The story behind Proofer – from aeronautics studies to soaring investment
It all started three years ago when I was doing an internship at a local social media agency.
Guestlist Social, run by Oshi Okomilo, uses social media expertise to write posts for other companies. During my summer there, Oshi and I both realised that they were using four or five different pieces of software to manage their team of writers and content. They weren’t being as efficient as they could be, even though they were spending a lot of money on the market’s current solutions.
It was then that we realised we could create our own platform that combined all the functionality of these other platforms while adding in our own features. That would allow Guestlist Social to focus on writing quality content, instead of wasting time wrestling with sub-par software. Within a few weeks we had a basic platform that could schedule tweets and manage a team. And the rest of my summer was spent adding new features and making it something that the whole team could use.
October 2014 came along and I packed up to move to the University of Southampton to study Aeronautics & Astronautics. Development of the platform slowed significantly as my University workload increased, meanwhile Oshi moved his entire team onto the platform and they encountered major bugs every day. I had to find a balance with my time and ended up spending a lot of my weekends trying to make the platform more stable and something that the content writers would be happy using.
To be honest, it wasn’t easy to find the time to work on the project alongside my studies, and at times I would go months without touching the platform. But before I knew it, the first year of University was over. I had poured all of my time into my exams and coursework, and yet we also had a platform that Guestlist Social was using exclusively, helping them to increase their efficiency despite the bugs that they would face.
We soon realised this internal tool we had created solved a real problem and decided we should package it up and release it to the public. One summer later, we had TweetProof, ‘a complete social media management platform’.
We did a very small push on social media to promote it. TweetProof was by no means perfect, but through just that small social media push we had around 300 people sign up over a couple of weeks. People were actively searching for a better alternative to what was on the market. Were we on to something here? Competing sites had millions of customers and millions in funding, and yet none of them offered a complete solution to the problems that social media marketers face on a daily basis.
We weren’t expecting such an uptake of use in such a short amount of time, and felt uncomfortable putting TweetProof out to the public when it wasn’t complete. We wanted to make sure that we would be offering the best experience to our users when the time was right, so we decided to stop our social media campaign.
It was this experience that led us to realise that we had a good idea here, but to truly be able to compete we would need to hire a full-time developer as I was due to go back to University. The only way we would be able to do this is if we had funding.
A few weeks later I went back to University, the project slowed again and the idea of funding died down. That was until I saw an advertisement for the University’s ‘Dragons’ Den’ event.
I decided to submit an application, not thinking too much about it. In all honesty, I didn’t think we would actually get in compared to more developed businesses ideas that we would be going up against. Despite that, a month later I received an email inviting me to a practice pitching event for Dragons’ Den. I didn’t know what to expect, but I wrote a pitch that morning and went anyway. It was here that I met Reuben, founder of Future Worlds, the University’s on-campus startup incubator.
I did my very unprepared pitch in front of him and the other prospective candidates, and it was then that Reuben asked me how much money I needed for my business. I didn’t have a clue. I figured that we’d need to hire a developer for a few months to help fix up the platform and then we could maybe start generating revenue, so I tried my luck and said we’d need £10,000, never actually thinking that we could get that much. Reuben stared at me with a questioning look, and said that he thought I could get a lot more than £10,000. He felt we should be aiming for £100,000. I thought he was joking, and it took a few meetings for him to convince me that this was a realistic goal!
So over the next few months I refined my pitch with the help of the amazing Future Worlds and ECS Entrepreneurs teams, all alongside the stresses of exams. Reuben helped me put together a solid business plan; we knew exactly how much money we needed, exactly what we were going to spend it on and what results we expected from that investment. We settled on asking for £100,000 for 10% of the business, valuing the company at £1,000,000. We were aware that this sounded very high to begin with, but were confident of being able to convince a Dragon that this opportunity was really too good to turn down.
Before I knew it, the day was here. Dragons’ Den was upon us! Just days before my first exam. I don’t think I have ever been so nervous in my life and, to make things worse, I was up last.
I had to watch five other competitors go up on stage, give their pitches in front of the four Dragons and an expectant audience, and answer some really tough questions. All while my nerves built up even more.
About an hour and a half later, it was my turn. If I’m completely honest, I don’t remember a thing! Apparently my pitch went well, but after a tough line of questioning from the Dragons two out of four had dropped out. The other two seemed sceptical but, after some hard fought negotiation, we had an offer. £30,000 for 30% of the company.
That was 10 times less than we had valued the company going into the event though, while we were a little disappointed, we were also ecstatic to get an offer in the first place. Our company would be valued at £100,000, a total that was unthinkable money just four months before.
After collating the advice of various mentors, the general reaction was that if we kept pursuing a deal after Dragons’ Den then we might actually be able to raise the full £100,000. So we decided to do just that.
I met various potential investors that got in contact with me either through Dragons’ Den or through Reuben. I even had talks with one of the Dragons that dropped out initially. The feedback was that, despite the potential in the company, it was an area that not a lot of the investors had much experience in. Because of that, it was a huge risk for them to put their money behind a 20-year-old with no business experience.
What I needed was an investor that knew about the industry, and was willing to put the time in to ensure that the investors’ money was being spent wisely. Hopefully that would reassure the investors that this is a viable investment for them. But where would I find someone like that? Turns out it’s not easy.
The plan was that if I got some funding, I would take a year out of University and pursue the business. However, the deadline soon approached to declare if I was going to take a year out and I hadn’t secured any funding. So I decided to get an internship at a video games studio in Cambridge for the year, that way I could still try and get funding.
A few months passed and I became comfortable in Cambridge. The likelihood of getting investment was looking low. It was then that I realised that the perfect candidate for Lead Investor had already been introduced to me a few months before.
I’d met Andrew Doe in a Future Worlds mentor capacity, and he liked the idea of the company and seemed enthusiastic about the potential. He also had years of experience in the tech industry, and had even taken his own startup all the way to a valuation worth tens of millions of pounds. He was perfect for the role. So with nothing to lose, I asked him if he would like to be Lead Investor and Chairman of the Board.
Now the race was on. I could contact all the previously interested investors. With Andy on board, most of them were now really excited and wanted to invest. It still took around three months to gather enough investors to reach our goal but, by utilising the huge network that both Future Worlds and the existing investors had, we managed to secure a deal for £135,000 with a total of seven investors on board.
We’ve put together an amazing team of experienced individuals who are each able to offer something different and valuable to the business. It had taken a total of seven months since Dragons’ Den to reach a deal, but we finally had done it. And now the hard work starts.
I left my job in Cambridge and set up in London to work on the business full time. With a new name and new office space, Proofer was ready to go forward full speed ahead to get a product released.
Our first task was to hire developers. There was big deliberation between hiring full-time employees and hiring short-term contractors. Contractors could get the job done quicker, but would be more expensive. Full-time employees would be more affordable, but the project might take a bit longer.
In the end, we decided that we were trying to build a company here, not just a product. To do that, we need to build a culture, and that comes with having long term employees who believe in the business and want to see it succeed. With that in mind, we hired our first employee, a back-end developer named Marco who is based in Italy. We went with a remote worker as we didn’t want to limit our search to just London. There is plenty of talent in the world, and some of the best people are abroad. Technology has come so far that it’s possible to be working in a completely different country to someone without it affecting the project.
The goal was to rebuild our platform from scratch into a more robust and scalable product, to turn this from a side project that a University student did into a fully fledged business that can compete with the big players in the market.
And here we are, three months on since getting investment and things are going well. We are well into the rebuild of the platform – with a beta version available at Proofer.io – and are looking to hire some more developers to help improve the front-end. We hope to have a new product out in the coming months, something that can start generating revenue. From there it’s onwards and upwards.
We want to keep improving the platform while growing our customer base. Once we start bringing in revenue we can begin to hire more people and create a truly amazing company that will be around for a long time.
Without the help of Future Worlds and their mentor network, we would not be here right now. Without Reuben’s advice and all the mentors he has introduced me to, I would never have had the confidence to pursue a deal like this. In one short year my life has completely changed, and I can’t wait to see what the next year has in store.