By Shannon Cuthrell
Back in 2010, many people knew that Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms would very likely change society dramatically. Goldman Sachs Group and other investors boosted Facebook’s valuation past $50 billion. A year later, Twitter raised $800 million and was valued at $8 billion.
Anil Chawla, an IBM software engineer in Durham and self-described “social media geek,” did more than take notice. Following the path of many startup founders with full-time jobs, Chawla spent nights and weekends developing an app. Tweetymail, which allowed users to send out tweets from their email, quickly grew to 30,000 global users. Chawla, who ranked first in his Georgia Tech College of Computing undergraduate class in 2004, gained the confidence to quit IBM after six years and dove into entrepreneurship full time.
Tracking the latest social media trends, Chawla discovered services that archive emails for companies and government entities to comply with public-records laws. While some players in this market were expanding to social media archiving, Chawla saw limitations in the existing products. His new venture, ArchiveSocial, started applying the practice to audience-to-customer interactions as well as social media posts.
The concept fit perfectly with the evolving meaning of transparency, particularly as government agencies adapted to new accountability rules. For example, the Freedom of Information Act requires bureaucracies to make many internal records accessible to the public.
The company’s product captures all posts made to and from customers’ accounts. For instance, if a Twitter user shares a crime tip with a local law enforcement agency then later deletes it, that interaction would still be recorded by the software.
Within six months of entering the market, ArchiveSocial signed the state of North Carolina as a customer. From there, the startup expanded to more areas of government. In 2016, ArchiveSocial gained a major customer that helped it attract national exposure — the White House under former President Barack Obama. Eight years worth of more than 250,000 social media posts, videos, WhiteHouse.gov content and “We the People” petitions are archived.
Obama is now out of office, but ArchiveSocial has kept growing with more than 2,200 customers, including towns, cities, sheriff’s offices and K-12 schools. The Outer Banks town of Duck, with fewer than 400 full-time residents, is a client. So is New York City’s municipal government.
“There’s probably no industry out there where transparency is more important than in government, and there’s nothing more powerful than social media for transparency,” Chawla says. “The government has stringent rules around recordkeeping and freedom of information, so ArchiveSocial is solving an important pain point for them to be as transparent as possible.”
For ArchiveSocial’s first nine years, Chawla, 37, raised a limited amount of money because it had positive cash flow almost immediately after its launch. It raised its profile by participating in various grant programs and connecting with some well-known investors.
In 2012, ArchiveSocial was one of six startups to receive $50,000 and join the first cohort of Triangle Startup Factory, a now-defunct business accelerator in Durham.
Later that year, Durham’s NC IDEA Foundation awarded ArchiveSocial nearly $50,000, then San Francisco’s Code for America accelerator provided $25,000 in 2014. That year, Chawla also attracted $1 million from e.Republic Inc., a media, research and education company serving local governments led by investor Dennis McKenna.
A year later, Chawla won $100,000 in a pitch competition sponsored by former AOL CEO Steve Case. But the stakes got a lot higher last May, when the company raised $53 million from Level Equity, a private equity firm based in San Francisco and New York that focuses on tech-oriented companies. The money is supporting ArchiveSocial’s rapid growth as it adds more people to its 70-employee staff in downtown Durham. Most of the new hires are in sales and marketing.
“We have been fortunate to never fundraise, but we’ve had inbound interests,” Chawla says. “[Level Equity] expressed interest in growth equity investments and shareholder liquidity.” Among those “inbound interests” was Cary venture capitalist David Gardner, who says he was Chawla’s first investor and that he made 30 times his money when cashing out in the Level Equity sale.
In mid-October, ArchiveSocial said that Chawla would move to executive chairman and be succeeded as CEO by Ray Carey, who formerly led Raleigh-based NeoNova Networks, which provided internet services to rural telelphone companies. The company also added Brian Carter as senior vice president of sales and marketing; he had been a top sales executive at software developer Dude Solutions, helping the Cary-based company top $100 million in annual revenue.
Chawla says he made the decision to change roles and that he led the hiring of Carey and Carter. While he’ll remain involved as a board member, it’s time for a respite. “These eight-and-a-half years have been extraordinarily rewarding, and I am looking forward to having some time to finally soak it all in.”