PerformanceIN’s ‘Ones to Watch’ series was created as a stage for the latest newcomers in digital marketing, offering coverage to emerging analytics, mobile marketing and native advertising firms among a horde of others.

Sometimes made up of just two individuals and often so early in their development that they haven’t even registered a Twitter handle, finding these startups isn’t always easy. Thus, we have to rely on the tips of insiders in the know and the tools at our disposal.

The Eindhoven-based BetaList soon became one of our go-to resources for new companies we wanted to put in front of our readers. Within this ‘startup directory’, each listing is categorised with comprehensive tags and dates, making it remarkably easy to find the last startup to tag itself under ‘Big Data’ in Germany, or ‘Productivity Software’ in Singapore, for example.

This filtering function is both useful and necessary: because the site has featured over 4565 startups to date (including a very vintage-looking Pinterest), and is bombarded by approximately 700 submissions a month by startups looking to enlist their first beta testers. What’s more astonishing, however, is that its success is in large part incidental- the bi-product of a ‘hack’, as its creator puts it.

A freelance developer on the side during high school, Marc Köhlbrugge created his first webapp in college when he integrated a user-friendly class schedule with ‘scraped data’ from the academy’s internal version, even monetising it with affiliate links to the class reading list. When it came to the launch strategy of his first startup Openmargin in 2010, an iPad app that would allow readers of the same eBook to exchange notes within the margins of the text, Köhlbrugge clearly wasn’t lacking entrepreneurial flair and a penchant for problem solving.

The birth of BetaList

Needing beta testers, Köhlbrugge and his team deduced that the most efficient way to drive traffic was to get it featured on TechCrunch, but with the publication rarely covering startups backed by minimal funding and nothing more tangible than a ‘coming soon’ page, Köhlbrugge devised a way to bypass the magazine’s editorial process.

The startup directory BetaList was an idea Köhlbrugge had had for some time but had never put into motion, born out of his excitement at seeing startups hinting at their content and launch date on a single landing page. It would be a hub for all of these pages otherwise adrift in the digital ether, and Openmargin would be given pride of place at the top of the listings.

A couple of brief emails between Köhlbrugge and the news site’s co-editor, and Betalist, just a Tumblr page, a logo and a few pre-launch startups, was featured as a screenshot and a single paragraph, opening; “If you’re as addicted to startups as we are, you’ll love”.

Openmargin, in featured position at the top of the page, easily reached its goal of 200 signups as a result, and despite Köhlbrugge having no plans to take Betalist further, the popularity of the startup listing site, further media coverage and overwhelming positive feedback from early adopters and startups alike, spurred the project on.

Betalist has since become profitable, employing a mix of sparse and subtle native ads and a fee system for startups looking to expedite their review process (which can take a while given the amount of new signups every month). It’s important to note, Köhlbrugge adds, that they are not paying for a guaranteed listing:

“If they don’t match our selection criteria we don’t feature them and issue a full refund. This happens more often than you might suspect, but it’s crucial to keep a certain quality threshold. If we’d list just any product because they paid we’d lose our audience pretty quickly, I’m sure.”

The road ahead

BetaList has opened doors for Köhlbrugge, and self-admittedly not the kind of person to leave an event with fistfuls of business cards, he has found that the ‘right’ people tend to find him instead, both in the online and offline world.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, founding one of the largest startup directories in the world has also given Köhlbrugge a panoptical view of emerging trends in the digital space, and he regularly has people coming to him for advice on the latest trends in the startup industry. With this in mind, PerformanceIN took the opportunity to ask his predictions for the year ahead.

“I think 2015 might be the year home automation starts to pick up steam. It’s not a new concept of course, but devices have been complicated and interoperability has been lacking. This is changing and it’s become more approachable for regular consumers”.

“I also expect we’ll be hearing more about virtual reality and the innovation in the car industry, but it will probably be a few years before those really hit off.”

As BetaList itself continues to evolve its founder has begun to take an interest in the idea of “building in public”, whereby companies invite customers into the creative process, which makes a lot of sense, says Köhlbrugge, especially for early-stage endeavours.

“More and more startups seem to be very open about their creative process, and involve their customers from a very early stage. For example, many businesses are using Trello to publicly share their roadmap, and startups like Buffer even go as far as sharing their revenue, teams’ salaries and pretty much everything else.

“We’re working on some cool features at BetaList to make this process more accessible”, he adds.

So what does BetaList owe its success to? It all comes down to solving a need, according to Köhlbrugge, who believes many entrepreneurs focus too much on the product without making sure they are actually solving a problem.

“I love this quote: ‘If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.’

“I think the same applies to business; focus on defining the problem first and the solution will become evident”.