By Charlie Davies, CEO and co-founder of TravelTime.
In 2009 I was stuck in a traffic jam when I had the idea to change the way we do location based search. Humans search in time, but the way we are often forced to do online search is by distance. So I teamed up with my former colleague Peter to create a business where searching for locations can be based on travel time - we are called TravelTime.
We started the business before start-up culture existed and small companies had ambitions to change industries in the way they do now. We learned that not every company should aim for “unicorn” status and many don’t need to. By taking a slow and steady approach, we focused on creating a great product, getting customers and forming a talented team who each bring their own value and unique skills to the business.
The slow and steady route can work for you too, here’s how:
You need to start with customers
After you’ve come up with an idea, it’s easy to think that the next stage is investment. Get the money to get going. Companies that start raising lots of venture capital may not have the product and customers to keep the company going. After making this mistake ourselves, we decided to take a different approach: to raise an invoice before investment.
By talking to potential customers early on, it means you get feedback on your product before you think about raising investment. Pitching to a client gets you thinking about how they would use your product; is there anything out there that does the same job? Does the benefit justify the spend? Is it easy to integrate into the customers’ current system?
Understanding all of this is a great way of checking that you’re meeting client needs, but you also save on unnecessary spend and get to grips with product benefits to explain to potential new clients. No one wants to develop something that isn’t actually needed in the first place, especially if you could have avoided it with some simple changes early-on.
Establish your skills gaps before hiring
It may be tempting to get a sales team in as early as possible, or get going with a marketing strategy straight away, but if your product fails you will have a large team with nothing to sell or promote.
Focus on what you need - for example I tried building the tech for TravelTime myself. When this became more advanced, we brought someone in to develop the technical side of the product whilst Peter and I hit the phones to focus on sales. You have to be prepared to be hands on with every part of your business, rather than bringing in new hires from the start.
When we started to get more clients in, we could spot where the most important gaps were and hire to fill these, which we still do today. As we’d worked in those roles ourselves, we knew exactly what we were looking for.
Careful hiring at this stage makes it much easier to grow, as you have a strong team all able to carry out their roles and responsibilities and keep your business going. It sounds obvious, but you want the best. Think about what skillsets are already within your company and take the time to find people who add to these. Bring in a broad range of people who cover new areas of your business; don’t replicate the expertise already covered.
Don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board
Chances are, you won’t get it right the first time. It’s really important to always make sure you’re focusing on a business problem you can actually solve. If things aren’t quite lining up, consider exploring other ways you can make money from what you have, allowing you to put some back into developing a more worthwhile final product.
Naturally, your business will change as you make a name for yourself within the market. Originally, our idea for TravelTime was a search site aimed at consumers. The problem was that there were so many other companies providing consumer-facing search, just in the traditional sense - by distance. In order to be heard amongst them we’d have to build a whole website to compete with well known hotel listing websites and property portals. We made the decision to switch to an API model. Rather than competing with these e-commerce companies, we could sell our technology to them. They could access TravelTime using a license and integrate it into their different websites and apps. Overnight, all our competitors became potential customers.
Truly understanding and testing every part of your business will position you well for the next steps, investment and growth. Take the time to work out where you can add value, the people you need to hire for your business to work and find your place in the market to prevent expensive errors in the long run.