Making It Work: Irish firm selling social media tool for retailers expands into Britain

Socio Local’s software, which helps shop and restaurant owners manage their online marketing, will be used in 900 British Spar stores

Stephen Malone, founder and chief executive of Socio Local: ‘Our focus starting out was on SME owners who just don’t typically have the time to manage their social media in a way that actually benefits the business.’ Photo: Fergal Phillips

Socio Local, an Irish developer of automated digital marketing software for retailers, is expanding into the British market thanks to a deal with a wholesaler supplying 900 Spar shops.

The Dublin company, which helps retailers to manage their social media activity, closed the contract with AF Blackmore, based in the West Midlands and supplying stores in England and Wales, last July.

Stephen Malone, Socio Local’s founder and chief executive, said the company was in the final stages of agreeing a similar deal with another wholesaler supplying 200 stores in the southwest of England.

“We’ve also entered into a separate pilot agreement with Unitas Wholesale. It’s really big for us because they are the largest wholesale services company in the UK. They have 159 wholesale members and 287 depots. It’s a huge footprint,” Malone said.

Socio Local helps retailers and other consumer-focused businesses, such as pubs, hotels and restaurants, to manage their social media activity with automated tools.

The businesses can plan, edit, approve and publish social media posts from one calendar sub-divided between different locations, brands and services. They can also use the system to access and manage social media interaction with customers, including feedback and online reviews, in one place.

Malone founded Socio Local in 2016 and has 800 clients in Ireland, ranging from small businesses, such as Roly’s Bistro and Michie Sushi in Dublin, to large symbol and franchise groups including SuperValu and Apache Pizza. He now has his sights set on similar groups in the British market.

“Our focus starting out was really on SME owners who just don’t typically have the time to manage their social media in a way that actually benefits the business,” Malone said.

“We started in the UK about three years ago on that basis, selling mainly to independent operators in hospitality. We have about 600 customers in Britain as it stands, but a big deal we closed with SuperValu here in Ireland in late 2019 has really shifted the focus for us.

“The SuperValu head office is using Socio Local to distribute social media marketing content to 220 stores around the country. That has opened up a much bigger market for us with multi-location customers and that’s where we think we can really scale this year in Britain.”

Malone plans to open a funding round later in the year to support his growth plans for Socio Local.

The company has already raised €2.4 million from angel investors, venture capital funds and Enterprise Ireland, the state agency.

“We picked up our first UK customers back in 2018 and Enterprise Ireland really helped us with that by giving us access to their London office and arranging meetings with prospective clients in the British market,” Malone said.

The 30-year-old from Leopardstown in south Dublin set up his first tech company, called Jibbr, at the age of just 23.

“Ultimately, Jibbr didn’t work out, but it did lead to Socio Local. It was a mobile app people could use to organise events and arrange favours for friends,” Malone said.

“I set it up as a kind of marketplace and I planned to go to the restaurants and other businesses that people on the app were using to organise group events to see if they’d advertise with me.”

Instead, Malone found himself fielding queries from bar and restaurant owners about how he could help them manage their digital marketing and social media.

“They were on their feet all the time trying to manage everything from staff payroll and rostering to accounts and orders. They just didn’t have time for social media.

“In the end, Jibbr failed, but I’d basically done a crash course in this whole other problem these business owners were dealing with and that’s how Socio Local came about.”

His experience with Jibbr also taught Malone to keep a close and constant eye on finances at Socio Local.

“I wasn’t professionally mature enough when I set up Jibbr to know how critical it is to be constantly on top of how much money you’re taking in and spending at any given time,” he said.

“From day one with Socio, I put a tonne of processes in place whereby we track everything from sales to finance and customer support. We know what’s happening every minute of every day and we keep a constant eye on our unit economics.

“I also went back to the investors who lost money on Jibbr offering to cut them in on Socio, so I could get their money back to them. Some actually decided to invest again despite that first experience.

“That has taught me a huge amount about resilience and just getting back up again and doing your best after you’ve been knocked down.”