Award-Winning Student Startup Aims to Revolutionize Brand Deals

| November 16, 2022

A computer science and economics duo has created a software company that streamlines the influencer brand deal process.

Viterbi student Devin Martin (left) and Dornsife student

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

We live in an age where marketing is no longer concentrated in advertising departments’ drafting rooms and funneled through television programs or billboards. Today’s advertisement can be brought to us by a single person and a phone camera—TikTok star Charli D’Amelio regularly garners millions of views for companies just by recording herself using their products—and it’s revolutionizing the way that brands reach their target audiences.  

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

While browsing LinkedIn one day, USC Dornsife economics major Nick Hensel reached out to his friend, Devin Martin, a USC Viterbi double computer science and business administration major, to talk about this problem. An idea formed: What if they could find a way to automate an influencer brand deal? 

One thing led to another, and the pair founded Pickle. The startup, named after the ‘pickle’ that brands often find themselves in when trying to manage all their different deals, aims to automate the lion’s share of the work involved with 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, placing 1st out of more than 300 USC startups.   

An excess of Excel 

The startup’s web header boasts: “Say goodbye to spreadsheets.”  

Instead, the marketing tool integrates the analytics from the 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 collecting analytics or pitching to influencers; deals that take months can be done in weeks or less.   

In particular, Pickle is going after a specific problem endemic to bigger brands: an enormous, encumbering number of spreadsheets. Hensel became acquainted with these bigger brands when he founded his brand partnership startup, Division Media, back in 2020.  

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

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

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

Existing software on the market can help with collecting a creator’s analytics but fares poorly when dealing with the massive amounts of traffic pulled by larger influencers like Jake Paul or Charlie D’Amelio.  

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

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

“We’re going to build out a contracting template system that looks at your location and jurisdiction, as well as the type of deal you’re looking to run,” Hensel explained. “We can generate those contracts in accordance with standard practices, and that contracting phase will go much smoother—as well as protecting brands from bad actors in the space.” 

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

“I can see Pickle having a serious impact on the way large brands market their products and services,” Napoli said. “These brands are aware that traditional marketing channels are not effective with younger consumers, and it’s harder to keep track of 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 participants.

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

From spaceships to startups 

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

Martin, who started his computer science journey as a junior in high school when he took machine learning classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has a wide breadth of experience in handling large amounts of data.  

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

“My experiences in high school and with internships in data science and engineering roles play a huge part in Pickle,” Martin said. “So, we’re essentially able to build this company from the ground up.” 

The pair thinks their partnership has been fruitful, and Pickle is the result of playing into each other’s strengths.  

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

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

“I think it’s been really great having a very strong relationship,” Martin said. “I don’t have as much experience in business, so it’s been really cool being able to put Nick’s vision into practice by bringing my tech experience into it.”  

Pickle will enter closed beta in November and will use the feedback to build out the platform going into the next year. The pair will work on building out tools for those seven steps in brand deals, as well as some additional features that incorporate machine learning.  

“It’s been a great partnership with Nick, being able to talk about the future and having phone calls all the time about what we can do to revolutionize the industry and influencer marketing,” Martin said. “It makes me really excited for the future.” 

Published on November 16th, 2022

Last updated on May 16th, 2024

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