-by-team training sessions and they’ve become a vital part of our company culture.” (Have you read our People and Culture Scaleup guide yet?)

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The fallbacks of funding options 

While discussing funding strategies, Thomas points out that Social Database has been in the fortunate position of not yet requiring a VC due to the business’ self-sufficient operation, and has gotten by with just one injection from an angel investor to date.

“In the beginning, we were super Dutch. It probably would have been better if we had more of an American approach to funding back then, but we were very Dutch and were trying to pay for everything ourselves. 

“So we were self-funded for a long time. We brought in customers, expanded the team, brought in customers, expanded the team some more. That went well for quite some time and then we found a private angel investor who offered us a round of funding.

“With the current base and the growth of the company, we have enough money from that one investment, together with the revenue that comes in, to do what’s on our roadmap and build the business globally.”

Thomas did go on to highlight some of the common mistakes that come about when partnering with the wrong investor though. He also pointed out that an over-reliance on investment can be counterproductive when it comes to problem-solving. (Visit Techleap.nl’s capital domain for funding strategy advice)

“I believe that entrepreneurs can give away too much ownership and decision-making power too early. If you have a good investor, you should be able to make the decisions you want to make as an entrepreneur, but in many cases that doesn’t happen. 

“I think especially in the tech startup scene, people sometimes rely too much on funding and are therefore not put in a position where they’re forced to find their product-market fit, to sell and monetise their product. 

“I think because we were self-funded from the beginning, it slowed us down a bit initially, but now we have a great product-market fit because we were forced to make that happen.”

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‘From business, comes more business’

We used our conversation as an opportunity to ask Thomas to recall his own biggest learnings and advise any entrepreneurs embarking on their own adventure of the key things to keep in mind.

“First of all, don’t stop. Every entrepreneurial journey will at some point, especially if you’re inventing something new, hit a wall. You’ll hit multiple walls. I’ve learned that if you just don’t stop then you will get it right one way or the other. Your business model or product might change along the way, but don’t let that discourage you.

“There’s another good one from an entrepreneur I work with very closely, he says ‘from business, comes more business’. So he basically means even if it’s not exactly what you’re aiming to do, if you don’t do the business then nothing new will emerge, however, if you do the business, more will come from it. 

“That same person is also the one always advising me to think very big. Think global and build teams in all the key regions where you can add value. 

“Another piece of advice that follows on from that, is even if you don’t feel fully ready, if you have a product that adds value and people can benefit from it, open in that region. Set up a team and again, from that business more business will come and you’ll grow faster than you think. (Preparing for international expansion? Check out the GoGlobal website

“We opened our US office at the end of last year, so definitely not a long time ago. We have had so much traction and growth in that region that we’re now building a team there. If you had asked me six months ago whether that was a good idea, I would have doubted it. The same goes for our Dubai office, you go, you do business and more business comes as a result.” (Need advice on expanding into the US?)

Why Rise?

To draw things to a close, we asked Thomas for his opinion on Rise, Techleap.nl’s own acceleration programme in the Netherlands, dedicated to startup growth. 

“We were doing a lot of things our own way, so I was very curious to see how other tech startups in a similar phase were approaching different things such as internationalisation, how they handle their own marketing, how they handle their people, culture, and other common challenges.  

“I was just really interested in learning how other founders were doing things, to see if we could transfer that to our own activities and improve ourselves. 

“That was actually the big benefit to me that came from the Rise programme. We get to speak to these great entrepreneurs every single week, people like the founder of Booking.com which is a huge help. However, I think I've learned even more from the ‘Put it on the Table’ sessions, where we discuss the actual challenges that we face with all the other founders.”

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