In 2015, Jessica Ruhfus was back living with her parents, sleeping on her sister’s bedroom floor and working three jobs just to keep her business collaboration startup Collabosaurus off the ground.
Five years later, she’s busy drumming up support for her first capital raise and getting ready to jet off to San Francisco, where she will take up a three-month residency at the AusTrade Landing Pad in San Francisco.
Collabosaurus has facilitated more than 4000 collaboration opportunities, and the business saw core revenue growth of 206% in the 2015-16 financial year and 108% in 2016-17.
To the untrained eye it might seem like Ruhfus has made a seamless transition from marketing pro to startup founder on the cusp of international growth; as we know, other people make success look easy.
But the story of how she got there is much more complicated than that, with plenty of unique and not-so-unique challenges along the way. And the journey is not over yet.
A matchmaking platform for brands and businesses, designed to make collaboration easier, Collabosaurus launched in January 2015, to an original target market of publicists and marketers.
However, speaking to StartupSmart, Ruhfus says “all our early adopters were startups and small businesses”.
It took some time to get enough data on customers to be sure that this was a continuing trend, but once Ruhfus was confident, she removed the “PR jargon” and made some edits to gear the site towards the small business market.
After that, Collabosaurus’s user-base “quadrupled within a week”, she says.
Drawing on her own PR background, Ruhfus admits she was coming at the problem from the perspective of one market. She “didn’t know how valuable it was going to be” for another.
“It’s taken a long time to get to know how big it could potentially be,” she says.
Running a startup is famously challenging, and when asked about her most difficult moments, Ruhfus is momentarily scuppered, because there are “so many”.
“I’ve probably thought about quitting 10 times,” she says. “Seriously, about three times.”
She’s had conflict with family members and developers holding source code to ransom. And more recently, delays in finishing changes to the website slowed down her capital raising process.
“Not the funnest of times,” she says.
So far, Collabosaurus has been bootstrapped, although Ruhfus does have a business partner who “came in with sweat equity”, she says.
“Looking back, it’s amazing we survived,” she says.
“Growing at a snail’s pace has been really frustrating, but it’s allowed us to test a lot of things, and iterate, and get the product right.”
Ruhfus has now been having conversations with Australian investors for the past six months or so, and hopes to close a “late seed round around the $4 million mark” within the next year.
But at the same time she’s also getting ready to travel to San Francisco, to take part in the AusTrade Landing Pads program, which offers startups 90-day residency in a co-working space, plus introductions to investors, potential partners and mentors.
Collabosaurus has been “fielding enquiries” and building organic traffic from the US for a while now, and the original plan was to complete the capital raise first “so we could attack that market properly”.
But the Landing Pads program is “a fantastic opportunity,” Ruhfus says. And so she’s simply changed the plan a little, to “try to get some US investment”.
“Our biggest goal is to establish a powerful partnership with a tech company that services the small business market,” she says.
“Hopefully I’ll be coming back at christmas as a unicorn.”
But “this whole capital raising thing” isn’t all fun and games, Ruhfus says.
She’s been told no more than 60 times, following 60 meetings, which involved preparation of 60 tailored pitch decks. As well as being “confidence shattering”, it just takes up a lot of time, she says.
“I’m really big on bouncing back, but when you’re in the midst of it … it’s really disheartening,” she says.
The process so far has been a learning curve, and “really frustrating”, she says.
“I didn’t expect it to be so hard to find investors who also had experience in marketing or B2B stuff.”
At first, Ruhfus says she was meeting with “anyone and everyone” in her search for an investor. While this was “great practice”, it wasn’t necessarily ever going to pay off.
“The stage we’re at, we want legends in our corner,” she says.
“It needs to be people who are passionate about the company, and who can help with different pieces of advice.”
The importance of people
There are also practical challenges around being a non-technical founder of a tech company, Ruhfus says, and it can be frustrating “not knowing how to code, and grab a computer and do it yourself”.
From a development standpoint, “not getting the right people on board at the beginning” can be expensive and Ruhfus learnt this the hard way, “overspending on tech early, with someone I thought could do it”.
Collabosaurus now has a “fantastic developer” on board, but Ruhfus says when she was starting out she “just didn’t have the network of tech people around me that I could trust enough”.
“It’s super-important to find those people around you, but it’s also very difficult,” she adds.
“If I’m hiring a marketer, I know what to look for and how to filter down potential hires. I don’t know what makes a good and a bad developer,” she says.
“I can’t tell between really good and really bad code.”
But, that’s all part and parcel, Ruhfus says.
“Name anything building a startup and there’s a challenge around it — hiring, scaling — but that’s what we signed up for. It’s fun and it keeps us hungry.”
Thinking of quitting
The biggest low Ruhfus can pinpoint was about a year after the business launched. She had a mortgage but had split with her partner.
“I was living with my parents, sleeping on my sister’s bedroom floor,” she says. At the same time, she was also working three jobs to keep Collabosaurus going.
“I didn’t have any money,” she admits
Someone (she doesn’t say who) suggested that she should go back to PR and walk away from Collabosauraus. And she was considering it.
“Then I got a call from Apple,” she says.
“The call was about having me speak at their event ‘so you want to be a smart collaborator’ at their Sydney Store. Of course, I said yes.”
“That kept me going,” she says. “I’m so glad I stayed in it.”
If Ruhfus could go back and give herself some advice, first on the list is: “Don’t spend all the money early”.
Beyond that, she says she wishes she had understood “it’s never going to be perfect”.
“You’re always going to continually improve,” she says.
It’s not a case of “build it and they will come”, it’s a case of “build it and iterate, and iterate, and iterate forever”.
Finally, she advises other startups to realise the benefit of good customer service.
If the customer experience is a good one, then “even if the tech isn’t quite right, or the product isn’t delivering, people associate positive emotions [with] your brand”, she says.
“That can make all the difference.”
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