An ambitious group of recent CSUN graduates and close friends have decided to forego traditional corporate climbing to create a nightlife-focused social networking web community, betting their hopes and fortunes on an idea that took 14 months to develop.
YourSocialPlate.com launched in open beta Nov. 21, meaning the website is fully operational and accepting new members while final changes are made. A free membership allows users to write reviews and share information about their communities and interact with each other. YourSocialPlate was crafted to carve a niche by providing a mix of features not found in other ventures of its kind.
Company CEO and CSUN alumnus Artin Hovsepian describes YourSocialPlate as a combination social network, nightlife review destination and virtual concierge.
An idea for how to make a living from something he was passionate about led Hovsepian to build a team with diverse skills and the willingness to take a risk.
Hovsepian teamed with CSUN alumni Ara Asatourian and Omid Halavi, close friend Razmig Dermugerdichian and marketing professional Ali Farzin to build the company from the ground up.
‘We sacrificed our graduate school entrances to enter this venture,’ Hovsepian said. ‘You need to compete with the big boys from the very beginning.’
Successful social networking websites can bring in huge money. In 2005 Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought MySpace parent company Intermix Media for $580 million, with the popular social networking website the key piece of the deal.
Starting a business from scratch can be risky, though, with just over 60 percent of all new businesses closing within their first 6 years, according to data from the United States Small Business Administration.
Asatourian, the company’s chief marketing officer, who attained a bachelor’s degree from CSUN in business management in 2006, believes YourSocialPlate will succeed by offering users a place to go for nightlife reviews from people they can meet and interact with online.
In its current form, the website supports venue reviews, creating a profile with user-uploaded photos, making friends.
To further differentiate YourSocialPlate from similar ventures like Yelp.com and Metromix.com, the team chose to build the community reviewing platform around four specific categories: hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and nightlife events.
‘We want to target a niche market, because businesses are much more interested in advertising on a site that is in their market,’ Hovsepian said.
The team has faced all manner of challenges along the way, not least of which was finding funding for the project. They have relied on a combination of seed funding from personal friends and family and angel investors, or private individuals who invest their personal finances.
The team raised more than $150,000 in capital, Hovsepian said. This was predominantly spent on web design, marketing consulting and data entry. Without a stream of money coming in, a start-up company is not able to cover its costs until advertising and other forms of revenue fill in the gaps.
‘Other than getting people to believe in you, the hardest part is taking those first steps. A lot of people have great ideas, but they don’t want to take the risk,’ Hovsepian said.
Peter Elsesser, a web designer and application developer for the Pasadena Unified School District, stresses the importance in an idea’s early stages of seeking the counsel of individuals with a technical background in the industry.
‘Sometimes with new companies, especially when you get venture capitalist funding,’ some of those investors will want to come aboard in management positions. In any kind of tech company, you want to make sure you are bringing people in who have been in those types of technical positions before,’ Elsesser said.
For coding, data entry and site design, Hovsepian brought in Los Angeles-based GreatNet Solutions, where Halavi serves as CEO. They employed a team of data entry workers in India to create the more than 10,000 venue listing pages now featured on the site.
Though YourSocialPlate is now open for business and growing in its user base, the team is fixing errors and adding new functions as needs arise.
‘We are still in the process of working out some kinks, adding things and trying to see what works and what doesn’t as far as user experience,’ Asatourian said.
The team is in the process of implementing a partnership with OpenTable.com which will allow YourSocialPlate users to make reservations online for restaurants or clubs they are interested in. Hovsepian hopes to come to similar agreements with online travel agencies and ticket vendors.
They are developing a system of points that will reward frequent venue reviewers with gifts, such as a dinner at a local restaurant.
The next steps, he said, are to work out any issues necessary to move the product from beta to its final version, and to spread the word. The company has employed a street team who will be visiting college campuses across California in the spring.
‘You can launch an amazing product, but if you don’t have the marketing behind it, it will fail,’ Hovsepian said.
Asatourian has generally positive feelings about his undergraduate experience in the business program.
‘The CSUN program prepared me for putting together a team and reaching out to different people in the industry. The business degree was very beneficial in that way,’ he said.
YourSocialPlate.com is in its fledgling stages, and its founding partners are feeling the pressure that comes from the lack of full-time work with an established company. Still, they are frank and positive about their belief in the vision’s success.
‘We hope it is successful so that we can repay some of the many people who have helped us over the years. We are CSUN alumni, and we hope to give back,’ said Asatourian.