“One employee at any level who has access to social media can destroy a company’s reputation, and it can cost millions of dollars to clean up,” says Ryan Bell, founder of Gremln, a social media marketing tool that allows businesses to put restrictions on their online communications. In the midst of the 2012 presidential election, an employee of KitchenAid sent out the following tweet by accident from the company’s Twitter account, instead of the employee’s personal Twitter: “@KitchenAidUSA: Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! She died 3 days b4 he became president?? Wow! #nbcpolitics.” The senior director of KitchenAid ended up tweeting an apology to Obama for the damaging error, which said, “I would like to personally apologize to President @BarackObama, his family and everyone on Twitter for the offensive tweet sent earlier,” and the employee was immediately fired. “Half the country bought more mixers, and half the country threw theirs away,” says Bell.
His office has been painted a regal shade of dark purple, and two sleek computer monitors sit on his desk next to the window, several stories up. Gremln enables companies to manage multiple social media accounts, with a full dashboard, scheduling tools, monitoring systems, and a “forbidden word” option–for example, if KitchenAid were to use Gremln today, the marketing department could set “Obama” as a “forbidden word,” and the program would automatically disallow any tweet containing the President’s name from going public. “There are some serious examples like that, and then there are mishaps. There’s all kinds of things that you can do wrong in social media,” says Bell. “It’s dangerous–not just for the college intern. Social media is dangerous for everybody.” The same year as the KitchenAid fiasco, the CFO of Francesca’s Holdings, a multimillion-dollar women’s apparel chain, got fired for a tweet that said: “board meeting: good numbers = a happy board.”
Lawsuits were filed by shareholders in the company for an unfair disclosure of company board meeting results–anyone who was following the CFO and saw the tweet bought company stock, anticipating a good quarter. “He’d probably worked for weeks to get the board meeting done. He lost his job within a week,” says Bell. A click of a button and it’s sent, immortalized–a huge corporate vulnerability, and Bell has built an entire business around it.
“I came to St. Louis with the idea that this would be my stepping stone to a bigger, grander city,” he says. Bell now lives in Creve Coeur with his wife, and considers himself a native. “I will live here for the rest of my life.” He grew up in Republic, Missouri, a small town three hours away from St. Louis in the southwest corner of the state. In 2011, the local school board banned “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut and the young adult novel “Twenty Boy Summer” by Sarah Ockler from the library, and the 2010 census reported the town’s population as 14,751–three times the size it was when Bell was growing up there.
When he started high school in 1992, however, every classroom had at least five computers, and the libraries were stocked with 50 to 100 of them. Rumor had it the superintendent happened to have been college roommates with the state governor, and Bell surmises this is possibly why the school district received funding for the largest computer network in the state of Missouri at the time. “I don’t know if it was that, or if we were just chosen because we had great, bright children,” he says, amused. “That technology influx exposed me to it at the age of 17 and 18. I probably would have been a completely different person if that money hadn’t floated in.” Bell’s entire family still lives there–his sister, two brothers, and both of his parents. “I’m the only person who has left,” he says. Now, he goes back once every three months or so, for ball games, holidays, or birthdays. “A lot of opportunity came out of that small town that probably shouldn’t have.”
The first in his family to graduate from college, Bell completed his studies at Missouri State University. “I’ve since pulled my siblings along and said, ‘You’ve got to graduate, you’ve got to get into school,’ he says. “Now my brother and sister have also graduated. Hopefully that’s now an established, common thing in our family.” His first job out of college was at a consulting firm, where he worked on a project for Anheuser Busch. He remembers meeting with head marketing executives every Tuesday, and quickly learned how big companies function.
After work, Bell would return home and code in between eating dinner and going to bed. “I decided I was going to save the journalism industry,” he says, and came up with a prototype for a program that would allow users to create their own news website. He envisioned users writing and posting stories, managing media, and even collaborating with other publications through a clean, simple backend interface. He built out the whole system and began raising money to expand it further. “But WordPress came out at the same time, and it was such an easy system.” It also had templates that could create the kinds of news sites Bell had imagined, making the service he’d built redundant. “The entire journalism platform is sitting in a codebase waiting to be reborn,” Bell reports. Next, he dreamed up an online photo marketplace which would enable photographers to print, mat, and size their own photos for sale, which he called “Fotoge.” Again, the idea didn’t make it out of development. “I had a lot of ideas that I learned from: taking the idea, building the software, raising money, trying to launch the product … Gremln was the business I started that showed the most potential.”
His wife works locally for a major corporation, and her job provides them with dependable health benefits. Bell calls this “the stability and the foundation that enables me to go out and play CEO. She had to sign on for the life. She loves the ambition–she loves what I’m trying to do.” He works all seven days of the week. “I’m not around as much as she’d probably like,” says Bell, looking out the window. “But I guarantee you, the second my calendar event with you ends, she will text me and say, ‘How was the interview? Don’t forget you have a meeting at 3:00.’”
To propose, Bell set out to recreate their first date, eating hotdogs and drinking cans of Coke on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. They were on vacation with mutual friends, and he remembers asking if she wanted to go out to eat–“She was like, ‘Sure,’” he recounts. “And I was like, ‘No, do you want to go, quote, out?’ And she said, ‘Sure.’” A few years later, he took her back to Hawaii. “It was the most expensive first date re-enactment imaginable,” he says. “She knew what it was. She knew it! And I decided that I did not like that she knew what it was.” During their 10-day trip, he didn’t pop the question until halfway through the ninth day. “Everybody told me I was absolutely evil for it,” he says. Twice, he woke up to her rummaging through his bags looking for a ring. “I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ She’s like, ‘Nothing.’ I hid it quite well.”
The last day, he took her back to the spot where they’d had their first date years ago. He remembers it being quiet and idyllic, but this time there were hundreds of people around. Bell dropped to one knee, surrounded by people on all sides. “When I tell that story, it seems too perfect. It was that perfect, though,” he says. “I have a friend who asked his wife to marry him on the way to a Cardinals game or something. She goes, ‘Honey, did you hear that? You asked me in the car! You turned down the radio and said, ‘You wanna get married?’ And turned it back up!’ I got lucky,” says Bell, with an unmistakable grin.
Bell is a patient man. His first two business ideas hadn’t made it, but he unknowingly laid the skeleton for Gremln while building out a social media post scheduler, a tool that would enable him to select a time for a tweet or post to go live. His best ideas for status updates and witty quips would often arise around midnight or three AM, when no one would see it. “I decided, ‘I’ll just build one,’” says Bell. He then posted the scheduling tool online for anyone to use–before he knew it, he had 500 users and counting. “I didn’t even tell anybody about it–they were just using the system,” he says. He hired a designer, cleaned up the interface, and named it “Twaitter.” “I put it up there, and all of a sudden there were 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 users–Bill Cosby’s saying it’s a great tool to use, The North Face clothing company calls it essential for any company with a social media presence, and “LA Times,” and Hilton Hotels and GameFly and all these companies start using it,” he says. “I was like, ‘I’ve got a business here.’”
He used to dream of what it would be like to be his own boss–but today, his brow furrowed, he says nobody is their own boss. In addition to his investors and board members, Bell will tell you the company and his employees call the shots. “I have asked every one of these people to trust in this business and trust in me. They depend on their paycheck for their kids, their families, their livelihoods–maintaining this ecosystem that I’m creating is more of a controlling factor than any overbearing, micromanaging boss I’ve ever had,” he says. “The CEO who stuck through it all, imagined himself having an idea that nobody else saw and everybody told him it wouldn’t work, but he stuck through it and made it succeed–is the very, very rare case.” Bell glances around his office: untidy code scrawled on a dry-erase board, a cup of tea on a saucer across from him on the table, a gold nameplate on the desk. “If people say it’s a bad idea and it’s never going to succeed, they’re probably right. Try it out. If it doesn’t work, life is short. Move onto something else. Solve another problem.”
For more information about Ryan Bell and Gremln, visit www.gremln.com