Award-winning student startup aims to revolutionize brand offerings – USC Viterbi | Jobi Cool


Viterbi student Devin Martin (left) and Dornsife student Nick Hensel were fast friends before they thought of starting a company together. Photo/Nick Hensel.

We live in an age where marketing is no longer concentrated in the drawing rooms of advertising departments and is carried out through television programs or billboards. Today’s ad can be brought to us by one person and a camera phone – TikTok star Charli D’Amelio regularly racks up millions of views for businesses just by filming herself use their products— and it’s revolutionizing the way brands reach their target audience.

There’s one problem: these brand deals can take months to materialize, and market trends aren’t about to wait patiently.

While surfing LinkedIn one day, USC Dornsife economics major Nick Hensel reached out to his friend Devin Martin, a computer science and business double major at USC Viterbi, to discuss this problem. Idea formed: What if they could find a way to automate an influencer deal?

One thing led to another and the pair founded Pickle. The startup, named after the “pitfalls” brands often run into when trying to manage all their different deals, aims to automate the bulk of the work involved in managing a network of influencers. In spring 2022, they won the Marshall Greif Center’s New Venture Seed Competition, the largest venture competition on campus, ranking first out of more than 300 USC startups.

Excess of Excel

The startup’s header boasts, “Say goodbye to spreadsheets.

Instead, the marketing tool integrates analytics from five major social media platforms (YouTube, Instagram, Tik Tok, Twitter, and Twitch) into an easy-to-use database that’s always up-to-date. This means companies save time and effort when gathering analytics or pitching to influencers; contracts that take months can be done in weeks or less.

In particular, Pickle is looking for a specific problem that is endemic to larger brands: an enormous, cumbersome number of spreadsheets. Hensel got to know these bigger brands when he started his brand partnership, Division Media, back in 2020.

“We started to realize that these brands were spending millions of dollars a month on influencer marketing, but they weren’t using any software,” Hensel said. “Everything was done manually. All their data was handled on Excel spreadsheets.”

The marketing tool integrates analytics from five major social media platforms.

The marketing tool integrates analytics from five major social media platforms.

Current software on the market can help garner creator analytics, but does poorly when dealing with the heavy traffic that bigger influencers like Jake Paul or Charlie D’Amelio draw.

“We’re coming in and building Pickle specifically for that segment of really big brands or talent agencies, because there’s so little technology out there for them,” Hensel said. “It’s a pretty old-fashioned business and we’re trying to help them out.”

Pickle’s software will also include unique tools that assist with other steps related to a brand deal, such as contract drafting.

“We’re going to build a deal template system that looks at your location and jurisdiction, as well as the type of deal you’re looking to do,” explained Hensel. “We can create these deals according to standard practices, and that deal phase will go much more smoothly – as well as protect brands from bad actors in the space.”

USC Marshall Professor of Entrepreneurship Albert Napoli, who met Hensel at the 2022 New Venture Seed Competition, thinks the project is “groundbreaking.”

“I can see Pickle having a serious impact on how big brands market their products and services,” Napoli said. “These brands are aware that traditional marketing channels aren’t effective with younger consumers, and it’s harder to track their return on investment with some of these other platforms.”

Pickle won first place in USC Marshall's 2022 Venture Seed Competition out of more than 300 entrants.

Pickle won first place in USC Marshall’s 2022 Venture Seed Competition out of more than 300 entrants.

From spaceships to startups

As CTO, Martin runs the technical side of things: building APIs for Pickle, running the company’s engineering team, and writing software that extracts analytics from social media.

Martin, who began his computer science journey as a junior in high school when he took an engineering course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has extensive experience handling large amounts of data.

From building websites and implementing APIs at Google to managing corporate security at the Department of Defense and NASA, Martin is right at home building software that can manage analytics for multi-million dollar brands.

“My experience in high school and from internships in data science and engineering roles plays a big part in Pickle,” said Martin. “So we’re basically able to build this company from the ground up.”

The pair think their partnership has been successful, and Pickle is the result of playing to each other’s strengths.

“I had experience dealing with sales, helping with operations and that side of things,” Hensel said. “But I’ve never touched software. I’m not a developer.”

Likewise, Martin said he loves the opportunity Pickle has given him.

“I think it’s been really good to have a really strong relationship,” Martin said. “I don’t have as much experience in business, so it’s been really cool to be able to bring Nick’s vision to life by bringing my technical experience into it.

Pickle will enter closed beta in November and will use the feedback to build the platform over the next year. The pair will work to build tools for these seven steps in brand engagement, as well as some additional features that include machine learning.

“It’s been a great collaboration with Nick, being able to talk about the future and have conversations all the time about what we can do to revolutionize the industry and influencer marketing,” said Martin. “This makes me very excited for the future.

Posted on November 16, 2022

Last updated on November 16, 2022



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