I was flattered, and a little gobsmacked, when Rob Wilson, now president and CEO of Tradedoubler, invited me to sit on the board of The Zoo Project – the UK's only performance marketing start-up incubator. I was also a little apprehensive: "What am I supposed to do for them?", I asked. Rob, with his typical Northern Irish dryness, replied: "Give them a good talking to now and again".
The Zoo Project is Rob's baby, but a baby with a business purpose. More than 80 companies have applied to The Zoo Project, and the 11 current resident start-ups, equating to 30 plus individuals, are using the latest mobile, social, e-commerce business models and technology to create leading edge services for consumers and retailers that have genuine revenue potential. That's the pretty tough criteria for entry, for anyone thinking of applying in January 2013.
As Rob describes it: "Tradedoubler’s ambitions for The Zoo Project are two-fold: to help develop the next generation of affiliate companies, but also to help boost the British business sector by creating this centre of creativity, business innovation, expertise and success.” So no pressure then.
I recognised immediately that the concept of The Zoo Project had genuine legs, as in the performance marketing sector, innovation is the norm. What new and fascinating ideas would I become privy to? The curious side of my nature was full of enthusiasm – my husband was more concerned about my taking on more 'free' work and therefore having even less time... I knew I would have to be disciplined with any start-ups that chose to work with me. Thus, I have become a bit of an 'ass kicker' that goes into The Zoo to motivate, inspire and generally give a short sharp shock or two of reality – if or when needed.
There have been two intakes of Zoo Project start-ups over the year, and looking back, it strikes me that there's a significant difference between these groups. The initial intake is made up of a slightly older, more established entrepreneur, whose idea has already reached a certain point of gestation. These guys have taken funding and were really on the cusp of venture capital investment. As people who have already built a business or two, they have experience, and The Zoo Project is really offering them the double benefit of a central London location, access to the Tradedoubler collective brain and network, and advice and guidance from the Dragons: Leo Harrison of eCombusta; Matthew Wood of VoucherCloud and Existem; Tim Jessop of Tesco.com and me, Mary Keane-Dawson, now an independent business adviser. Guidance is only any good if you're prepared to listen, though, and that's not always the case when you're on a mission, have already been there and done it.
A couple of that initial intake have fallen by the wayside; maybe they found it just too hard. Being a start-up is exactly that – and you're the only people responsible for the 'doing', the 'thinking', the 'selling'. I am frequently surprised by how many founders become obsessed with minutiae, detail, business plans and trying to solve the advertisers issues. Often they lose sight of the bigger picture, which usually involves the thorny questions of user acquisition marketing that delivers volume and deliverable monetisation strategies. Whatever happened to those guys who didn't stay the course, there's no shame in having a go and realising that it's not for you.
One who has stayed the course and harvested the benefits is Hannah Rouch, founder of StyleNest, the fashion and lifestyle online magazine. Her views on the Project?
"The Zoo gives access to Tradedoubler's brands and as a result we work with ACHICA, Tesco and American Express on a variety of campaigns. It would have been virtually impossible for StyleNest to get these introductions without The Zoo opening doors for us. The Project has also opened our commercial mind to changing the way we monetise the site and the data we generate. Being in an office has also been invaluable for progressing our business. We have been able to grow our team and having such a professional address has given us even more credibility."
The latest round of start-ups has been younger, even more business-like, and extraordinarily focused and ambitious. Several of these animals have global ambitions, and are developing their technology offering using agile development, capitalising on the lean start-up philosophy, and in the process teaching this Dragon a business lesson or two. HipSnip (a shopping Q&A platform that helps you build an engaged shopping community on your website) and reQQi (think part personal network, part social search, part recommendation engine) are just two examples of this latest breed to have joined The Zoo.
Ben Caulfield, reQQi'’s founder, is clear on the benefits of The Zoo: "We wanted to join for two reasons: It is one of those rare occurrences in life when something is free and there are no strings attached. Many offer similar schemes but none make quite this much sense. And secondly, many start-ups give monetisation a mere glance but we've had a firm eye on it from the start and TD's expertise (and clients) are critical to generating revenue for reQQi. We meet with our mentor and PDM regularly to refine our future offering to clients and we now have a strong offering to take to market.”
And what of this Dragon? Well, I am delighted to report that I recently joined the board of reQQi, so I've learnt a lot, met some amazing people and helped get a few start-ups on their way, and now, I'm also benefitting personally. All in all, being a Dragon has been a little more demanding than "giving the good talking to" that Rob promised, however, the personal satisfaction return rating is off the scale and I am delighted to be a part of something that aims to make a meaningful business difference.
Apart from being a ‘Dragon’ on the investment panel of The Zoo Project, a judge of The Performance Marketing Awards and a mentor to several digital entrepreneurs, Mary is a trusted consultant to investors, clients and an advisor to M&A specialists Green Square. Mary is also a board director of Convertr Media and reQQi.