StepLeader CEO Levels Up
Focus on three core missions has StepLeader ready for next flight
BY LAURA BAVERMAN
Filed Under: NEWS: Startups
When the first chief operating officer took the helm at local news app pioneer StepLeader Digital last week, CEO Brian Handly couldn't hide his excitement.
Besides that Steve Carnevale has 27 years of financial and operating experience, including leading Geomagic through acquisition last year, his appointment frees Handly up to find markets for the innovative technologies the 23-person Raleigh-based StepLeader team have developed in the years before and since it spun out of Capitol Broadcasting Corp.'s New Media Group. (Capitol is ExitEvent's parent company.)
In coming weeks, Handly, his employees and a hired mobile consultant, will consider a handful of new business opportunities based on software created in-house to make its own operation run efficiently.
Whichever they choose could represent the next generation of StepLeader and a best bet at catapulting its growth, Handly says. And that could mean additional venture capital, new job creation, and, hopefully, returns to investors.
StepLeader recently hosted an office contest, in which employees suggested 14 future lines of business for the company. They'll soon vote on the three best ideas. But Handly gave me a hint on his top picks:
*An automated quality assurance tool that allows a new mobile app to quickly be tested on hundreds of mobile devices and then easily submitted to the App Store and Google Play.
*Performance monitoring and crash analytics for apps.
*Video encoding system for mobile.
*Bringing mobile app development tools into new industries—it already holds the market share nationally in local television news apps.
Says Handly: "I'm a huge believer in the beauty of technology, and that it's only beautiful if its scalable and efficient." All of these technologies were created within StepLeader to achieve that exact goal.
A look back
Innovation has been key to the business since it began a decade ago. Capitol needed to optimize its content for feature phones back then, and created an entity called News Over Wireless to do it. When iPhones were released, the team immediately began creating custom apps for Capitol and eventually other television and media companies around the nation.
Before the 2012 spin-out and rebranding, the company had designed a platform to more easily and uniformly develop and release apps for its customers. That was the basis for hiring Handly, founder of the advertising technology startup Accipiter (now part of Microsoft), and raising $4.4 million from Bull City Venture Partners and River Cities Capital.
The company has since lined up hundreds of customers around the nation who pay a monthly license fee to use the apps. It also has an advertising engine to sell unsold ad space to national companies, sharing the revenue with its media customers.
Late last year, StepLeader was among the first to introduce content recommendation into local TV apps, writing the software development kit for the video recommendation platform Taboola. By month's end, it will release a new app aimed at engaging a new demographic around the news.
"We constantly try to look at desktop and think about how we translate that into native apps for our customers," Handly says.
Innovation, growth happens through focus.
But the bigger secret to StepLeader's success has been its laser focus on three key pillars. For any company move, Handly makes sure the answer is 'Yes' to at least one of the following questions: Can it scale? Is it innovative? Can it make money?
Hundreds of requests for new features come in each year, and the three categories help StepLeader set priorities. "It's a way for us to justify in every development effort," Handly says. "Does it fit into these categories? If not, do we do it?"
Automation has been key to the first and second questions. For example, the quality assurance tool eliminated the manual process of downloading and testing an app on more than 1,000 devices before finding problems and tweaking them. It also reduced the App Store and Play submission process to a single click.
Handly says that tool has made StepLeader, "way ahead of everyone," an obvious reason why he'd consider it as a new business opportunity.
Because all of the apps are free to users, monetization has been a key goal to justify the expense for media customers and help StepLeader make money.
Though mobile cost-per-thousand impressions industry-wide dropped 40 percent in 2013, Handly says that revenue per page view has doubled for his customers over the last seven months.
That's partially due to situationally-aware targeting. For example, the app knows the weather forecast and serves ads relevant to the conditions.
The new app, which will launch with a media partner, will be another test by StepLeader. Handly hopes it brings a whole new set of advertisers—usage patterns and two years of mobile news consumer surveys suggest that it will.
"We are a small company and we can't afford to waste time firing bullets at targets we can't hit, so we have to do a significant amount of homework," he says. "Before we fire that bullet, we want to make sure it's pretty likely that we hit the target."
Those same pillars will be critical for hitting bullseye with whatever new opportunity the company pursues, Handly says.
Carnevale's leadership will give Handly the time to figure it out. An experienced technology startup executive, he'll keep the existing customers happy and continue to improve the products available now. In the future, his background in finance and M&A could come into play, Handly says.
"There are lot of possibilities for us as we move forward," he says. "I wanted somebody on board that had experience in many of the possibilities for us.”
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