VIDEO: Grabble’s founder on the challenges and rewards of growing a tech startup

At the recent Unbound event in London, I interviewed seven startup founders to find out more about the highs and lows of creating a successful tech business in the UK. Here’s the interview with Daniel Murray, co-founder of Grabble.

ES: Can you tell us a bit about Grabble?

DM: Grabble is one of the top shopping apps in Europe. We have around 700,000 registered users and around 150,000 monthly active users. Like any innovative startup what we do changes every few months, and the proposition has to change as our consumers desire and mobile changes. We curate the internet and find, from our creative team’s opinion, the very best items from the top retailers and brands every day and put them on your phone in shoppable content streams.

So we’re very focused around content and how to make content shoppable, because from our point of view and just what we’ve seen innovating in this space on mobile specifically, it’s very hard to sell anything on mobile unless you have a bit of a story behind it.

Where did the idea for this app come from?

This joke changes in between whether I have a girlfriend at the time or my business partner has a girlfriend at the time. But at this current stage I get to say that he was single and he was obsessed with Tinder – and we’ve been nicknamed the Tinder for shopping.

Three-and-a-half years ago we looked at all the other apps that were being done by those who could afford to have apps, like Asos, Net-a-Porter etc, and we honestly thought they were all crap. We simply didn’t understand why there were so many awesome apps on our phone that made lots of sense, from user-journey and user-experience points of view, but then when we went on a shopping app, every single company’s app that we looked at did exactly the same thing.

They took a landscape website and turned it into a portrait and just basically replicated their shopping experience. So we thought it seemed very lazy and didn’t really seem like they were giving much thought to how a consumer would want to shop on mobile and what would make that experience actually fun and engaging.

You’ve integrated the swipe function haven’t you?

Yes the swipe function genuinely came out of a little innovation project we did. We built loads of different prototypes and we already had a decent back-end so we were quickly able to say: “What would a Twitter of fashion look like? What would a tumblr of fashion look like? What would a LinkedIn of fashion look like?”

So we just took the popular apps as they were with their different user experiences and mocked them up, and obviously one of those was Tinder. Then we put them around a WeWork [co-working space], which is where we were at the time, and everyone engaged with that product. It seemed very obvious to us that that’s what we should lead with, it was very much like lean methodology and it just resonated with people. Then we just got really lucky because the timing was absolutely right.

You founded in 2014 and then you raised a funding round in 2015, how did that help you?

Initially we raised £350,000 and we were a social commerce website. So when I said we already had a sophisticated back-end, we did but that’s because we’d built a website, when actually we ended up pivoting to mobile. We did that because we were far more interested in the challenge. We didn’t feel like web was a particularly interesting place to be and when trying to compete, lots of people are amazing at web, especially in e-commerce. So mobile seemed a better opportunity.

At the time of the pivot, we were down to our last £5,000 and so everyone in the team had been given notice, everyone was working in their final month of the company and this pivot had to work. We literally just got so lucky; we launched a product that had total market fit at the time, with the buzzwords of ‘Tinder for fashion’, we got immediately picked up and were on the front page of Mail Online, which gave us a huge boost in users.

Literally we completed the fastest ever funding round imaginable. We went out to raise very quickly and closed it within four weeks. So we genuinely got lucky, but the first £350,000 we raised was not as rosy.

Are you looking to raise further funds?

So we’ve raised £4m and we are actually just raising at the moment now. Grabble is a sustainable product; it’s profitable, it’s growing nicely but we’re not trying to grow it aggressively any more. The reason for that is because it actually has a bit of a saturation point in itself. Grabble has 150,000 monthly active users and the reality is, from a personal business point of view and from a founder point of view, we’re interested in is innovations on mobile.

So we launched a new consumer product a few months ago called Popcorn, which is a movie trailer app. We turned all of our code from Grabble into a platform to enable us to release more products quickly and to test them and we launched Popcorn. It’s now become the number-one app in seven countries, it dislodged IMDB and Netflix at the top of the entertainment chart in the UK. It’s been a very successful sort of viral app on its own.

So it’s nothing to do with Grabble, just a completely separate project?

Yes completely separate and it literally works off an algorithm from an open movies database so there’s not even a content person working on it. It’s literally done by algorithms and then our platform tech.

Are you getting bored with Grabble, is that why you’re trying new things?

No, it’s more that our creative director runs that [Grabble] now, so there also comes a point where, as the founders, you have to ask yourself: “What value am I adding in a shopping app?”

At the end of the day we hired a really great stylist team from Topshop, Net-a-Porter etc, so at some point as the founders you have to ask what you’re possibly contributing there. Surely our best use now is to think about how else to extend the products and the company.

You spoke a bit about the challenges that you have felt and you were very much down to your last pennies by the time you pivoted the company. Aside from that, what have been the main challenges that you faced in setting up Grabble?

Funding is a consistent challenge and now the biggest challenge by a long way is hiring. In the last 12 months, hiring development talent has become nigh on impossible. I just got off the phone this morning with my business partner talking about how we shouldn’t be waiting to set up a second office in Lisbon or Berlin. We have a well-known brand that’s sexy and that people know and so that’s a really great place to be in to hire development talent.

If we’re looking for an iOS developer for example, we might get six maybe seven good people through our doors to interview over the period of a month. A year ago we might have had 30, 40, 50.

Genuinely this isn’t a whinge about Brexit but it’s a very realistic problem in the market. Last year we had two French and one German person, all of them absolutely brilliant. We didn’t fire any of them, but they all went out to their own countries because of their own desire to following the Brexit vote. They were employed and doing well in our company, totally welcomed by everyone and had lived here for a long time. If that’s what those guys are thinking then imagine what everyone else is thinking. It’s no wonder that it’s impossible to hire developers at the moment in London.

So our biggest challenge at the moment is we want to expand quickly and we’re in a really nice position where we have the money to spend and can go for growth, but we literally can’t find the quality talent to do it. We’re having to look outside of London very seriously now. A year ago it was like: “Oh it would be nice to have a development office in Berlin and it would be fun because we love Berlin.” But now it’s a case of if we don’t do that in six months, we might not even have a company.

Those are your next steps for growth then, you’re looking at international expansion?

I think we have to and I think that genuinely most companies in our position have to. If you’re Facebook and they’ve opened up a really development-heavy office in London, hiring a thousand developers etc, that’s awesome but they can pay more, they can give you a better culture, like everything – they’re Facebook.

It means there’s a shrinking number of developers in the market plus when something really aggressive like that comes in, it just becomes a silly situation. You’re then looking to pay people 20-30% more than you were last year, yet you’ve been screwed in every other area of the market too. It becomes unsustainable.

Let’s not focus too much on the doom and gloom, tell me about some of the high points of working and setting up Grabble.

There have been lots, we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve collected awards and they’re always really nice to receive and I think recognition at any point is great.

The moment that always sticks out in my mind the most was during the period I mentioned earlier, when we were running out of money. We had that classic startup story where we were sitting in the Hoxton Hotel on a Sunday night because we had had to sell our office by that point and everyone was working remotely. And we did this campaign and it went so well, but we weren’t planning for it to go so well and our servers went down, so we had to call up this systems admin guy in Poland and wake him up and, thank god, he was so nice and actually set up more servers and he helped us get it back up.

The campaign ended up going so much better than we expected. It will always stick in my mind because by the next morning all the investors that said no they weren’t coming in, suddenly were. I think it’s the feeling of triumph against the odds that will always stick out in a founder’s mind. If your journey is really linear and positive I think it’s really easy to forget those moments.

I’m not sure anyone really has that purely linear route though, but it’s good to hear these stories about the ups and downs.

Yes, and we’ve had lots of them and I think everyone does, like you say. But there’s no reward without the risk and so when you look back on the journey those are the fun bits that make it all worthwhile.