Three years ago, he had a notepad full of ideas. And as we know just having ideas is never enough, or … at least you don’t start a business from just having ideas and doing nothing, you eventually have to implement them and that’s what Josh did. He finally settled on his favourite one, he picked Night Zookeeper. That was three years ago and today I sit with Josh to find out more about his journey.
Josh takes me back in time and tells me how the idea for Night Zookeeper came about, difficulties faced along the way, getting traction and how he’s been able to grow the business to its current stage.
Here’s what we talked about.
[caption id="attachment_16876" align="alignnone" width="553"] Josh Davidson (Middle)[/caption]
Hi Josh, Thanks for doing this. How are you doing today?
I’m very well thank you. I started the day with a few investor calls and have spent the morning working on the marketing plan for our new iPad app - Night Zookeeper Teleporting Torch which will be out in March. Busy times!
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
Sure. Well I studied Fine Art and then a Masters in Digital Art before getting my first taste of the startup world as the Marketing and PR Manager of a small CMS solutions provider. I then worked as a digital consultant for one of the largest PR agencies in the world in their London and Washington DC offices. I learnt a lot and had some really interesting clients. The skills and cross industry knowledge I built up has proved invaluable in preparing me for this new challenge.
Tell me how you initially got into business?
I’ve always dreamed of having my own business but three years ago I had notepads full of ideas and no time to work on them all. I reflected on this and decided I wanted to try make one of them actually ‘happen’, although I’m not sure I knew what that meant at the time! I chose my favourite and it was Night Zookeeper. I could sense the commercial potential in the idea and I also new I had the friends to really support me with it. One of my best friends was a primary school teacher and we had always said it would be fun to work together. He was working in Abu Dhabi at the time but we spoke on the phone and decided to try and take it forward. Three years later here we are. I still can’t believe it!
How did the idea for Night Zookeeper come about?
I actually had the idea a LONG time ago. I was in Melbourne Australia as part of an University exchange programme when I heard the zoo there was open at night. The story of a magical zoo just sprang from that really, the early sketchings of a story entered one of my endless notepads to potentially be forgotten forever.
Luckily I rediscovered the story when I was studying my Masters in Digital Art. I was undertaking a module called Collaborative Practices, where we looked at ways of collaborating with others using the Internet. I thought, ‘well I have come up with some pretty cool animals here, but I bet my friends and family could come up with more.’ Some did, but the best response was from kids. Their creations were amazing! The idea has been really refined since then but the basic concept was alive 7 years ago.
Tell me about the early days, what was the hardest part of starting the business?
Setting up the business was both the easiest and hardest thing I’ve ever done. Even before we launched it was 3 months of working weekends and evenings, going to lunchtime meetings with the bank and holding 6am Skype calls with my co-founders. We were exhausted but so exhilarated. When we finally launched the real work began and I must admit, even though I had worked in a startup before, it took me by surprise. The amount mental and physical energy setting up a company demands is hard to describe. I vaguely remember somebody saying something about the Olympics last year but my mind was almost permanently in the Night Zoo!
What is Night Zookeeper? And what are you trying to solve with it?
Night Zookeeper motivates and inspires young learners. We are tackling the lack of creative opportunities for children with digital technology. Too many digital toys offer children limited or no opportunities for self expression and we want to use technology to enable more creative problem solving. Night Zookeeper helps children see the world wide web as a medium that they can create with rather than simply consume and is an potential first step before learning to code.
How have you been able to fund it so far?
My co-founder Paul Hutson and I used our savings and a bank loan to build the first Night Zookeeper website and then went full time delivering literacy, ICT and art projects for primary schools for a small fee. This built awareness of our brand and website whilst giving us much needed cash flow. We also received a small amount of Angel investment and won a place at the Wayra Academy, Telefonica’s startup accelerator which came with a small financial investment.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs looking to raise funds for their startups?
This is going to be a terrible answer I’m afraid because I don’t think there is a right way to do it. I do think you need to know how much you need and be single minded in that and in who you want to give it to you. Paul and I didn’t know any Angels when we started out so we had to network really hard to look for funding. We have wasted a lot of time chasing funding that, if we had stepped back and assessed things, we would have seen was very unlikely to come.
Unusually we seem to be one of a very few lucky companies that got a bank loan. Our bank manager liked the business idea and fought for us so it can happen.
About the first few months, how excited were you, tell us about how those months felt, what happened?
We are really lucky because our business has given us so many exciting moments. We won Startup Weekend Education, Learning without Frontiers PitchFest, Tech Pitch 4.5 and made the Smarta 100 and Startups.co.uk top 100....and then Wayra! It was a crazy journey and I’m aware that very few startups will have that much validation and so many highs! However even with all of that, the self belief we have needed to keep moving forward has been huge. It is a terrifying thing starting a business and having strong networks around you personally and professionally is really important.
How did you initially get traction?
Actually the competitions really helped. They took a lot of time but the momentum and buzz that they generated got our name out there and did lead to our early customers. Once you have those little breaks the key for me has been to make the most of them. We work with our customers to improve our service and in turn they pass on and recommend Night Zookeeper to others.
What are the most crucial things that you have done to grow your business?
We have been operating on a belief in ‘good karma’! This is more technical than it sounds! I worked in marketing so I’ve studied ROI numbers for many different campaigns and what they struggle to measure is how far you have moved the bar on ‘inclination to buy’. In the Education sector that is huge. People want trusted brands who are transparent and open about who they are and what they believe in. We do a lot of work in the teaching community, running our own events and supporting the community in general. There is no measurable direct sales benefit but the relationships and ‘good karma’ that we have built up as a result of these events is invaluable.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
When we were first selected for Wayra, Telefonica flew us over to Madrid to talk on stage alongside the CEO of Telefonica (the 11th largest company in Europe), about Night Zookeeper. We were flattered and terrified! I vividly remember boarding the plane with Paul, I should add that I’ve known Paul for 11 years and we are best friends, and just turning to him and saying excitedly, “We are flying to Spain on business!” It was a huge moment of realisation that it was happening, it was real.
What should we be expecting from yourself and the Night Zookeeper team for 2013?
If you have an iPad and haven’t yet, please download Night Zookeeper Drawing Torch and have a play. It has 22 sample drawing missions such as: turning boring old shoes into magical animals and asking you to draw the ocean without the colour blue! It’s really good fun. The next version Night Zookeeper Teleporting Torch will launch in March and gives children new missions every day. It also let’s parents play along and send missions of their own to their kids. This is really just the start though. We plan to take over the world with magical animals created by children!
Lastly, what three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
1. Focus on the jobs that make a difference rather than the ones you find easiest
2. Learn as much as you can about your customers before getting carried away with the details of your product
3. Don’t try and do it all alone. I have a great team around me: Paul Hutson, Simon Buzz Burman, Mathieu Triay and Will Barbour and their enthusiasm and passion amazes and inspires me.
On Saturday 9th March we will be hosting, alongside Brightside, ‘Get Up Start Up‘ where you will be able to apply and be approved for a Startup loan of between £2,500 & £10,000 to help you get your business started!