Founding a Tech Startup Without a Tech Background: Interview with Emma Smith

EmmaSmithMemberoo

Emma Smith

Emma Smith is the co-founder of Memberoo, a startup making organising people easy by providing a cool set of customer engagement tools for businesses and organisations.

Simpleweb has recently been working with Memberoo on a Research and Development project, funded by the West of England Growth Fund, which has enabled Emma and her co-Founder Don Keir to research, experiment and truly innovate in the customer engagement space.

We caught up with Emma to learn more about her journey and what she’s learned along the way…

Before starting her own business, Emma had spent 13 years in customer engagement and data research, starting in the public sector working with councils and the NHS, and ending as Director of Operations for a business with around £3 million of customer engagement contracts.

In 2006, Emma began studying for a Master’s in Business Management and in her third year she started looking at how technology could be better used to engage with people. Emma was studying during the onset of social media, when Facebook required a university email address to sign up, and Twitter was just taking off. “I could really see how this movement could help engagement and research, so I spent a year in my Master’s looking at what the barriers are that are stopping people engaging.”

It was Emma’s research during her Master’s that first triggered the idea for Memberoo. “The findings were telling me that there are too many websites, too many mailing lists. Every organisation wants us to join up to their mailing list, to go onto their website, to fill in their surveys, but for us, as the public, it’s too many places to go, it’s too many websites, and now too many apps to download. It was that vision that we could bring together organisations to connect, engage and learn in one space, that actually inspired me to create my own tech company.”

Taking the leap

Emma sat on the idea until January 2013 when her career came to a natural crossroads. She was working for her family business at the time her father decided to retire. “I had to decide, did I want to take on the company that he’d founded… or did I want to jump and start my own business and go after this idea? And obviously I chose the latter.”

“A major problem was that I have no idea about technology. I had a great idea, but no idea how to build it and no money.”

“You don’t know it’s the right decision” Emma says about leaving the family company to start her own business. “I still don’t know, but you have to go with your gut instinct. I’m in customer engagement, I’m in data research, so this is not an idea that has just come into my head and that I’ve given no thought to. I spent from 2006 onwards working with businesses, looking at what was happening in the tech space, really researching my idea. It was built on a solid foundation.”

Finding a co-founder

The first step in starting her new company was finding a co-founder. “A major problem was that I have no idea about technology. I had a great idea, but no idea how to build it and no money.”

Emma’s accountant put her in touch with the Innovation Centre at the University of Bath who invited her in for a chat with their entrepreneur in residence. “I literally did walk in and say ‘hey this is me, this is my idea, what shall I do?’” recalls Emma. “I didn’t even know that business incubation places existed!”

Emma joined the SetSquared business incubation program in January 2013. “I told them my concept, my vision and explained to them the problem that I’ve got no money, got no IT understanding. Their first major bit of advice for me was ‘if you want to build a tech company, you need to find yourself a co-founder, a CTO.’”

SetSquared connected Emma with Don Keir, an ex founder and CEO himself with a background in technology. After a few hours chatting about her vision for Memberoo, Emma knew that Don was going to be a good fit. “He completely fitted the brief in terms of what I was looking for and what the business needed and we pretty much formed the company there and then.”

I asked Emma how she knew that Don was the right co-founder. “How do you know that anyone is the right person? If you knew the answer to that question, you’d be very rich! It’s just a gut feeling, his skills absolutely lined up with everything I was looking for, so on paper it was perfect… I’m so lucky that he was CEO of his previous startup as well, so he’s been on this journey before. He gives me insight into my role as CEO from having been there and done it before.”

Don’t forget, anything that’s successful in life, there’s always an element of a little bit of luck.

“The fact that the entrepreneur in residence put us together having known us both separately, that’s probably helpful” says Emma, “but at the end of the day, sometimes I think you just have to go on your gut instinct… Don’t forget, anything that’s successful in life, there’s always an element of a little bit of luck and I just think a little bit of our luck was meeting each other when we did. It was the right time for both of us, we had the right skills for each other. Sometimes I don’t think you can plan those things, as much as you might want to.”

Validating the idea

I suggest to Emma that her career in customer engagement has essentially meant she’s been validating her idea for 13 years. “Essentially!” she laughs. “I’ve been learning my trade. Customer engagement, whether it’s public sector or private sector, is about talking to people, it’s about what the data can tell us about their behaviours and attitudes and how we can use that to make better decisions. Whether that’s about building a new hospital or selling more coffees, it’s kind of the same principle.”

I think once you say no 5 or 6 times to businesses you start to think ‘hang on, I’m missing a trick here’

In the early days Memberoo was known as MyCommunity and was focused on the public sector, which was where Emma’s background lay. “But once we started getting our beta version out there and testing” she says, “we started to get private businesses asking if they could use our technology to engage with their customers, and the answer was no. I think once you say no 5 or 6 times to businesses you start to think ‘hang on, I’m missing a trick here’, the data is telling me that people actually want to be using my platform in a wider aspect than just the public sector.

That’s the excitement of running a startup, it’s about being agile and letting the data take the company where it needs to be.

“MyCommunity enabled us to work with 80 businesses and 6,000 community users to test engagement. It was in a real context. It wasn’t academia, it wasn’t theory. It was real and it was live… It gave us the data to understand what Memberoo needed to be. We didn’t know that at the time, but halfway through the journey with MyCommunity, we realised we needed to do a rebrand and we realised we needed to open it out from the public sector to the private sector too. That’s the excitement of running a startup, it’s about being agile and letting the data take the company where it needs to be, rather than putting in place a very strict roadmap that we need to follow.”

On funding

Emma and Don self funded Memberoo for the first 18 months. “Of course it’s scary, that’s part of the process I went through when I was deciding whether to take the jump or not, but once you’ve taken the jump you just need to get in there with both feet and just get going and do it. We had absolute faith. It was scary but I think Don and I both made a considered decision and once we’d made it we just drew a line and got on with the job.”

Around two months after founding the company, Emma and Don won an R&D grant from the West of England Growth Fund, which has since allowed them to develop and test new innovations in their area. The grant required Emma and Don to raise additional Angel investment before they could unlock the grant money…

“The grant was a bit slow to get off the ground” says Emma, “and that’s because we found raising money, I wouldn’t say harder than we thought it was going to be, but we turned down investment twice.”

“Me and my co-founder, we are the ones that are going to make it a success, that are going to drive it in the right direction and we had to feel that the direction that we wanted to go in was the right one.”

Eventually, Emma and Don decided to take investment from Thorium Technology Investors. “The first two offers that we had beforehand, we didn’t feel were the right fit for the business. Raising investment isn’t just about money, it’s about getting the right angels on board. [The first two firms who offered investment] we felt would drive the business in a different direction and not one that Don and I felt would be successful.

“I was tempted, twice, and it is so difficult but it goes back to that gut feeling. On paper, alright they’re giving us the money, but when you start looking into it, you see they want us to do things that we’re not happy with, and at the end of the day no matter how much money you’re taking from investors or VCs, it is your business. Me and my co-founder, we are the ones that are going to make it a success, that are going to drive it in the right direction and we had to feel that the direction that we wanted to go in was the right one.”

Advice for other founders

“Be lean and justify what you’re doing constantly before you throw everything at it because you don’t want to lose everything, you want to make wise decisions and data really helps you do that.”

For Emma, getting into a startup incubator has been crucial to her success. “Something like SetSquared is so beneficial when you’re at such an early stage. It’s not just about the support that the organisation gives you, but you’re also in a really entrepreneurial space, you’re surrounded by other people who are innovating as well… and that’s a really interesting and exciting place to be, I think it can really inspire you.”

As well as surrounding herself with inspirational people, Emma is of course, a stickler for data, and believes a successful startup will be one that effectively collects and utilises information. “Customer data, research, backing up your idea with actual use cases, real people who are actually using your product, even in a prototype, a beta, whatever it may be, is so important. Be lean and justify what you’re doing constantly before you throw everything at it because you don’t want to lose everything, you want to make wise decisions and data really helps you do that.”

When Emma discusses her plans for the future of Memberoo, I can almost hear her smiling down the phone. “I love it, I’m so passionate about what I do, I really do believe that it’s quite groundbreaking what we’re doing.”

You can stay up to date with Memberoo here at simpleweb.co.uk/brands/memberoo, or visit Memberoo.net to get involved yourself!

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