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Startup Stories: Vulse

Rob Illidge - founder of Vulse Startup Stories

From Social Media Domination To Shaping the Future of AI

Meet Rob - an entrepreneur who's building Vulse, a content automation platform for LinkedIn. Raised by two miniature dachshund & parachuting entrepreneurs he’s now spearheading AI-driven content creation. His journey is a blend of passion for social media, innovation, and a relentless pursuit of change. Discover Rob's unique path, the lessons he's learned, and the horizons he's set on conquering.

In an online article, it says, "Rob helps couples remember their special moment." What's this about?

Rob: Oh, I wondered when that would come up. It's about a company I set up for a short time. The idea was to capture the moment of wedding proposals.

Most life events are captured, from births and graduations to weddings. But one of the biggest moments in life, proposing to someone, often goes uncaptured.

So I established Captured Proposals. We worked with paparazzi photographers to capture these moments worldwide, from private beaches in Africa and places like San Francisco and Greece to London and Manchester. It was an exciting little business, and I enjoyed it actually

How did you get into entrepreneurship?

Rob: Unlike my brother, I took a conventional path, going to university and studying in America. I was among the first Brits on Facebook, which was a novelty then. My love for social media grew, and I returned to the UK to work with various brands, focusing solely on social media. I felt I wasn't contributing to the campaigns I desired, and although the financial aspect wasn't my primary motivation, I realized I was benefiting others more than myself. I wanted control over my destiny and create something uniquely mine. This led to founding a social media agency, where I incorporated lessons from successful agencies and avoided mistakes made by less effective ones.

Reflecting on my childhood, I now realise the significance of both my parents having been entrepreneurs. My mum had a unique business where she bred and showcased long-haired miniature dachshunds at professional dog shows. It was more of a passion than for the money. My dad had a more traditional entrepreneurial journey. He transitioned from working for a company to following his passion and made it his business. He bought a parachute centre, overseeing everything from piloting to training jumpers. He often joked, "Why jump out of a perfectly good plane?" Eventually, he systemised the business so he could focus on strategic operations. 

My brother and I both pursued entrepreneurship as well, although there was never any pressure to continue the family business. My dad sold his parachute business, so there was no obligation for us to join. It was a unique background, starting with dogs and skydiving.

So, I never experienced “corporate hell”, but I witnessed the "startup hell" with my parents working together. I praise anybody who can manage a business and personal relationship simultaneously. It was tough watching them juggle disagreements from business spilling into personal life. Their journey taught me the importance of hard work and building a reliable team. 

"If all employees actively promote their company on LinkedIn, it’s not only more cost-effective than ads but also more authentic."

How did the idea for Vulse come about?

Rob: My agency, Social Republic, led to the creation of Vulse, a content creation platform that complements our social media services. Running an agency can follow two trajectories. One is a lifestyle business where the founder is hands-on, and the other is scaling it to a larger agency employing many staff, which was our choice. As we grew and began to specialise in nonprofits like the Red Cross and the NHS, we realised our initial clients with smaller budgets couldn't afford our increased rates. Vulse offers specialized content creation without the overhead of a big team. It's tailored for those aware of the importance of engaging content, especially on platforms like LinkedIn, but lack the budget for a large team. It's a bridge that allows us to assist everyone affordably.

While small companies benefit, enterprise businesses with large teams also utilize Vulse. There's been a perceptual shift regarding LinkedIn and personal brand building. Big corporations recognize the immense value of their employees as brand ambassadors. If all employees actively promote their company on LinkedIn, it’s not only more cost-effective than ads but also more authentic. The content stems from real experiences, making it resonate better. Vulse caters to individual content creators seeking to grow their personal brands as well as enterprises with thousands of employees.

User dashboard on Vulse

I saw you talking about the Barbie movie’s marketing campaign. What is your opinion about it?

Rob: Money gives you options, but it doesn't necessarily guarantee happiness or success. The same holds true for marketing budgets. A large budget of $100 million brings its own set of challenges, such as increased pressure to yield returns. However, it provides a cushion as money isn't a constraint. The challenge lies in strategically allocating budgets. I approach budgeting by contemplating: "If this were my last $10, how would I spend it?" If an option doesn't fit that criterion, it might not be worth pursuing. Massive campaigns are easier to discuss because they're ubiquitous, but I believe we should highlight innovative, budget-conscious campaigns. Content produced with constrained resources, like some created using Vulse, deserves recognition.

"The public release of ChatGPT heightened awareness about the capabilities of AI, which was both a boon and a challenge for us."

What challenges have you faced so far with Vulse?

Rob: Initially, we were exploring AI solutions even before OpenAI became publicly available. We collaborated with Manchester Metropolitan University, as they were already acquainted with the technology. However, the tech wasn't advanced enough, and there wasn't a lot of competition in the LinkedIn content creation space. The public release of ChatGPT heightened awareness about the capabilities of AI, which was both a boon and a challenge for us. It made the market much more competitive. Yet, I'm reminded of how Facebook surged despite MySpace's early lead. We've faced technical challenges and pivoted based on customer feedback.

We realized early on that the value lies in the data. While LinkedIn's API is restrictive, we sought ways to generate our data sets and gather user activity. Our primary focus is on relevancy. Many AI platforms produce generic outputs. However, we prioritize the uniqueness of each user, their interests, posting patterns, and audience. We use this to produce tailored content. In the long run, our plan is to reduce our dependence on external platforms like OpenAI and build our proprietary models and datasets.

What were some significant milestones?

Rob: First and foremost, deciding to initiate the company was pivotal. I'm not the type to spread myself thinly across multiple businesses; when I commit, I immerse myself wholly. So, taking that leap and focusing solely on this venture was a major milestone for me.

Secondly, securing access to LinkedIn's API was critical. It took us nearly 18 months to obtain the necessary access level. That time frame, in the realm of business growth, is significant. Thankfully, we've now established a solid rapport with LinkedIn.

Lastly, collaborating with universities, particularly Manchester Metropolitan, proved transformative for us. We joined the AI Foundry program, which equipped us with the tools to devise unique AI features, independent of OpenAI. This proprietary technology truly differentiates us in the market. The outcomes of this partnership have been nothing short of remarkable, and we're eager to sustain this collaboration.

How have you approached hiring?

Rob: Building a team is challenging, especially when you're pre-revenue and haven't secured any investment. Yet, such constraints often drive the best decisions. It's crucial to bring on board individuals who resonate with your vision and long-term goals. We partnered with developers who were genuinely excited about our mission. They comprehended the challenge at hand and engaged in a services-for-equity deal. Such arrangements not only demonstrate their commitment but also enhance our prospects when seeking funds.

Post-investment, our strategy was clear. Having collaborated with SFC, we implemented our hiring plan. We onboarded two developers essential for expanding our platform and also hired a marketing manager to spotlight our achievements.

How was the fundraising?

Rob: The fundraising trail is both intriguing and intense. It's not a path for everyone; it's protracted and often gruelling. Yet, it's a transformative experience for entrepreneurs. The process equips you with invaluable skills, like mastering a compelling pitch deck, discerning investor priorities, and aligning with the right partners. For us, collaborating with entities like SFC, who genuinely share our enthusiasm, has been pivotal. Their grasp of our product and its potential has been invaluable. Ultimately, finding the right fit has been our key to success.

"We aim to be the first name that comes to mind for over 100,000 users when thinking about generating captivating content."

What’s coming up for Vulse?

Rob: Our immediate plan is to close our funding round and then introduce our new version of Vulse. We aim for exponential growth and seek to disrupt the industry. We’re also keen on refining our AI features and expanding the platform. One of our goals is to integrate with other social networks, especially after addressing major challenges in the professional networking realm. We’re turning our focus towards other platforms and consumer-to-consumer markets as part of our growth strategy.

Based on feedback from our MVP tests, we've pinpointed three essential features. First, our enhanced analytics stand out from the competition by providing in-depth insights. These analytics guide users in refining their LinkedIn post frequency and quality by analysing engagement metrics. We offer tips to enhance likes, comments, and overall engagement.

The foundation for Vulse was addressing content ideation challenges. Users often grapple with content generation. Vulse assesses a user's tone and suggests relevant content topics. Users can input a specific phrase, like "raising investment as a startup," and Vulse will generate a tailored post. Our content is not only user-specific but also formatted to align with LinkedIn's algorithm. We've gleaned insights from over 100,000 LinkedIn posts to ensure users craft posts that engage their audience.

Our goal is for Vulse to be the foremost platform for social media content creation worldwide. We aim to be the first name that comes to mind for over 100,000 users when thinking about generating captivating content.

Where do you see AI going?

Rob: I believe the evolution might mirror that of social media. Initially, various networks emerge, but over time, larger players often absorb the successful smaller ones. Today, only a few primary social networks dominate the scene. Similarly, I think the AI sector will eventually consolidate with major entities acquiring the best applications.

It's crucial to employ AI ethically, ensuring it benefits society. While some media outlets sensationalize AI's dangers, technology has always faced resistance. From fears of travelling by train to the advent of TV and the internet, each innovation faced scepticism. It's essential to harness AI responsibly to prevent unintended negative outcomes.

For example, the movie Oppenheimer emphasized the significant impact and unintended consequences of technological advancements. Once the creators recognized their invention's power, some understood its potential damage. These historical lessons are vital. We've occasionally overlooked past learnings, but recognizing and understanding our history ensures we don't repeat mistakes.

What’s your advice to founders who are just starting out?

Rob: If you've got a passion for something, then go for it! Looking back to 2015, I wish I'd planned and budgeted better, especially for marketing. However, facing such challenges makes you stronger and more resilient. So, my advice is to go for it. What is the worst that can happen? That is my kind of ethos. It’s not pretty, it’s not easy, but if it was easy, everybody would do it. So, if you’ve got a passion for something and you want to start a business then, absolutely, go for it!

Niklas Föltz Niklas Föltz
Marketing & Communications Manager