Two brothers, Elliot and James Poulter recently established UNILIBRI, a web based solution to make life study easier for students. We caught up with Elliot, a recent graduate of Loughborough to find out more on how they got started. Be inspired!
I’ll answer this not by giving you a biography of my life but telling you what parts of it were important and influenced my decision of whether or not to start a business. My family turns out to be pretty entrepreneurial, my Granddad sold a business to IBM, my Dad ran a company for 7 years and has been running a new startup for the past 12 months and my Mother owns and runs a pub. You could say business is in my blood. My entire life was defined by sport up until I began my business, I was a natural but not exceptional at any of the sports I played. Sport gave me a competitive instinct, a will-to-win and discipline…and I loved it. There are other important factors, one is definitely that I started my business whilst at Loughborough University studying Civil Engineering. There is no better time to start a business than at university because you have relative financial security and a lot of free time. So I’m a sporty, competitive individual who owns a Masters in Engineering.
What inspired you to start your business or project?
Opportunity. As I said, business is in my blood. My brother came up with the initial idea of unilibri: a website holding all your university reading lists on one page allowing you to find and buy the books you need. That concept has changed significantly since then. But it was the opportunity that inspired me to make that idea a business. The opportunity to work with my brother, to be my own boss and…obviously…to make a lot of money. I started unilibri specifically because the opportunity was exceptional and the problem we solved was something I was passionate about.
Describe your initial steps to get your business started and what were the challenges?
After completing a market research phase that validated our thoughts that there was a problem and our idea was a potential solution, we needed to get ‘in’ with a university.
One of the first challenges was realising that our target market was complex. We would generate revenue from the end user – the students – however, to get to them we needed the support of the university. This was because they held the Intellectual Property rights to the reading list data we needed…We set about garnering support from the Student Union Executive then the library and Enterprise Office’s IP expert. Our case for commercialising the data was rejected by the university, to cut a long story short. This was approximately a 4-5 month process. Moral of the story…there are 164 other universities in the UK or rather, don’t get too worried if you can’t please everyone!
At the same time we were building our product and we used a network contact to outsource the website build. A 30 day project ended at 130 days without a finished product. This was incredibly frustrating but we were lucky to not have spent much money on the process. It was a vital lesson and I’m now very wary of outsourcing work – nothing can beat being able to sit next to the person that is completing work for you. Whether that is branding, strategies or coding your website; when you run a business everything is a challenge and everything takes longer than you’d think.
What efforts did you and do you still take to stand out in the market?
My brother always says “I like working on weekends because I know our competition isn’t working”.
We became industry experts. I could tell you not only everything you could possibly need to know about my product if you are a student (end user), academic (reading list creator) or a librarian but also everything about our competitors, about the history of the market and where we expected it to go. It was no good knowing I was an expert though, I needed the market to know it. Content really is king for this. We wrote blog posts, whitepapers and attending conferences and workshops to build our presence in the market.
On top of that, we built the best looking product. Unilibri is basically enterprise software and enterprise software is traditionally ugly. We made ours look awesome. We made sure it would be fun and interesting to use so that our users would keep coming back – something we felt our competitors were not doing. Personalisation; we didn’t build what we thought people would like, we built what we knew they wanted. For us it was all about iteration. We iterated everything from our 1-line pitch to our design, sales strategy…everything. For us to stay ahead, we always had to be innovating.
How do you see yourself and the business growing in the next 3 to 5 years?
unilibri failed. Giving ourselves a 12 month runway to develop, innovate and get a strong foothold in the market required a serious amount of money. We set out to raise £1.1million and got to negotiating deal terms – excruciatingly close – but it fell through. And that’s business. Unilibri is still a fantastic idea but we are no longer pursuing it. The market over the next 12 months will become extremely competitive and we had to think about the opportunity cost: do we build this thing ourselves or do we do something else?
For me personally, I have already learnt a huge amount and been able to use that knowledge to help another startup I am now working with. In the next 3 to 5 years I intend to launch a successful business!
From your experiences, what attitude has contributed most to your success?
Dedication. My brother and I worked 100 hour weeks, we lived in our office. The only thing I did outside of the business was spend time with my girlfriend. This was out of choice. If you aren’t willing to make sacrifices then there is no point in even starting. It’s easy to think of the end game…the money, success, Facebook, Google and you need that at times– the great thought of success – to drag you out of the trench of reality. Running a business is hard and we had to be dedicated to get to where we did.
The other attitude is being a risk taker or having a willingness to release something that is not perfect. There is a famous quote by Reid Hoffman that says, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late”. I’d recommend baring this in mind and balancing it with everything you have to do because you’ll have to do it all yourself and there simply isn’t enough hours in the day. Good luck!
If you were to improve Unilibri, what will you do better and why?
The way I’d change unilibri is to initially pivot and focus the product purely on our student user base and not worry about what the universities and librarians thought. It’s difficult to explain in a few words but I’d basically take Reid Hoffman’s advice. It’s all about getting some users, any users and hopefully they’ll even generate you some revenue. From that you can iterate and refine your product and increase the strength of your position in the market.
For the most part, I wouldn’t change anything about unilibri itself because we knew it was a needed solution and we had universities asking us to build it for them. What I’d change is getting that product out faster and ‘leaner’. My whole approach would be lean with less perfection.