Always be Pivoting! - with Graham Mills
For our latest Idea 2 Scale Live event in Dublin, we were joined by Graham Mills of techspert.io in what was our most popular event to date. While sharing his journey and learnings, a few key themes arose, most notably the need to constantly pivot.
Before techspert.io, Graham had a few pivots in his life. Having originally studied genetics at Trinity, he took a few diverse internships, including one at Genentech in California - one of the early pioneers of Silicon Valley, before deciding to undertake a PhD in Cancer research at Cambridge. During his research, he continued his internships, moving into VC for Johnson and Johnson in London and Seroba Life Sciences in Ireland where he looked at deals in the life sciences space.
Ultimately, he realized he wanted to be on the other side of the table to VC’s. Despite not being an ‘Idea’s Person’ he was drawn to the excitement of building something and having an impact. He teamed up with fellow Cambridge student Dave Holden-White to launch ‘Abdicare’, a solution for helping smokers give up cigarettes.
Their innovative solution to this perennial problem was based around the negative reinforcement theory. It got quite technical, but to paraphrase Graham, essentially a patient would ingest a substance which would reside in the lungs for 48 hours. If that person smoked during this time, an ingredient in the cigarette would activate the substance in the lungs releasing the burning sensation of chilies in the lungs - turning smokers off having another one!
While Adbicare didn’t work out, Graham and David worked well together having contrasting personalities and plenty of ‘productive’ arguments. They decided to start something else and set about solving the problem of finding experts from specific niches beyond their network around the world. Finding these experts was a problem they had both faced while working in Biotech & VC - ‘Biotechspert’ was born.
The biggest learning from Graham’s talk was “don’t be married to your original idea - we thought we knew what customers wanted, we didn’t know and it constantly changes anyway!” They initially pursued a network driven approach by attracting experts to the platform and arranging interactions but they soon realized this wasn’t scalable. In the early days, they were relentlessly listening to customers and understanding how they could provide value.
They settled on an algorithm to scrape academic journals and other sources across the internet to index experts. While not perfect, there was enough promise that they doubled down on that strategy and raised a pre-seed round. It was tough, they could only raise £50k of their £250k target from angels and turned to the public to fill the rest in a successful crowdfunding campaign
They presented their ‘shiny new listening tool’ backed by an algorithm and immediately received requests - confirming the pain point they had explored. Often, they received requests outside its capabilities and would have to search manually for these experts to meet the request. While time consuming, it informed subsequent improvement of the algorithm and kept them close to the customer.
“The only reason we exist is because we pivoted non-stop.” Realizing this problem was much bigger than just Biotech and that their tech could be applied elsewhere, Graham and David raised a £1 million seed round from angels and changed their name to techspert.io. The fruits of their pivots helped them raise their round as investors were impressed by the small number of customers who just absolutely loved what they did.
An audience member asked an interesting question, “how do you know when to pivot once you’ve scaled - if you listen to the customer too much, there’s a risk that they could lead you down the wrong path?” Graham pointed out that you must move from a qualitative approach to quantitative. As you have more customers, a change or claim requested by one customer must be backed up by others to warrant a change in direction.
In just over a year, techspert.io have gone from 4 employees, to 21. They have clients in EU, US, Singapore, Japan, & China. They have over 1 billion professionals now indexed by their tech and have achieved £1M ARR. Despite the rapid growth they are experiencing and the bigger numbers on all sides, Graham pointed out that the happiest he ever was on this journey to date was the day they won the Churchill Enterprise competition and the £1,000 prize. It was their first funding and seemed like a fortune at the time but more important, it was validation. There will always be bigger checks as you scale, but it’s a special moment when other people think you’re onto something!