Uncharacteristic to many Georgia Tech grads in the early 2000s, Rob Kischuk stayed put after graduation, shuffling around startups during the quieter days of Atlanta’s emerging technology scene. “When I graduated I didn’t realize I was supposed to go move to Silicon Valley – nobody told me,” Kischuk laughed. Accidental Atlanta entrepreneur or not, Kischuk has kept up with the city’s evolving tech ecosystem, attending the very first Startup Week, participating in the inaugural FlashPoint cohort, and becoming a household name among the community.
Along the way, Kischuk has also grown (and when necessary, pivoted) his former startup Badgy into ATDC Signature company, Converge. We recently sat down with the founder to uncover his journey from developer to CEO and how Converge helps big brands, like Disney, measure their marketing success.
What’s your background and why did you decide to launch Converge?
I went to Georgia Tech as a computer engineering major and graduated in 2000 when nobody knew the difference between computer engineering and computer science. I started writing software for Air2Web which was a well-funded startup in the mobile application space here in town. I had done my internships and co-ops at Chick-fil-A and Delta so I kind of knew what the big corporate environment held for me. I didn’t know what the startup world was like and I realized very quickly that I liked the startup world a lot better. So I started working my way up the ranks from writing code to building products, from building products to building teams, and through a few different startups CTO and Executive Producer. Then I was running product for a political technology startup and realized that the only way to go up was to start something myself. I had an urge and some unfinished business from some previous startups of ideas I thought were helpful that I thought would work and decided to start putting some of it into practice.
So we made a game called Zombie Mosh and 1.25 million people played it, with 250,000 likes on the game. We learned a lot about measuring people’s’ activity on Facebook and on social channels to get them back into the game and to monetize. I wanted to take some of these ideas about how you measure and monetize and reactivate people towards actual marketing goals, so there’s always been this core of the company in measurement. We started the company as Badgy, which was originally focused on brands running better contests. As we proceeded on, we learned that part of good contest strategy was good publishing and content strategy. So getting the right content out there and getting paid media behind it on social helped companies succeed better.
We really had a big breakthrough on the Converge side when a couple of much larger brands said, “Look we know you’re measuring a little bit, but we want to measure a lot. We have way too much data and our people can’t measure this every day and give us the reports we need to see what we are doing, but you can.” So we actually partnered with them to build this Converge platform that now helps lots of people. It could be a big brand, it could be a smaller agency, but the theme is they can’t spend the time to gather all the data they need to give a report to their boss or their client.
Since the beginning days with Badgy (and Perfect Post), you’ve pivoted. Can you talk about those pivots and how those decisions have enabled you to have this really great product?
Pivots have not been this decisive moment where we decide we are doing this instead of that. For us, it’s more like having a direction you’re going and then you start to learn more and more and you start to see this broader and broader divergence from where you are and where there is demand. It hasn’t been this shiny moment or this big funding round. Even when we first started working with these huge brands, phone manufacturers, entertainment properties, and resorts that needed these dashboards around their social and digital marketing, we didn’t just change it in one day. We started leaning that way and were like, ‘Oh they’re really serious – people need this.’
The stuff we are doing with these agency clients now, we never could have built, we didn’t have the funding to do it. It took the time and the building up of these assets. Starting from day one nobody would have given us the money to do it because it took a lot of money and nobody would have given us the time. We didn’t have the understanding of what they needed enough. But then, we got close enough and started getting pulled further and further in that direction. We can sit down in a lot of conversations and someone will say, “I have that problem and I will pay for it” and that gives you the right sense of direction when they sign and pay for it.
You’ve worked with big clients like Disney. Can you talk through some of your clients and how it’s been working with them?
It’s been an interesting variety because with the bigger clients, you want to talk to them more than they want to talk to you. With the smaller clients, sometimes they want to talk to you a lot and they’ll give you really good feedback. It’s such a bright contrast. Disney’s need was that they’re a huge brand and content is a huge part of their strategy. How are we trying to make people feel about our brand? How do we want people to think about us? How do we know which of this beautiful content we are putting out in front of people is actually working and accomplishing the goals that we have? So that was the broad purpose goal across their marketing channels – when we try and do a certain thing or execute a certain strategy, are we getting the results we think we are getting from that?
For someone more in the phone manufacturing space, they’re looking laser-focused on the competition, so you have to understand these very different mindsets. Data is still at the core, and business strategy is still at the core, but if you’re making cellphones and it’s Samsung vs. HTC vs. Apple, each of those players are very curious and concerned about what their competition is doing and what cellphone carriers are doing.
That’s where the volume becomes so big. We have one client where we are tracking 250 million total fans worth of audience across 140 different marketing channels and that’s why the data is too big for them. You have to understand what makes the data too big. If it’s not too big, they’ll just put a person on it and that’s fine, it might not be a fun job, but someone will do it. It’s when the data gets too big and you’re going to spend 2 weeks a month on client reporting. That’s where we can be helpful, we just have to understand where the pain is coming from.
You’ve been involved with different accelerators in town, how have those experiences helped the development of Converge?
I think each of my experiences have been helpful in different ways. We were in the first class of the FlashPoint program at Georgia Tech. In some ways I think that gave us the boldness to take that first step of this isn’t just me playing around and tinkering on a product, we are making a company here. That program was also instrumental in helping us raise our seed round of funding and they definitely coached us through that fundraising process.
ATDC is something where you’re on a limited clock and you get three years to figure it out and get out. We didn’t start there until we felt we were at least a good bit down the road in terms of product-market fit. We were in FlashPoint with 2 people and no money and by the time we started at ATDC we had 5 people and revenue and a business that by necessity had to be profitable every month. We had already spent the money so we were running a business and at that point, we felt like ATDC could help us as we had to think more about sales and how to execute that. The Customer Connect program they offer helps get you in the same room with a client that would take you a lot more time to reach otherwise. That program has also been very helpful for us and the space is nice, but there are lots of ways to find space around town.
What have been your experiences with deciding whether or not to consider an investment?
It’s a very popular conversation and it feels a little bit like being a junior high school boy at a dance where everybody is talking about girls and everybody in the startup world talks about raising money. I’m glad we were able to raise when we did because we had some ideas and market validation. Some people have a pretty natural capability to raise money ahead of where their business is, it’s not a disparity, it’s a skill, but it has its own risks associated with it. Some people can go out and raise 2, 5, or 10 million dollars when their business isn’t quite there yet. Some of it comes from experience and some of it comes from track record or persona. I think by being an engineer by background, I’m best at is telling you where we are and asking you what you think about it. We have not been in a place where that was compelling and then we got profitable and the money sounds nice, but the loss of control isn’t. I’m not a control freak about it, but what I don’t want is for something to go sideways and somebody kicks me out the door and slots somebody in who they think can do a better job because that doesn’t usually go well. I like us to figure out where we are to raise from a place of strength. I think that’s where most people want to be, otherwise, you give up things you don’t want to give up.
Why Atlanta? Why stay and grow here and how’s the community been?
When I graduated I didn’t realize I was supposed to go move to Silicon Valley. Nobody told me. So I spent 7 years just being like, ‘Well I’m planted here, I’ve had interesting jobs here so let me roll.’ Around 2007, I was in the first Atlanta Startup Weekend where we built Skribit. I met a lot of really great people in the community and that certainly emboldened why I wanted to be here.
The only place I could arguably say, ‘I’m going to go there instead of here,’ is certainly the Bay Area or maybe New York. But I would have to reboot everything for a few years to figure that world out to get back to where I am now and then even longer to get ahead. Now I’ve got people, a team, and revenue. The cost of switching that right now doesn’t make sense. We would be instantaneously unprofitable if we had to move the whole team over to the Bay Area.
As we get into the next stage, by the time I want to raise money we are going to be at a place where I can go raise that money somewhere else because I’m aligned with when you can and cannot raise. I’ve accepted it and I’m fine with it. I’m happy to grow into the place where you can go get the A round you need by saying, “Here’s what we are doing, here’s where we are going, here’s the proof – do you want to come along?” So once I got comfortable with that, what’s my hurry now to get out of here? Once you have that momentum there’s a lot of talent you can roll up here. I know a lot of people that I want to work with here and that’s motivating – and the community is very supportive.