You might remember Margaret Brinkley from a ‘What’s Your ABVenture?’ podcast we did with her a few months ago.
Back then, she was the co-founder of a company called Around Town, which was an app focusing on bringing events and deals to local students. Soon after that, her and Rob Kelly (another one of our brilliant ABVenture Zone occupants!), the co-founder of SEATS (a smart seating system app), merged together to start an exciting new venture – UniTrix.
We caught up with them for a chat in the Sherlock Room, overlooking the beautiful Aberdeen coast from the 8th floor of Macrobert. They tell us all about their entrepreneurial beginnings, working together, the launch of UniTrix and… Disney characters. Sit back, grab a coffee and read on to find out what they have in store!
Olaf Stando, ABVZ: So, tell us a bit about your business and how you started…
Margaret: Through a series of different events and circumstances, both of our former partners had to leave our original businesses, and we were both having a bit of a struggle going at it ourselves. So, we started chatting a few weeks ago and realised that there’s potential. We decided to combine forces. Rob had already changed the name from SEATS to UniTrix and we just thought, “we’ll still go with the flagship feature of events and deals, and then instead of trying to launch all the features at once, let’s launch them in phases”.
Right now, it’ll be events and deals but soon after, we’re hoping to launch a “student market” section, to buy and sell books, bikes and whatever students want to get rid of.
Did you both come from a similar background? Did you do similar courses at uni?
Rob: Oh no, absolutely not! I have a biomedical science background and then went to do a research post at the Rowett Institute, all about nutrition and health. I then did a Masters in business with the idea of getting into the commercial side of pharmaceuticals, and during that, I co-founded SEATS. So no, I don’t have a business background.
Margaret: I always knew that I wanted to eventually be my own boss. I didn’t think it would be through entrepreneurship, I rather imagined that it’d be through the “traditional” career ladder approach.
What’s the best thing about being your own boss?
Margaret: I don’t like being told what to do! *laughs* No, it’s really more to do with the creative aspect and knowing that you work for something that you genuinely believe in. For me, that creative drive has always been important. My background is the complete opposite of Rob’s – I’ve been involved in theatre and the arts, and I came here to learn more about the business approach. It turned out really well and I just fell into entrepreneurship…
How did you develop your initial ideas – SEATS and Around Town? Was there any particular trigger which made you come up with them?
Rob: I was doing it as part of a university project, where we were asked to come up with an idea that used a mobile application. So we just came up with an idea of an app that would, using geolocation services, show you where the free space on campus is, which we thought could be quite handy. From there, we realised that there’s traction here and scope for a business. After two years, we got to the stage where we pitched the idea to the university but unfortunately things didn’t work out quite the way we planned. That being said, I still believe the idea is good so hopefully it’s something we’ll consider again – in conjunction with UniTrix.
Margaret: Around Town, in its original form, was actually also from a university course! It was just about coming up a new product or service targeted towards students. Four international students collaborated on it with the vision of being able to find places around the city in this easy, seamless manner. We wanted to promote local stuff and give users the “feel of Aberdeen”. Then, after I finished my dissertation, I worked with Fiona McIntyre (the founder of Greyhope Bay and another ABVZ occupant) – seeing how she pushed through all these challenge and really seeing her vision come to life – really inspired me to get going and to aim for something big.
Is it important to be surrounded by people with like minds, and people that can inspire on a daily basis? One of the main functions of enterprise incubators is connecting fellow entrepreneurs. Or is it enough to go it alone, browse websites and read success stories?
Rob: Having that face-to-face interaction is definitely useful. I’ve learned a huge amount from just speaking to people, getting advice and contacts, and I think that networking is imperative – so yeah, it’s been good for me!
Margaret: It is nice to read case studies and see success stories, but it’s just a whole new world to come into a place full of entrepreneurs. Whether it’s just one or two others at a time, or whether the place is buzzing with 15 or more entrepreneurs, really gives you a lot of support which you miss if you were to just scroll through a computer screen.
So what do you think are the biggest barriers to entry into the world of entrepreneurship? So many people do courses in enterprise and management but only a minority start their own businesses…
Rob: I think it’s often the lack of awareness of what resources are out there. In the UK, we’re blessed with the amount of resources that exist, such as the space in which we’re sitting just now. But also, historically, we were always told to “go and get that job” and to focus on security, whereas entrepreneurship is always connected to risk. I’ve committed my last two years to this venture and not made a penny so far. That’s definitely a barrier and you need loads of patience to carry on.
But you also need an idea in the first place. It’s not a case of just sitting in your bedroom and fabricating an idea – they have to have traction and a vision to go forward.
Do you reckon that stumbles, like you had with SEATS, business partners leaving… do they make you stronger? Do they enable you to learn more?
Margaret: Oh absolutely, without a doubt! Stumbles and challenges are something that you’re going to face, whether you’re starting your own business or working for an established company. There’ll always be some roadblocks and what matters is how you handle them, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get going.
Rob: Certainly not yoga or anything like that! *laughs* I think you just have to keep in mind that failure is a very possible eventuality, so you always have to be very “real”. You always have to keep a fresh eye on your idea and consider whether there is traction and whether there is a future. Look, there may not be – and the earlier you recognise that, the better.
That being said, if you have a bit of negativity, you shouldn’t just assume that your business has no future – so it’s all about striking the right balance and staying realistic.
Positivity is so important though. You should surround yourself with people that provide a bit of that daily inspiration. If you isolate yourself, you might be in trouble. Speaking to people about your doubts and challenges really helps – I can’t stress that enough!
What’s been the biggest challenge so far and what have you learned from it?
Margaret: The biggest challenge is probably the development of the app itself. Basically, creating the whole thing that our business is going to rest on. We both have varied backgrounds but neither one of us has those technical skills. Again, I think it’s where the perseverance comes into play – we try to find the answers ourselves and explore our options.
Rob: Without having the technical background, we are basically just facilitators. We need to get all the right people, at the right places, at the right time. Very successful apps usually had co-founders with serious technical abilities, and they have been able to develop the apps without having to rely on someone else. App development is obviously a costly thing, so that’s another challenge.
Let’s now turn to talking about you as entrepreneurs. Ultimately, business is all about people and it’s always great to find out more about personalities and your stories. Entrepreneurship is people-powered so let’s find out about you as people.
So, if you were to describe yourself in one adjective – what would it be?
Rob: Perfect. *bursts into laughter*
(I wish you could see Rob’s smug smile at that moment.)
Margaret: I like the idea of describing myself with a colour rather an adjective. Rob, how about you give me a colour and I’ll give you one?
Rob: Margaret would be green. It’s calm, peaceful…
Rob: I can guarantee you, I’m going to get red!
Margaret: Actually, I’d give you orange. It’s basically a variation of red, very strong but also like a constant – almost like a sunrise every day, always going to persevere and making sure that you have a sense of routine.
And if you were a Disney character for a day, who would you be?
Rob: Oh wow, my goodness…
Margaret: I’m trying to imagine Rob as a Disney character.
That’s an interesting pick. Simba seems to be full of courage and curiosity.
Rob: He’s in touch with his emotions too, which is pretty important.
Margaret: I’d like to think that I’d be Jiminy Cricket, from Pinocchio. I’m a little wise but small next to you – and he’s a total nerd. But more realistically, I’d probably be more like Olaf from Frozen. I just like to have fun and I think I’m a very happy person most of the time.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time – both you and your business?
Margaret: Well, firstly I’d like to pay my bills without a problem. *laughs*
Rob: Realistically, in five years, I’d like to see this nationwide. This app would have lots of extra features at that point, obviously we’re launching this September but we hope to keep adding a whole range of features. Maybe we’ll operate in other countries in five years’ time – I hope the app really spreads like a wildfire.
Margaret: In two years’ time, we’ll have all the features developed and we want to be spread all across Scotland.
Inspiring, right? You may be reading this and wanting to start their own business. You may have these burning ideas in your head, or a couple of rough thoughts that you’d like to polish, but you’re just not sure where to start. Where should you go? Margaret and Rob share a few tips with you.
Margaret: Write it all down if you haven’t already, and really figure out what it is you want to do, how you want to do it and how you’d make money from it.
And if you’re a student – look at entrepreneur support organisations on campus. I can guarantee, you’ll almost always find some support and people waiting to help you. Chat to people and see their take on your idea. Tell them to be honest with you and to provide you genuine feedback, so you can use it to tweak a few bits and move forward.
Rob: Certainly in the UK there’s loads of support out there – that’s the comforting thing to know. But it’s so important to prepare for every advice session or meeting you may have, and be ready to answer challenging questions.
Make that first meeting worthwhile, so they can guide you in the right direction.
Margaret: People at incubators and accelerator programmes really want to see entrepreneurs succeed. So, any advice and criticism that they’re giving you, is coming from experienced sources – they see hundreds and hundreds of businesses a year, they see their ups and downs.
Last year, we launched Lightbulb – an initiative which is all about innovation and the process of developing an idea, rather than creating a mature business plan. It’s about taking the first steps towards entrepreneurship and getting into the entrepreneur’s frame of mind. It’s about identifying challenges or opportunities and searching for solutions. Next year, we’re making it bigger and better – hoping for bigger attendance and a more prominent venue on campus.
Margaret, you were part of the pilot Lightbulb team this March – what did you think about it?
Margaret: I thought it was great! There were definitely a few ideas that I bought into more than others, but everybody who took part genuinely believed in their idea and often these ideas were generated on that very day. People were very happy to get advice and act on it. Myself and Chris Burnett, another part of the Lightbulb team, went around the room full of participants and talked to them about our business experience.
Would you say that it’s important to take out the barriers to entry into pitching competitions, and genuinely open up entrepreneurship to everyone?
Margaret: Absolutely! You are going to have that red tape in many instances, such as Enterprise Fellowships or Converge Challenge. It’s important to practice asking the right questions, asking for advice, and to not be afraid to take your ideas forward. After you’ve gained experience, these applications will basically write themselves.
Margaret and Rob, founders of UniTrix, are full of enthusiasm and passion for their business. Whilst unforeseen circumstances made them go into business together, they have a long-term vision and know what they want to achieve. UniTrix will be launching this September, just in time for Freshers’ Week, and the launch certainly isn’t something that you should miss.
It takes place on 4th-6th September 2017 on the King’s Pavillion playing fields, on King’s College campus of the University of Aberdeen.
You can expect a whole range of activities at the launch – there will be live music, a DJ set provided by Aberdeen Student Radio selectors (tbc!), as well as some games and activities to bring the student community together. There’ll hopefully be free haircuts as well!
Local businesses will be involved, the launch will be a fantastic opportunity to see what Aberdeen is made of, and most importantly, to find out more about UniTrix’s bright future!
Come to the launch and while we can’t promise an abundance of sunshine, fun times are guaranteed. Rob, Margaret and the ABVenture Zone team hope to see you there in September 🙂