Hey, I’m Andreas Zhou, one of the co-founders of Askable. We’re an Australian based startup and we’re the “Uber for user testing”. Basically, we help UX designers recruit, manage and pay people for in-person usability testing or market research. For designers, it’s a huge time/money saver. And for the participants, it’s really good side income plus they get their opinions and ideas heard.
Previous to Askable, I was running a digital agency with of a team of about 40 full-time staff. I started the agency with one of the other co-founders, John Goleby. Over the last 10 years, I’ve worked on various projects as a video and audio producer, project manager, digital marketer, UX / UI designer and programmer. I definitely consider myself a sort of jack-of-all-trades.
We launched an MVP of Askable in July of 2017 and got one sale that month of $1500 USD. As of this month so far (April 2018) we’ve done $38,000 USD in revenue and continue to grow around 30% month to month. We’re a team of 8 people based in Brisbane, Australia.
In the beginning (or even now) do you maintain a full-time job while launching?
So we were probably a little different compared to other companies with how we made time for Askable from the beginning. As I mentioned earlier, in 2007 John Goleby and I started a web design agency after dropping out of school. Around 2012 we implemented sort of an internal incubator program for all of our staff (we had 10 full-time employees at the time) at the agency.
We took out a lease for a second office, and we gave everyone one day (paid) every week to go there work on their own projects. Yep, this was heavily inspired by Google’s own 80/20 time! It was a huge decision for us because unlike Google we didn’t have massive profit margins or lots of spare cash in the bank. But we were adamant about having an outlet for building our own products (no client revisions hooray!) and working on our own passion projects so we decided to give it a go. We probably churned out more than 30 projects/ games/apps/side businesses over the course of the next 5 years. Most of them were complete crap but we always learned something from it.
And then finally around about June of 2017, Vivien Chang who was working as a UX designer at the agency came up with the idea of building a platform for recruiting participants. Mostly because she was so fed up with how painful it was for her to recruit people for her UX projects at the agency. A month later we launched an MVP and since then, Askable’s growth has turned into a full-time job for her, myself and a few others at the agency.
So long story short, we introduced an internal incubator program at our digital marketing agency, gave everyone one day a week to work on their own projects and Askable was born from that almost 5 years later.
How did you acquire customers/subscribers/users?
We started by reaching out to local agencies when we launched initially in July 2017. We contacted all the UX designers in our own network. We got one sale that month from a smaller agency, also based in Brisbane. We managed to get the full 20 participants that they requested and got great feedback from them, which gave us the confidence to push further outside our own network.
Our first real big marketing push was basically cold emails, which has remained by far the best channel for customer acquisition. Because we had a really specific target audience, it made sense for us to use LinkedIn as a source of prospective customers. We got a really good reply rate from that first batch so we just kept doing it.
I think a key factor to the positive response rate was the fact that we were designers ourselves, and most UX designers really empathized because they had experienced first hand the pain of recruiting and managing user testing participants.
It’s been pretty easy to get participants to sign up for testing jobs since the money is really good. We paid $80+ for a 45-minute session. In the early days, we spent a lot of time on the phone calling people we knew and asking (*cough* begging) them to participate. As we’ve grown, we’ve mostly stuck to word of mouth or using free Gumtree ads, or sometimes paid Facebook ads.
I think the best advice I can give to anyone looking to start their own startup is to think hard about solving your own problem. It goes beyond domain expertise. There are immense benefits, especially in sales. Being able to really empathize with your customer because you’ve been through the pain yourself is a huge advantage, as well as being part of an existing community. It’s super powerful stuff.
What software/platforms/tools have you utilized since launch? Which have worked / not worked?
So the way we got in touch with people on Linkedin was using a tool called Hunter.io, which helps you find someone’s email address. That works really well and continues to be our bread and butter for new customer acquisition even today. Highly recommend checking it out, I originally saw it on ProductHunt.
Something that didn’t work was Google Adwords. We found that many of the keywords like “focus groups” or “product testing” brought in people who were looking to make money by participating in tests rather than clients who wanted to make bookings. There was no easy way for us separate the two and we wasted a bunch of money on bad clicks.
Some other tools that we use:
- Twilio for all the automated SMS’s that go out to participants.
- We use node.js / React / GraphQL / MongoDB in our stack and it’s been incredibly good for our purposes
- Intercom for customer support which gets used almost every day
- Slack for our internal comms and team notifications
- We use Figma for all the design work since it’s all browser-based which makes it easy for the team to share design files (no downloads necessary). Before that, I was using Sketch but Figma has been much better because of that.
- Stripe to handle payments and Xero for accounting
How did you fund your startup and how do you make money/revenue?
In terms of funding, running our internal incubator program meant all our projects were ‘bootstrapped’. We didn’t need any seed funding to get started since we’d already been operating with 20% of our time set aside for working on side projects.
Revenue-wise, we charged money from day one because we had to. Without charging clients, there was no way for us to pay the participant incentives, which would have left us without participants which wouldn’t have worked. So that was baked in from the start. We decided to turn a profit by charging a recruitment fee of $50-$80 per participant, depending on the customer’s requirements.
Because most of our early customers were UX designers in our personal network, we knew they were already paying exorbitant recruitment fees to market research companies (sometimes upwards of $250 per participant), or spending hours and hours doing it themselves. So our value proposition was already pretty good vs existing solutions.
Luckily for us, we already had a lot of the payment handling experience and software in place for the agency business, which made it easy to get customers set up on Xero and start invoicing. We have since introduced Stripe as an online payment method but have found that the bigger, slower moving organizations still prefer making payments by invoice. Aside from salaries though, our other expenses are pretty low since we’re a software business.
While our revenue is growing pretty quickly, it’s important to keep in mind that numbers are inflated by participant incentives. Around half of the $38,000 USD we’ve done so far in April was paid out to the participants. A lot of the revenue growth has come from word of mouth but we also continue to push hard on the sales front with email outreach and by attending or sponsoring UX design events.
To date, what have been your biggest challenges as a company? What have you done to overcome them?
Hands down the biggest challenge are getting people to turn up. For the first few bookings, we did it wasn’t a huge deal, because at that point we were calling each participant up, talking to them, establishing rapport, and sending out really personalized reminders. Plus a lot of the first participants were our own friends and family anyway, so we could rely on them to show up. But once we scaled to a point where the time-intensive, personalized reminders were no longer feasible, we were seeing a lot more no-shows.
From a customer’s perspective that’s pretty much the worst experience. Having 2-3 designers sitting in a meeting room with all their stuff set up and ready to go, only to realize that your participation is not going to turn up is such a waste of time. We had to really quickly figure out how to solve that problem.
We tried lots of different approaches, including taking a leap of faith and paying participants half of the incentive up front (as soon as they signed up). If they didn’t turn up, we’d not only have to write that money off as a loss but also pay for the incentive on a replacement participant. We found that this worked pretty well, but ultimately impacted our cash flow.
Another big challenge for us, and I guess for any marketplace startup who has to deal with two userbases (buyer vs seller), was how to scale availability and demand at the same time. This is still a challenge for us today, but we found that being careful and deliberate about how fast we scaled either side of a new market has made it much easier for us to manage the problem.
I think the main lesson we’ve learned when thinking about these types of problems is to fight as hard as we can to keep the startup mentality. I feel like it’s easy to fall into the trap of “Oh man we’ve got paying customers now, we can’t screw this up,” and start playing it too safe. But a lot of the best solutions are hidden in seemingly crazy or risky ideas, so it’s super important to maintain that “try anything” mindset, even (or perhaps especially) once you’ve grown to a point where you have a reputation on the line.
If you had to do it all over again, would you? What would you do differently?
It may still be too early to say. Since we’re only 9 months in, we’re very much still learning as we go, and there’s still so much left to do. Still, if I had to pick one thing I’d say we probably could have launched quicker. From our MVP (which was basically just a Typeform connected to Google Sheets) to our first custom built version on React / node.js it probably took us 3 months to build and ship.
We were worried that any bugs or bad UX would turn people away and that we might lose potential customers but in reality, I think if the product solves a real problem, it doesn’t really matter. We were surprised with how much crap early users were willing to put up with because I guess the value prop was so much stronger than the bugs. The app at one point was double charging some customers at checkout and we’d have to call them up immediately and refund them. Sometimes the app would crash halfway through the booking process and they’d have to start all over again.
I mean, I’m sure we lost customers in the end but I’m equally sure we would have lost the same number of customers had we launched 3 weeks earlier. Plus, so many of these problems we just couldn’t foresee in our own testing environment so it would have just been better to just ship earlier and iterate faster instead.