Welcome to Startup Of The Week – a feature dedicated to exposing the most exciting and innovative startups from the UK and beyond.
Last week we talked to Victor Henning, co-founder of academic reference manager and social network, Mendeley. This week, it was the turn of Tom Playford, co-founder of online booking system 10to8, to take us on his own startup journey.
With its beginnings in Cambridge University, 10to8 provides a coordination solution for businesses and their customers, allowing them to keep track of appointments and to optimise their operations accordingly via a web and mobile app. Clients range from the health sector, to education, to plumbing, to other industries, and the app's user base is only growing through good old fashioned word of mouth.
Dentist chairs, badger culls, secret plans and not settling for second best - it's all here. This is the 10to8 story.
How did the idea behind 10to8 come about?
It started in a dentist's chair, being lectured at by my dentist who's the director of the company now actually. He's a talkative chap and it's rather one-way when you're sitting in a chair, and he was just cheesed off about missed appointments and people just not turning up. It cost him, he worked out, roughly 10 per cent of his turnover. If people turned up on time he'd be able to fit in 10 per cent more appointments.
So I got thinking about that, as a distraction from other things that were going on, and tried to work out why this was never done, and why this is still a problem. People have been sending SMS reminders and sending out letter reminders for aeons, and it's still a problem. What is it that we can do that would actually solve that? And the epiphany really isn't a huge one but no-one had worked it out, is that it's all about communication and making sure that it's two-way, so making sure that you can talk to your customers and your customers can talk back to you.
By enabling that our customers have dropped their no-show rating in some cases to zero. They've dropped incoming call rates by 60 per cent. Particularly for small business where they simply don't have the money to deal with all these phone calls and people wanting to know when their appointment is and not having the flexibility to cope with missed appointments, it's hugely beneficial for them.
But it started as an idea in a dentist's chair and then it grew. I spoke to some friends while I was doing my PhD and we got together and we built a couple of prototypes, and from that we raised some money, and here we are now.
How did the business develop?
Well, the primary idea about solving coordination problems has always been there and that's still its focus, but it's a very big problem, and it's something that large companies like Oracle and SAP try to solve and solve badly, so it's a big problem to tackle, so we've had to break it down, and our first product is around appointments and communications around events in time, then making that work.
So we focused on that first and brought that to market, and that's going well, but now under the surface we're working on other problems, so other coordination issues that our platform can solve – y'know with a few tweaks to the UI and different communication sets.
We've grown. We started off as two of us and now we're fifteen. We've got customers and revenue now, so obviously that's a big change, but we've remained pretty focused initially on that market and building prototypes, raising revenue and making sure that what we produced would sell.
How have you attracted customers and businesses to using the service?
Initially our alpha and beta trialists were word of mouth. We didn't want many, we only wanted about 50. During the research phase we knew enough people who wanted to get this problem solved, so we had personal contact with those people, and early on it's critically important that you have a personal contact with these people because otherwise they'll just vanish and you never know why. So your early trialists, you really need to recruit them by hand. They need to have an emotional commitment to you. It's not enough to give it for free, they have to want to help, otherwise you won't get the feedback and they'll just vanish.
We've got a digital marketing spend of course and we've got decent search engine optimisation and a decent understanding about why people search for the problems we solve, but most of our customers come from word of mouth and us talking at events, press articles about us, y'know.
So it's a multifaceted approach, but word of mouth and recommendations are our best source. We send out a lot of email communications also.
What were the main challenges you faced in developing the service?
Ha! Where to start!
I think the biggest challenge is getting good people. Though it's not just finding good people, it's also keeping your standards up. It is so so tempting when you've got some funding, enough to employ some people, and you've got an endless list of technical and business requirements to get done, to just choose the first person that seems good, and every time we haven't done that. Well, one time we did and it was a mistake, and every time we haven't I've been so pleased. A couple of weeks later, or a couple of months later even, you find someone who's the right fit for you, for your culture and for what you want to get done.
It's veering on advice here! Don't drop your standards. Yes it's really hard to get good people, but don't settle for second best because in the end you won't get what you need and you'll end up with a huge amount of headache trying to fit someone who's not a good fit through your company into your culture.
It's so important to make sure your first employees are fit. Build the company you want to be involved with.
I think that's our biggest challenge. Funding is always difficult. Even in a place like Cambridge with an idea that has a market and you've got good links from people from the university and other people in the city, and London as well, it's still difficult and time consuming.
Moving forward; one always wants more customers, but we're pretty pleased with how that's going at the moment, I suppose it is a challenge, and marketing isn't necessarily everyone's cup of tea, so getting up to speed on that as soon as you can and getting up to speed on that and being confident about your approach. I'd say that's a challenge that we've overcome, but it was a challenge early on.
How would you say your offering is better than competitors that would offer a similar service?
Yes, it’s slowly becoming a crowded space. But we’re still unique in offering two-way communication, so we approach the problem from trying to solve the business’s issue, which as I say is no-shows and reducing the cost of coordination. We’re unique in that aspect. We’re not lead-generation; we’re not just an online booking system. We are about reducing the cost of your business. Your business will be cheaper to run. We will save you money.
Our instant online booking and instant feedback – we allow people to maintain control while allowing their customers to book automatically. No-one does it so instantly.
The user base
Your customer base - is it within specific industries at the moment?
It's pretty general. We're getting complete diversity of businesses signing up. I'd say a commonality is we get a lot of health, obviously since that's where we started, and we have targeted some of our marketing efforts in this respect. But no, it's huge. We've had someone interested in coordinating badger culls sign up, all the way through to piano tuners, plumbers and electricians. Teachers are very common too, people running sports classes in local parks. It's anyone who has a coordination problem, and that's huge. We've got sailing clubs signing up. We've got university PhD students, tutors fed up of their tutees not turning up.
It's wonderful that it's applicable and usable for so many people.
Go for it, certainly, but get lots of advice. Talk to as many people as you can first. Not because I think your idea is wrong, but you will just get great tips from everyone, and getting sanity checks on your idea, on how you plan to raise money, and how you plan to start. The advice we got at the beginning was just of huge amounts of value.
Then, back to my point earlier about being careful who joins you. I know it's hard to get good people but you have to be fanatical about it. Don't just go to a recruiter. You'll destroy yourself.
Remain focused on what you're building. Know from the start what the product is. You may not have to have a full specification but make sure that everyone who's working with you knows exactly what they're working on, what problems they're trying to solve and why they're currently writing that type of code. If someone doesn't know that, they should stop and talk to people in the company until they do. That's our philosophy anyway and it saves us a huge amount of time.
10to8 is available in both web and mobile app form for businesses large and small.
Look out for our next Startup of the Week feature, next week, and of course if you're part of a growing business yourself, let us know using the Contact tab below.