[Editor’s Note: This story is part of a “Where Are They Now” series on startups named to NC TECH’s annual Top 10 Startups To Watch list from 2014 to the present. You can find the main story here. There are also six other feature stories on startups from the NC TECH lists that are no longer active standalone companies: Organic Transit (2014 list); Tiger Eye Sensor (2015); Tourpedo (2015); EmployUs (2016); Forecast Health (2016); and myBeeHyve (2018).]
In 2017, Joe Bell believed that Cultivate—the marketing tech startup that he led as CEO—would take over the world from its home base in Durham’s American Underground.
He described it as a startup that provided all of the marketing services that a marketing agency could perform at a fraction of the cost. It would offer the same high level of execution of a Hootsuite, but without requiring a significant amount of expertise from users.
NC TECH was a believer, naming Cultivate to its Top 10 Startups To Watch list in 2017. Cultivate had also raised around $350,000 in funding.
“We felt that what we were doing was noble, in a way,” Bell said. “I’m personally a huge fan of technology, and so we just wanted to create something that was revolutionary.”
Bell founded the company in 2016 after several years utilizing digital marketing for research and community engagement at the Carolina Population Center. When his research lost its funding, Bell relied on the digital marketing practices he had developed during the rise of social media platforms. He helped market local concerts and eventually formed his own marketing agency for music artists.
It was then that the tech that formed Cultivate emerged. The automated report tool that Bell developed for clients saved him time, but he soon realized there were many other music marketing agencies who would want to use it.
And the market could even be wider than that. If aspiring artists would also pay to use the same marketing services Bell was offering to Grammy-nominated artists, there could be significant revenue potential.
So Bell started Cultivate—“a marketing agency in a box.” It applied natural language generation to data pulled from social media profiles and constructed marketing campaigns in one simplified and automated process. Around 300 musicians used Cultivate at one point.
Then, around 2018, Cultivate pivoted into the real estate marketing space. A big reason for the switch is that after it became public that personal data belonging to millions of Facebook users had been collected by Cambridge Analytica and then sold to political campaigns and others, the resulting scandal led Facebook to restrict access to its APIs. Cultivate was one of the companies that was shut out.
Since real estate marketing wouldn’t require the lost APIs, Cultivate doubled down on real estate agents as its new target user. They found they could generate up to 10 times the amount of revenue per customer with this client base. Cultivate could also scan images of kitchens or bathrooms and immediately connect the type of room to appropriate marketing text via natural language generation.
But even though Cultivate worked well for the top-earning realtors, Bell and his team discovered that the average realtor could not pay a high rate for the platform. And at the end of 2019, Cultivate closed its doors for good.
While Cultivate had lofty goals of changing the nature of marketing, its end was a matter of misaligned product-market fit, Bell said.
“We had a technology that worked very well for our purposes,” Bell said. But when Cultivate began offering its tech to the market, first to musicians, they found that marketing wasn’t really the core problem faced by most musicians.
“They wanted to be successful musicians,” Bell said, “but it doesn’t matter how good your marketing is if your music isn’t good. We could not solve that problem for the aspiring musicians.”
For real estate agents, their major driver was to sell homes. Since many agents had been late to adopt digital marketing, the opportunity seemed large. But at the end of the day, the improved marketing didn’t often directly correlate with more homes sold.
Through Cultivate’s demise, Bell has recognized the greater importance of meeting customer needs.
“If you present your ideas to someone in your target market, and they don’t say something like ‘Oh my God, I need to sign up now’ or ‘How do I pay you?’ then you might not have the best idea,” Bell said. “That’s something pretty hard to wrestle with as an entrepreneur and a creator and someone who builds things—that you have to forgo your ego.”
But Bell’s winding road with Cultivate has led him to his next mission: serving as Director of Marketing for Austin-based Prism.fm, which offers an all-in-one live music management software. Bell works remotely from the Triangle.
Learning lessons from failure
Bell’s advice to other entrepreneurs is to take note of customer needs and if there isn’t enough traction, it may be time to build something else. Cultivate was one of the greatest and most difficult experiences of Bell’s life, he said. After working what felt like 20 hours a day during that period, he is candid: Cultivate’s failure was a blow to his ego.
“When you’re someone growing a company, you’re growing fairly rapidly and you start getting all this acclaim,” Bell said, “it’s really a shot to your ego when it all crashes and burns.”
But in many ways, there are greater lessons to be gleaned from the failures than the successes.
After Cultivate, Bell started another company bringing underground electronic artists to Durham. The first show was slated for March 17, 2020. Suffice it to say, the pandemic shut down all of those live-event plans before they could ever come to fruition.
But Prism.fm has been an avenue of success. Throughout Covid, Bell said its product has remained sticky and is primed for growth. Learning from his past missteps with Cultivate, Bell is confident that there is a high product-market fit.
And Prism.fm might even establish a larger presence in the Triangle soon. With another Prism.fm employee also based here, Bell has discussed setting up an office space back in American Underground, bringing his career full-circle.