Entrepreneur profile: Benji Vaughan, Disciple

In this piece, we talk to Benji Vaughan about starting and scaling his 'community platform' Disciple, which builds social networks for niche interest groups.

Benji Vaughan started ‘community platform’ Disciple in 2015, bringing together aspects of social media and CRM to build social networks for niche interest groups. In this interview, he talks about almost going bust, the rise of ‘community management’, and the importance of entrepreneurs having a clear idea of the problem they’ve set out to solve.

What is the business, when was it started and what were you doing beforehand?

Disciple is a community platform, a service that sits in an emerging technology category probably best described as ‘community media’. From our customers’ perspective, it’s a bit like classic CRM platforms that use email as a channel to communicate with their customers, and from the end-user’s perspective it’s a bit like social media in that you can post, message, share that content through a smartphone app. But it’s very unlike both, in the sense it brings the interactivity that makes social media great into an owned-media environment owned by the community.

I started Disciple in 2015, to solve my own problem, really. Having been an electronic musician for most of my 20s I went on to become a producer and then label owner. There was an incredibly passionate community around electronic dance music, but no real way for me as a label/producer to engage that community. Email was non-interactive. Websites were in decline because of the growth of smartphones. And as people’s attention migrated from the open web to apps, the ‘killer’ apps like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Spotify etc, web forum communities started to die. I figured there had to be a better way so I built my own app. I later realised I was solving a bigger problem than my own.

How did you get the idea?

I’d love to tell you that I had some kind of lightbulb moment, but I didn’t to be honest. First I hired an agency to build my app, which didn’t really work out how I’d hoped, so I then hired a small tech team and became a specialist app-building agency for musicians, using my address book and tweaking the tech. But after a year, we’d almost gone bust. The market in music is pretty fragmented, the sales process complicated and the budgets aren’t really there on the record label side.

It wasn’t until I met our current chairman that we started to see the potential. We decided to pivot to a SaaS model, built on a consistent product set and targeted squarely at community managers in the widest sense, as in, literally anyone who has a following. Whether you’re a school, a brand, a church, a musician, a boutique publisher, a politician, a social media star or a massive corporation, your communication problem is the same. Email and websites are too static and the costs of social media is high and rising.

“Having famous, happy clients championing you is the most effective form of marketing”

I’d say we’re mid-pivot. The SaaS ‘off the shelf’ aspect of the product isn’t quite ready yet, so I’d describe us as being in closed beta, which means we’re being super selective about the communities we’re hosting as we test and learn – but we’re growing 30 per cent month on month. Obviously when we come out of closed beta later this year that will change everything from a sales perspective.

Already there are 500,000 people on LinkedIn with the title ‘community manager’ who could directly benefit but that’s barely scratching the surface as many of our customers wouldn’t identify with that title – put another way, there aren’t many marketers, community leaders, public figures or institutions that wouldn’t benefit from having a direct, interactive relationship with their communities. I genuinely believe community management will become a standard organisational function like accounting, sales and marketing so the potential is huge.

How did you finance it?

Until now we’ve been financed through organic growth, and a group of private angels. To be honest the biggest challenge has been time. The more time you spend managing investors and raising capital for it the less time you have to grow it. Inter-community communications was also been a challenge – but fortunately there’s an app for that!

What were your key marketing strategies?

Since we’re in the process of moving from an agency-build model to a SaaS-licence business, our marketing approach has changed. Initially, we won business through word of mouth and our existing music industry network helped us land some high-profile names; the best-known being the Rolling Stones.

Short-term, a bit like a real-estate company building a show home, we’ve recently released ‘Disciple’ – our own show-home in the app store – so people can see how the platform can work for them. And we have made a modest investment in digital marketing and PR to build our brand awareness as we get going.

But having famous, happy clients championing you is the most effective form of marketing. Remember when Kendall Jenner said she was ‘over’ Snapchat and their share price took a hit? We’ve had that in reverse: we have a high net-promoter score and are very grateful to our existing communities for recommending us. Matt Hancock MP launching his community in February this year was a big moment for us. Matt showed great vision at the time to see how the platform could work for his constituency, and the advocacy of the secretary of state has helped pave the way for others.

Our competition is ironically our biggest sales driver – email, static websites, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, LinkedIn and Snapchat – in the sense that they do some things well but they are not fit for communities. Social media’s business model is engineered to exploit communities, rather than serve them, and scandals like Cambridge Analytica mean people are actively looking for alternatives.

What is/are the revenue stream(s)?

We’re a B2B SaaS platform, so we charge our customers a monthly licence fee, much like a Squarespace but for communities. This is a departure from our previous agency model, where we would partner with the customer on a revenue-share basis.

We expect an ecosystem of firms to emerge around our new category in time and we may well offer some build/support services to clients in the future, particularly if they want custom features built on top of our platform, but this won’t be the core driver of our growth; a platform model will allow us to scale faster.

What are the main challenges you have experienced?

This might sound obvious, but it’s about zeroing in on the actual problem you’ve set out to solve, and being crystal clear about the category that you’re in. No company should set out with the purpose of disrupting a market, per se, but to uniquely solving a problem by offering something different. If your different is better than what went before, then great. Disruption becomes a by-product of delivering different.

In our case, we’ve not set out to disrupt how communities communicate – if we’d said we’re here to disrupt email, disrupt Facebook, disrupt Squarespace or disrupt WhatsApp we’d be laughed out of town. We’ve made something somewhere in the middle that borrows from all of them to solve a big problem for communities.

So it’s about category focus. Aside from earning enough money to keep the company on track while thinking about the future; you quickly get pulled off track from what you set out to do if you’re not clear about the vision of the business. As the company grows and new voices are added, the odds of market creep, mission creep, product feature creep all increases; all for good intentions, but trying to do too much can send you off-track. We’re now crystal clear on our category, and which problem we solve for whom, which has driven our pivot to SaaS, but I wish I’d done it a year earlier.

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of SmallBusiness.co.uk and GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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