Founders’ Friday: Stephen Rosenberg, BrainPik

Hey Rachael here again! Today’s featured Friday founder is  Stephen Rosenberg from BrainPik.  I got the chance to sit down and talk to him about his customer feedback website and the challenges that comes along with founding a start-up company.

Founder: Stephen Rosenberg

Company Name: BrainPik

RP: Tell me a little bit about your start-up:

SR: Our goal was to create a tool that could help finally give a reliable answer to the question “How am I doing?” BrainPik is a way to get paid for quickly rating businesses in your city. Now everyone’s a professional critic. Businesses use the feedback to improve, and we use it to rank those businesses on their merits. Our vision is to give businesses reliable insight into ways to improve customer satisfaction, and in doing so try and build a better, more helpful kind of search engine when it comes to spending your hard-earned money.

Search engine gods like Louis Monier and Larry Page have been obsessing about search results for decades now. Trying to stay one step ahead of us folks realizing that “outlier” reviews aren’t that helpful (you know the ones, where someone with an axe to grind dumps on a place, or says it’s even better than sliced bread), and the nicest websites aren’t necessarily the best businesses. We built BrainPik to address that age-old dilemma in a new way.  As an example, the best barbecue joint in town might NOT come from the company with the biggest ad budget. It just might be the shack that the locals love. That establishment should be able to market its success vs. its competitors, not beg for customers by offering discounts. Our vision is a world where businesses have a chance to compete not on budgets but on quality, service, atmosphere, value, cleanliness, punctuality- all that and more. To paraphrase Egon in Ghostbusters, we think discounts are dead. In their place, we envision a world where there’s an incentive to rate everything with micro-feedback. In an aggregate manner, we can once and for all settle who really is the best this or that, and most worthy of our business. Do you want the cheapest oil change, or the best? An unvetted hair color, or one that all the city plus your friends rate as the best? It may be that you want the best offer available on pizza (currently 50% back on total purchase at Your Pie or Fox’s Pizza), but maybe there’s some super-artisanal joint out there offering only 10% back, but its just got an overall excellent rating (very hard to achieve in our system). You can decide to go there with confidence but earn less, or you can go elsewhere down the rankings, and earn more. Point is, it’s up to you! Meanwhile, BrainPik merchants have unprecedented control over and insight into their business while the customers get paid just for quickly submitting a super smart, paid version of the classic comment card.

RP: Where did the idea come from?

SR: I was working on a new way to drive customers and my business partner Michael Hamrick, a web technologist and fellow Terry MBA entrepreneurship grad, was working on an innovative way to connect people based on shared interests. I remember it clearly, we were at Royal Peasant in Five Points enjoying a couple pints. Before that night, I wasn’t sure Archimedes “eureka” moments really existed, but that night proved me wrong. There were plenty of other moments of inspiration critical to it all coming together, but that moment really stands out with me as when the idea really blossomed, and we realized the exciting implications.

RP: What motivated you to get started?

SR: I get the sense that we both are cursed and blessed (depending on your perspective) with a sort of insatiable internal furnace fueled by trying to solve intractable problems with elegant solutions that belie their inner complexity. Also, we both hate alarm clocks, and will work endlessly to avoid them. Regarding BrainPik, we haven’t created anything new per se. Reviews and rewards have existed for ages, but not in a truly variable form, and not with the sort of real-time ROI we can provide, or brand equity we can create. Personally anyway, I got tired of people expecting something for nothing. This is America. We earn stuff here. Why should it be different for businesses? So rather than encourage businesses to give discounts, we work with them to implement our sustainable approach- hire your market to rate you. At the end of the day, we’re looking to use customers to crown “Best Of’s” in their town with more credibility than hype. And since one of our patent pending technologies is that the more frequently your individual customers come the less our service costs, you don’t have to fear your best customers coming back and using BrainPik again and again. They’re the bread and butter, after all, so it’s critical to know what they think. I guess that vision  is what motivated me to start, and gets me out of bed every day.

RP: What have been some of your biggest challenges so far?

SR: We’re self funded, financed entirely by the success of our Strategic Web Design & Search Marketing agency, Perfect Pitch Concepts. There’s no question our decision to delay funding has impacted our speed of growth, but at the same time it has  allowed us the freedom to stay true to our vision of a better world one BrainPik at a time. I also readily admit that effectively articulating what we’re all about is a challenge – “What, no discounts?” –  but I think that also goes back to our limited resources at this juncture, so I’m not overly worried. Fortunately, we have a loyal base that really gets what we’re all about. As soon as Athens and beyond finds out we’re now ALL professional critics – that we are heard, that our opinions have impact, that we can literally be paid for quickly connecting with businesses and sharing what we think. Well we think that’s empowering, and a bit infectious. We’re all spending this money around town anyway – why not get paid for it, too? Businesses will thank you rather than put you in a corner because you’re some deal hunter of some sort. We’re also looking at what this means for non-profit fundraising, and that looks very promising. Basically, we’re creating an army of not-so-secret shoppers, we’ve got an open enlistment, and we pay – up to 50% back on total purchases at participating merchants. Join us!

RP: What have you learned in the process of building your startup? Is there something you wish you knew now that you didn’t know at the beginning?

SR: I’ve learned in practice what I always knew in theory – that it’s better to have a just OK idea executed well than a great idea executed poorly. Right now we’ve got an excellent idea, and we’re working extremely, extremely hard to execute well. Finding “Honey Badgers” to get involved is also more difficult than you’d think, so please contact us if you think you’ve got what it takes to work at a startup!

RP: What would you say to someone who is considering building their own startup? Any advice?

SR: Find the customer first. I’m proud to do a lot of judging of startup competitions along with Four Athens, and I’m always surprised by the number of folks looking for investments with no real strategy for gaining customers. If it was “Show me the money” in Jerry Maguire, these days it’s definitely “Show me the customers.” Want to know how to impress an investor? Tell them you’ve pre-sold 100 discounted units of whatever it is you hope to sell. If you can’t sell your value proposition to the people you know (at a introductory price, no less) to help finance your business, why should I invest?

RP: Where do you see yourself/your startup being in the next year?

SR: 2010 was the idea, 2011 the building and in 2012 our feet got wet in a very important way. I see big things in 2013. We’re building our team, gaining momentum and creating impressive internal infrastructure – you won’t see Groupon-like IPO surprises with us. 😉  We’re incredibly serious and obsessively committed to creating value for everyone in our network. Heck, we even throw massive sponsored parties to try and bring together the community.

RP: What do you enjoy most about what you do?

SR: Like I mentioned earlier, waking up without an alarm clock. I get up at the same time and often much earlier, but boy is it different. Half-kidding aside, we couldn’t do this if we weren’t ridiculously passionate about our vision. We’re trying to change the world in a positive way – change search engines, change marketing, change business intelligence in general. That drives us to burn the midnight oil more often than not.

RP: What were you doing before you came up with the idea of your startup?

SR: I was President of Entrepreneurship Programming for a digital media company. My goal was to use our multi-platform channels to identity and promote student startups. I essentially took what I was already doing at UGA and went national with it, recruiting at college campuses all over the country. Lots of work, but very rewarding. Once I had that setup, I quickly started looking for the next thing. Partnering with Michael Hamrick on our shared vision was the natural choice.

RP: Are you from Athens? If not how did you end up here? Do you plan on staying here?

SR: I came for the MBA Entrepreneurship program in 2008. I had the chance to work with Director Chris Hanks, and we had a blast.  The $150k UGA’s Next Top Entrepreneur event I helped develop even wound up on CNN. As far as I’m concerned though, only the lucky people get to live here, so I’m not going anywhere far as I know.

RP: How do you think somebody you are close to would describe you?

SR: Hardworking, creative, eager to please. My mom used to chastise me for always trying to find an “angle” on something. I guess boys don’t change – if you tell me something I’m going to naturally start poking holes in it. It’s in my DNA. Please don’t be offended, I mean well. Michael, too.  Feel free to do the same right back at us , we <3 feedback! 🙂

RP: What is your biggest strength? Weakness?

SR: I suppose my biggest strength involves communications. People might wonder how a business guy like me was an Oxford-trained English major at the University of Wisconsin – but I’d argue (and indeed lots of Silicon Valley argues) that the best businesses are run by folks with liberal arts backgrounds with a general business understanding. It all boils down to communications, and the better you are at it the better off you’ll end up. As far as weaknesses goes, I should probably aim once or twice more before I shoot, but fortunately Michael might admit he should shoot a bit more often. We really compliment each other’s weaknesses well, I think.

RP: What do you do for fun?

SR: Travel, cook, read, Tivo.. I’m interested in politics, vittles and libations, networking.. but most of all I’m a certifiable beach bum. Don’t take me to the beach and expect me to do much more than my best lizard-on-a-rock-in-the-sun impression.

To learn more about BrainPik, you can like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.

FourAthens TechIncubator
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