I meet Elizabeth in a bustling hotel lobby and she wastes no time in proclaiming “I’m looking for Russ Brown”. It is exactly that direct communication that her UK tech startup Textocracy is making a business out of. Textocracy allows anyone to freely text comments to an organisation to enable better feedback and consultation. I spoke with her in-depth about what made her swap bureaucracy for Textocracy.
So what’s your background?
I spent 20 years in the public sector, local government and the NHS. I decided I’d had enough of bureaucracy and left that just under three years ago to become an entrepreneur. I had absolutely no idea what that meant or how to be one. I knew it sounded good and I wanted to be my own boss.
In the public sector, innovation is extremely difficult. It’s hard to change things and get things off the ground.
So I came up to Sheffield and I started to network and stick my nose in. I had a few ideas but they were all pipe dreams. They were not at all related to anything I do now, more related to design and things like that. It was one of my first mistakes as an entrepreneur. Assuming I could make and idea work just because it was a cool idea, even though I had no expertise in the area.
So MADE festival came around and I thought that was for me. I turned up at all the free fringe events that were going on. Sheffield is a great place and the people here are extremely friendly. People talked to me and that was the first step on my journey, talking to people who were doing similar things.
“I’m scribbling notes as other people are pitching and an idea pops into my head.”
Where did you get the idea for Textocracy?
The idea came quite far down the line. One of the people I met during MADE told me about something called a startup weekend. I had never heard of a startup weekend, I didn’t even know what a startup was. So I did some digging and thought this is not for me. It’s for techie boys in hoodies who want to stay awake for 54 hours, eat pizza and think of something cool to do. What on earth could I contribute to such a thing? Luckily there were people around saying it’s not like that, you learn to build a business, you have an idea, you build an MVP in 54 hours and you’d be perfect.
So I put on my brave hat and went to my first Startup Weekend in November 2014. I didn’t have an idea, I was just thinking I was going to beg my way on to a team. Luckily I saw some familiar faces from MADE and people were friendly so I didn’t feel too much like a fish out of water. One of the guys who told me about it in the first place was telling me I must go and pitch an idea. I wouldn’t mind but I didn’t have an idea. I honestly had no idea.
So I’m sat in the audience and I’m scribbling notes as other people are pitching and an idea pops into my head. So I’m at the very end of the queue and I pitch my very first idea and it got voted to go through. The idea was called Appointment Doctor and it was about managing missed appointments in primary care.
I ended up winning the startup weekend and the huge lesson that weekend taught me was that I needed to bring my industry experience and my knowledge of the pain points.
So we built a good team and we had a good time and there was bit of a buzz. I learned a lot and rode that for a while but the people in my team were mainly students and they had a lot of other things going on. So It wasn’t really viable to take that forward as a UK startup. I explored a bit about how I might do that and I learned a great deal but it just wasn’t right for the time.
So a bit later on I was talking to some people and they knew I had won Startup Weekend and they said “ah, beginners luck. I bet you can’t do it again!”. Well that really stuck in my craw and I thought yes I can. I bet I can. Can I?
“always follow up”
There was another startup weekend in Manchester and it had a problem to solve. It was that problem I solved with Textocracy. To cut a long story short I ended up being a team of one at the Startup Weekend. Now I’m not a techie, I don’t know how to build things. Luckily after the first startup weekend I had gone on a ‘programming for non-programmers’ course. I thought I at least needed to understand the language and the process, things like wireframes and MVP’s. Even if I can’t build it myself I need to be able to talk about it and understand whats behind the curtain.
So I did my wireframes through that weekend and presented it on the Sunday night and won that startup weekend. two for two!
I was very fortunate that some people in the audience and a few judges on the panel were extremely supportive. They liked the idea and thought it solved the problem. More importantly they knew I had worked 20 years in the industry and understood the problem.
So I have been riding that ever since, they introduced me to some people in Sheffield. Every single person they told me to speak to, I spoke to. It snowballed from there and in that process I learned to be an entrepreneur. The second biggest lesson I learned during this time was ‘always follow up’. When people bother to give you time and advice, action it. Don’t squander it, always explore it.
In those conversations I was introduced to the people who run the Dotforge Social Impact Accelerator. They were extremely helpful throughout that summer which kept me going. I applied to the accelerator and was accepted on. Its still early days, I’m still trying to build good traction but its all happened in the past two years.
I would encourage anyone with an idea or who thinks they want to be an entrepreneur to go out and start talking to people in this community. It’s here for the taking really.
So how did you build the platform?
There were quite a few prizes in the win for the startup weekend. The first prize I got was a three day design sprint. So immediately following the weekend I had a developer and a designer at my disposal to create an MVP based on the wireframes I’d built. It was functional and capable of showing a customer what the service could do, because sometimes, and this is something I need to work on in my marketing, it can take a minute for customers to get it. When they see it working, they get it immediately.
As I was seeing the feedback from showing the first version of it to people, it kept giving me ideas about what the second version might be like. So I designed ‘Textocracy 2.0’ based on the conversations I was having and that summer I used the small development budget that was part of the prize to get quite a few more features built in.
What is your growth strategy?
At the moment one of the big priorities for me is content marketing. So the people that I want to sell to, that have the pain point that Textocracy solves, they are not going to find me in an Ad in a magazine. So I’m writing stories and blogs that address the issue that I saw when I worked in the public sector. Those people then see that content and give me a call.
Textocracy has quite a wide range of uses. Pretty much any industry that has a customer and need to gain feedback from that customer has use for this type of service. One of the current applications is at live events such as conferences. Organisers will put up a Textocracy number and instead of filling out a form at the end delegates will text their comments to the number. I’ve had quite a few clients from them simply seeing that at a conference.
So its been quite organic growth, based on me networking and getting out there meeting people. I will need to get much more sophisticated, that can only take me so far.
Have you had any funding or outside investment?
The accelerator came with some funding which enabled me to get through the next stage of growth from Autumn 2015 to the beginning of 2016. I got accepted on the the Big Venture Challenge but that was more of a support programme. In the end that didn’t result in any funding. So I’m at that delicate position where there is the potential for quite a lot of growth where I could continue bootstrapping. Alternatively I could go back out for some sort of investment in order to take it to the next level. So I’m testing the waters at the moment to see how well this next marketing push will create traction for me. After that I’ll know whether I can continue to bootstrap or whether it would be better to go out and look for investment or funding.
“I want every public sector organisation to have a Textocracy number.”
What is the future for Textocracy?
Textocracy has a social impact statement in the articles and my background is in government and public services so my first ambition is I want every public sector organisation to have a Textocracy number. It’s simple, its very inexpensive and it means every citizen has an open channel to make their voice heard. To me it’s a no-brainer, whether it’s Textocracy or some other service. At the moment these organisation are spending a lot of money making whizzy internet based consultation methods which continue to exclude the people who are never heard anywhere.
Do you have any competition?
I have not found anyone yet who operates in the same way. The SMS survey companies out there, you have to have everyone’s contact information, the organisation sets the questions and they send them out to people. With Textocracy there is one number for the organisation and they say to people ‘say whatever you want, in whatever way you want and we’ll listen’.
What do you think is the most important trait to have as an entrepreneur?