SharpSpring right at home amid all the startup buzz
Published: Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 5, 2013 at 4:38 p.m.
When Rick Carlson returned to Gainesville in December 2011 to raise his son near his in-laws, he had no idea he would be starting his software company in such a supportive environment for tech startups.
Occupation: Founder and president, SharpSpring
Personal: Married to Faun Carlson, 4-year-old son
Pets: Two dogs, two cats
Dream partner for lunch: Steve Jobs
Last book read: "The Singularity is Near" by Ray Kurzweil
Favorite TV show: "The Wire"
Favorite listening: Alt-J or The Postal Service
Hobbies: "Trying to make my wife laugh, and beach volleyball."
Education: University of Florida MBA
Carlson is founder and president of SharpSpring, which provides software for small businesses to generate and track sales leads through their various marketing efforts.
Since he earned his MBA at the University of Florida, the Miami native figured Gainesville would be a good place to start a software company with so many smart people, but he had missed the advent of the University of Florida Innovation Hub and the downtown student startups such as Grooveshark and Trendy Entertainment.
"It was a real pleasant surprise to come back to Gainesville after 10 years and be greeted by this kind of fledgling, but highly active, startup environment," he said.
He had wanted to start a company since working for Aluria Software, a startup in Orlando that he saw grow from five to 50 people with millions of dollars in revenue before it was acquired by EarthLink. He would go on to work for larger Internet security firms, running the U.S. operations for AVG and Panda Security.
While working for those companies, he formed the idea to provide a way to quantify marketing efforts.
He said marketing teams were swamped trying to reach prospective customers using traditional methods such as newspaper advertising, mailers and trade shows in addition to new digital media outreach.
During budget time when they were trying to decide whether to continue with certain efforts, he said they were not always able to connect the dots between marketing and sales.
SharpSpring provides tracking software for small businesses to use on their websites to show who is visiting their sites, how they got there and what they do when they get there.
The businesses can then target messages to visitors based on their specific interests and keep track of sales leads and what happens to those leads.
Another feature tracks the identity and contact information of visitors through their Internet Protocol address so companies can reach out to the 98 percent of visitors who do not fill out forms with identifying information.
Carlson said SharpSpring marries a lot of features that are available separately.
"Large enterprises have had similar technologies," he said. "Our mission is to bring these enterprise-class features into a really affordable but also easy-to-use application that a small business can use to make their marketing dollars go further."
Companies can start using the service for free and are charged based on the level of benefit they receive.
Since SharpSpring started advertising in April, 388 customers have signed up and a few are at the level of paying customer, Carlson said. A full-featured launch is not scheduled for another 60 days.
Carlson said the company has benefited from some of the support available to startups in Gainesville.
SharpSpring "incubated" in an office in the downtown Sun Center and started hiring people, including former Grooveshark employee Travis Whitton as chief technology officer.
The company received funding from angel — or early-stage — investors and from the Florida Institute for the Commercialization of Public Research after licensing voice analytics technology from UF.
The company was also able to hire three employees through a grant from FloridaWorks that pays for on-the-job training in tech fields for people who are unemployed or underemployed.
SharpSpring now has five fulltime employees and two interns. In January, the company moved into the first-floor office of the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency building that opened in 2010.
Carlson said he chose the building for its modern architecture — "that just looks like it should have technology companies in it" — and its proximity to downtown, Innovation Square and UF to try to recruit talent that can bike to work as the company grows, especially as they compete for talent with the new and growing tech companies in town.
While he said it is difficult to predict SharpSpring's hiring plans, "There's something wrong if we're not a 20- to 50-person company over the next two years. We're not as successful as we'd like to be if that's not the case."