Hi Sean and welcome to InspiredStartups.com! Firstly, please tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you begin your startup journey and what has motivated you to launch your own business?
"Thank you for having me!
OK, I’m from Dundalk originally, but I’ve lived in Dublin most of my adult life. I first studied IT, but ended up studying and completing a degree in Law. I haven’t actually used my Law degree at all and, frankly, I don’t intend to!
My company, ThankFrank.com, rewards shopping credit, absolutely free, to any savvy shopper who spends time helping other shoppers find the best products and prices online.
My career has been spent in process engineering and software interface and my last job was with Microsoft where I was a global program manager. Personally, I just love to see technology making people’s lives or jobs noticeably easier, to the point that it is actually enjoyable to use.
I’m a total hippie at heart (though I do get antsy unless I’m being efficient and practical!) and I’m almost insanely curious. I’m basically that annoying kid who never stops asking “Why?” – Though since then I’ve learned how to rephrase the question a bit! I do have a particular interest in social mechanics, social psychology, human perspective and human evolution.
The reason I started ThankFrank.com is easy; I have a vision and an intense passion for what we are trying to achieve. I was building a fairly successful career right up to the point that I quit my job in Microsoft, so if money was my motivator, I definitely would have stayed where I was! ThankFrank is something I just need to do."
Now tell us about your shopper community website project you are currently working on. What is the name, where did both the idea and name come from and what has motivated you to pursue it?
"The name of our site is ThankFrank.com and it’s a social shopping site that thanks people for being frank!
ThankFrank is a way to skip searching and just ask. Visitors ask our frank community of savvy shoppers for hints and tips on buying whatever they need, our members respond if they have any useful advice, and if anyone is thanked they get discounts on their own stuff.
Our ThankFrank team finds interesting ways for our community to earn money as a group, and every month we share whatever we have made back out to our members as goodwill credit, which they can exchange for shopping vouchers. The more thanks each member collects, the more of a share of the monthly earnings they get. The bigger the community as a whole gets, the more we can potentially earn per member. That’s it, really!
The idea for the business came about through my own love of budget home cinema. I’m mad about my home cinema so I talk about it a lot! When I built my first budget system for under a grand, I found myself suddenly helping a lot of people. Then the thought struck me; I’m helping people buy what they want to buy anyway but the big winners here are the people selling the products!
Now, thousands of people help each other for free every day because, well, it just feels good to help others anyway. But I wondered, with the right process in place, wouldn’t everyone be a little happier if those who give really useful help could be given a little something back? Just as a little “Thank You” for the effort. From the first moment I knew what I was looking for out of this; I love home cinema and I just really, really wanted the projector I just wasn’t able to afford! And if I could help 100 people make good choices so I could afford it, I certainly would!
And that’s where I came up with ThankFrank.com. My vision was a community of smart, helpful and frank shoppers helping everyone else spend their money wisely, and that everyone who visits leaves as a smart and informed buyer. A place where you can get a quick steer to the best stuff from people who know what you need. I hope that eventually, the most helpful in the ThankFrank community can fully expect to collect enough thanks and shopping credits to get their own favourite stuff for free.
And I really do hope I get my projector!"
Who are the audiences you target with this community platform? As a startup with a two-sided network model, how do you address growing both sides of the network simultaneously (advice seekers on one end and shopper experts on the other end?) What metrics do you use to measure the success of your community?
Actually, we have three stakeholder networks to serve! We have the visitors looking for advice, the experts looking to win thanks, and the companies who want to engage with and support our helpful community!
We are essentially establishing a crowdsourcing opportunity where a “Thanks!” directly benefits both crowd participants. The beauty of our business model, however, is that all costs are covered by a third participant, who is benefitting from the sum total of all the help. It’s a win-win-win scenario for all participants every time someone clicks “Thanks!”
The crowdsourcing model incorporates a certain element of supply and demand, so that brings a little organic balance to the community. But one of the three stakeholders holds all the keys to making this worthwhile for everyone; our community of frank shoppers.
They will determine the quality of the advice, they will independently moderate the forum, they will have the final say on key decisions on the evolution of the site, and they will decide how the culture of the community evolves. They will also spread the word about the community if the service is good. When it comes right down to it, the success or failure of ThankFrank.com depends upon the social goodwill of our helpful community.
So our job will be to show them how valuable their social goodwill really is to everyone else. Right now, we are rewarding our community with small credits for helping people shop, but in the future we will add more ways to better say “Thanks!” and even better ways to collect discounts for helping others.
The whole point is to celebrate people who are honest and frank. And to eventually see how much of a difference a single community of truly genuine people can make."
I know from my own experience in the online business that it is very hard to come up with an idea that hasn’t been done before. How does ThankFrank.com differentiate from other social shopping sites?
We are working in a very new industry, social shopping, and the players that are out there at the moment are all trying different models to varying degrees of success. Social shopping has been touted as the next big thing for years now and the retail market is crying out for a working social shopping model since Facebook’s f-commerce sold the world on the concept, and then spectacularly tanked! So our market is primed for innovation, for someone to stand out.
Sites like Fancy, Polyvore and Wanelo provide social shopping services that flag products within product categories based on how many people also want them. They are essentially aggregating data to provide insight into trends, and are great if you want to spend an hour or two browsing, but not so great if you just want to find something without the effort.
Then you have Q&A sites like Quora and Google Answers that focus on collecting consumer opinion and qualifying it. The goal for these sites is to find the very best answers to the most common questions, but if the question is uncommon or personalised in any way, you probably won’t find much help.
Finally you have discussion boards, the likes of Boards.ie here in Ireland, where members help each other in their spare time, but since the members of these forums expect nothing in return, the quality of responses can be quite hit and miss.
ThankFrank.com is an amalgamation of core aspects of the above models with one brand new ingredient: crowdsourcing. But I don’t think that’s what will set us apart.
For my mind, the core innovation behind our service is the fact that the rewards are really only a catalyst; the true driver of any genuinely helpful behaviour is the natural human compassion and goodwill towards others that we all know and feel. It’s about meeting people who actually enjoy making your life a little easier and then being able to do something for them in return.
The real reward has nothing to do with vouchers, they’re just a bonus; the real reward is knowing that people are delighted to help you if you ask them, and that you can sometimes be the perfect person with the perfect advice that someone else really needs.
That’s my inner hippie piping up right there! But that is the basis behind the service and what I think will ultimately set us apart from the rest."
Now tell us about the lifespan of ThankFrank.com? Which of the following stages (discovery, validation, refining, scale) have reached to date? What challenges did you face across each phase and what was your learning experience?
"We are still in validation. Since we are trying something that effectively incentivises a certain type of behaviour, we need to make absolutely sure that it all works first!
It all began when I met Diego, my CTO, around December 2011 and we agreed to get started. I quit my job in Microsoft in February 2012 and we went straight into discovery. I started visiting retailers and industry experts and Diego started to build a suitable platform. We realised that there was a lot of work needed to build it and there was only 2 of us at the time. But I had money saved to fund us and we wanted to get it right.
After more than our fair share of outsourcing nightmares, we were almost finished with our first solution in June 2013 when we realised that there was a framework-inherent problem that could eventually prove fatal when we went to scale, and, having spent a large portion of our money on the first solution, I realised we would have more of a chance of success by starting again, from scratch, than trying to rescue what we had.
That was not a fun time, let me tell you! And the mistake we made was that we did not focus enough on discovery. We were so keen to start serving clients that we were rushing to get the platform built, and the revelation of the issue forced us to completely rethink our strategy and really aim for the MVP. That pivot put us on the path that we should have been on all along. If anything it strengthened our resolve.
We joined an accelerator program, Enterprise Ireland’s new Frontiers phase 2, in September 2013 and I started to build a team with wider skill-sets. By December we were up to five and, with the added support provided by Enterprise Ireland, we had our first beta actually working by late February 2014.
2 months later we are still piloting and building but we have a small community of people helping each other and the level of help we are seeing even surprised me. At this stage it’s safe to say that the help model works.
And the last thing we need to do to validate is that the community will grow. And our next feature will hopefully drive a little growth.
One way or another, it’s been a long road to get here and our next stage, scaling, will be an enormous task if we want to do it right, so we need to find a little investment first!"
Any success stories you would like share with us? Additionally, what developments do you plan for ThankFrank for the near future?
"When I started out, someone advised me that starting a business requires a completely irrational tendency to celebrate every success, no matter how small, and see every setback as nothing but a step to success. That’s the best advice I’ve gotten so far!
I won’t bore you with all the things I celebrate about my business, because I would probably sound completely mad!
But I will say that I’m absolutely delighted with our team. The level of talent I’ve somehow managed to gather around this concept is really humbling, and that buoys me every day. The enthusiasm that they feel only amplifies my own, and it makes the long hours and working weekends seem irrelevant. Every success that we achieve is simply a testament to them.
I’m also absolutely delighted with what we are seeing happening in the pilot. I’m a big believer in empathy and compassion and the role they have to play in our society, and what is becoming very clear on the forum is that people are really good at understanding and helping each other. Everyone’s needs are different so the advice varies widely, but when a handful of people who can relate to your problem volunteer to offer some help, the quality of advice is almost always unbelievably high.
Our next feature will allow people to say “Thanks!” anywhere online or even offline. It will open up our service so that members of any community can help each other within their own networks and still collect ThankFrank discounts. We are hoping that this will get us the type of exposure we will need to bring our community to a minimum critical mass to scale beyond Dublin and Ireland. And we are hoping that it will incentivise really great help in lots of existing forums and social hubs online."
Do you have any advice around the fund-raising process? Are you willing to share your business model?
"I wouldn’t want to give advice on fundraising because I’m still looking myself and so I’m not at all qualified … yet!
Our business model is very straightforward and we’ll always be completely transparent about how we make money. That’s part of being frank!
The site that is in beta now is not built to make money, it’s built to sustain a community and a small economy of help. We collect money on behalf of the community by taking monthly sponsorship from companies who want to show us their appreciation, and we give it back to the members as vouchers. We won’t make anything out of this ourselves, we want the basic service to completely sustain itself, independent of support, just to show it works!
We will make our money by winning further discounts for our members, like getting them special ThankFrank rates for certain stores. We also have a few new and interesting ways of saying thanks in the works, as well as ways to collect thanks no matter where the advice takes place.
One thing for sure though, we’ll always be as transparent as we possibly can be with our business model. The whole point is to encourage people to be honest and frank. We have standards to set, right?"
What advice would you share from your experiences in building a team?
"Look for energy. Everyone recruited during the startup phase will need bags of it!
Also, it’s easy to get excited about a person joining, but if that person is not excited about joining, run for the hills!
You are getting into a long and complicated affair with every potential board hire, so you need to make sure that they want what you want, they are a good fit for your culture, and they are willing to commit. If one member walks out it can have a hugely destructive effect on the rest of the team and yourself, so don’t agree anything until you are very, very sure.
I’m a huge believer in team diversity. If you are building a small team, the ideal situation would be for each to have completely different strengths and weaknesses and for each to have their eye on being accountable for their own specific and favourite area. You do have to avoid clashes of personalities, but this shouldn’t be an issue if you have people who really are board-level ready."
As a startup CEO, what are your favourite productivity tools, websites or hacks? Any favourite sources on entrepreneurship and startups you would share with our startup community?
Mashable is good for market research but if you are struggling to find market research, ditch Google for a moment and try DuckDuckGo. I found it to be far less likely to fill your search queries with spam sites and scrapers.
Meetup.com and StartupDigest are good sites to subscribe to. Linkedin is a must and if you are not using Twitter, you should start. I wish I had more time to really get into Twitter myself, I know I’m slacking!
If you want a cheap logo, 99designs is a good place to start.
I can’t really think of many others, but I know Ian Cleary of Razorsocial is a great source of info on tools and resources, he’d be a far better man to ask than me!"
Any big mistakes you did and could advice other early-stage entrepreneurs on how to avoid them?
"Too many mistakes to count but that’s to be expected really!
I would warn entrepreneurs to beware if looking to outsource. Very often, the outsourcing partner doesn’t really understand the difference between a startup and a mature company, and your expectations are going to be miles apart. Don’t expect that they are going to take your side, they are not. And don’t set high expectations for them, you will be disappointed.
An outsourcing company is not going to put a startup ahead of their day-to-day because their day-to-day pays them more. The startup is always the first to be reprioritised.
Oh, and plan first. Take as long as you need to plan and don’t spend if you can. You don’t need anyone’s help planning, you can do that yourself but the hours you think you are saving on a weak plan will come back to get you threefold.
But mainly, avoid spending money. I know it sounds obvious, but you really need to become the most frugal person you know until you are earning more than you spend. I wish I had fully understood this myself 2 years ago, I’m sure I could have got more for free!"
If you were to give 5 tips to young entrepreneurs, what would they be?
1. Always be positive and focus on what’s next, don’t spend any time crying over spilt milk, or you’ll miss the fleeting opportunities around you.
2. Get some experience working in a multinational if you can. It goes a long way.
3. Before it’s all about who you know, it’s all about how many. Network and talk to everyone. It’s free.
4. Be yourself. If anyone gives you money, they are not giving it to your idea, they are giving it to you.
5. Shut up and listen! You need to learn fast and everyone you speak to can teach you a little bit more, so be a sponge!
Based on experience, could you provide recommendations on "startup launch checklist" for entrepreneurs looking to start their own business in Ireland?
Wow, that’s tough. I mean, it all depends on the business. I can certainly give you mine for a tech startup.
Read 4 Steps to the Epiphany (Steve Blank) and the Lean Startup (Eric Reis) before you even begin. That could have saved me so much money! And don’t think you can do it alone, you are wasting time trying. The best you can do is get great people to do it for you.
You need to be prepared for what’s to come. If you have a family they will all need to adjust, and your family life will be tested. If you have any financial commitments, you need to have a clear 2 years of leeway at the very least. You have to be prepared to get up and dust yourself off no matter what happens. If you succeed it will be because you accepted nothing else.
Also, it’s not going to take 3 months, it’s going to take years. You need 3-6 months to research, network and pitch until you find a group to support you as a startup. It’s going to take 3-6 months to put together a decent business plan, marketing plan and sales plan and prepare for launching your business. It’s going to take 3-6 months before you get your first few deals. It’s going to take at least a year to establish your business and graduate from being a startup. And this all assumes you get nothing wrong along the way. You will get lots wrong. And every time will be worth it!
Sell your product before you build a thing. Agree to engage with companies in principal and be able to show some evidence that they like what you are selling.
Find a co-founder. Ideally you want at least 3 founders – 3 heads are exponentially better than 1
Research supports and accelerators and apply to a few. Every rejection is a new learning.
Apply for support, but you need to get on the radar well in advance. Get out to your local community enterprise board to kick that off.
Fill your time with meeting people. Go to events, seminars, etc.
Find a desk somewhere, or an office if you can manage.
Don’t build or spend until you know where and when your first cheque is coming from."
Finally, before launching your own startup, you worked
for tech giants Microsoft and Accenture. Do you remember your transition
journey? What lessons did you learn along this transition when breaking
into a startup career?
"I think the biggest learning I took from Microsoft was around the
challenge of managing global projects with virtual teams. We are
targeting international markets with ThankFrank.com, and I think that
experience will prove vital.
Right out of college, I started a consultancy where I set up
productivity and document management suites for solicitors’ practices
around Ireland. I did that for about 3 years but realised that if I
wanted to work with the big guys, I’d have to get familiar with the
corporate game. So I applied to and joined Accenture to get a bit of
that exposure. I ended up joining Microsoft not too long afterwards.
The corporate multinational world is a strange beast for someone who has
only had exposure to SMEs. I remember my manager having to explain to
me what a “slide deck” was; I was green as could be! But the experience
As an employee, Microsoft was a fantastic place to work. They really did
challenge everyone to be their best and they did it in all the right
ways. And when you see that level of people management being broadly
maintained at such a scale, you can’t help but take some notes! I mean,
as employees we were all run off our feet, but they had won that “Best
place to Work” award each of the 4 odd years I was there, and I could
see why. It was an excellent experience and one I thoroughly enjoyed.
However, the transition as far as I’m concerned was into the corporate
world. I don’t feel much of a transition now working on my own project, I
feel more like I’m returning!"
Where can our startup community find you online?
You can find me on Twitter: @SeanAhern2012
But I’m always on ThankFrank.com, so send me a private message there and I’ll see it pretty quickly.
Finally, 3 words to describe yourself?
Stone fecking mad.
Thank you Sean. We would like to wish you and your startup partner Diego Zanella great success with your ThankFrank.com - shopper haven community. Let's keep in touch!