For me, 2016 seems like yesterday. I can still remember the excitement of creating a new venture; the adrenaline that comes with it and our eager anticipation of our platform’s online launch.
I had a vision and a dream – to build a global network of small businesses and multilingual talent which could connect and transact in real time, solving problems and generating economic benefits for both sides.
Four years on, I regard myself as lucky, having made my dream possible with really supportive investors, a great team empowered by technology, and a diverse base of clients, friends and followers around the world.
But it has not always been easy, or as I expected. In fact, as I sit here reflecting in the beautiful surroundings of Cambridge, I see that every single achievement during the past 48 months came with challenges and lessons learnt.
When we read about start-up funding, the number is usually in millions. But the truth is, unless you have an amazingly cutting-edge technology, you are less likely to be able to raise that much at the beginning. For Crayfish, what we had was an innovative business model, enabled by technology, but we were not a creator of new technology. And we operate in a niche (China focused) market. Although we are located in Cambridge – which is known as the centre of technology in Europe, attracting billions of pounds of investment each year – we could not access too much of the capital designated for innovative technologies.
So, I decided to start the business anyway, with me and each of the founding team contributing some cash into the company. As we were in the process of figuring out how to build the software, a long-time girlfriend who liked the idea of Crayfish brought in the first £30k investment from China. Soon after, two very well-known Cambridge angel investors I know also confirmed their investment in to the first round, and with the first £110k raised, I had enough to recruit a small team and build a beta platform. But cash was also tight for everything we wanted to do.
I’m grateful for those earlier supporters, who invested into me and the idea without a full business plan. The second round was more predictable but still I was very conservative about taking on more equity funding. The pre-seed round helped us to start tailored software development. But if I were to start the whole thing again, I would probably be bolder and try to raise more money sooner, to invest into marketing.
I am not a software developer and neither is my Co-Founder, so we had some longer learning curves when it came to developing an online marketplace platform from scratch. We did this a safer way: testing the water with cheap and cheerful tech before investing more money into more advanced versions. It worked. The first Beta version of our platform was based on WordPress and launched in July 2017.
Looking back, we could have saved time and money and avoided some mistakes if the team had learnt Scrum earlier, which is an agile framework for developing, delivering, and sustaining complex products. We were also months behind our development and new platform launching schedule, but hey, better late than never!
I started with a peer-to-peer marketplace model inspired by Uber and Airbnb, matching supply and demand for otherwise under-utilised resources. It seemed to be working. Upon launch, a London listed company put through a large translation project, to be completed in 48 hours. This was followed by:
- A famous German futuristic photographer getting a piece of research done for an inaccessible site in China.
- An Italian dental inventor using a Czech- based Chinese sourcing specialist to do a one-off project.
- A US tech firm hiring a UK-based BD team on a pay-as-you-go basis.
BUT the projects came only slowly and the scale we anticipated was largely not coming through. Unable to produce the volume of traffic and worrying about cashflow, I panicked, and it was in my comfort zone to pick up consulting again.
Somehow a voice kept saying in the back of my head – what about your dream of setting up a global digital platform?
Fast forward a year. We got more funding to grow our business in 2019. We had a new sales team in place and additional budget set aside for marketing. Until a word starting with a big C appeared out of the blue in January 2020 and totally disrupted our plans.
We had to revisit our strategy and our business model. Were they still suitable, relevant and effective? How can a China-focused business survive when the trade with China has nearly stopped? After some painful debate, soul-searching discussion, trial and error experiments, and many versions of financial modelling, we came up with our revised strategy. We would be the ‘Amazon’ for business services.
Crayfish.io now has hundreds of clients and thousands of freelancers signed up on our digital platform. Not bad for a B2B service marketplace in a niche segment!
BUT it has taken us two years to get to this point. For a start-up, I learned that we must constantly review our strategy and adapt quickly to increase our chances for survival and growth. It is always healthy to spend some of our resources to test seemingly crazy ideas, but the challenge is to be bold enough to kill those that are not working.
It is very natural to start building a team from people you know and have worked with, that you trust. I did the same. Nearly everyone in my initial team in 2017 was someone I’d known for many years. What I didn’t realise at the time is that what I set out to build was very different from what I had been doing, which was a consultancy business. The skillset required is totally different, as well as the ways of thinking and risk-taking.
It took me nearly two years to rebuild a suitable team for an online business, and now we have a team of six, each with complementary skills in marketing, eCommerce, sales, tech, legal and commercial. And the right mix of personalities. Nobody gets offended by a quick text that’s seemingly blunt and demanding from another team member. We spend weekends having tea and cake together happily – as well as working towards tight deadlines during the weekday evenings.
I’m so grateful for having surrounded myself with a positive, multi-talented and hardworking team. But there have been some tough and unpleasant moments, dealing with HR problems that perhaps all entrepreneurs would want to avoid. I see them as part of the growing pains.
My vision is for Crayfish to be The go-to digital (tech) platform for doing business with China and beyond. This is some way from being achieved. We are committed to helping make cross-border collaboration a success for international businesses, regardless of their size or where they are located.
We’d also like to build the largest global talent pool of Chinese-speaking professionals, connected via our platform network and interacting in our virtual community, without borders.
While the world is in danger of drifting apart, we are trying to bring everyone together, inspiring each other to get through these challenging times.