VIDEO: Seenit founder on what success means for a tech startup

At the recent Unbound event in London, I interviewed seven startup founders to find out more about the highs and lows of creating a successful tech business in the UK. Here’s the interview with Emily Forbes, founder of Seenit.

ES: Tell me about Seenit.

EF: I founded Seenit about three and a half years ago. We help large organisations around the world to scale the way they produce video by engaging their own customers, fans and employees to capture the content. We believe the people who are the most passionate and most knowledgeable about a brand or subject or product should be at the front of the story.

The idea came to you when you were on safari, is that right?

I was living in Cape Town working for a documentary company in production, so I wasn’t on the safari but I was filming. We went to film this big protest that was happening, but as soon as I got to the crowd I very quickly realised that everyone was capturing on phones, cameras, go-pros, and they had banners. They were so passionate about this subject and so knowledgeable, and there was no way I was going to be able to keep up, so why was I trying to tell their story?

I ran around the crowd saying send me anything you have – photos, videos – I’ll edit a bigger story and send it back to you, with the idea of together our message is stronger. If you say that in a protest everyone’s like, “Yeah! You’ve got to meet my other friend and supporter”.

A few days on, from my flat kitchen, with no budget or camera equipment I was able to pull video from an entire country, and I was just so excited by the new way the world is being documented and recorded.

Does that not present an issue with the quality of footage that you’re receiving and presenting?

Yeah, there’s always the question of what is quality and what means quality to you. I think something that’s happening in storytelling now is people want to trust content, they want to be able to relate to it. Polished content isn’t really engaging audiences in the way that it used to. Video, I think, also has to be reactive. You have to balance the full HD polished content with what the story is that you’re trying to tell.

The whole idea of Seenit came up about four years ago and it’s unbelievable, not only what’s happened technically in terms of the cameras everyone has in their pockets, but actually around confidence, and creative confidence in knowing that everyone now is a storyteller. Even my mum is editing videos on her phone. There’s just been a real shift in people having courage to speak up.

Since those early days you’ve gone on to form partnerships with some large brands and corporations, can you tell us a bit more about those?

We’re a subscription model so we sign clients up for a minimum of a year. We’re working in three main verticals. We work in the marketing space with brands like Benefit, The Body Shop, The Hut Group, Marks and Spencer’s, helping them to capture video from their own customers or employees.

We work a lot in broadcast, so BBC, NBC Universal, creating with superfans around the world.

The third is actually one of our fastest growing verticals, and one I don’t think I set out to do, which is internal communications. We work with large corporates like HSBC, City Bank, Accenture, EY, helping them champion the voices of their employees. It’s quite an interesting one that one.

So it’s helping businesses understand what their employees are thinking and the issues that are important to them as well. 

Yeah, and I think just leveraging all their knowledge, experience and expertise. Large companies really invest in their staff, we hope, to know everything about the product, so why are they not engaging with them to also tell their stories? These large companies have a quarter of a million employees all over the world who can feel very disconnected from an organisation. So how do you make people feel connected on the other side of the world, driving towards the same goal, and collaborative storytelling has really made a huge impact so far with our clients.

What do you deem as success?

There are a few different things we look at. Firstly it’s in terms of how many people we can have contribute, so getting people to actually get involved with the projects, film content, and start to see that scale. With our users, when we have a new user join, seeing them start to pick up in terms of how many submissions they start to submit, and our clients as well when they start to see that volume of content coming in. It’s really exciting because from there, then it’s a question of what do you do with all the video you’ve got coming in. So many of our clients are like, “Cool, we’ll set up one project and then one campaign production is what we’ll create from it”. But you’ve now got a thousand videos, let’s do Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, so success also is how many pieces of content we can create from a gallery or an archive we have.

On the distribution side, success has been anything from being able to sell millions of pounds worth of product off the back of the video, all the way through to HR policies actually changing internally in companies because they’ve been able to listen to the voices of their staff.

One way people in the tech space tend to classify success is based on funding. I know you’ve raised a few funds, could you tell us about your route to raising funding and how much you’ve raised. 

It’s funny that it is linked with success because I don’t think it should be. Some people are really good at blagging it in investor meetings and some people are probably too honest and frank about things. Different questions you’re asked in a meeting can totally determine the outcome. There have been so many studies that have come out in the press recently in terms of the different types of questions even female founders and male founders are asked. One is around ambition and growth, and the other is about how careful are you and what about the competitors. I don’t think that success of a company should be measured on funding. I think it should be on growth, on scale within your organisation, on the clients you’re working with and repeat business, those sort of metrics.

We have raised some money, we’ve raised about £900,000 to date, which in three and a half years isn’t very much. The company is about 28 people now and we’re hiring for another ten roles. We’ve just closed another funding round so about £1.5m now.

You said to me off-stage just now that your team’s growing so much that you’re relocating as well now.

Yeah that has been such a mission. We are moving offices from Farringdon to Old Street. I’m really excited to be in the Old Street hub because there’s so much activity going on in terms of meetups and other co-working spaces that have talks in the evenings.

One of the things I’ve learnt with such a fast-growing team – a year ago we were eight, so it’s been hectic – is how you can help educate, inspire and motivate more people in your team. I think when you’re a fast-growing company, having support from other founders, other networks is just so important. So to be on Old Street, I’m excited about it.

Company culture is such a hot topic at the moment because of the disasters we’ve seen over the in the States. Also because talent is in such short supply, if you have a poisonous company culture people aren’t going to want to work for you. So you’re saying that you want to be in an area where you can learn from other companies, see how people are doing it, and hopefully make yours one of those companies that people want to be part of.

Exactly, fingers crossed. I think also other people in the team who are being managers and leaders for the first time also have the support. So many of us are doing these roles for the first time and I think one of the most important things is being able to be comfortable being like, “I have no idea, I’m completely stuck, can someone help me?”, someone comes forward and you say, “Brilliant, can you run with it? Because it feels like you might know a little bit more about this than me”. I want to be able to try and give the team more access to shared learning, as well as me too.

I think that honesty is so important. There are so many people running around pretending they know what they’re doing, but I think it’s alright to say, “This is a startup, it’s my first company, I don’t know what I’m doing”. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be any less successful. If anything it means you’ll succeed more because if there’s a problem you get it solved more quickly.

100%. I think what’s really amazing now is people really want to help, they want to see other people succeed. If they don’t, just don’t talk to them again. But I think there is such an amazing ecosystem and network at the moment to really support people running businesses. So if you are open about what you don’t know, are nervous about, are struggling with, it’s incredible the help you can get. I think one of the most important things you can do as a founder – or actually anyone as a leader in a team – find your tribe, your group of people that you can completely let your guard down to. Without that, you’re all just having to be smiles and that actually just backfires in the end.