Dialogue Group founder, Stephen Hughes

Dialogue Group: Sometimes, growth is about staying relevant

Margaret Paton

You’d be doing more than OK if your apps and services are used in more than 50 countries. We’re talking about Dialogue Group who have never sourced venture capital, instead tapping into its own income streams.

It’s been something of a moving feast for entrepreneur Hugh Stephens, the group’s founder. Over the years, he’s continued to tweak and find a unique edge for his products and services, gaining traction above the marketing noise out there internationally. To put it another way - he’s done a great job of staying relevant in a rapidly evolving sector.

A self-taught coder who built websites and fixed other people’s computers while still a “kid,” Stephens launched his first start-up in 2010 just before the “explosion of brand and communications people using social media”. Back then, his niche was risk management and strategy – showing brands how to manage potential issues.

“In the early days, we didn’t have a lot of competitors. Over time, it became increasingly difficult to see ourselves as social media experts only, we needed to broaden our consulting side or the whole business generally,” he says.

It’s a small part of their business now, because “we learnt in consulting that services don’t scale.”

A sideline business set up four years ago, Social Sitter, offers high-risk clients, such as government agencies, affordable, around-the-clock social media monitoring. Dialogue Group outsourced the service to the Philippines, training individual staff to manage several brands for economies of scale.

It’s a small part of their business now, because “we learnt in consulting that services don’t scale,” says Stephens. In other words, to grow you put on more people or hope you have enough work coming in to cover them, or you raise your prices.

By 2013, the group’s social media work had peaked for them and it was time for the Dialogue Group to ramp up their consulting business. This is where his skills other than marketing came in hand – Stephens’ background is in statistics, business analytics, health care and his international qualifications.

On a mission to transform his business, Stephen started talking to customers about their challenges and identifying where Dialogue Group could help. By the end of 2013, the Group had their sights on another product idea to serve people “frustrated” with Instagram.

“They were trying to work out how their brand or agency could use it. It was a massive time drain, yet didn’t have the user traction for a lot of brands. If it takes half your day, should you really be spending time on it?”

“Being unique is sometimes quite easy, but often very hard to explain."

Stephens trialled a few ideas, and eventually he and his team found a way to manage and schedule Instagram posts from the web via the now popular Instagram scheduling program, Schedugram.

Their first paying customer came on board at the end of January 2014 demonstrating to Stephens “that people are willing to pay for this”. Despite this, he says the first six months were a “disaster” and they needed to refine the product.

Fast forward about two-and-a-half years and Schedugram’s clients now include local cafes to Fortune 500 fashion and media brands to global agency groups, with 85% of customers overseas-based.

Schedugram is Dialogue’s Group flagship product right now, so they’re building more tools-and-tips content for their website around the product. Constantly tweaking AdWords for their brand, word-of-mouth, attending events and conferences is how Stephens helps build his customer base.

So, what’s the key lesson they’ve learnt in business?

“Being unique is sometimes quite easy, but often very hard to explain. For example, how do we communicate the difference between Schedugram and Hootsuite’s new product? We’ve chosen to differentiate ourselves on our customer service, 24/7 team across different time zones. Time will tell.”

Margaret Paton

Former Sunday Age staff journalist, Margaret Paton (formerly Jakovac) has written widely for corporations/government departments and more than 100 online/hard copy mastheads in regional NSW, Sydney, Melbourne and Europe.

Check out all of our content for some of the latest and most innovative entrepreneurs in the social media sector. Yes – there’s plenty you do can do to cut through the noise yourself when it comes to social media marketing and drive engagement with your brand, but there are also some great experts out there who can help you along the way. 

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