Interviewed in April 2016
It can be hard to explain exactly what The Backscratchers is – it doesn’t fit into a category. We connect companies with recommended freelancers or teams for projects, and our tagline is ‘Fixers for the creative industry’. We’re not an agency, we’re not recruiters, we’re not a production company. We’re a hybrid that sits in the middle. We launched as a tech start-up, then evolved to something more like a traditional company.
A recent project that we worked recently would be for Giffgaff who came to us wanting to create something ‘viral’ – a campaign that would tie in with some TV adverts about how their service “won’t tie you down”. They knew they wanted to do something, and had money to do it but didn’t know what ‘it’ was, so we connected them with a couple of PR agencies who came up with ideas and they went with one of the teams. In the end, our teams flew drones that looked like people around London. So it appeared that people were flying around, so ‘we don’t tie you down’ really fitted with it. Major newspapers picked up on it, the press was great and they were delighted with it.
My background was in music. I was a music journalist and then I was head of marketing for a music production company, putting out records, producing music for adverts, or turning a carwash into a nightclub – projects like that. Being a small company, I got a lot of experience doing everything, PR, management, video productions, photo shoots, tours, events, licensing. Through all of that I would get frustrated because sometimes it was hard to find collaborators. For example, to find a new director for a music video, we’d appeal on social media, but we’d always get a friend’s brother’s flatmate or someone, and quite often, they’d be shit!
What I thought we were missing in the industry was a company or thing you could go to and say ‘this is what I need’ and it would tell you. So then the solution could be a person, or a company or sometimes it could be a piece of tech. So that was the initial idea for Backscratchers.
I’m originally from Tennessee, and I’d lived in LA since I was 16. I was working in LA when I decided to come to London to do a Masters. I wanted to do it because I was DJing, writing and had my own company – selling alternative merchandise by musicians, like drawings and paintings. I am entrepreneurial by nature, or more than that I’d have an idea and then just decide to do it. Although the webshop wasn’t viable to live off, it made me realise I had good ideas but needed some actual structure. And I realised that all my buddies in music weren’t making money, they were just about breaking even – they were doing it for the love of that lifestyle, they weren’t business people. I knew I wanted to run a proper business.
Moving to London was an opportunity to reflect on what I wanted to achieve, but was too busy working, DJing and going out a lot in LA to do.
It was 2010, and within two months of applying to study Cultural Policy and Management at City University, I’d moved to England. After building up my career and my contacts in the music industry in LA for five years I was now in a city where I knew no-one. I had to start again from scratch.
There was a business plan competition at University and myself and friend Patrick drew up a business plan for this imaginary company, The Backscratchers. To our immense surprise we won! – and we were lowly Arts students up against MBA students at Cass Business School.
I decided to write my dissertation on five creative businesses that had launched in London recently and interview everybody. That was one of the best things I did. It meant I got great insight and met successful people who could mentor me. The people at Mixcloud were so nice, I’m still friends with them to this day. They sat down with me and told me everything, what their struggles were, what they did for investment, everything. I talked to Taste Buds – a music dating website, where you’d get matched up based on your music tastes! I talked to them and they are still friends. I also talked to some investors, some advisors and got an idea of the ecosystem.
After winning the £5000 business plan competition prize; we thought we should invest it by starting the business, rather than just go on holiday. It was a really weird moment. Until at this point I thought I would go back to LA, but it seemed like an amazing opportunity.
It was such an interesting time to be in London. The tech start-up scene in London was just getting started, it was a year or so before Google opened up The Campus at Old Street and things felt really exciting. We were like – lets just do it. We recruited a third technical Co-Founder to join us, called Leo as the technical guy. Initially he wasn’t a co-founder, he was just our tech guy but then we quickly realised we needed him. In the meantime we were applying to accelerator programs.
They give you money and take equity from your business and give you intensive advice for either three or six months. They accelerate your business, basically. It was based in Google Campus, and for the first month it was 10 mentors a day. It was insane. Crazy intense, you’d be giving your proposition as quickly as possible while they’d be firing loads of feedback and advice at you.
The second month was about iteration – taking on that advice and changing the product in line with the guidance then the third month was about preparing your pitch for investors.
It was like doing an MBA in three months. Not coming from a technical world myself, it involved learning the language of start-up. I’m not using a metaphor, there’s literally a whole language. I’d be trying to explain something to an investor and they just wouldn’t get it. But if I found the correct piece of jargon to use, immediately they’d get it! And then one of my advisors would say; “if you say this instead of this” and use a financial term instead of a laymen’s term, and that would work! It would make the difference between getting a second meeting or not. I’d worked with lots of businessmen before but honestly, tech investment is a very different world.
We took on board all the advice and built a big, scalable, hands-off platform, where people could post their requests, deal though all the payment and billing and we never had to talk to them and it all worked.
But it turned out none of the clients wanted to use it! The demand was there. Clients wanted the end result, they wanted to find that amazing creative who would do their illustration for them, but they didn’t want to use the platform.
Looking back, I wished I had trusted my instinct a bit more, because I think I knew a tech platform wasn’t necessarily the way to go, and believed we were right about our own industry rather than being swayed. It’s hard to say no to experts when they are telling you something. We have become very good at saying it now, but at the time of starting out it was really hard do actually say – “I think I know what will work in our industry”.
That was a big lesson. You can create tech, you can digitalise things. But there are some things that shouldn’t be. We realised that, people did want what we offered but we had to figure out a way of getting it to them. One of the truest things anyone ever said to me was that we needed to be obsessed with solving our problem, and not with our particular solution. So our proposal was a website where they never had to speak to a person, the entire thing was automated. But people didn’t want that.
They partly didn’t want it because they didn’t know exactly what they wanted so they didn’t know how to request it from the site. What am I looking for? How do I know if my project hasn’t been done before? Another very common issue was that a lot of stuff was NDA’d/embargoed. Corporate clients don’t want their top secret creative ideas for a new project splashed all over a website before they launch it.
We took a step back from the platform and started to do everything via emails and phone calls. Then we started to build up tech around it. So the clients contact us and we start to find solutions for them, and that process is done by tech but it’s not what the client ever engages with. The client engages with us.
Every creative that we put forward for jobs is known and recommended by us, and has worked with us previously. Our entire system is built on recommendations and the same on the client side. Early on, we had the chance to work for the BBC for this thing called BBC Worldwide Labs. We applied for that and got onto it, which was like the BBC’s version of an accelerator except for the fact that they don’t take a percentage of your business and no money changes hands, its all about trying to do a deal with the BBC. We managed to sign a deal with them and then the BBC was our first global, media client, which was incredible. Then followed Unilever, Time Out, The Guardian, and after that it started to snowball a bit. By now this was end of 2013, start of 2014.
My co-founder Patrick then stepped out of the business, although he is still on the board and works in advertising. Which is actually positive. I think doing a start-up is not for everyone. At the beginning you are working crazy hours, it’s really unstable, you don’t know when you’re going to get paid.
Leo the technical director stepped up to be co-director and he is brilliant and it means every tech decision is based on a business decision.
We raised two rounds of investment, the first as a result of the accelerator and then we did a larger round of angel investment that closed at the end of 2013. I also worked part-time at the Rio Cinema in Dalston, which was brilliant. I’d tried having a marketing day job, but when I came home at night I was too tired and too burned out to concentrate on my own project. I didn’t want a full-time job that was too similar to my Start-up so I went to make popcorn in a cinema and it really grounded me at a time when everything in start-up world was overwhelming and none of it was tangible, which helped kept me sane.
We’ve had our office for two years, since our first big client in 2014. That was also break-even point and 2015 we became profitable, and now we are growing the business as a team of five. The fact that we are a profitable business makes us an anomaly in the tech world and is actually one of the things that marks us out as a weird hybrid company rather than a classic tech start-up.
I wish I had known that it was OK to do things differently. Like in the start-up world there is a very clear path of what you have to do. You go through an accelerator then you raise investment then you raise another round of investment and so on, then you have to grow by 10 times a year. It’s a formula you follow. We only found out later that that wasn’t what had to happen and also that and also that it wasn’t was right for us. But it takes confidence to say that. And we found out it’s OK to do things our way and to say thank you but no sometimes.
I learned that the right co-founder it makes all the difference. It’s really important as a founder to be honest about your skills set and then find a co-founder with other assets. For me, when you’re running a business, being able to do a kick-ass spreadsheet is essential. And doing business projections like hitting your monthly target, or exceeding it and how that affects the rest of your year – is important. It’s not my forte it’s not the best use of my time. People even comment on how Leo and I are so opposite and how well that makes our team work. It works from all angles, business, financial, creative and people-wise.
We work with the same clients over and over again so we get to know exactly what their needs are and we even keep an eye out for things that will suit them. We’re doing interesting things and solving problems and bringing people together.