How Melbourne startup Shoji made Google Play’s top 50 social apps while still in beta testing

Shoji founder Thomas Pham

Shoji founder Thomas Pham. Source: Supplied

Melbourne-based social startup Shoji debuted in Google Play’s top 50 social apps within the space of 24 hours last week, despite its app being only 60% complete.

The GPS-powered social networking and chat app found itself at number 36 in the Google Play social app rankings within 24 hours of a beta launch campaign at Melbourne’s Monash University, which saw students utilising the app as part of a university-wide ‘treasure hunt’ to coincide with mid-year orientation week.

“The initial goal was to create some awareness around the app and what we’re setting out to do,” founder Thomas Pham tells StartupSmart.

Shoji bills itself as a social app that allows users to be introduced to people nearby according to their intention — whether it be seeking advice or looking to make a friend.

“We want to mitigate that wall that shoots up straight away when you’re scared or sceptical of someone,” Pham says.

The app uses geo-location technology to connect users based on what they need most and what they have to offer, creating a substantial support network that surrounds them wherever they go. According to Pham, the startup’s aim is to connect society as a whole by promoting social concern for each other.

The idea came to Pham when he was stranded overnight in a foreign airport, isolated and searching for common company.

“I really wanted to talk to someone in the same situation, reach out to anyone at all who had anything in common so we could chat and get to know each other … I felt like I hit rock bottom, I was so lonely,” he says.

Shoji was founded in late 2015, and since then the startup has secured $150,000 in pre-seed funding from an unnamed Australian tech investor, after previously turning down $1.15 million in investment from two Silicon Valley investors, according to Pham.

“We only wanted to raise money from Australian investors … in terms of startups and investment it [Australia] is still quite far behind America,” Pham explains.

“If we could make magic happen with $150,000, we could build confidence in investors and have a story about an Australian startup only seeking Australian investment in its early rounds; that would gain some traction and bring more investors from overseas to startups here.”

The funds were used to build a prototype of the Shoji app, which was trialled in beta mode during orientation week at Monash University and saw close to 1500 people using the platform per day.

“We had to come up with a gamification method to encourage people to use the app, so we created Shoji monopoly … we [unofficially] broke the Guinness World Record for the biggest treasure hunt,” Pham says.

Launch as soon as possible

For Pham, the decision to launch the app as soon as possible, even when the product wasn’t complete, was crucial for validating Shoji for investors.

“We had to launch now because Australian investors are safer and more risk-averse. They want a proven revenue model,” Pham says.

“We launched early to show [investors] how big and powerful the app can be, and how the universities and students are embracing it,” he says.

Shoji has inked deals with the University of Queensland and Kings College in London to run similar “Shoji monopoly events” next year, according to Pham.

Move fast and break things

Pham says launching in beta mode has also been key to “gaining brand awareness and feedback on the app, [and] learning what doesn’t work so that we can work on it immediately before the finished product”.

“By doing that we are learning very quickly where we need to fix things,” he says.

Pham suggests customers will be more willing to contribute feedback and constructive criticism when an app is launched in beta mode, because they feel a part of the development journey. 

“We’ve had people give us 5-star ratings while still pointing out a list of bugs [in the app]” Pham says.

“Because we are building an app for the people, it would be good to be built by the people.”

*This article was updated on July 31, 2017. 

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