Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

Growing a Marketplace for Activity Centers to £1M/mo

Daniel Steele
Daniel Steele
December 24, 2020
Category of startup
Travel
Country of startup
United Kingdom
Revenue of startups
+$500k/mo
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

Growing a Marketplace for Activity Centers to £1M/mo

Daniel Steele
Daniel Steele
December 24, 2020
Category of startup
Travel
Country of startup
United Kingdom
Cause of failure of the startup

Dan is co-founder at eola, a management platform and marketplace for activity centers. His co-founder came with the idea after going on a trip and realizing how hard it was to find adventures to go on. Through various splashy marketing campaigns made on a shoestring budget, the startup has already grown to £1M/mo.

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Hi Dan! Who are you and what are you currently working on?

Hey! I’m Dan, 25, cofounder and CTO at eola, the complete management platform for activity centres. 

Managing a business providing activities and experiences is difficult. There are many tasks to complete, and administrative work that needs to be done every day, including everything from dealing with customers, to managing instructors’ timetables, and staying on top of resource availability.

We enable these businesses to automate their processes, massively reducing their daily workload, while significantly increasing their revenue.

We make money when our outlets make money. We charge a flat 4% fee (including payment processing) on any transaction that happens via us. We provide our centres with a widget they can put on their site, allowing them to manage and receive bookings in real time.

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

My co-founder, Callum, originally came up with the idea of making adventure activities more accessible. After going surfing in Scarborough in Winter (I know, right?), he was surprised to see how difficult it was to find more adventures to go on.

Surf trip

At the time, I wasn’t looking for a new position, having recently closed down my web development agency. I was tired of the over-hype that came with starting a startup.

But when I saw Callum’s job ad, it was quite different. It was realistic and down to earth. Callum had an idea which he thought could work, and he wanted a partner to help build it. From the outset, we had the mindset that we’re almost certainly going to fail, but every day we’re going to try our damned hardest to make sure that’s not the case.

We realised pretty rapidly that the main reason that the huge, multi-hundred billion dollar activities industry is primarily offline is due to lack of decent tools and automation. We were going to change that.

How did you go from idea to product?

Neither of us had run an activity centre before. However, something that we both believe in passionately is talking to the customer. To this day, we make it a priority to encourage everyone in the team to join activity trips to get to know our partners and hear direct feedback from our users.

From day one we were visiting, calling, and emailing centres, trying to understand where their pain points were, and what we could do to address them. We were initially worried that everyone would have a different set of requirements, but it became pretty clear that almost everyone in this space has a very similar set of issues.

We knew it was a big undertaking. Every startup has to make a judgement call on how much time to spend on building an MVP and getting initial systems in place. When we launched our Beta in 2018 with just 5 customers, payouts were being handled by Callum meticulously going through payment spreadsheets and paying out directly from our bank account. That wasn’t scalable, but our other systems were becoming increasingly sophisticated.

In order to validate the idea before we’d built a functioning product, we created a “pioneer program”, where businesses could pay £100 to show they were interested in the idea. They got essentially nothing in return, but their money proved to us that there really was a need.

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Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

During the first years we focused on getting to know our target market, solidifying our business strategy and doing manual reach-outs to new potential partners to test the waters. After the initial period of understanding the market and our customers properly, we hired a head of marketing to start building a more active marketing strategy. We were (and still are) in a pretty classic startup position, where we would love to do big, splashy marketing campaigns on a shoestring budget. Luckily, there’s a lot of things we could do on minimal marketing expense. 

We started by building and procuring contact lists of highly relevant experience providers, so we could focus on a personal sales approach. To raise awareness, add value and increase bookings for our partners, we’ve focused heavily on producing high quality B2C content across our blog and social media channels. We promote our partners and their activities in many ways, from exclusive interview features, activity inspiration posts to direct Book Now ads. Additionally, we create content for our partners, including tips and tricks on how to increase bookings, optimise your website and reach new markets.

This focus on putting our customers at the centre of our business leads to referrals and great word-of-mouth effects. Combined with low-cost digital B2B campaigns and a strong focus on SEO, this strategy has created a steady stream of inbound lead generation. This has all worked wonders on a modest budget. Though we’re looking forward to being able to do more with greater resources, we believe that the real value will always come from keeping our customers at the centre of our business and us growing together.

How are you doing today and what are your goals for the future?

Despite ostensibly being in the travel industry, business is booming during lockdown.

Experience providers around the world have found themselves in a unique and challenging place during the COVID outbreak, following restrictions and lockdowns. To operate safely, they need to ditch the paper diaries, disclaimers and receipts now more than ever. They need to be fluid and flexible, with access to easy mass-communication and refunds. As a result, there has been a massive acceleration in the number of businesses looking for software that allows these things, while also not costing them money when they don’t take any bookings.

Our growth during COVID has exploded. We've seen a huge increase in inbound leads. Our platform is highly customisable, and only costs money when businesses make it. This makes us the ideal solution to their needs, regardless of whether they're a solo operator, or an enterprise business.

We’re currently at nearly 5x revenue from last year, and that number is rapidly growing. As we grow, our margin grows too. We’re currently seeking investment that will help us reach £1bn through the platform by 2025. We’re also expanding our functionality to go far beyond the industry standard, which is massively solidifying our position.

Safari trip

Since starting eola, what have been your main lessons?

Before starting a business with someone, spend at least a weekend away with them. Get to know them on a personal level, don’t just interview them. I got lucky with Callum, but given the stresses of making a million important decisions per month, I can easily see where less compatible founders could struggle.

Fundraising takes longer than you expect, even if there’s a lot of interest. Everyone says it will take longer than you expect, so you increase how long you think it’ll take. You’re still wrong, it’ll take longer.

Transparency is the best thing. Between founders, employees and investors, share your best and share your worst. It’s easy to share the good things, but make a habit of sharing the bad. It’ll result in you being trusted, which is vitally important.

What were the biggest obstacles you overcame? What were your worst mistakes?

At the beginning of this year, we were in the process of closing our largest funding round. Things were looking good for the Summer.

Then, lockdown was announced. Though the round was approaching completion, it hadn’t finalised. That’s when disaster struck. We received an email from our lead investor saying that they were out. We called an emergency board meeting at 11:30pm on a Thursday night, trying to work out what the hell we were going to do. 

We only had 2 weeks of runway left, and we had to somehow turn that into a year. One of our investors suggested that we choose 1 of our 9 employees to keep. That was a hard thing to hear.

We came up with a few options to pursue, but we didn’t have much time. It was with a heavy-heart we called the team meeting that day to announce the current situation. The initial response from the team was phenomenal, something neither me or my co-founder, Callum, could have possibly predicted or asked for. Everyone rallied. People offered to take pay cuts or no pay. We didn’t ask them to do that.

Thanks to an incredibly solid effort from Callum and overwhelming support from the team, we managed to navigate through 2020. Somehow, though, we didn’t just “hang on” as a business, we grew. Quite substantially, actually.

This is one of the biggest obstacles we've overcome as a business. As a startup we will encounter countless more, and if this taught me something, it is to treasure the team and the support we give each other through the good times and the bad.

What tools & resources do you recommend?

Other than what’s in our technical stack, there’s very little extra tooling we use. 

However, one thing that I definitely can suggest is using Notion to create a data room for investors. We’ve had great feedback on ours, simply by creating a Notion page with a bunch of links, breakdowns and reports. Making the data easily accessible will make investors like you just that bit more.

Where can we go to learn more?

You can learn more about eola in our About Us page or blog.

If you run an activity centre, you should consider joining us ;)

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