I Raised £550k for my Startup!

Failed Monetisation Experiments

My goal at the end of last year was to see if I could make money from the existing career discovery product.

Charging Users to See Results

I started by giving people 3 career suggestions in their final results for free, but charging them £10 to see a more complete list of 30 career suggestions. I implemented this in a couple of days using Stripe.

Displaying Ads Next to Each Question

The third and final experiment I tried was placing ads next to every question. An old friend of mine who I worked with at Facebook said this could be viable, as each person would render 100 ad impressions (one next to each question). Setting this up took a bit more time as I had to select an ad network that was most promising. I settled on Taboola, signed a contract and installed their ads.


Three attempts and three failures. Which was great! I mean, it would have been convenient to make money at this stage. But every test is an opportunity to learn. And I learnt quite a lot from this, especially when I combined it with my previous learning from talking to users at the careers event back in October.

How I Raised £550k

After a nice long 3-week break over Christmas, I decided my primary goal in the new year was to raise money. This would enable me to focus on this project full-time and maybe even hire a couple of people to join me on the journey.

Nesta’s CareerTech Prize

Back in November, a friend told me about a prize Nesta was running, in partnership with the Department for Education (DfE), for projects focused on building technology to help people navigate their careers.

Applying to the Prize

So I worked full-time on my application over the 10 days I had available before the January deadline. This involved reading up on many research articles, thinking deeply about the judging criteria, looking closely at available labour marketing information and then planning my application.

Raising Money from Investors

Nesta’s prize was a grant, so I didn’t have to give up any ownership in my company. But I might not be successful, and it would help if I could raise more than £50k, especially if I wanted to hire a couple of people to join me.

An Opportunity Through My Founders Network, ICE

I’m part of a network of about 350 tech founders called ICE. It’s incredibly valuable. We have an email list and I’ve asked a dozen questions, and each time I get at least 3–5 responses from experienced founders who had the exact issue I asked about.

My First Pitch!

An Offer to Underwrite £500k

A few days later I had an email inviting me back for further discussions and to meet the other partners. Wow — very exciting! And in the meantime, they asked a few questions over email that took me some time and thought to reply to.

Closing the Round

It then took about another 6 weeks to close the round. It turns out that raising VC money requires a lot of legal work. Thankfully, my ICE network came to the rescue again and I was introduced to a fantastic lawyer at a firm called Cooley. It turns out that Cooley represents more than half of the most valuable tech firms in the world. And they were amazing.

Hearing Back from Nesta

And literally the same day that I received the money from my investors, I heard back from Nesta. We had been accepted as one of the 20 finalists for the CareerTech challenge! It turns out that they had hundreds of applications, so I feel very fortunate to have made the cut. And that meant a further £50,000.

Impact of the Coronavirus

In mid-March I went on a short ski trip with my ICE network to a resort in the Pyrenees, just over the French border into Spain. In those few short days we were there, the world changed.

Thursday, March 12th

I flew from Gatwick on Thursday and there was very little change in people’s behaviour. It was as crowded as usual with a lot of holiday-makers escaping for a week in the sun. But while we were there, in three short days, quite a lot happened! …

Friday, March 13th

On Friday morning, we heard that the ski resort would close at the end of the day. Spain was closing all ski resorts around the country. So we only had one day of skiing.

Saturday & Sunday, March 14th-15th

We made it over the border and stayed in a hotel in Toulouse, awaiting our return flight on Sunday. Then that evening, in our hotel restaurant at 10pm, the hotel staff informed us that the French government was closing all restaurants at midnight. So we had to vacate by then, and they would provide us with a lunchbox the next day that we could pick up from a table without making any contact.

The Birth of Coronafriend

The Idea

At the airport in Toulouse, I was chatting to a couple of my founder friends about the upcoming hardships many will face from being isolated, especially those who are old and vulnerable. We brainstormed how they could be supported, and came upon an idea of trying to build a grassroots movement of neighbourly support.

Building It

Now it turns out that one of the founders I was talking with had a CTO (Chief Technical Officer) who has a strong background in mapping technology. She looped him into the conversation and on Monday, we all chatted over a video call and made a plan. Thanks to his heroic efforts in building the mapping part of the product, we launched www.CoronaFriend.com just over two weeks later.

Launching It

This was our attempt to make a difference in this time of great need. Unfortunately it didn’t get the traction we hoped. We had a spike in usage on the first day when we gave it a push, with about 270 roads claimed. This in itself was a reasonable achievement, as that may represent about 15,000 households. But then usage almost disappeared soon after, so we’re a long way from having all residential roads in the UK covered!

Would You Rather Be’s Focus

And with so many people losing their jobs, the needs of people in the UK have shifted. Plus, there are fewer jobs available and a lot more in certain areas like healthcare. So I’ll probably have to shift my strategy to accommodate these changes and find a way of helping people with the challenges this pandemic is bringing.

Challenges of Having Young Children at Home

The final, big personal challenge I’ve faced with the Coronavirus pandemic is having my two young boys at home with the nurseries and schools closing.

Version 2

My career discovery app seemed to be working well and helping people discover careers that interest them. I’d also had over 10,000 people answer all 100 questions in the app, which yielded over 1M data points that I could analyse and use to make it better. So I figured I’d focus on improving the app — the idea of pouring gasoline on the thing that works.

Better Career Coverage

I started by improving the list of careers in the app. Originally, I used a list of 400 careers that I sourced from a single website. I improved this by sourcing a more comprehensive list of careers, starting with the 930 careers the National Career Service have on their site. A few other sources were then used to supplement this.

Improved Career Selection

I spent some time thinking deeply about career selection and whether I should use Machine Learning (AI). I decided that the problem of matching people to careers they would find most satisfying is very complex, as people are complex beings, and each career is incredibly complex in its own right.

Improving the Algorithm

The underlying algorithm that powers the career discovery app is proprietary, so I won’t go into detail here as it’s a trade secret. But I built a couple of features that improved the relevance of the algorithm using past data from the 1M data points I already had from 10,000 people completing the app.

Showing More Information on Selected Careers

Version 1 only showed the list of careers at the end. Version 2 now shows a lot more information next to each career.

Ratings & Feedback

Finally, I included the ability for people to share a rating (1–5 stars) and feedback, which has been helpful in informing how helpful people are finding it and for providing input on where to take it next.

Company Foundations

Since incorporating the company in January and raising money by the end of March, I’ve had a bunch of administrative things to sort out to lay the foundations for the company.

Nesta Workshops

Over the past 3 weeks, Nesta has been running a series of workshops for the CareerTech finalists.

Service Design

We’ve also had some helpful sessions on service design, which has been particularly interesting and helpful for me. The focus of these sessions is designing services for customers where they get the right information when they need it, are treated fairly and get great value for money. Services that seem effortless for customers, but are underpinned by rigorous research, testing and analysis to ensure they deliver.

Service Design vs Lean Startup

Now my background and experience is more towards the Lean Startup methodology, which is about creating a minimal viable product (MVP) and then seeing what people do. And there are merits to this approach, as you don’t really know what people will do until you put a real product in their hands that delivers actual value and see how they behave. But there is a cost to building a product, so doing more pre-work up front makes a lot of sense.

  1. The cost of delivering a solution. If it only takes a small amount of time and money to build a solution, then building it sooner makes sense as you’ll learn more that way. But if it’s expensive to deliver a solution, then de-risking delivery by doing a lot of thinking, research and design up front makes sense.
  2. The skills on the team. If you have a team of software engineers, building something is straight-forward. But if you have a team of researchers, doing research is more straight-forward and building something might be expensive.

Incorporating Elements of Service Design

I’ve been operating way too far on the lean/MVP part of the spectrum and have never conducted a single formal user interview, for example. So I’ve been influenced by these workshops, as well as input from other advisors and Forward Partners, to spend some time on the research part. So over the next few weeks I’ll be talking to a lot of people and hope to build these skills, which should prove valuable in the future.

What’s Next

So now you’re up-to-date! Over the next few weeks, my top two priorities are user interviews and hiring.



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