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StartupMill / Investing / United Kingdom / $ 2000 MRR

How Toby Allen started his venture builder Startup - Story of StartupMill

Hello ! Who are you and what are you working on?

Hey! I'm Toby, I'm the founder of StartupMill, which is my venture builder. This is where I express my need to create new startups and ideas. This ranges from a series of niche job boards which I created or in the process of creating for XR, Games, AI and Flutter. I also have a Producthunt-esque AR/VR product discovery platform in the making.

I've been building other side projects such as Top50Slack.com or SaveAFreelancer.com

What motivated you to get started with? How did you come up with the idea?

From a young age, I've been building a lot of different projects. At first, I was geeking out on video games, which led me to lead a career as a video game producer for the better part of 10 years. Yet I wanted to build more and saw niche opportunities to explore.

The first time I got really hooked was trying to build a Producthunt clone for the Immersive tech space, called RealityHunt, which was aimed at helping to discover all the best tools and projects in the AR/VR space.

This is when I got heavily into coding, learning different stacks and trying to figure out how to go to market as fast and cheaply as possible. It was a great learning curve with lots of ups and downs. This led me to learn the skills which I used to run other projects now.

Can you tell us the story of your business from idea to where you are now?

I’ve always enjoyed learning, but I’m better at learning while making. This is just how I learnt that I assimilate information. As a result, I’ve always had ideas and saw niche opportunities ahead of the market. I guess that’s why I focus on product to be honest.

The idea behind StartupMill is to act as a conduit for my ideas or concepts.

A mill take in raw material, processes that and produces a product to sell. I wanted to follow this concept with my venture ideas.

I wanted a repeatable process to incubate test ideas, create an MVP and get it out so that it can get traction and grow. If the project grows enough, then it would get some funding and I would actively work on getting it invested in or push it harder.

I guess some of this came from a TED talk which really changed the way I learn entirely. Matt Cutts’ talk covers how he explored a new project every 30 days. This made him touch on new concepts and grow in a multitude of different ways. I loved this concept!

I tried it out for a year — It was amazing!

I tried new sports, new languages, new business concepts, reading as many books as I could in a month for example. This was one of the most interesting times I’ve had. I met a lot of new people and grew my network extensively. Still one of the best things I did. So every Christmas, when I’m home with the family, I take some time to reflect and build out the next 12 months of projects. These would target specifically areas of growth that I wanted to work on.

In exploring new concepts, sports, industries and skills, I got exposed to a lot of new problems, which gave rise to new solutions and ideas. I saw new opportunities to try and test my ideas.

By really pushing myself to try new things every month, I learnt to remove any fear of the unknown. Sure I was going to mess up. I was going to fail.

What has been your biggest failure or struggle?

I think my biggest failure or struggle has been with either tech or timing. I’ve made some bad tech calls in the past or not understood the impact of saying yes to one tech decision or another and their impact have hurt the business. The biggest pain point was with JobsinXR.com which I’m re-launching very soon.

So it turns out I was very very early to the party - I built the first version of Jobs in XR late December 2017, before the craze of AR filters, Snapchat's visual positioning systems and the Hololens 2.

I built Jobs in XR as a I was working as a freelancer at Microsoft's London studio on the first version of Hololens, running commercial projects and establishing insights into how the immersive tech world would be shaped by Microsoft.

As the site gained in popularity, I noticed that the site was used when a user or client knew about it directly, yet it was riddled with problems. Not visual problems but in fact deeply rooted technical issues which would impact the site dramatically.

First of all was the speed - The entire site was so slow and heavy, due in part as to how it was built with Meteor, that it would even time out Google's search crawler. This was a huge problem, it was getting canned in the search results, thus dropping down the rankings significantly.

Secondly, came an issue which was linked to Google's structured format for Jobs, which is a big deal when it comes to discoverability. Basically the site would often break when it came down to the structured data, and this was purely due to the front-end layer of the Meteor stack, called Blaze, which in hindsight, I should have seen and flagged it and replaced it with ReactJS. Doing this late in the lifetime of the project basically increased the cost, which was already quite high given the low volume of sales.

Thirdly, the reliability of the development team. When the team didn't start to deliver, I started losing ground and having to handle them remotely was a challenge given day to day pressures. I tried too give the team a boost, yet the freelancer I had used (and thought I could trust) helped yet started not to deliver either, which was a problem. The progress started to go nowhere and cause more issues than anything. The tech was poorly implemented and the results were felt across the service.

The really painful aspect of these circumstances is that by the time I hit these problems, the industry was picking up and started to get sales. Yet overall, people were willing to try, but would have issues with candidate applications not going through, so it became quite embarrassing.

I’m fixing all this now with a brand new site!

And what has been your biggest achievement or success?

I think my biggest achievement has been to learn new tools that remove any limits to my business creation process. I’ve learnt so much from cold contacting new potential users or even just how to do proper SEO. I’ve been able to launch other projects now that much faster.

When it comes down to launching new ventures, it’s really good to have a process in place which allows you to launch fast. That means, you need to know the systems in place and understand how to get things moving for you very fast. I can usually get a project up and running now to within 24-48h to the point that it will have a basic mock up or landing page and most likely collect about 1000 potential users to help validate the concept.

This is how I prepared for the launch of JosinAI.com, I created a watling list using Carrd.com & Mailchimp. I then went to hunt for the various niche groups, from facebook to slack and get in touch with the users there. Why? Well these users are active members of a niche, thus they are already qualified and much more open to understanding your new product but also want to try new tools and services which can help them. The result is that within a couple of hours I had hundreds of people that signed up to the newsletter and would want to use the service. Simple actions led to simple results, meaning that I was able to validate my ideas a lot faster than in the past.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

So in the case of JobsinXR.com, the best way I was able to get people to acquire or activate customers was through Linkedin or Twitter. Both channels worked incredibly well in terms of acquisition. Twitter is very community driven while Linkedin in much more on a self-progression and growth kind of dynamic. The result is that you have to target both with slightly different messaging yet it’s worth it in the long run when you see that flow of users coming in.

In terms of retention, the core of JobsinXR (and other job boards for that matter) is new jobs. This is mostly through Newsletters, but I also automated the post of new roles directly to twitter and facebook. This helped to remain very present in people’s feeds, also helping with acquisition as job candidates would often re-post the content and thus amplify the message.

Describe the process of launching the business.

First and foremost, I need to see a clear opportunity. Typically this is a niche which I feel is under served or not yet exploited. Take the case of the immersive tech space, this didn’t really exist 3 years ago, and now it’s booming (still niche, but booming) and as such I thought I could help that niche.

I would put the following points down before I would be involved:

Is it niche?

Is there a clear/obvious brand advantage?

Can I build it rapidly and with little to no tech?

Is the market ready?

Is this the right timing to build & launch?

The latter has historically been my biggest problem. I’ve had really good ideas, but they have come too soon and thus cost too much to maintain without getting any revenue. So to keep them alive would be a financial drain before they would start to make any significant revenue.

Did you use Betalist or PH or other Startup Launching Platform for Launching ? How was that experience ?

I’ve used them in the past and while they drive traffic, it’s clear that if you don’t plan your launch and by plan I mean prepare others to support you on the day then the impact of the services like PH and Betalist are going to be rather flat. You can launch and be in the ~50 upvote region, and you won’t get anywhere. You really need to have a combined strategy to hit everything at once and active your whole network all at once.

I would say that you can also have successful launch without them - Sure they will bring a lot of traffic but in many ways, it might be best to have 2000-5000 users come through your own community and own channels that you control. The result is that you can control the messaging a lot more and you can get a lot more feedback from them directly. I’ve seen this in practice with a lot of startups that build their little communities ahead of time and once they launch, they only ping their newsletter, slack, whatsapp, telegram and then activate these users. The net effect is that you get a concentrated amount of feedback, make the required changes and then release a better version in a much faster turnaround time than when the whole internet seems to be looking at you and crashing your servers.

What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

My favourite model for any of my projects is a subscription based model. While there’s perks to having a one-off lifetime package, I believe there’s a lot to explore in a basic monthly package with the addition of add-ons. If you structure your project to have a few basic packages, and then add-ons, you’ll be able to get that much more revenue as you enable the client to tailor their own solution.

I did this for jobsinXr and currently doing this for jobsinflutter. The result is a base package for $99, with addons from $29.99 to $159.99. Meaning that in a single sale, I can get get a MRR of up to $500 per client, multiplied by 3-10x clients on a basic niche site, I get between $1500 to $5000 per month. In the job board space, this is somewhat short lived, as jobs typically last 2-3 months online.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome? What are your goals for the future?

I was going back and forth for a while on various solutions which might fit the bill, yet I didn't want an expensive solution, such as the initial whitelabel service I had used (jobboard) which is £300 a month, so £3600 a year. Before taking that leap, I looked back at how other boards were working, only proposing to have the job listed and not to have a full candidate application system. While I wanted to really build a solid USP, in the end I just had to suck it up and provide a simple but powerful solution.

I opted for the Webflow + Integromat + Memberstack + Zoho form solution; the result is a hyper flexible system which can be customised and updated without developers, all while fixing the issues of SEO and discoverability which was previously encountered.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Don’t be afraid to get in touch with the people that will use your product. They are the front line of feedback and the most valuable asset you have in terms of directing your product.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Right now I’m massive into Webflow, Integromat, Carrd and Gmass. This is on top of a strong twitter, Linkedin, Medium stack. Integromat is an absolute beast of a nocode tool! I’ve built a LOT of pipelines with that system for my main job and my job boards, it’s insane how strong this tool is. I prefer it to Zapier by virtue of the fast that you have a much better visual sense of the flows. Carrd is an essential for landing pages, and Gmass is just a monster when it comes to mass-but-personal emails. I’ve had so much business through my emails send on Gmass that I could invest in that product if I could.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Right now I’m in love with the Indiehackers podcast. There’s so much variety and value in the different guests. Super into that podcast. I have a series of other podcasts on the go, but mainly I'm an Audible whore. I’ll listen to a ton of books on Audible. I got really into riding my bike to Microsoft every day through hyde park in London.

What’s your advice for fellow aspiring entrepreneur who are just starting out?

My biggest advice is really just to get going. Like Nike says ‘Just do it’ Couldn’t be a better slogan for makers really. You just have to do it, all the time, any time. I mean that you need to get comfortable being out in a grey zone of skills and learning. Your first project will fail. Your second might not. Your third might be a success. Just don’t assume that the people before you had an easy ride. You might see a lot of makers out there crushing it and think “damn these guys know how to do it.” I can guarantee you that they would only know how to crush it by having failed over and over again.

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