The highs and lows of building a tech for good startup
As the Bethnal Green Ventures (BGV) accelerator programme gets underway with a new team of ventures, Sinead MacManus, CEO and co-founder of Fluency, reflects on what they’ve learnt since being part of the BGV programme last year.
A year ago my co-founder Ian and I stood nervously in the shiny new offices of Bethnal Green Ventures – we had won a place on their ‘tech for good’ incubator. The 12-week incubation programme would enable us to develop Fluency – our digital education company that helps get young people into work. Along with the founders from the other nine teams, we were about to embark upon a journey into the unknown.
As we celebrate our first company anniversary, I wanted to reflect on the many highs and lows of our first year trying to change the world through technology.
Learning from being on an accelerator
Being accepted onto the BGV incubator was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. Having someone believe in you and your idea enough to put their money where their mouth is very motivating. An accelerator allows you to test your hypothesis about your business cheaply and quickly, get to Minimum Viable Product (MVP), and then validate the market by selling it/getting users.
We were well versed in the lean startup methodology but still ploughed ahead spending months designing and coding a platform from scratch and writing and recording original learning content. All this so we had a ‘product’ to use in our pilot in the summer. In hindsight this was a terrible mistake. All we needed to do was to test some key hypotheses – can young people pick up digital skills online and apply them in a work situation? We could have used an on the shelf LMS and existing learning resources from the web to validate this hypothesis.
Finding our business model the hard way
When we started at BGV we were convinced that our business model would be that small business owners would pay on a subscription basis for access to our learning platform and that we would then use this money to give access for free to young people. By trying stuff out and making a mess of things, and by listening to what our customers and our users want we have finally found what we think will be our product.
Raising investment and running out of cash
When we started at BGV I thought this investment was just to get us to demo day where investors would be clamouring to give us more cash. Nine months later we’ve run out of cash twice, and making payroll for our two staff – let alone paying ourselves – was a real issue.
We’ve just closed our seed investment round (yeah!) but dealing with investors for the past nine months has been one of the most painful processes of my life. Nine long months of pitching and coffees – it’s exhausting and demoralizing. And if you’re in the tech for good space like we are, then it’s tough – a lot of investors don’t get the concept that you can make money and social impact at the same time.
Some of our most costly mistakes have been to do with staff – thinking we needed to hire when we didn’t. Staff, whether freelance or permanent, are a startups’ biggest asset but also their biggest drain on resources. Our hiring plans have changed. My aim is to stay as lean as possible until our next funding round and rather than throw people into roles that we think we need, we will let the business tell us where we need to put the resource.
Finally, the long road to finding product-market fit
Talking to lots of startups recently has made me realise that, even though the tech press like to champion the seemingly overnight success startups, in reality most companies take a few years to find their way. And I think for “tech for good” startups it can take even longer. If you are trying to solve some of society’s biggest problems, it’s not going to happen overnight.
But no matter what the challenges this year has brought, I’m literally having the time of my life. Getting up every morning and knowing what you are doing can make a real impact on people’s lives is worth the odd sleepless night. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
By Sinead MacManus, CEO and co-founder of Fluency