Bootstrapped startup Collabosaurus launches brand collab app, after a surprise COVID-19 growth period

Collabosaurus founder Jess Ruhfus

Collabosaurus founder and chief Jess Ruhfus. Source: supplied. Photographer: Alex Marks.

Bootstrapped Aussie startup Collabosaurus is launching its brand collaboration matchmaking app, after an unexpectedly strong 2020 brought the business back from the brink.

Founded in 2015 by chief executive Jessica Ruhfus, Collabosaurus is a platform connecting brands for collaboration opportunities.

Now the Collabosaurus team has, aptly, collaborated with General Assembly on its app design and user experience, “living by the brand values to the nth degree”, Ruhfus tells SmartCompany.

When asked why now was the time to build an app into the startup’s offering, the founder laughs.

“I think six years ago was the time to launch an app,” she admits.

The barrier was cost. Ruhfus says she was quoted some $40,000 for development of an iOS app, and the same again for the Android version. That’s before taking into account things like updates and maintenance.

Plus, in its initial form, Collabosaurus was a tool for publicists. It wasn’t designed for business owners or internal marketing teams to swipe right and create their own partnerships.

“I probably would have forked out $80,000 to learn a lot about the target market not being right,” Ruhfus muses.

Ruhfus put the app idea to one side and pushed ahead with a web platform. And she’s glad she did.

“Technology has changed so much … it’s so much more cost-effective to get an app off the ground,” she says.

The cross-platform Collabosaurus app, which launches today, was built internally and cost a total of about $20,000.

The startup rollercoaster

Over the past six years, Collabosaurus has been through what Ruhfus calls the “classic startup rollercoaster”.

The business started life as a web platform connecting small businesses, marketers and brand managers to create collaboration opportunities.

Growth was ticking along, and at the end of 2018, Ruhfus spent three months in San Francisco trying to drum up capital for the business, “very unsuccessfully”.

But, while she was there she did have a chance meeting with a marketing manager at a large US clothing brand, who highlighted the huge amount of inbound collaboration requests, and the time it takes so sift through them to find a good fit.

“I said ‘oh yeah, we can help with that’,” Ruhfus recalls.

“At the time we totally couldn’t.”

The algorithm matched brands together on projects, based on marketing goals and other criteria, she explains. There was no reason the same premise couldn’t be applied to streamline and rank inbound requests.

In early 2019, Ruhfus and the team built their Pitch Portal tool to do exactly this.

However, after an unsuccessful attempt to raise funding, the founder was low on passion, low on funds and considering (not for the first time) calling it quits.

Then, “out of the blue” online retail giant ASOS signed up, proving to be a “game changer” for the business. The likes of Microsoft, Pinterest and Marks & Spencer soon followed.

Like everyone else, Collabosaurus had a rocky start to 2020. But after the initial shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ruhfus and the team saw brands adapting their marketing in the new environment.

“They saw collaborations as being a cost-effective way to stay relevant and continue to reach customers creatively without spending huge marketing dollars,” she explains.

Ultimately, revenue doubled in 2020, and it’s set to double again in 2021. That is, Ruhfus hints, if the business continues to grow organically without any external investment.

Learning on your own dime

When it comes to funding, Ruhfus’ attitude has changed over the years. Of course, there was a time she was desperately trying to raise capital, but with the benefit of hindsight, she’s almost glad it didn’t work out.

“I’ve learnt so many hard lessons on our own dime,” she says, adding that some of the startup’s best innovations have come from “being pushed into a corner financially”.

Collabosaurus is profitable — something Ruhfus is incredibly proud of, and something that’s come out of a necessity for conservative and considered growth strategies.

“Everything as a bootstrapped founder is inch-by-inch,” she says.

“We can’t take huge risks financially.”

That said, she’s not ruling out dipping her toe back into the venture capital arena. Collabosaurus has a considerable customer base in the US and she would like to further expand Stateside to capitalise on that.

Ruhfus herself is just a little more savvy now. She has six years of data and lessons under her belt, and can demonstrate return on investment for collaborations forged on the platform. She also has a much better idea of what the return on each dollar spent on the business would be.

“If we had ended up raising capital we probably would have mis-spent the money in the early days — on things like marketing when the core product wasn’t quite nailed,” she says.

“It would be much better spent now.”

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