Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi there, I’m Mike Lameree a cybersecurity engineer from the Netherlands, and founder of SoPlan, an agenda platform based on phone numbers. I want to disrupt the way people and businesses schedule appointments/reservations with each other. SoPlan makes it easier for friends and family to schedule an activity and send it to everyone in the form of a meeting request. Instead of using e-mail addresses as their recipient address, my platform is using phone numbers. Businesses can interact with customers using the same platform as an alternative for the expensive reservation systems they are using now.
We are not making any money at the moment. It’s currently all about growth and we want to keep the app for consumers free. We still have to build our business-to-consumer portal to onboard businesses and start making revenue. We are growing on the consumer side so this is a positive sign that people like to be able to send and receive agenda events using phone numbers.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I came up with the idea when I was planning an event with a group of friends. It reminded me how time-consuming it is to have everyone’s agenda match. What we usually did is look for a date in 6 months, because the likelihood of finding an available date was higher. I couldn’t figure out why at the office it’s easy to schedule meetings with colleagues but in your personal life, there are no agenda tools that support the same functions. It’s because in our personal life we communicate through phone numbers with our friends instead of email addresses.
I underestimated the effort required to launch a business. Building a product is easy. Getting people to know your product is more difficult than I would expect.
What I also thought was a missed opportunity is having businesses use the same platform using their phone numbers to schedule appointments or make reservations from clients. In essence, it’s all about scheduling a time slot in an agenda. We have talked to businesses and in each sector, they have double-digit percentage numbers of no-shows and late cancellations. The main reason was that people forgot to write down their appointment on their agenda.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I knew I couldn’t do all the work alone. So I searched for a cofounder on social media and found 2 candidates. I pitched my idea to both of them and I decided to go with the person which I felt most comfortable. I proposed to do 50/50 on equity with a 1-year cliff.
We started working on the prototype and I started searching for a mentor which can help us with business-related decisions. Unfortunately, my cofounder could not commit to the project anymore because he was running low on cash and had to work on other assignments. So I decided to continue with the work by hiring developers to speed up the development. Furthermore, I hired a UX/UI professional to make the design and color scheme of the website and mobile app.
I’ve always said that even our grandparents should be able to understand and use the app without having to use a magnification tool and that’s what we have built.
Concept design vs Final design
I got the company incorporated in June 2020 to bring all the intellectual property in the corporation and being able to create accounts at payment providers and have a corporate bank account. Incorporating a business in the Netherlands costs around 1,000 USD and I spend around 5,000 USD on the domain soplan.com and around 50,000 USD on development, marketing, prototyping, and design.
We spend a massive amount of time fixing bugs. I’m a perfectionist and I don’t like it when we have known bugs that affect the user experience. Most start-ups would launch with bugs in their platform, I just couldn’t. People have to rely on our product.
Another thing we spend a lot of development hours on is security & privacy. Again, most startups don’t have any security or privacy requirements but with my background as a cybersecurity engineer, it’s in my nature to ensure what we do is secure.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We launched in December 2020 for a small group. We noticed some bugs and received feedback. For the next 3 months, we worked on improving the product and fixing bugs. So in March 2021 we were ready to announce much-requested features and added 13 languages to the app. With the help of some Ads on a big search engine platform we got to work on brand awareness and we noticed a nice and steady growth of users.
Since the app for consumers is free, I’m financing everything out of my own pocket. The biggest cost we have is sending SMS messages to verify user’s phone numbers.
I tried to launch a Kickstarter campaign but I was so busy with the development of the product that I did not put any attention on making everyone aware we had a Kickstarter campaign running. So this part I failed. No funds. I’m considering doing another Kickstarter campaign but now for business to consumers.
I underestimated the effort required to launch a business. Building a product is easy. Getting people to know your product is more difficult than I would expect. I’m not specialized in marketing, I’m a cybersecurity engineer. So yeah I have underestimated this part a lot. I had the idea that if you built something for free, customers will come automatically. I was wrong. So lesson learned here is that it is very helpful to have someone on board who has a background in business and marketing.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Ok. I will describe what has and what hasn’t worked for SoPlan. Let me start with what hasn’t worked.
My biggest mistake was thinking people would change their behavior to use my app. I did not have synchronization to other calendars in place. I thought people that use my app should use my calendar instead of their own calendar. People just don’t like to change.
Facebook ads. I spent around 500 USD on Facebook ads, but the cost per acquisition was around 10 USD which is insane. So I stopped using Facebook as a platform to acquire new users.
SMS campaigns. I spent around 500 USD on sending text messages to customers which have used our December version of the app which contained bugs and had fewer features and uninstalled the app. We tried to get them back without any success.
Things that worked well are Google Ads. Our cost per acquisition is around 13 ct. Currently running an ad budget of 10 USD per day which is a low amount to spend on marketing. I’m trying to decide if it’s wise to raise that budget or not.
I have hired a PR company “PromoteHour” to reach out to journalists to have them write an article about SoPlan. This has just started and we have yet to see the results from this.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
At the moment I’m seeking investors for two reasons. Money to build the business to consumer portal so we can compete with other reservation platforms and the other reason is their experience with scaling start-ups.
Luckily our operational costs are very low since we are using serverless technology to run our backend infrastructure. We don’t have expensive servers running 24/7 and we don’t need a DevOps engineer to maintain servers. We can have the entire infrastructure run and scale automatically without any human interaction.
Our short-term goal is to grow, but the covid-19 pandemic in most countries does not allow us to grow exponentially because people are restricted in going to the cinema, bars, restaurants, etc.
Our long-term goal is to expand our platform to allow businesses to use it as a reservation tool and have a better and cheaper alternative on the market.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I learned so much about every aspect which is involved in running a business. I was recruiting people, hiring developers, doing marketing, business development, testing, designing. I thought I could do it all by myself and this is a mistake I will not make again. It’s better to have more people on the project which you can discuss with and share the workload than doing everything by yourself. Yes, you learn more by doing it yourself but mentally it’s very tiring.
Another thing I miscalculated was the covid-19 pandemic. I would have thought by the end of 2020 things would return to normal. Many countries have restrictions in place which prevent people to go have fun and meet with their friends. Hopefully, by the end of this summer, everything will be returned to normal and we can exponentially grow our user base.
My biggest mistake was thinking people would change their behavior to use my app. For example, I did not have synchronization to other calendars in place. It required much work to implement so I thought people that use my app should use my calendar instead of their own calendar. People just don’t like to change. I thought I could easily convince them. So eventually I added calendar synchronization features in the app and noticed people started using the app more because of this.
We decided to use a new technology which is called serverless and this was the best decision we made. Our operational costs to hosting the infrastructure are extremely low. Plus we have the advantage of auto-scaling and 0 server maintenance.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We try to limit the number of platforms we use. This has to do with my background in cybersecurity. The more tools you have to more risk of getting information leaked through one of those platforms.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Basically, any founder which has posted a video about his startup journey I follow and check them out. They are really helpful and inspiring. I usually look at videos of founders of unicorn startups because they are easier to find.
Justin Kan from Twitch has recently published videos about his startup journey and since it is so recently I like them the most to watch.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Be very careful if an investor approaches you. Know what they are offering and under what terms and conditions.
Start with a small amount of ad budget and test out if the channel is returning any results and at what cost.
Try to have more people working on the project instead of trying to do it all by yourself. You get more fun out of working together with co-founders on solving problems and you can distribute the workload.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes, we are hiring. We are looking for someone with expertise in growth and brand awareness and developers. Our backend is in node.js and our frontend is react native. You get a fair amount of equity in return. I’m working hard to find investors so I can pay you a salary but at the moment this is not possible.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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