Everything about accelerators scare me. It’s a world that I’m not familiar with. Prior to last week, I did’t know the difference between a Venture Capitalist and an Angel Investor.
I’ve never had someone tear apart my business before, albeit constructively. My mum always tells me I’m doing a great job.
The week before Ignite I had reached a milestone at With Jack. I hit the 100 customer mark and was feeling confident. This metric validated my business.
With a conversion rate of 30%+, it was an indication to keep on trucking to 1000.
100 Customers = Validation
1000 Customers = Profitable business
10,000 Customers = Lifestyle business
100,000 Customers = Multi-million pound business
My confidence didn’t last. A couple of days before setting off for Newcastle, doubt set in.
I’m not good enough as a founder. My business isn’t solving a pressing enough problem. Everyone else is going to be further along than me. What if I don’t know my figures? I’m afraid I’ll look stupid.
It turns out this was normal. Having spoken to the other startups at Ignite off-site, most felt the same.
The Application Process
What followed was an intense, 2-day programme.
The first half of each day comprised of workshops on growth, hiring and more. I took a ton of notes in these sessions and came away with actionable tips—some of which I’ve implemented with positive effect.
This part of the day provided more value than many of the £200+ conferences I’ve attended.
In the afternoon we had Office Hours with investors, mentors and the Ignite team. This part of the day was challenging and tested each of us as founders.
A Brief Backstory…
My background is unconventional. 12 years ago I inherited my Dad’s insurance business. From the age of 18 I worked from home until moving into a co-working space in 2013. That’s 8 years of working from home!
For several of those years I also battled a crippling anxiety disorder. At my anxiety’s peak, I didn’t leave the house for fear of having panic attacks. It took over my life.
I don’t recognise that person anymore, but I often joke that the 8 years I spent working from home—and with the little social interaction I had—my social skills have been affected. In other words, this was way out of my comfort zone!
I was asked difficult questions. I didn’t have answers to all of them. At times it probably did look like I don’t know what I’m doing. I met some disinterested and stony-faced Venture Capitalists. I went into these sessions feeling proud of what I’m building, but left wondering why I was even there.
While some of what I’m saying sounds negative, it isn’t.
Being a solo founder, I need to have a network of people who question my beliefs. Test my assumptions. Challenge my theories. I believe that’s what will take With Jack from 100 customers to 1000 and beyond.
After feeling exhausted and bruised, we ended the first day with a 3 minute pitch.
Despite doing a bit of public speaking, it’s still an uncomfortable process for me. But this was different. Everyone in that room was in the same boat. Sharing the experience and knowing what we were all going through, everyone was rooting for one another. There was a lot of support.
Day two followed the same format. This time I felt prepared for stony-faced Venture Capitalists. I felt prepared for difficult questions. I felt prepared to doubt myself.
After embracing the uneasiness of it all, I ended the experience on a high.
Why Did I Apply To Ignite?
What problems is With Jack facing that compelled me to apply to Ignite?
I’m a solo founder and need a network of mentors around me.
My conversion rate is great, but I’m lacking volume. How do I scale and get more customers?
I burned through my cash on developing Jack’s customer journey.
An unexpected upside of Ignite was meeting other early-stage startup founders. I don’t have many friends in this circle.
Although I love my friends, I sometimes feel I’m wired up differently. I want to talk about business, marketing and the problems I’m facing growing With Jack. None of my friends find this interesting. I can see their eyes glaze over when I try to talk about Jack—or they just don’t reply to my texts!
There was an instant bond with the group. I liked everybody I met. So much so that if I don’t get accepted onto the Ignite programme, I won’t feel resentment or bitterness. I’ll be happy for the startups that get through.
I extracted enough value from the off-site that my 48 hours in Newcastle, irrespective of the outcome, was worthwhile. What a whirlwind experience!
This wasn’t my first launch. I’ve shipped a few projects over the years;
An email course
A SaaS app
Insurance by Jack
A vlog (coming soon)
Each launch had varying degrees of success, but one thing has always struck me. Launches are unpredictable and often underwhelming.
I used to expect big things from launches. “This is it. This is the idea that’s going to take off. It’s a guaranteed win.” After a while I learned to scale back my assumptions and have more realistic expectations.
When it came time to launch With Jack from a hotel room in Berlin, I didn’t set expectations. Yes, I’d spent years trying to get it off the ground and invested thousands of pounds into it. The stakes felt high. But I wanted to quietly push it live, iterate on it every day and see where it could go.
Where Can It Go?
Today I reached the 100 customer mark.
To say I’m excited is an understatement! 100 isn’t a sustainable business, yet it’s a milestone that validates I’m headed in the right direction. If you can get 100 customers, you can scale beyond that to 200, 400, 1000 etc.
This is what I was doing, albeit unintentionally. I didn’t have anything to sell, I just really liked the web industry and found these people fun to hang out with.
Every year I’d travel to New Adventures in Web Design in Nottingham or Build in Belfast. It was through networking at these conferences I met people I’m still friends with today. Many of these friends became With Jack’s first customers.
Lesson: Take Sean’s advice about building relationships now. Pick an audience you like, focus on helping them and grow your network. Start with people.
Referrals are the strongest indication you’re doing something right. Every time I hear, “My friend got their insurance through you and recommended your service” it’s proof With Jack is on the right path.
What’s worked with Jack is being laser focused on a specific audience.
Most insurers tend to target every type of business. So their web site copy and marketing material is trying to appeal to, say, traditional tradesmen and digital businesses. It’s hard to make that work.
When a designer or developer asks for business insurance recommendations, With Jack is often suggested. This is because our marketing, copy and customer rewards are all aligned with that particular audience.
Inviting people on this journey with me has been invaluable. Not all of them are in the market to become Jack’s customers, but for those who are they feel like they’ve gotten to know me. They want to support the business I’ve worked hard to launch.
Lesson: Document your journey. Twitter isn’t a platform that will work for everyone, but I got on it early and became an active user. It can be uncomfortable sharing the vulnerable moments. It’s easier to show up when you’re financially stable and have 10,000 customers, but I think being transparent about your journey and involving people in it will help you get there quicker.
Leads from Jack's MVP
In May of 2014 I launched Insurance by Jack. I’ve described this as my MVP, but I’m in two minds as to whether I should have ever taken that route. (I’ll write a post dissecting where and why this business went wrong. Subscribe to my newsletter if you don’t want to miss it.)
I did a lot of brand damage with this business. I had a website that did a great job at communicating my vision, but fell short where it actually mattered. Delivering on that vision.
People came to the web site with certain expectations, but those expectations weren’t being met. People’s first experience with Insurance by Jack was poor—and first impressions matter.
On the other hand, some of the people that stumbled upon Insurance by Jack took an interest in where it could go. They signed up to the newsletter or became followers on social media. Some of those leads are now With Jack customers.
Lesson: Although I’m disappointed that Insurance by Jack delivered a poor first impression, it served a purpose despite its imperfections. I got a lot of mistakes out of the way and drummed up interest from people that would later become customers.
Organic search has been great for bringing people outside of my network to With Jack. As Jack becomes more of an established brand, I think I’ll see more customers come via this channel.
Currently, the customer journey via organic search looks like this:
Jack’s rankings will only improve as I write more content. I use Answer The Public to discover what questions people are asking, then I create blog posts or landing pages around it.
Again, because I’m focusing on a specific audience it’s easy to find out what to write about. I can learn what confuses them about insurance and use examples that hit home.
Lesson: I don’t think I need to tell you the value of ranking in Google with valuable content. Your audience is searching for answers. By providing value, you build trust and potentially win customers.
The List Goes On…
I’ve covered the top 5 channels, but there are many more that have brought me customers.
I think getting to 100 customers boils down to a few things.
Finding An Audience You Want To Serve
One of the reasons I couldn’t make a success of my Dad’s insurance business was that it served an audience I was disinterested in. You’re going to be hanging out with these people, talking to them and getting into their heads. If you don’t see yourself having coffee with them every day, it’s not the right fit.
Keeping It Simple
If I was to follow industry trends, I’d have launched with a similar format to other insurers. Multiple providers, different types of cover and aiming to appeal to every type of consumer. Instead I worked with one provider, offered one product and catered to a specific group of people. This approach meant I could launch quicker and with less capital. It also helped with tailoring Jack’s customer journey to a particular group of people. This makes the experience as good as possible for them, which leads to happy customers and referrals.
Lastly, I will leave you with some stats.
£24879.53 gross premium written
Here's To The Next 100?
I believe I can scale this business, but I want to take a moment to appreciate getting to 100 customers.
In business you always look forward. “Okay, we launched. What’s next? Okay, we have 100 customers. How do we get to 200?”. But this milestone is one I want to savour. It took so bloody long to get here.
Thank you to each of you who have used Jack to arrange your insurance.
Now that my dog’s better and I have no more weddings until July, I have a couple of (relatively) uninterrupted weeks to get back into my routine! Let me fill you in on what’s been happening.
Improvements To The Onboarding Process
It’s funny looking back on the first few months of With Jack. The only part of the process with any polish was the quote system. Beyond that it was scrappy, not to mention I was only offering one product.
For those that haven’t yet used With Jack, the current process looks like this:
You submit your details via our quote engine
Jack emails you a breakdown of your quote
You answer your risk questions
Jack sends you your policy documents
For launch I invested my resources into step 1, the quote system. This is With Jack’s bread and butter. For step 3 we threw together a form without too much thought. It didn’t take long to notice it was causing confusion.
These were some of the questions people would ask at the risk questions stage:
“Is this the final step? Am I committed to buying insurance? How do I pay?”
I worked with Naomi Atkinson on redesigning the risk questions. We specifically addressed the above confusions and rolled out the updated form last month.
Here’s the before and after:
Aesthetically it’s a lot better, fitting Jack’s whole ‘design at the core’ ethos. More importantly—since implementing the new design—I haven’t heard any of the above questions.
Inching Closer To 100 Customers
The next blog post I publish will be celebrating hitting the 100 customer mark. (I hope.)
Right now I have 95 customers. This means I’m a 1.5 weeks away from the big 100! That is unless I have a surprisingly good or horribly slow fortnight.
With Jack is about much more than the numbers, though. I could have 10 customers and it would still have the same mission—getting creative businesses the protection they need, doing so with as little hassle as possible and in a format that’s simple.
With that said, I can’t deny that getting to 100 customers as a bootstrapped, solo founder feels great.
This nicely ties into my next update…
I've Applied To An Accelerator
I did something I never thought I would. I applied to Ignite, an accelerator.
Let me back up a bit.
A few months ago I attended a startup dinner in Edinburgh where Tristan (Ignite’s CEO) was a guest. Tristan and I have met before, but this was the first time I asked if Ignite would be a good fit for me.
As much as I want to champion bootstrapping and love the idea of being a solo founder, I’m struggling with building Jack on my own. It’s growing very slowly. I feel I’d benefit from a network, mentorship and being around other startups.
I’m not comfortable with accelerators (mostly because I like hiding behind my computer). But if something scares me, it’s usually a good indicator I should try it.
I had my video interview last week. I’ve since been invited to the last stage of the application process in Newcastle. This is what determines who is accepted into the final programme.
3 months ago I wrote Jack’s year in review post. This was after only 4 months in business—1 of which was a soft launch. After putting my 81st customer on cover this week, I looked at some of the same figures that lead to that post.
Three months ago, my figures looked like this:
£10293.93 gross premium written
Today, they look like this:
£20377.29 gross premium written
Traffic has dropped considerably, which is inevitable after the buzz of launch day fades. So have the number of quotes I’ve processed. Despite this, my conversion rate has improved and I’ve generated another £10,000 of Gross Premium Written.
I wanted to gain a better insight into these figures. I’m putting the same number of people on cover despite a drop in traffic and quotes.
Insurance is a yearly purchase. Much of my audience wouldn’t have been ready to buy insurance initially as they had existing policies.
Secondly, Jack’s launch garnered interest from a user base that isn’t my market (geographic eligibility/fit the criteria). It also exposed Jack to people who are my market and used us to arrange their insurance. They now follow Jack on social media or recommend us to their friends, exposing us to more of our target market without the same footprint as launch.
Our overall footprint is smaller, but our target market footprint is bigger.
This sounds right. More than 50% of my visitors have come from the States. (I still receive quotes from people outside of the UK—even thought it’s a .co.uk. domain and the currency is in GBP—but fewer than before.)
I’m also seeing more sign-ups through recommendations. I’d love to encourage this behaviour with a referral program.
I’ve been focusing on creating content, so I’m happy to see organic search performing well.
What I’m more interested in is traffic that converts. Whilst I stupidly didn’t track this from day one, I have Goals set up in Analytics. They monitor my CTA click-throughs and those who complete a quote and submit their details.
The traffic that converts best is:
This blog post (Difficult to know if these are legit or out of curiousity)
When I launched Jack I had no idea what would work. I still don’t. But 6-7 months in I’m building a better picture of where to focus my time, energy and money.
Content is performing well. I think this is because most insurers don’t cater their content to creative professionals. They can tell you why a tradesman needs insurance or a solicitor, but not a web designer or developer.
Some of the stories I’m sharing about insurance for creatives invoke action or plant a seed. I’ve just paid for sponsored content on a popular blog, so it will be interesting to see how that converts.
I also built a tool that generated more quotes in 2 days than the entire week before. Few of these have converted yet, but I’m hoping there’s a delayed effect and it’s a slow burner. The response to the tool has been positive.
As the months progress, I’m hoping less of my marketing will be guesswork and more decisions will be informed by data.
Something tells me, however, that it doesn’t matter if you’re 7 months or 7 years in—marketing is a constant experiment and full of surprises.
As With Jack has been live for 6+ months, this is a question I’ve been exploring.
Whenever people ask, “How’s Jack going?”, I’m never sure what to respond with. Do I tell them how many customers I have? Focus on the conversion rate? Or do I be upfront and say “It’s going well, but it’s still not supporting me yet”?
Depending on who’s asking I’ll say a mixture of those things. “It’s going well. We have 73 customers and are growing every week, but it’s hit a plateau. We have a conversion rate of 25%, but it’s volume we’re lacking.”
To some this sounds like a promising start. To others, they seem sympathetic to my startup woes. This is because validation looks different to everyone.
To me, With Jack has been validated.
Here’s how I personally measure validation:
Creatively satisfied. I crawl into bed at the end of the day feeling challenged and creatively satisfied. Insurance isn't known for being a creative industry, but I bring those elements into my job. Making visuals, writing content, coding etc.
No Sunday dread. I'm not on Facebook anymore, but I'd log in on Sunday evenings to be met with a wall full of 'Sunday dread'. These are the people who aren't looking forward to work on Monday. There are 52 (or 53) Sundays in the year—that's a lot of dread!
Comparing it to my previous attempt. With Insurance by Jack, I won 55 customers in 2 years. Compare this to 73 customers in 6 months and With Jack is looking encouraging. It supports what I was saying all along. A better customer journey will delight visitors and improve the conversion rate.
Customer feedback. Emails, tweets. Every time someone vouches for With Jack, I feel a sense of validation. With Jack's goal is to make business insurance accessible to freelancers and those working in the digital sector. Statements like this affirm I'm closer to fulfilling that goal.
Making money. With Jack has been making money from day one, although it still isn't enough to support me. Every week we're putting new customers on cover and inching towards a sustainable business.
But maybe I wouldn’t think Jack has been validated if I had 3 kids to feed.
Maybe I wouldn’t think Jack has been validated if I’d left a job with a £60K salary to pursue it.
I’m fortunate that I’m building Jack with a financial cushion from other projects. This is why it’s impossible to have a blanket response to “What does validation look like?”. Everybody’s circumstances / goals are different, therefore validation looks different to everyone.
Playing The Long Game
Another factor I consider is time. It took my dad 2 years to start earning a decent income with his insurance business. (In case you haven’t noticed, my dad is a big inspiration to me. That’s who I named my business after.)
Year 2 is magical for brokers. On top of the new business they’re bringing in, they’re enjoying renewals from year 1. That book of customers begins to build.
Despite an insight into how my dad built his business, my mind wrestles with the articles I read on marketing and business in the startup world. You know the type. The ones with the clickbait titles?
“How My Website Made £17,000 With This One Simple Tweak”
“Idea To £25,000 In One Weekend”
“How We Got 100,000 Users In 24 Hours”
While they’re fun to read and (maybe) spark ideas to apply to your own business, they’re unrealistic. They make business sound easy. The overnight success story. My worry is people read these articles thinking that’s how business should look.
Nobody writes about “How It Took Me 500 Days Of Showing Up And Making Lots Of Mistakes To Earn Enough Money To Pay My Bills”. That’s partly why I blog about where I’m going wrong, because that part is just as important as when you get it right.
Side note: A business blog I enjoy reading that’s refreshingly honest is Adii Pienaar’s.
In 2015 I changed a lot about the way I do business. I used to follow my creative itch, starting a new project whenever inspiration hit. I’d then move onto the next thing when I got bored or lost steam.
That’s not me anymore. I’ve learned to focus. I give one project my attention, I experiment with it and I’m patient. I don’t expect overnight results.
To answer the question, “What does validation look like?”. You can decide based on your circumstances and goals. Ignore the clickbait headlines, how others measure their success and focus on what validation looks like to you.