Anywhere Technology was accepted into the first cohort of the revamped StartupLaunch program at UNSW in the validation stream. Having come out of the Innovation Dojo in December 2016, we were in a kind of awkward position of not really being 100% validated but also not being completely new to the startup world, so some of the talks we had were a little bit like “what is the lean startup method” and a little repetitive, but sometimes repetition is exactly what you need.
We had come out of the Dojo completely focused on our software being used by billboard publishers. We thought we were building something that had in your face value, you’d be crazy to turn it down. Our validation strategy was to go to our customer’s customer and see if they wanted it, then use that to pressure the publishers to cooperate with us.
That proved to be extremely hard. Our customer’s customer said they wanted our product, ASAP, and they were willing to pay. So now we just needed the publisher’s to let us do a pilot test with them, and we were ready to do it as soon as they said yes.
The publishers shut us down at every attempt. We tried being so annoying they couldn’t ignore us approach, we tried working our way up the chain of command, we called, we emailed, we stalked on LinkedIn, we got an introduction from one of the mentors, we really tried hard. We got nowhere.
It was around that time that StartupLaunch kicked off, and all the weekly mentors were telling us we had a great product, we just weren’t selling the value of it very well. We tried another approach. Public billboards go on tender from the local city council, so instead of going to the publisher we went to the council. They were pretty lovely people, willing to help and willing to give out personal emails (and actually replying) but they basically had no idea what was going on. They received rent from the publishers, and that was the extent of their involvement.
At this point, I didn’t know what to do, or how to lead my team.
Mentors were coming in each week and teaching us all sorts of different stuff. Over six weeks we covered goal setting, finance, product development, making a team, all sorts of goodness. But I was struggling to find relevance in it for me because each week the other teams were talking about how much progress they were making and the previous speaker had made them inspired to work on a particular aspect of their startup until they had bettered it and this was motivating them to work even harder. Yet, when I was applying all of this to my team, at the end of the day we still had no customer.
I thought back to something Josh said to us at the Dojo all those months ago, that we were too narrow and needed to find more uses for our product. We thought that we had done that with a few superficial tack ons. But he was right, we were narrow minded.
We went back to square one.
Our product was meant to be used in public spaces, to analyse people who walked past billboards. We were looking at billboards, but we should have been looking at our ability to analyse crowds.
Where do crowds go? Sports games. Retail. Concerts. Expos. Literally everywhere.
Around this time, a girl in a Facebook group I’m in posted an event announcement and said if anyone had any questions they could email her, and she added her work email at the end of the post.
I emailed her immediately. She replied probably within an hour. She wasn’t anyone with authority, but she was passing my email on to someone higher up. They didn’t reply. I sent a follow up, they asked for more details (we’re pretty sketchy, I accept that). I sent them, no reply. I followed up again, and then again. Then, I was given a personal phone number and told to call. We chatted, they asked for an email with our expectations out of this partnership, and precision about what we could actually do. Then, we got our pilot program.
Between December 2016, and May 2017, we basically got nowhere chasing one customer. Within about a week and a half, we went from starting from scratch chasing a new industry, to a pilot program.
At this point, all the advice of the mentors was clicking into place. Perserverance, chasing every lead, widening your own horizons, and being relentless. All of them talked about their own adversities building their startups, and of course there’s always an element of luck. The right Facebook group at the right time.
We’re about two weeks away from our pilot programs first day, and it feels right. The support we received after switching focus was the reassurance that we’d finally found our place. The talks I had with the program coordinators, Shahe and Mary, were so helpful.
There was one last stress before the program ended, and that was now switching my pitch from billboards to retail and events. After a weekend of childish tantrums and listening to myself on repeat, I managed to pull off a pitch good enough to win people’s choice at the demo night.
I don’t think our switch to retail/events would have happened if we weren’t in StartupLaunch. We wouldn’t have a pilot program organised, we wouldn’t have companies lined up to be our customers, and we wouldn’t be preparing to start seed funding and grant writing either.