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Interview: Digital Tomorrow Today

31 May 2017

Jamie and Katherine Riddell, chief executive and chief operating officer respectively of Digital Tomorrow Today (DTT), have created a technology company that builds pioneering online tools and provides unique data to empower the global digital marketing sector.

DTT is the couple’s second joint venture, following on from Cheeze, their leading digital direct marketing agency which they sold in 2007. After a brief period as consultants, the Riddells joined forces again to launch DTT in 2010. Jamie had been providing digital marketing consulting services, but became frustrated at the lack of high quality platforms where he could access social data without paying monthly fees. The idea for BirdSong Analytics (www.birdsonganalytics.com) – a pay-as-you-go social analytics platform – was born.  

BirdSong Analytics“BirdSong Analytics enables our customers to access online reports and data about any public Twitter or Instagram account, Facebook page or YouTube channel,” Jamie explains. For example, reports on Twitter accounts include recent follower growth, in-depth follower analysis, the best time to tweet and most popular tweets, amongst other insights. Similarly Instagram analysis includes numbers of fans and posts, average likes per post, average comments by post, and many other elements. The most popular reports are those enabling customers to export the Twitter followers or Instagram fans of any public account to a csv file.
  
“Some customers want to analyse the followers for market research,” Jamie says. “Some want to improve their own tweeting – so if they find out that 30% of their audience are speaking Spanish, they might want to start doing some Spanish tweets. The reports are robust and in-depth and you pay for what you want. We have over 45% repeat customers. They like the fact there is no monthly fee, no commitment, no drip feed of emails to encourage them back.” Most reports involve less than 100,000 followers and will be produced in under an hour, but larger reports can be handled too. In fact, there is no limit on the size of public account that can be analysed – Donald Trump’s Twitter account included. 

Development of the initial prototype for BirdSong Analytics was outsourced to a technology company. “Once that was working, we decided to set up our own in-house team,” Katherine says. “Now the people who work on BirdSong Analytics work on it 100%.” Version 2 is now in operation, but Version 3 is on the way, aiming to offer increased scalability and functionality.

 

International demand

The product tapped into a real market need, as shown by the company’s growing revenues. “We tripled our sales last year and hope to be able to do the same this year,” Katherine says. The Riddells have been surprised by the range of customers BirdSong Analytics attracts – from religious bloggers in Texas, to Kia Motors in Seoul and intellectual property lawyers in the UK. “One university in the Middle East was doing a piece of analysis on the Arab Spring, where social media was highly influential,” Katherine says. The customer base is truly international. “We have paying customers in six of the seven continents – and we are working on Antarctica,” Jamie quips. The USA is currently the biggest market, followed by Europe.

The Riddells are proud of their international sales and one of Katherine’s goals is to win a Queen’s prize for Enterprise. “We have more customers globally than we do in the UK,” Jamie notes. “So there’s a constant influx of funds coming from abroad. It would be great if government departments understood what we were doing. Export forums are all about shipping widgets abroad – there is little about digital services.” But, as Katherine says, “Digital invention is so important and it’s potentially a big employer of people in this county, so we need to be sharpening up our act.”

DTT now has a team of six, based in Suffolk close to Martlesham, the site of BT’s global R&D headquarters and home to a growing range of other high tech businesses. DTT has no overseas offices and is self-funded. “We like the element of control,” Jamie says. “Everything we do is for the business – not to appease a shareholder.” 

“We have more customers globally than we do in the UK, so there’s a constant influx of funds coming from abroad. It would be great if government departments understood what we were doing. Export forums are all about shipping widgets abroad – there is little about digital services.”
 

As well as BirdSong Analytics, DTT’s product and service offerings include BirdSong Data, enabling customers to buy bespoke datasets from a unique database of half a billion social media profiles. The DTT stable also includes Tweetchup – which provides some free Twitter analytics, Mandarin – an off-the-shelf ecommerce platform, and BlueJay SEO – offering a suite of search engine optimisation tools. However, BirdSong Analytics is the main current focus for investment, development and marketing.

 

Overcoming challenges

One of DTT’s biggest challenges now is to create a global marketing campaign on a tight budget. “We have got our name out there primarily through Google,” says Jamie, whose expertise includes search engine optimisation. Word of mouth referrals are increasing, but Jamie says: “We feel we are a well-kept secret. When people find us they don’t particularly want to tell anyone else, because we provide a useful competitive advantage.”    

Awareness of the company has grown, however, leading to some fruitful relationships. “We have partnerships with the University of Southern California and the University of Amsterdam,” Katherine says. “We support their students’ research by providing some data they can use freely. They in turn push our boundaries – they have new ways of looking at data and make us think about how we can help them address particular challenges they have.” 

“We feel we are a well-kept secret. When people find us they don’t particularly want to tell anyone else, because we provide a useful competitive advantage.”   

The business does have rivals. “We are aware there are competitors that have had significant funding and can throw a lot of development time at their product,” Katherine says. “We’ve also seen them spend money on things we don’t think are strictly necessary. We don’t waste money on expensive conferences, for example, and we’re not always on a plane going to wine and dine customers.” Instead, the Riddells focus on a personal and friendly customer service, online. Jamie spends many an evening and weekend responding to customers’ questions.

Establishing payment systems for international customers is another ongoing challenge. Countries have different payment gateways or different preferences for using debit or credit cards. Finding a way to take payment in US dollars without setting up a company in the US has been particularly challenging.   

The Riddells are constantly looking for ways to improve their product, reacting quickly to changes in API access and continually improving their website to appeal to the global search engines. They are also investigating opportunities related to “influencers” – identifying the most influential Tweeters, for example. “We are training an algorithm for influencer metrics,” Jamie says. “It fundamentally looks at the propensity of someone to do something as a result of a Tweet” This information would be of great interest, for example, for identifying the people likely to have most impact when endorsing a product.

“We’re also starting to translate some of the key web pages into foreign languages to maximise international revenue,” Katherine says. One of DTT’s goals is to expand sales in the Far East, Middle East and Africa, but the Riddells recognise they need to create a more mobile-friendly product. “We definitely want to expand our sales into Africa,” Katherine says. “We do have sales in one or two African countries already, but we recognise that we need to do more on mobile for that market. People are not always sitting at a desktop computer, but many of them have mobile phones.”

The Riddells expect there to be some major consolidation of their market in future. “There has been a lot of venture capital coming into the market in recent years and not all the businesses are succeeding,” Katherine says. “We are already seeing some of them drop away. We feel there’s going to be a major consolidation at some point and, when that happens, we want to be a part of it.” DTT has already made one acquisition, buying Tweetchup in 2016, and would be open to similar future opportunities. “We would buy if the products could add something we don’t have the technology for,” Katherine says. Jamie notes: “We are always keeping an eye out for potential acquisitions that could help grow our business, our bottom line or our ability to deliver.”

 

Business lessons

Over the years and with both their companies, what business lessons have the Riddells learnt? “In business you have to create your own luck,” Katherine says. “You have to get out there and share what you are doing, talk to people on social media. We also accept that we can’t do everything ourselves, so we do invest in advice. BDO has given us significant advice on areas such as R&D tax credits and the European MOSS system.”

"We also accept that we can’t do everything ourselves, so we do invest in advice. BDO has given us significant advice...A good business model is still crucial, but it’s how you translate that into the modern world, which is changing at such a pace.”

“We’ve also learnt that we have to retrain our understanding of what a successful business looks like,” Jamie says. “The model we had for Cheeze, our last agency, was fantastically successful. The company achieved stellar growth through tapping into the growing internet audience and the early adoption of digital marketing in the UK. But we are now in a digital landscape where the rules have changed. So with Digital Tomorrow Today, it’s not a case of repeating the same formula. Now there are almost no barriers to entry. Anybody creating a digital product today just needs a laptop and a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Anybody can build a product, market it and generate revenue from their laptop. So we must constantly learn and improve to stay ahead. A good business model is still crucial, but it’s how you translate that into the modern world, which is changing at such a pace.” 


We asked: Away from Digital Tomorrow Today, what gadget has had the biggest impact on your life…

 For Katherine, the gadget that’s had the biggest impact for better is the iPhone. “It means I always have a camera with me and I take a lot of photos now,” she says. And for worse? “The iPhone again, because it means the office is always with me.”
 
Jamie’s current favourite current gadget is his drone. “I hope to qualify as a drone pilot later this year,” he says. “Not only is it immense fun, but I can see how this will impact many industries from photography, to farming and research.”