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Shooting for the moon

by Keri Ferguson | October 13, 2017

Diplay duo
Diply founders Dean Elkholy, BA’12 (Kinesiology) and Taylor Ablitt, HBA’10

In February 2013, Dean Elkholy and Taylor Ablitt were holed up in a Western classroom. As Elkholy described an opportunity to create viral content that would leverage a massive number of followers on social media, Ablitt scribbled numbers on a chalkboard.

“After about eight hours, we took a step back and looked at this wall of numbers,” Elkholy recalled. “We said, ‘Holy shit, if what we’re seeing here is true, we’ve got ourselves a business.’”

Four years later, that business is Diply, one of the fastest-growing social content platforms in the world. Second only to BuzzFeed, Diply reaches more than 70 million fans who generate 1.4 billion video views and five billion social impressions monthly. Their editorial and video teams publish content designed to engage readers and ultimately derive revenue through display ads and product integration campaigns directed at target audiences through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat.

While Ablitt, HBA’10, was working as a financial analyst for Trojan Technologies and Elkholy, BA’12 (Kinesiology), was applying to dental school, they were also finding early success online in the DIY space, popular with millennial females.

“We published ‘How to make things’ a million times with unique hacks of how to do things in a different way,” said Elkholy, 28. “We were getting a lot of traction; we were able to grow the community very quickly.”

The company grew to a half a million fans within a three-month period. It’s a community they continue to grow today through videos produced in-house for their Crafty (DIY), Delicious (food) and Flawless (beauty and makeup) channels.

“The key to our success has been connecting audiences to content that creates an emotional attachment. There is a science as much as there’s an art as to how to drive engagement, and, in turn, to get people to share the content.  The average Facebook user today has about 300 friends. So, when they’re enticed by something they see and share it with their friends and family, you get this viral or social network effect,” said Ablitt, who grew up in an entrepreneurial family.

“Once you have a user base or a sense of community, you can take them places, you can get them to buy things, consume more content and be brand advocates.”

Creating that engaging content involves a lot of testing.

“That’s been imbedded in our blood since Day One,” Elkholy explained. “We hypothesize if a piece of content’s going to work for a new audience segment on a new Facebook page that we want to start. We’re constantly testing to figure out what’s going to work on a piece of content that goes out. We manipulate the images and titles, trying ‘A/B’ tests (comparing two versions of a Facebook page) to see what works better and then that’s how we’ll publish it.”

They also know when to bring in the right people, with the right strengths, at the right time.

“We had all these great ideas, and this opportunity at hand that we wanted to go after, but Dean and I are not coders. We were running into big problems. So we began actively looking for someone on the development side,” said Ablitt, 30.

At that point, they teamed with Diply’s third co-founder and local tech entrepreneur, Gary Manning, a top mind on social media-based applications, and who took them to the next level.

Feeling confident, Ablitt left Trojan and Elkholy abandoned his plans for dental school. But they underestimated the costs of building their website, and had to pitch Ablitt’s parents for the money.

“We got all suited up and thought we’d give them a 20-minute presentation. It turned into an eight-hour whiteboard session,” Ablitt laughed. “We told them we thought we would become one of Canada’s Top 1,500 sites – an insane number.”

“At the end, my parents looked at us with blank faces. My father said, ‘We don’t have any idea what you guys are talking about. The numbers sound great, but we’re going to invest in you guys because it’s the entrepreneur and the people that drive success.’’’

It was a smart decision. The site cracked the Top 10,000 sites in the world within the first 30 days.

As they’ve grown their company to employ 150 people globally, with offices in Toronto, New York and Chicago, in addition to their headquarters in London, Ont., Ablitt said his father’s comment on investing in people has stuck. “We’ve surrounded ourselves with a leadership team of people who are smarter than we are, who’ve ‘been there and done that’ in many respects.”

That includes Dan Lagani, President and Chief Revenue Officer, who has helped transform some of the world’s largest digital media brands, and Kirstine Stewart, a former VP at Twitter.

“When I decided to leave Twitter, I had many opportunities in front of me,” Stewart said. “They were all exciting and located in different cities and countries. What drew me to Diply was the potential of this fabulous social media publishing business that Dean and Taylor had brought to this stage. Diply is the unsung hero in its space and well-positioned to take a huge leap forward.”

Their goal is to become the No. 1 social entertainment site in the United States within the next 24 months, and build on that momentum.

“After North America, there’s the European markets, Spanish markets, Asia and India. There’s opportunities where people are wanting content. So, if we can do what we are doing in the toughest market in the world, we can localize it and be well positioned to go after those markets,” Ablitt said.

“We go where the people go, so if there’s a new platform, we’re always going to be on top of that,” Elkholy said. “We kind of try and disrupt ourselves, because if we don’t, someone else might.”

“From Day One, since that first presentation, we’ve always shot for the stars,” Ablitt added. “If you land on the moon, I guess that’s not the worst of things.”

This article appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of Alumni Gazette
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