Helen Cammack of Interests.me talks about her pivot and being part of Entrepreneur Academe.

Helen Cammack

(interests.me is a new kind of email newsletter and communication solution specially designed for interest-based community groups.)

I’m Helen Cammack and interests.me came out of my lifelong love of organising interest-based groups, and from noticing how difficult and time-consuming it can be for these groups to communicate effectively.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been knee-deep in organising and running groups and clubs — from a performance poetry club when I was at school, to a political discussion group, and more conventional types of group such as residents’ associations and the local Scouts. This runs in the family as my dad has run a local tennis club for decades. These groups, clubs and societies make the world go round and are the backbone of local communities.

But community groups have their own unique set of communication difficulties. Because they typically involve all age groups, they need to communicate in a way which includes and involves everyone — not just the most digitally confident. And they also need to communicate with the wider world — to attract new members, to tell the world their successes, and to bring the public to their events. All this can be stressful and time-consuming for group leaders, who can end up using many different communication tools to cater for everyone (paper newsletters, email, Facebook, Twitter, posters, local press), or feeling guilty if they’re not doing all these things. Many groups feel they need a committee member specifically to ‘manage communication’ because it’s so complicated and time-consuming. And that person ends up chasing everyone else for news and content to send out, because collaboration isn’t easy.

But as we’ve discovered the hard way, the answer to these groups’ problems is not the latest smartphone app. How do we know? Because we built it, and they didn’t come.

That’s where we were 6 months ago when I joined the Entrepreneur Academe programme. Our start-up had built a discussion forum app for groups, launched on iOS, Android and the web. (Think ‘WhatsApp for community groups’, but for larger groups, offering more privacy and longer discussions). We were proud of our product and excited by the positive user feedback it was getting.

But where growth was concerned, we were in a dark place, and this forced us to rethink EVERYTHING about our business. We had a problem driving adoption, because online discussion between the members just wasn’t number one on group leaders’ minds. They liked what we had developed, but they didn’t want to cajole members to sign up for ‘something new’, and didn’t want to add ‘yet another’ communication tool to their toolbox that wouldn’t solve their biggest problems and would never be used by everyone. Their most pressing problems were how to collaborate to write their newsletters, and how to save time promoting their group in the wider community.

It took a lot of courage and many deep breaths to go back to the drawing board, do our market research PROPERLY this time, and build something that groups wanted, rather than what we thought they needed.

Being a part of Entrepreneur Academe was a huge support and sense-check through this period.

We put aside our shiny new discussion forum app, and built a collaborative email newsletter front-end which will sit in front of a simple suite of integrated communication tools for community groups.

Email should have been staring us in the face all along. It was at an Entrepreneur Academe meeting that one of the other founders said, “You’re thinking of building an email newsletter tool? But don’t you already run an email business? That’s your biggest advantage”. We do, as it happens. We understand email platforms like the back of our hands because of our previous business Buyometric. But as silly as it sounds, we hadn’t even made that link.

Email is used by over 80% of UK adults on a weekly basis, which puts it streets ahead of Facebook (about 50%) and Twitter (about 20%). So although email isn’t all that we’re (eventually) offering, it’s a great place to start. Most groups use email already, and many want their emails to be more professional, to be more collaborative to write, and their email lists to be easier to manage. Many are overwhelmed by the existing ‘email marketing’ solutions on the market which have too many advanced features built for businesses.

Email’s just the beginning for us. Through our unique modular, collaborative email newsletter tool, we’ll soon be helping groups to promote themselves more widely in the local community too, by giving group leaders the option to make their email newsletter content shareable across the community. And we’ll integrate our already-built discussion forum app with our email newsletters to enable the keener group members to discuss the email content. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re confident we’re going in the right direction.

Entrepreneur Academe has really helped support us through our ‘pivot’ to get to this point. Not only has my cohort of female entrepreneurs been supportive and empathetic, the mentors have given us practical support such as reviewing our pitch deck and challenging our business model. And you should never underestimate the value of having cheerleaders to help recognise and celebrate your progress.

With Entrepreneur Academe, I knew that I would get out what I put in. I feel I’ve put in quite a lot and got out even more. I have attended every session, prepared questions for mentors, practised my pitches, and sucked every last drop out of the opportunity. I hope I’ve also helped others along the way. Entrepreneur Academe has signposted great opportunities to me, including pitching training from TechPitch4.5 which helped me make huge strides forward in explaining our product and our mission. The opportunity to practise pitching at EA at regular intervals has been invaluable. And I’ve used the monthly presence of professional mentors such as lawyers and accountants to get free advice on structuring our new business and what to do with our previous business.

We’re through the darkness now. Over the past few months we’ve completely changed the direction of our business, done a vast amount of market research to validate it, re-built the product dramatically (still a work in progress as there is so much to come!), reworked the business plan, reworked our pitch, and relaunched our first version of the new product. We know that the next few months are going to be even harder as we prove the concept and find our growth formula. We’re planning to raise seed funding in early 2016. Join our mailing list to keep in touch and find out more, and if you’re like me and you run a group you want to communicate with, try out our product here.