What do you get when you cross web and graphic design skills with a pancake obsession? A blog, a book deal and the inspiration for a new business venture. Or at least the inspiration for the name of a new business venture. That’s the story of Jim Belosic, author of OMG Pancakes! and co-founder/CEO of ShortStack, a software company he founded in 2010 to help small-business owners and big-name agencies create custom apps for Facebook, websites and mobile browsing.
ShortStack users can create contests and sweepstakes, newsletter signup forms and integrations with the most popular social networks, including Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and more. The ShortStack platform consists of more than 40 tools, 70+ templates, and an extensive library of support documents, videos, references, and an email support system. ShortStack is the platform of choice for some of the biggest brands and celebrities on Facebook, including NBC News, ZipCar, Newegg.com, Black and Decker, Pitbull, Falken Tire, Ford Racing and Lynda.com.
MO: How did you come up with the idea for ShortStack?
Jim: I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was 22, when I started my own web and graphic design company. Nine years after I started the company, our clients started asking us if we knew how to build custom Facebook apps. At the time I had no idea, but I’ve never been one to turn down an opportunity to learn something new so I said, “Sure, we can do that!” At first we were hand-coding each app, which was very time consuming. Even minor changes to the app had to be done by a developer, so speed and cost were becoming big concerns. To address these issues, we created an internal tool. One day it hit us that we had a really awesome software product — which I named ShortStack — that we should make available to the end user and cut out the middleman (yes, us!). ShortStack was released in Beta in late 2010 and by January 2011 it was available to the public.
MO: What are some easy ways that our readers can maximize their social media presence?
Jim: The first step is to find your community. If you’re just getting started in social media and are weighing the pros and cons of the different platforms, search for your business on various networks to see if other people have already started a community for you. If you discover that you have some YouTube videos, Tweets, or Yelp reviews created by other people, that’s where you should start investing your time and resources.
Not every business should necessarily be on Facebook or Twitter or Google+ or Pinterest or Instagram, etc. Depending on whether your business is a product, place or service may determine where you’ll fit best. The other thing I recommend: focus your efforts. A lot of businesses jump into social media too quickly and try to have a presence everywhere. Business owners who do this will burn out — fast. Pick one social network and focus your energy there; once you’ve built that audience, integrate a new network. And be patient. It takes time, and trial and error, to learn what kinds of content your community responds to, and even really basic things such as when the best days and times of day to post are. Figuring out what your audience wants is key to maximizing your social media presence. I also recommend starting with the social network you’re most familiar with. If you already use Facebook to keep up with friends, start there for your business. If you’ve never used Twitter, I wouldn’t suggest starting out trying to learn how to use it for your business. It’s good to use the platform personally to get used to the “culture” of a particular network, then build that presence for your business.
MO: You’ve been a bootstrapped company that has been making a profit since day one. What’s been the secret to your success?
Jim: Honestly, I think my secret has been my lack of knowledge of running a business any other way! When I became an entrepreneur I didn’t know that angel or venture-capital investors would even look at a small business like ShortStack. I knew l had to make money from the beginning so that’s how we set out. It was a gift and a curse. We didn’t have any money to float us while we grew a user base or refined our products and marketing methods. We just had to build ShortStack to be profitable from from the beginning. In the beginning, I was still running the agency so we were still doing client work to pay the bills. Since the launch, my secret has been recognizing the aspects of the business that I’m not great at and hiring people to do those jobs. I have an awesome team and they have skills that I don’t — I don’t try to do everything any more.
MO: Can you share some tips for running a successful Facebook contest?
Jim: I recently wrote an article for Social Media Examiner that discusses 9 tips for running successful Facebook contests, so I recommend reading that here. But I’ll give a summary of those tips. The main thing to remember about Facebook contests is to build something your fans want to interact with, that has a good prize and a clean design. Most business owners who are disappointed in their Facebook contests probably made a fundamental mistake in the execution or set the wrong goal. In fact, the first step is determining if your business even needs a contest. They aren’t for every business and some businesses benefit from them more than others. If you decide your business could use a contest, deciding what type of contest to run is the next step. There are several types of contests, including sweepstakes, essay, photo and video. Each one appeals to a different audience so the type of contest you choose matters.
I always recommend familiarizing yourself with Facebook’s promotion guidelines. Most business owners will be using a third-party platform, like ShortStack, and we make sure to follow Facebook’s guidelines, but there’s still an extensive list of dos and don’ts that a contest host should know. Picking the prize for a contest is a big part of being successful. A bigger prize is not necessarily a better prize. The prize has to be relevant to the business. If you own a garden shop your fans will probably appreciate winning some of your best gardening tools rather than a Kindle Fire.
When you’re ready to design your contest app, I recommend keeping it simple. Don’t make the contest confusing to enter, or ask too many questions. Once the design is done, and you’re happy with the contest, you have to tell the world about it. Too often we see business owners build a contest, put it on their Facebook Page, then never talk about it again. Then they wonder why they didn’t get any entries or interaction. I always recommend making your contests social and reminding your fans about them periodically. Promote it on Twitter, in email newsletters and send out reminders.
MO: You’re not only an entrepreneur with an impressive track record but also an expert pancake maker. Can you talk about your accidental foray into the world of pancakes and how it inspired the name of your company and also a blog?
Jim: I started making pancakes with my daughter on the weekends and as it went on she asked for more intricate pancake designs. She wasn’t satisfied with simple “Mickey Mouse” pancakes for long, and she was soon requesting a Ferris wheel, the Golden Gate Bridge and more. I started documenting the designs with a blog so family and friends could see. I wasn’t really paying attention to the pancake blog, but one day our server got shut down and I realized the blog was getting millions of hits. I guess people liked the idea and then my co-workers started calling me “shortstack” and I became known as “the pancake guy.” When it came time to name my company, Pancake Labs and Shortstack seemed to fit. It also makes the bank tellers look at you really funny when you try to cash a check.
MO: Can you elaborate on your plans to duplicate your success with some additional companies and products? Is there anything that you will do differently this time around?
Jim: ShortStack was initially a tool that was created to help us internally, so now we are taking another look at some of the other internal tools we’ve created. We’re pretty sure that there is a market for a few of them since they work so well for us. Some things we’re doing differently this time relate to the architecture of the products. Now whenever we build an internal tool, we design it with scalability in mind. When we designed ShortStack we had no idea we were going to open it up to the public and we didn’t think about scaling it. It was a little more difficult to go back and have to scale the platform. Moving forward with new products we’re making changes in the architecture making it easier to release to the public and launch down the road.
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