In 2010, Brennan McEachran founded Toronto-based SoapBox to build software technology that aggregates crowdsourced ideas. Lots of different organizations – ranging from ski camps to universities to non-profits to multinationals – want to get feedback from employees, customers, students, donors and volunteers, and early on Mr. McEachran saw the diverse possible uses of his technology as advantageous. However, he began to see that a wide target market could limit the market traction he needed for growth.
The concept underlying SoapBox came to Mr. McEachran when he was registering for classes in his second year of university. He kept bumping up against inefficiencies in the process and found them frustrating. He couldn’t understand why these problems still existed: everyone was experiencing them and they were certainly solvable. He recalls, “I talked about them with my friends and that night ideas were percolating so quickly that I couldn’t fall asleep. Finally, at 1:00 a.m., I got up and sent a letter to the president of the university with our suggestions.” To his surprise, the president got back to him and set up a meeting. To put his best foot forward, Mr. McEachran used Facebook to solicit more ideas for improvements. This feedback was well-received and Mr. McEachran – a self-taught programmer – started working on a platform to enable students to pass on their best ideas to university administrators.
The first year was spent on product development and piloting the platform at the university. During this year, Mr. McEachran expanded the founding team to include Graham McCarthy, who became chief technology officer because of his strong IT background, and Warren Tanner, who became chief marketing officer because of his experience with brands and raising funds as a past member of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Team. The company’s value proposition during the first two years was generic: “SoapBox allows a community to suggest and prioritize ideas and then get them directly into the hands of key decision makers” – and the team used their personal networks to try to get the software platform into everyone and anyone’s hands. An early customer was Chapters who used it to get ideas from customers.
However, their bank balance wasn’t matching their ambitions. Mr. McEachran recalls, “We had a gut feeling that we were on to something and some smart people agreed with us, but we didn’t know how to get traction. We were throwing the platform everywhere and we didn’t even recognize that this was a scatterbrained approach.”
The partners realized that they had to reinvent their sales approach and pricing scheme for each prospect. They knew sales would be easier to do with a more focused target market, but they weren’t sure where to focus.
The answer lay in the detailed data they had been collecting. They had sales data to track which initial meetings led to follow-up meetings and product demonstrations, which product demonstrations led to requests for proposals, and which proposals led to closed deals. They also had data on how existing customers were using their soapbox.
In their second year, the partners began analyzing this information to see which market had the largest potential. The data suggested that a SoapBox has enormous value for large companies who needed a way to connect with front-line employees. These employees are increasingly distributed and mobile and have innovative ideas but no way to connect them with senior management. The partners started to pursue customers with over 500 employees, with a new and more specific value proposition: “Move ideas from the front-lines to the bottom line of the business.”
Narrowing their target market was beneficial in two ways. First, it allowed the partners to align different aspects of the business – such as product development, sales and pricing – more easily. Second, having a more homogeneous customer base increased the potential for word-of-mouth referrals. For example, Mr. McEachran says that Chapters is now using Soapbox to understand feedback from employees and has been an important advocate for them, speaking about the platform at conferences and recommending it to other large companies such as Coca Cola.
Mr. McEachran reports that since the partners adopted the new focus in 2012, SoapBox has tripled its revenue growth each year. All of their customers have signed on after a trial period. The partners have raised some outside capital and now have 17 employees. This summer, the company was one of only 20 Canadian early-stage company invited to Silicon Valley to participate in the prestigious “48 Hours in the Valley” program.
And the key lesson they’ve learned? He answers without hesitation, “Although this seems paradoxical, we’ve learned that the smaller your focus, the bigger the opportunity becomes.”
Becky Reuber is a professor of strategic management in the Rotman School of Management of the University of Toronto.
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Report on Small Business website.
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