Starting your own business can teach you key lessons about the commercial world, whether or not you succeed first time round. Dan Ziv experienced both as a student and recent graduate, launching a charity while at university that’s still running today, but going rather wrong with his first commercial business venture. However, he learned from his mistakes, successfully starting a second company before joining an existing small business and helping it to grow.
Tell us about your background in a nutshell
I grew up in the UK and Israel, and my entrepreneurship experience started in Tel Aviv while I was studying for my undergraduate degree. I set up a charity called Children Playing Chess, which is still going today. I then launched Bubbles, a news and content curation tool, with a friend, and made every mistake in the book! After that I worked as a lawyer, then did my MBA at London Business School. When I graduated I launched Uncover with two friends from my course – it was an app for same-day and next-day bookings at high-end restaurants. We sold it a year and a half later and I was approached by TouchNote; I joined as chief product officer before being promoted to CEO in May 2019.
How did Children Playing Chess come about?
Children Playing Chess is a charity that teaches chess to children in communities experiencing financial hardship. Volunteers and pupils play chess on a weekly basis and through this form authentic mentoring relationships, without mentorship or values having to be talked about. Today we’re teaching chess to over 1,000 children a year; I’m chairman of the board but there’s a professional CEO, regional managers and a huge group of volunteer tutors.
I set it up in my third year at uni as I wanted to give something back to the community. I was a big chess player as a kid and thought it would be fun and unique. One school gave me a chance and I taught chess to year 1 and year 7 pupils for a year. The kids absolutely loved it so the headteacher asked me whether I could come back the following year and bring a few mates with me to teach more children. I talked to some friends – one was an accountant and another was heavily engaged in social causes – and they help me set up as a charity.
Key lessons learned
Founding the charity allowed me to approach other schools as part of an establishment and have credibility. In my first year I’d spoken to three or four schools in my local district and found that it’s actually quite difficult to come in and say ‘I want to do something for free; do you want this?’. They look at you and think ‘Why’s this guy giving us free stuff; what’s the catch here?’.
And how about Bubbles?
Bubbles was a curation algorithm for news content. We created a plugin for desktop computers that filtered out content that you deem irrelevant to you from a website. I set it up in 2008 while taking a year-long legal internship after university and raised money from family and friends to fund the development and testing. We ended up with a functional minimum viable product (MVP) that ran on different websites; however, it only worked on a desktop, not a smartphone or tablet, and the world was increasingly going mobile. When the iPad came out we realised our product was obsolete. We weren’t able to pay back our family and friends: we’d burned through the money to develop and test the original product, then closed the company when we realised the idea wasn’t going to work as we didn’t have enough left to pivot the solution for mobile and hand-held devices.
Key lessons learned
In retrospect I would have done proper research before raising funds. I would have better understood the market, been more focused on the customer, prioritised the front-end technology and created simple apps for different devices. We were obsessed with the underlying algorithm rather than coming up with something that people would want to use.
Tell us about Uncover
I founded Uncover in 2014 with two friends during the second year of our MBA at London Business School. I had the idea after I went out for a birthday dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant; I’d booked three months in advance but when we walked in it was half empty. I asked the reservations manager what was going on, and he said that it was due to cancellations and no-shows. My friends also had similar experiences.
Having learned from my experience at Bubbles, we did a lot of research before seeking investment. We discovered that there are tables available for these reasons all across the city and I thought that if we could get them onto a real-time platform, we could give people access to restaurants that they would otherwise think were fully booked. We also discovered that while there are 600–1,000 great restaurants in London, most people can only name 10–20.
In January 2014 we started a trial in which we worked with 12 restaurants and built an MVP. This was an iPhone app onto which restaurants could continually upload tables that had become free to due cancellations and no-shows, and customers could view this availability and book. We gave the app to between 100 and 200 of our friends, and got hundreds of bookings in the first four weeks. At this point (which was just as we were graduating) we formally established a company, put together a business plan and raised money from angel investors and investment syndicates. Our business model involved restaurants paying us to put bums on seats, though in retrospect I might also have tested other models, such as a subscription model or seeking revenue from advertisers.
Key lessons learned
I learned at Uncover that the team makes all the difference. When we sold the business we had about 12 employees but were faster than some of our big competitors. We were very set on the type of culture we wanted and tried to find people who were interested in what we were doing and loved the restaurant theme. We had a rigorous hiring process – by the time candidates finished it, most people in the team had met them.
We also had one very specific problem we were focused on. There’s not a week that goes by without another restaurant app coming out, but by focusing everyone purely on last-minute bookings we were able to iterate with speed and that created a real advantage for us. It’s about focusing on a particular problem and on the users and giving a great service.
What does TouchNote do, and how have your prior experiences helped you to shape this?
TouchNote allows you to send custom-made physical cards using your own photos via our website and apps. When I joined in 2016 I was the 15th employee; now there are nearly 50. A lot of our competitors focus on one-off cards for particular occasions, such as Mothers’ Day, and we used to be similar. TouchNote was set up around 11 years ago but the business has transformed over the last 18 months as we’ve discovered how users use our products and what is the value created for them.
Applying lessons about understanding your market
Two years ago we ran an analysis of how our users engaged with us. We used a natural language processing tool that could identify objects in pictures and words in text to analyse – in an anonymised fashion – all the cards that were sent with us and help us understand the reasons cards were sent. We were surprised and excited to discover that while people still used cards for one-off occasions (such as holidays), over half of the cards were sent ‘just because’ – for example sending a picture of a dog doing something funny to a friend, or a family group selfie from a day out to a grandparent. This led us to focus on regular communication, and ask ‘How you can keep someone close to you who isn’t necessarily in your social network sphere, such as an elderly person or a young person who doesn’t have social media?’ We’ve now set up a subscription-based membership model, with pricing tiers relating to usage, though customers can still make one-off purchases if they prefer.
As at Uncover, I’ve looked to bring people in who empathise with our customers. At interview, asking people ‘How do you keep in touch with relatives who are further away?’ brings about many interesting stories. Also, everyone has an assignment during the hiring processing and many times that unveils a truth about how they view the customer and the market.
What advice would you give to students and graduates who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs?
Go into a start-up and work there for a year or two to learn from someone else’s mistakes. You’ll be exposed to the challenges and benefits. I wish I’d done that! At TouchNote we have a developer who worked for me, built up a network through our community and has gone on to launch his own business – a social media platform for millennials.