In this blog post I outline some of the lessons I learned from setting up PledgeNotes — my second venture, which myself and my co-founder Arthaud decided to end in July 2017. This blog is structured around the AARRR metrics. To learn more about the problem, our solution and value proposition, check out my previous blog post here.
PledgeNotes was a two-sided marketplace. It was clear to me from the very beginning that we needed to acquire sellers first. As we only wanted sellers with the highest grades to use our platform (i.e. those who achieved first-class honors or equivalent), this greatly limited our pool of potential customers to approximately 10% of students in each course.
Despite this, customer acquisition was not our biggest problem. Within our own university, it was quite easy to spread the word about our service through friends in various courses. However, scaling across other universities would have been very challenging.
Regarding customer personas, we assumed at the outset that students in all courses were the same and that they would all have a similar attitude towards note-selling. However, this was not true. In computer science for example, we found that there is a huge amount of note-sharing, which renders note-selling socially unacceptable.
We struggled to activate customers. Many people signed up and showed interest in selling their notes on the platform, however, we were only able to convert about 33% of those who signed up.
The main problem was the very demanding customer journey. After signing up, we had to ask sellers for a copy of their notes, descriptions of the notes, a copy of their academic transcript, and a profile picture. In several cases, even when I had met up with potential customers to explain the service to them in greater detail, I failed to activate them.
There should have been a more seamless user experience with smoother onboarding. A technical co-founder may have been able to implement profiles and a backend for potential customers where they could upload notes, descriptions and update their profile themselves, without sending us material over email. This would have vastly reduced some of the friction once customers entered the funnel.
Our most successful customer would have been happy to use us again, but I would imagine that most would not have. The average seller achieved just 38% of their target number of sales. Why is this? For me, part of the problem lay hidden in our value proposition. Although our system greatly benefitted sellers — in that the notes were not released until a sufficient number of sales had been generated, on the flipside of this was an assault on the value derived by the buyer. If a student is stressing before their exams, they want to receive notes as soon as possible — not with a time delay of several days, if not more. The time delay and uncertainty about whether or not they would receive the notes likely deterred buyers, thus impacting sales.
Furthermore, students are only in university for an average of four years. Thus Customer Lifetime Value was not estimated to be very large.
There were a few other major problems from the business point of view. The staring-you-in-the-face problem was the inherent seasonality of the business. There are probably a maximum of four times in the academic year where students seek to buy notes. Depending on the course, it may only be once a year.
Furthermore, we arguably set our pricing too high. One of the best and most interesting bits of feedback we got was from a student who was aware of our platform but nonetheless decided to advertise his notes on Facebook instead and collect cash in person. I found this incredibly fascinating as we had built a platform that we believed perfectly addressed his needs. The feedback we got was that we would have to bring in more end users buying the notes to justify taking such a high percentage (then 30%). This made me reflect on our whole value proposition — you must ask is the product/service a 10x improvement on existing alternatives (e.g. posting on Facebook and collecting cash)?
When another potential customer also cited the high rate of commission as a major turnoff, we decided to halve our commission to 15%. Unfortunately, this did not result in us getting many new customers, if any at all. Those already engaged would have been happy to give us 30%. However, I don’t regret this decision, as it meant our customers ended up making more money, which increased their satisfaction with the service.
We made a few ‘leap of faith’ assumptions that were proven entirely wrong.
The first of our major assumptions was about the inherent virality of the product. On the buyers side, we thought that students would encourage each other to purchase the notes in order to reach the minimum target number of sales. However, in reality, people rarely would share such information with their friends as it’s more likely that their friends will, in turn, badger them about getting a copy of the notes, rather than actually purchasing them themselves.
We also assumed that sellers would be willing to post about their available notes in relevant course Facebook groups. Why I thought sellers would do this? Because I was willing to do so myself. I should have realised that although I was an ideal customer, I was not a typical customer — I was much more willing to go to far greater lengths in order to see the project succeed. To the best of our knowledge, not even one seller advertised that they were selling notes on Facebook.
But it wasn’t all bad…
Above, I outlined quite a lot of lessons we learned and mistakes we made. Ultimately, I am glad to be able to reflect on some achievements as well. Over €1800 worth of study notes were sold through our platform and we helped over 100 students pass their exams. Importantly, we ran the platform very lean, and were able to cover our variable costs.
It’s easy to come across negative when reflecting on a challenging experience, but overall I want to make one thing clear — working on PledgeNotes was thoroughly enjoyable. The best thing about it, without any doubt, was working with my co-Founder, Arthaud Mesnard. Despite the many highs and lows that inevitably occur when trying to set up a business, I don’t have a bad word to say about Arthaud — and can happily say that we’re still very good friends. As well as being highly intelligent, Arthaud is very driven and understood the importance of getting out there and talking to users. Arthaud’s strong entrepreneurial instincts and tremendous work-ethic brought out the best in me. Together, we built something that I am proud of. I only have fond memories from PledgeNotes.