Streetbees’ Tugce Bulut on fundraising, support networks and industry challenges
I caught up with Tugce Bulut, co-founder of Streetbees, to get a general update on how the business is doing.
During the interview, Bulut also spoke about some of the business challenges she’s encountered to date, the value of engaging with established VCs early on and the successful completion of a Series A round.
What were you doing before Streetbees and how did the idea for the business come about?
Before I started Streetbees in 2015 I was a strategy consultant, focusing on consumer and technology companies and helping them grow. Previously, I was an academic researcher focusing on poverty alleviation in developing countries.
Streetbees brings both of those aspects together, as I realised that the reason we can’t break the poverty cycle worldwide is because not enough international businesses are investing in developing markets. Why? Because they can’t see what’s happening in them.
My light bulb moment was when I was working with a tea company that wanted to launch new products in Asia, but couldn’t as it wasn’t able to find data it could trust. Traditional research methods, like panels and surveys, didn’t provide a way in. I realised there were buyers that wanted this info, and I used to live in India, so I knew that plenty of people would be willing to share their stories in exchange for the right amount of money. So, there is a buyer and a seller: let’s connect the markets! And that was the start of Streetbees.
In hindsight, what challenges did you come across when trying to get your business off the ground and how did you overcome them?
We were fortunate to meet the right people early on. My first lead investor was Robin Klein from LocalGlobe, who has as an enormous amount of experience, is hugely well-respected, and is a strong advocate for the business. Once you have that kind of support behind you, it becomes a lot easier to access other conversations and networks, which has been an enormous boost – and it’s meant we’ve been able to choose who we wanted to work with, rather than the other way around.
Even with that, there’s no denying that fundraising is hard work. It’s like having a very intense second job, which is difficult since, as a founder, you are already doing the equivalent of several jobs!
What have you learned from the whole experience?
We started Streetbees with two of us in an office in Old Street, and now we are 100 people. But, the friends we made at the start are still big supporters of the business, and that’s hugely important to me.
It is key to have support networks around you. From my perspective, the people we have in our current board and the angel investors we have are very strong, and I have a direct line to talk to any of them about anything. I also now feel responsible within the startup world as there aren’t many female founders, so, it’s part of my job to help new founders so that they can have the support that I am lucky enough to have already.
How are things going? Can you share some metrics?
We now have over 1 million users – or bees – using Streetbees worldwide, and we have blue-chip clients on board, such as Unilever, Pepsi, Diageo, Deloitte, the BBC World Service, to name a few. With the new investment that we’ve attracted, we think we can help even more companies across the world, while also building out how we can help them. For example, we have just made several hires in our data science team that are really going to transform what we are able to do on that side of the business.
Who are you competing against and how do you set yourself apart?
We make sense of people’s lives, and we do that in part through using machine learning and natural language processing technology to analyse photos, videos and freeform text. So, what we do is all about real-life moments, while what traditional research companies like Ipsos and YouGov do is use structured data, panels and surveys. Their users find everything out after the fact. For example, at the end of the month a brand might find out that popular perception of them has gone down. So, then they have to find out why, which takes more time.
We started Streetbees to predict these things before we happen. By using unstructured data, we capture real-life moments that don’t rely on claimed behaviour, and we use our tech to make sense of what’s going on.
From your perspective, what are the biggest opportunities for companies to break into the MarTech sector?
I am of course biased, but the spot where we are – market research – is a $44bn sector that’s ripe for disruption. That’s an enormous opportunity and it’s great to be in the middle of it!
Where do you see the industry going?
The industry faces a big challenge – marketing budgets are down across the board, because big brands aren’t seeing the returns they would like from what they are spending. The big agency model that’s been dominant for so long is, as a result, struggling.
That’s a huge opportunity for companies like us to scale new approaches that generate real returns on investment for clients. Brands need to see value for money, not the same old approaches that never generate anything new or fresh.
What are the key emerging industry trends?
The emergence of smaller, bespoke brands is actually creating a real headache for big multinationals, who find it much harder to keep their finger on the pulse and understand what’s happening locally, or identify emerging trends. Think of what the craft beer revolution is doing to the alcohol companies, or how the direct-to-consumer model is completely changing how people buy razors. That’s why big brands need help – they are losing touch with their markets, while younger companies steal their customers.
What’s your take on co-innovation?
Unusually for a startup we work with some of the largest companies in the world to solve their problems, and when one of those puts their energy behind you, it’s a game-changer! When working with a partner on something new, it’s key to be open and transparent – if you’re experimenting together, it won’t be perfect straight away.
Rather than overpromising and under-delivering, you must make the other party understand that we’re building something cutting-edge together.
I’d also say it’s important to work with leaders. If you work with companies in your space who are at the head of the field, then in five years the rest will follow. If you start by working with the followers, it will be more of a battle.
Are you trying to totally disrupt the industry or looking to work alongside larger, more established, firms?
This is a multi-billion dollar platform and we won’t stop before we achieve that. Disruption is absolutely the goal!
In addition, we need to become an international company – research by its nature is global, so, we have to be able to be able to operate effectively across the world. We actually started as a global company from day one, which was a huge challenge, but it instantly made the offering much more valuable for companies who work with us.
You recently closed a relatively substantial Series A, what did you learn from the fundraising process and what advice would you give to other entrepreneurs looking to raise from VCs?
When we were having our group meetings with Atomico, who became our lead investors, what they did very successfully from the start is introduce us to the entire Atomico family through different events. They all came from different backgrounds and countries, and this enormously enriched the conversations we had with them, especially as we are a company focused on listening to people across the world. This also meant that they asked the right questions about the business, which played an important part in convincing us to go with them.
It’s also crucial to look for VCs with a long-term vision. Some VCs in Europe can be short-sighted and money-focused in their perspective – that’s important, but we are looking at fundamentally transforming the data industry, so there is a bigger game at play here. We wanted to work with people who understood that – and were willing to put the ‘venture’ in venture capital!