The ups and downs of our time as an internal startup.
Having family spread across the globe involves a fair amount of long-haul travel. Adding a toddler to this equation opens the doors to an entirely new way of travelling significantly more stressful than you can imagine if you’ve never had to endure it yourself. One trip stands out above all others. Arriving at the airport four hours before the final 12-hour leg of a month-long holiday involving 4 long haul flights, we discovered – yet again – that there was nothing for our jet lagged 3 year old to do.
Under the judgemental gaze of our fellow (child-free) passengers, we ended up playing chase for 2 hours, running up and down an escalator in a futile attempt to appease our hyperactive child and to calm our nerves. We found out later that the airport we’d been stuck in (with nothing obvious for kids to do) actually had several child-friendly facilities – including 2 aviation-themed play areas, an aquarium and an art gallery. This frustration was what prompted the idea that would eventually become Toddlr.
What stressed-out parent wouldn’t want a plethora of trusted child-friendly places at their fingertips when they need them the most? There are a few apps that try to help solve this problem, but no-one does it particularly well. It was something I kept in the back of my mind until I had a bit of downtime.
At the studio I work at, we talk a lot about deploying a startup mindset when tackling problems we encounter during projects. But how does that translate when teams have only a few weeks to develop an internal product from inception to release? We started with just four days to concept, validate and prototype a solution to the problem we were trying to solve. With the stressful travel experiences of parents to the forefront of my mind, when I pitched the idea to my colleagues, people were game to give it a go.
When we started out on Toddlr, we were at a distinct advantage over others in a similar situation. We were able to form a team encompassing product strategy, design, and development and our Shoreditch location meant that we had a familiar place to call our own with our target demographic right on our doorstep.
Toddlr is aimed at a specific, but not marginally niche, group of people; parents of very young children. Because of this we were sure that we would be able to tailor our solution to users with very specific and similar needs.
Paul Graham is co-founder of top seed accelerator and startup incubator Y Combinator, who have funded over 500 companies in 30 different markets. He has summed up the 13 principles it takes to be a successful startup. How does running an internal startup at a product studio measure up against these principles?
Our process was quick and iterations were done continuously as user feedback was received. Having dedicated developers, a product designer, and team coach helped to keep us disciplined about decision-making and focused when discussions veered off-track.
We had a very tight deadline but released our beta to a small group of testers right on schedule. We were elated – until we realised that our users were struggling to get Toddlr onto their devices because of our decision to release to a closed group.
In our haste to release the app, our rigorous user testing had stopped when the app was ready to ship. We had completely overlooked the complex process of downloading the app through the Google Play Store.
Letting our idea evolve
Our idea evolved based on user research and internal feedback carried out during initial development. Because we had two developers on the team we were able to iterate on our designs and test them quickly. We weren’t precious and welcomed all feedback.
Understanding our users.
We did a good job of trying to understand our users and to find out if Toddlr was something they would find useful. Our local area provided immediate access to a wide cross-section of potential users so we went out and spoke to as many of them as we could find. We talked to local parents at parks, daycare centres and at Hackney and Spitalfields city farms. We visited a local mothers’ group, all of whom had babies under 6 months old. At spitalfields market we spoke to tourists and out-of-towners eager to share their experiences of navigating London with young children.
A lot of parents said they loved the app as it would make days out easier. 90% of people said they had been waiting for an app like this and several who weren’t Android users said they wanted to be notified of an iOS version.
Offering surprisingly good customer service
Through our brand values, we tried to convey that we offer a trustworthy, friendly service and are approachable and caring. Through setting up different support channels via social media and the app itself, we tried to offer an all-encompassing service.
Offering this level of customer service at this stage would not only make users happy, but would allow us to learn more about them. That said, outstanding customer service is all very well but not having any customers to support renders it meaningless.
In the beginning, we were lucky enough to have a dedicated room where we could leave our work and be away from most everyday distractions. As we were based at our usual workplace, we were at risk of losing our space if someone else found a gap in our booking. Space is a coveted commodity when you take a one team approach to working. We also struggled with studio-related distractions, such as work on other projects and family commitments.
Not getting demoralised
The team were excited about the project and either had kids themselves or had close relatives with children – everyone had a personal stake in the project and genuinely wanted it to succeed.
The fact that the team were in complete control of the app also helped with morale. Though the immediate cause of death in a startup tends to be running out of money, which we identified early on wasn’t an immediate risk in a studio environment, the underlying cause is usually lack of focus. The team remained focused, but the possibility of losing team members at short notice or being moved onto other projects themselves was demoralising at times.
Not giving up
As Paul Graham said, you can get surprisingly far by just not giving up. Sheer effort is usually enough, so long as you keep morphing your idea. Toddlr has come to a crossroads and we need to make a decision on how to move it forward effectively.
From the outset, it was obvious that a few of these principles were irrelevant to a startup in our position:
- Picking good co-founders
- Spending little
- Getting profitable
- Deals falling through
These factors had a huge influence on the eventual outcome of our internal startup.
Firstly, there were no co-founders at all, instead we had a core team of people who were involved from the very beginning. The product owner role was as close as we came to having a founder, which isn’t the same at all.
Toddlr started out with a strong team who worked together really well to get a MVP of the product started within a week. Everyone was willing to take on unfamiliar roles to make sure that things got done as quickly as possible. As the project progressed we lost team members to client projects – an inevitable struggle of a start-up within an agency.
Secondly, money was not an issue. This is a pretty big deal and is probably the most profound difference between a ‘real’ startup and an internal one. Graham makes the point that a culture of ‘cheapness’ creates a sense of urgency that drives decision-making and rapid iteration.
The prospect of dizzying financial rewards is invaluable in driving things forward and improving morale when times are tough. It was tough to imagine us running out of funding.
Can we call ourselves a startup?
There are many interpretations of what a startup actually is. According to Eric Ries, a startup is a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty. To others, it’s more a state of mind than a tangible concept, it’s when someone has an idea good enough to convince others to forego stability for an unspecified length of time, with the promise of tremendous growth and financial returns in the future.
Without co-founders, some kind of limited funding and a certain level of uncertainty a project cannot realistically call itself a startup.
Those of us working on Toddlr haven’t had to worry about funding rounds or finding a suitable location to work from or running out of money and losing our jobs. We haven’t even had to worry about the mundane day-to-day running of a business.
Whether we’re a startup or not, the Toddlr product team is a good example of an internal venture initiative supported by a studio full of people who actively encourage people to pursue their ideas. By accelerating an established process and adopting a more open-minded and experimental approach, the Toddlr team were able to create a product parents wanted in a really limited amount of time. Watch this space for future updates.
Link to ustwo blog