A year and a half ago I did the rounds of finding investors for a startup that I had co-founded called Agencyonnet . Having been a successful entrepreneur for nearly 9 years, I was so certain that I would get funded with a bit of good old leg work that I threw caution to the winds and went all out in my search for investors.
My product was not ready, I had not tested it out with customers, I had no technology team, I had no idea about international markets and to top it all I made the classic mistake of assuming that one success in an enterprise was a guarantee of success in another. So I went ahead and hired a full-fledged team ignoring the small little warning bells that rang in my head. After all, I reasoned why wouldn’t anyone want to invest in the business or in me??
I had over 24 years of hard core relevant experience in the domain. I had an outstanding career graph including 9 years as a successful entrepreneur in the same domain. I had money to blow. Heck, I even had my two ex-bosses so firmly convinced off my business idea that over a couple of beers and a napkin business plan, they decided to back me.
Wouldn’t investors back me the same way? Of course they would I reasoned. Of course they would said my investment advisor at that time.
Four month later with about a $100,000 down the drain I sacked my investment advisor, sacked the bloated team that I had hired and got down to the serious business of actually thinking like an entrepreneur rather than a corporate executive.
Like many who had built successful businesses, I had forgotten the way I had made my existing business successful some 9 years back, bootstrapping myself for nearly a year, counting pennies and always listening to customers. In my current success, I had forgotten what got me here.
So I got down to serious business.
My domain is advertising and marketing and I knew quite well the challenges my clients faced in their daily operational business of advertising and marketing. Finding and hiring a professional agency is one of the toughest jobs any marcom professional or business owner can ever do. If you’re big enough like a Coca-Cola, you have a plethora of army of marketing professionals to do this for you. If you’re mid-sized, you have the challenge of a relatively small marketing team, ill-equipped with the challenges of sourcing and hiring, especially in a budgetary constrained situation that most businesses are in today.
Connecting such businesses with advertising, digital and marketing service providers was the idea that germinated. I knew from very personal experience having worked on the client side that challenges I and my marketing team used to face every time we entered a new geography or wanted to do something beyond what our existing agencies were capable off. Google and LinkedIn were the two most frequented places we used to hang out to identify and then reach out to potential agencies we wanted to talk to.
What if, I thought, I could provide a platform where all this could be done not just easily but far more efficiently and transparently? What if I could create a platform that would make the marketing manager or SME business owner’s life simpler when it came to finding and hiring the right cost effective service provider?
Agencyonnet.com was originally officially launched in Beta form in April post $100,000 expensive learnings that I had garnered. From the time I launched I was determined that I would not go back to seek funding until I had got the picture right. I had a competition called the BlurGroup, a listed company out of UK which had a near similar platform. I was determined that when my final product was launched, I would be better, sharper and infinitely friendlier than them.
For the next 15 months, I went out with the clear objective of understanding the B2B marketplace business and the domain I was in. My target audience was global. I had to understand the nuances of different global markets better than anyone else. I had to understand pricing. I had to understand product features –what customers wanted, what customers did not. I had to understand what drove customers to using freelance sites and hunting within them for agencies. I had to understand the supply side of the B2B marketplace- the agency end. What drove agency heads to look for businesses on a platform? Would they be comfortable doing so? Having run an agency for several years I knew this would be a challenge. Business development in an agency business is highly one to one. Would my platform Agencyonnet help gain the trust and belief among agency heads?
There was lots of learn and assimilate. Finding investors was last on my priority. Investors would come, I knew if they sensed a business opportunity. Now it was my job to figure out the exact mechanics of making the platform work and show them the opportunity.
15 months later I am now definitely a wiser man with a renewed optimism that the pain point that I could address with my product. It would have to undergo a pivot based on my learning. What did I find out?
- I experimented with no less than 4 different pricing options to determine the most effective pricing mechanism.
- I tested out the model and concept marketplace in 4 different global geographies- US & Canada, UK, Gulf & India. I spoke about it to people from software vendors to agencies to investors to customers always keeping my mind and ears open to improvement suggestions.
- I tested out various go-to-market approaches to see which approach would give me the best ROI in terms of traction. I used Google, LinkedIn, Social Media, Facebook, Content Marketing, Email Marketing, Webinars, Blogging and several others to find the elusive winning formula that would help me when I finally launched the final product.
- I spoke to literally hundreds of clients and agencies over the 15 months, sometimes on skype, phone and face to face meetings to understand from them what they found good, bad or ugly on my prototype. I know have a better understanding of the product that my B2B demand and supply side customers actually want.
In the process of the 15 months of experimenting I also managed to do a decent job of filling up my supply side with over a 1000 qualified agencies spread over 50+ categories from over 26 odd countries. Some came through sheer word-of-mouth, some came through the various marketing initiatives that I had experimented with and many came through sheer organic traffic, which just went to prove the point that there was a strong undercurrent of latent demand for the business I was starting up.
Clients too came to the platform from around the world. Early on I had the occasion to help a Bangladesh based FMCG major find an exhibition design & fabrication agency in France. Another interesting case was that of a plastic manufacturer out of Kenya who wanted to hire a website design agency. Closer home I had dealings with a large IT firm who was seeking help in finding agencies in UK across a variety of domain expertise- Digital Marketing, Content Marketing and Social Media Management.
A B2B marketplace model is perhaps one of the toughest online ventures to kick start because of the fundamental chicken and egg problem. You need both sides of the marketplace to be using the platform to make it work. Thankfully the 15 months of experimentation that I did has shown me the way to crack this.
The tech team I set up in-house is now busy with preparing the final product and initial customer pre-sales efforts are already on. We still have a few months before we are ready to unveil it to our existing and prospect customer base, but I know that it’s going to be a winner!
About the author
Rajesh Menon is a marketing professional turned entrepreneur. His first venture was Impact Marketing, a marketing services agency which he set up in 2006. The business was successfully sold off in 2015. His second venture is Agencyonnet – a B2B marketing procurement SaaS tool for mid to large enterprises. Rajesh blogs and tweets regularly. You can connect with him @aon_menon