Q&A: Ashley Friedlein, founder of professional messaging startup Guild

Joel Harrison talks to Econsultancy founder Ashley Friedlein about his ambitions for his latest venture – a ‘WhatsApp for business’ app called Guild – and what drives him on as a tech entrepreneur

You’ve just launched Guild, which you’re billing as a ‘professional networking’ app – tell us about it. What’s your ‘elevator pitch’?

Ashley: Guild is a private professional messaging app that meets new standards, yet is as easy to use as WhatsApp. It is advertising free, and GDPR compliant.

We’ve seen dozens of social, networking and messaging platforms or apps arrive with a fanfare and great expectations and then sink without trace. So what’s different about this one? Why will it succeed where those others failed?

First, you have to work out how to compete with WhatsApp. And for all the consumer messaging apps that have come out, they just don’t offer anything compelling enough to switch from WhatsApp. Guild’s focus on professional use only make it quite different from WhatsApp or similar apps like Telegram. Our research shows people do want a separate app just for work stuff – in the same way LinkedIn is the professional version of Facebook, people want a professional alternative to WhatsApp.

Second, the messaging apps created for the professional market suffer from being too much about ‘business development’. They give networking a bad name - the quality is low, the experience spammy. Guild is very focused on privacy and quality. Given our business model is subscription-based we can afford to care about value, not volume, and quality, not quantity.

Finally, we think our team and product are simply a lot better than what has come to market so far.

Who are you targeting it at? What does the ideal user look like? Why would they not be getting the functionality they want from WhatsApp or LinkedIn?

Any professional group, network or community where its members want to communicate, share, learn from each other, stay in touch, develop and nurture valuable professional relationships. This includes both internal teams and external groups.

Initially we are targeting professional bodies and trade associations because they have many members and stakeholders, across organisations, who are part of councils, committees, branches, SIGs (special interest groups), expert networks, etc. Those members, as individuals or organisations, are already paying to belong but it is getting harder to engage them just through email. Guild, as a messaging app, is much more immediate, intimate, and engaging.

We have a long list of the differences between Guild and the likes of WhatsApp. And the details of the user interface and experience are important. But there are two big differences.

First, WhatsApp has no profiles of group members, and certainly no professional profiles. In a business context this is a problem as you have no idea who you are interacting with. This damages trust and reduces engagement and the quality of contributions. It is natural human behaviour to be wary when you do not know who other group members are.

Second, you cannot delete content you contribute to WhatsApp (after an hour) because of the way it works technically. And you certainly cannot delete your entire profile and all your messages within a group. You can with Guild. Not only is this a GDPR requirement but it helps protect your professional reputation if you make a mistake in a post or feel you are in a group which you no longer want any association with.

What were your key concerns in developing the app? What issues were you trying to address? Are professional users as paranoid about data protection as consumers seem to be in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook debacle?

Our key challenge with the app is to make it as easy to use as WhatsApp but fit for purpose for professional use and to create an experience that fosters quality, trust and reciprocity in a group – all vital for successful networking.

Obviously professional users are also consumers themselves so they are increasingly aware of data protection. Indeed they are more concerned about the use of their data in a professional context. In part because they do not want to endanger their professional reputation but also because their employers have to abide by laws like GDPR.

We cannot see how employers can endorse the use of WhatsApp for professional use and already corporate policies are changing to reflect this. Employees are being asked to delete professional contacts off their phones lest they be sucked into apps like WhatsApp and thereby breach GDPR.

What’s going to make it sticky and compelling? How will it fit into professionals’ busy digital lives? Do we need another distraction?

Professor Robin Dunbar, of the ‘Dunbar number’ fame, is on our advisory board. This is because we spent a long time thinking about how humans actually behave and worked with professor Dunbar on the product to make sure it reflects his world-renowned research into human networks, including how they work in a digital environment.

A key part of Guild, for example, are the groups’ (we call them guilds) 'hosts'. Every guild must have a host and only the host can invite/remove members within his/her guild. So a large part of what will make Guild compelling is *who* invites you into their guild. If Meghan Markle invited you into a group you would probably say yes irrespective of the app, right? These hosts are the conveners, the networkers, the nodes, the experts, the village elders.

And hosts pay for their members. Between £5-£10 per member per year. So as a host you have to think carefully about who you invite in and, if someone is not contributing, whether you are prepared to keep paying for them.

Guild should not be a distraction but add real value. You should be flattered to be invited into a guild.

Who is behind the development of Guild? Is it a one-man band? What help have you had to get it to the launch stage?

The founders are the same two founders of Econsultancy: Myself and Matthew O’Riordan. Serial British internet entrepreneurs who also have a shared interest in Ably, a realtime messaging platform, that powers Guild.

We have an extended team of 12 including our development team based in Poland. We also have 18 private investors who are extremely well networked, mostly successful digital entrepreneurs themselves.

Professor Robin Dunbar is on our advisory board and we are shortly to announce two further eminent advisers.

What are your aspirations for it? How big can it get?

We want 10 million members within in 10 years. That is still less than 2% of LinkedIn’s current membership, but we have a much more premium proposition. Ten million members would give us revenues of more than £100 million and a valuation of £1 billion plus.

We want Guild to be to WhatsApp what LinkedIn is to Facebook.

Have you funded this yourself, or did you have help from investors?

We have raised £760,000 in a seed round from 18 private investors including the two founders.

How different has the process of developing and launching Guild been to what you went through with Econsultancy? Has the landscape and opportunities for start-ups changed in that time? What skills have you learned this time around?

I think the landscape for start-ups over the past 10 years in the UK has improved in many ways. The London scene is vibrant and there is plenty of investment money available. On the downside the competition has increased and we are all competing globally now. With Econsultancy we barely had any real competition for our first seven years which gave us free rein to establish ourselves. Guild will be competing in a hugely competitive and crowded global market from day one.

I am still using, and enjoying, my marketing skills. Particularly digital marketing and, even more particularly, ‘growth hacking/marketing’. Still loads to learn which is fun. I hope I have learned some lessons from the Econsultancy experience, for example the importance of company culture from the outset, the value of having senior HR and finance professionals involved even from the beginning, and the importance of only hiring the best, etc.

What advice would you offer to aspiring tech entrepreneurs?

I have written two books – admittedly fairly boring business books. But sometimes people say to me: "I have an idea for a book, I have a book in me." That really doesn’t mean much. I have business ideas almost every day. Unless you do something about your ideas then please don’t talk about being an ‘aspiring entrepreneur’. Real authors are compelled to write just like real entrepreneurs are compelled to start businesses.

My advice to actual entrepreneurs in tech is ideally you need a co-founder, possibly two, and between you it is best to have skills and expertise in tech, product development, and sales/marketing.

Given it’s common knowledge you made a couple of bob from selling Econsultancy to Centaur, what are you still doing messing around with digital marketing apps? Why aren’t you busy buying speedboats in the South of France?

Well obviously I have a boat in the South of France that makes Abramovich’s look like a tender in comparison to mine. But do you realise how much they cost to run?!

Seriously, it is not about the money. And there is plenty of evidence to show the most successful entrepreneurs are not driven by money but by passion. I am driven by ideas and wanting to create something that is British and acknowledged to be world-class. Boats are boring by comparison.

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