Theresa Lim has a candid conversation at Australia’s Female Founders Meetup about pivoting her startup, product QA, hiring less idealistic developers and more
Launched two years ago, Google’s Female Founders Meetup is an initiative aimed at providing Australian female founders a platform to share their stories, connect with other like-minded founders and discuss business.
On November 26, 2015, Sally-Ann Williams, Engineering Community & Outreach Program Manager at Google Australia and Organiser of the Female Founders Meetup, sat down with Theresa Lim, Founder and CEO of Play2Lead, to talk about the genesis of her startup, why she pivoted her business model, complexities within the enterprise market and challenges faced as a non-technical entrepreneur.
Play2Lead is one of the recent graduates of the JFDI Accelerate programme, that pitched at Demo Day on December 3 in Singapore. Play2Lead is a gamified mobile and web application that helps companies deliver better service by making training fun, memorable and measurable.
Here are the edited excerpts:
Thank you for being here. Tell us about Play2Lead – What the business is all about, where the idea came from?
I was running a lot of events, predominantly corporate events when I was the Head of Marketing for ThoughtWorks. I found it really hard to gauge where people were in terms of how much they understood of the thought leadership material we presented. It was also difficult to measure what that meant for the lead generation cycle.
It was around that time when I noticed gamification becoming a trend, so I started to think, “Well, what if we could gamify the whole audience engagement experience?” I left the software company I was working for and decided to pursue this idea of gamifying audience engagement, specifically for conferences, and with lead generation in mind.
Although we generated a lot of traction in the events industry and won a number of event tech awards, my startup wasn’t growing fast enough. I had key partners, I had revenue, but I couldn’t crack subscription. I knew if I couldn’t crack subscription, it would affect our ability to raise funding.
What did you do then?
I then applied to the JFDI accelerator programme in Singapore, which allowed us some time to look for a better product-market fit. We started off by examining how our customers were engaging with the platform and what questions they were asking.
Also Read: Things I learned at JFDI Accelerate
We realised very quickly they were all enquiring about how they can be better, as organisations, at serving their customers. I noticed that many businesses are no longer product-based — they’re service-based, which is a very different mindset. Companies have to focus on service at every touch point, whether that’s directly or indirectly, whether the customer is front-facing or not.
We realised there was an opportunity to help companies be better at that and so we pivoted.
Play2Lead helps companies serve their customers better. This is achieved by delivering training that is more fun, memorable and measurable. While workshops can be pretty engaging after you leave the workshop, you either forget what you’ve learned or you’re not being measured on how you go from learning to behaviour change.
So imagine going through a customer service or product knowledge training workshop, getting points for answering questions, and competing against your peers for the top spot on the leaderboard. That’s essentially the experience.
Given that it’s all web-based, the questions can be asked before, during and after the workshop. Organisations can check whether employees have understood the content and continuously measure how they implement their learnings into real-world behaviour.
Right now, we’re in discussions with key content partners. We leverage gamification to lead workshop participants through a virtual version of the company’s customer experience. Each participant finds out what it’s like to be a customer and then to make decisions about how they would want to be served.
They get to see how their response compares with peers, revealing to trainers who understand the service mindset and who need more help before they represent the company on the front line.
Keen participants can start to engage through their smartphones before the session starts, earning points in a fun competition against colleagues. During the workshop, that sense of competition motivates the group as they see each others’ responses.
And after it’s over, the people who didn’t do so well are automatically identified and given help to get up to speed, in the form of additional activities that can be done also on their smartphones. The potential for this to be done every day, for just five minutes, means that we can potentially create a learning habit for each employee.
Talk to me a little bit about your experience with acquiring talent. What have been the biggest pain points?
I’m a solo non-technical founder and I was looking for a technical co-founder because I knew I couldn’t build Play2Lead myself. I managed offshore teams to build the first version of the product, but I can’t read code well enough to know ‘Is this good?’, ‘Is this shareable?’, ‘Is this messy?’, ‘Can we build on top of it?’.
My biggest mistake was actually continuing to use Ruby on Rails beyond our prototype — Ruby on Rails developers are the hardest talent to find. My first board advisor was Mikel Lindsaar, who is the CEO of Reinteractive. He runs Australia’s leading Ruby on Rails consultancy and I thought ‘if I get him on board then he’s going to find me talent’.
So he’s helping us find talent and we’re also looking at our architecture to reduce our dependency on Ruby on Rails – that way, we don’t have to look solely for Ruby developers.
What have you learned from your experience?
The thing I’ve noticed is a lot of developers think success happens overnight based on what they’ve read in the media. The reality is it’s really difficult. There are a lot of highs and lows as a startup — it takes a lot of effort to get funding, to find a product-market fit and so on. You need to have the stomach for it, especially if you’re a co-founder.
When you’re a small team, everybody needs to know that it’s not about clocking in and out. You need to deeply care about your customers and learn from them. You actually have to be really curious.
My advice would be to have that hard conversation right at the beginning that goes like: ‘Are we in this for the long run?’
If you’re in it for a certain lifestyle or if you’re looking for a two-year exit, then that needs to be clear at the beginning. I am in it to build an amazing product. There’s a difference between building an amazing product that makes you feel good because you’re tinkering around with the coolest tech and building a solution that really hits the pain point of a customer. There is so much joy in watching a customer say, ‘You’re really solving a major pain point’.
Most developers want to feel that they’re making a difference. Developers are talented; they can apply themselves to anything. It’s important that you, as a developer or co-founder, pick the thing that makes you want to wake up every day and go, “That’s what I want to solve.” That drive is incredibly important and it’s one of the hardest things to test before you hire someone. It’s really hard.
How do you manage that balance between getting it right from a QA (quality assurance) perspective and getting the product out the door as soon as possible?
I think you just have to look at what needs to get tested and be really realistic about what you can test. For me, being transparent to your customer is important.
If you know something is weak, just tell them, “look, we’ve only gotten to this point. I hope that’s okay? And if it’s not, then let’s work together to figure out a way to make this work.” It’s just about being honest with them and they will work with you because they respect that you’re partnering with them.
Transparency will go a long way. Go to them with the solution and be prepared for them to say, “No, that’s not going to cut it so we’re going to have to delay it.” It’s really just about managing expectations from the very beginning because they’ve got their stakeholders to manage as well.
Why did you leave the corporate world?
Initially, I did consulting full-time to feed my startup which I did on nights and weekends for the first six months. Then I had a stroke. I was 40 years old and my brother, a psychiatrist said to me, “You’ve got two kids, do the right thing for them. Like, make sure you’re around.”.
I asked myself, what kind of parent do I want to be for them and I chose this – I want to be the parent that shows them to have the courage to chase their dreams and that’s the role model I want to be and I will make sure my health is okay before I go full-time on this.
So I took a slow six months to re-enter. I cut off the consulting so I didn’t have the umbilical cord of money and I dipped into my savings. And I haven’t looked back since.
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