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Creating a buzz around customers

Prodigy Finance - March 22, 2013

Creating a buzz around customers
John Staunton

I’m John Staunton (INSEAD ‘11D), co-founder of Shopper Concepts (and the sub-brand Buzzoek) and part of the new breed of ex-consultants moving towards entrepreneurship. Having seen first-hand the challenges being faced by big and small companies alike, I first made a post-INSEAD geographical and functional career switch before leaving the corporate world entirely to embrace the challenges of entrepreneurship. 

The journey begins

Before starting at INSEAD, I was a technology consultant specializing in Business Intelligence and Analytics. Entrepreneurship was a distant dream and business school was supposed to be a stepping stone to a career in finance. 

Originally born in Ireland, I spent a nearly 7 years studying and working in the UK with some of the biggest high-tech, telecommunication, media and finance companies in the world. Looking to broaden my business knowledge and move towards a career in investment banking, I applied (and happily was accepted in) to INSEAD.

Starting my MBA in the fantastic city of Singapore, surrounded by entrepreneurial facilities and a wealth of study courses and resources, the ‘distant dream’ of entrepreneurship began to move into the realm of possibility. From very early in my INSEAD journey, I began to feel drawn to starting my own company. The banking avenue was still interesting to me, but increasingly entrepreneurship had started to creep onto my radar. In Singapore it seemed that startups were everywhere – from the plethora in the Fusionopolis building beside campus, to those being started by classmates and housemates alike.

One of the courses during the first half of the year (New Business Ventures) gives students the chance to bring a startup from the germ of an idea to a fully fledged business plan. Grabbing the opportunity, I worked with a classmate to develop an idea for a personalized online news service, linking news sources to social recommendations and interactions to create an individualized news feed. In the end, the idea didn’t take off but the entrepreneurial bug had been caught.

Back to corporate life

While the bug was germinating, I spent the INSEAD summer interning at one of the banks in London’s Canary Wharf. Finance was, after all, the original prize for doing an MBA. I wanted to try it and see if it was for me. The bank was brilliant, my colleagues were fantastic… but this world wasn’t what I really wanted any more. And so to Fontainebleau, finishing the MBA with a flourish as part of the winning team in the Your First Hundred Days MBA elective – giving students a chance to ‘run’ a company for 100 days and face the many highs and lows associated with that.

At INSEAD’s conclusion, an overseas love interest (how may INSEAD alumni can relate?!) meant Amsterdam became home, and the easiest way to make the switch was to return to consulting. I moved into Strategy consulting (focusing on Corporate Strategy and Growth) with an industry focus on communications, media and high-tech. In addition, I took on the role of industry point of contact for analytics within the firm. Although a challenging and exciting career path, consulting had become a vehicle for gaining experience and building Dutch language skills while separately working on new business ideas. Through the INSEAD Entrepreneurship Club in the Netherlands, I met my future business partner and headed off down the road less travelled.

The Startup

It sounds great for a recent MBA graduate – safe corporate employment with a guaranteed salary, while developing a startup in the background: all of the entrepreneurial experience, none of the financial risk. In reality, it means late nights and working weekends… and that’s just the consulting day job! Entrepreneurship is far from easy, but then again if it was easy everyone would be doing it!

My co-founder (also an INSEAD MBA graduate) and I toyed with a number of ideas before settling on one which had been on both of their minds – customer relationships. Most small businesses don’t operate a proper customer relationship program. Simple little things like the promise of a discount or free product somewhere in the future can make a huge difference in where a customer chooses to drink a coffee, get their hair cut and so on. Most merchants understand this – but unfortunately only the big companies can afford to actually do it properly.

With our backgrounds in engineering, mobile technologies and analytics, we set about designing and building a solution to bridge the gap between merchants and customers. The key missing ingredient for small and medium businesses was not a loyalty program (it’s easy to buy some stampcards, give them to customers, and stamp them after each purchase). Rather, access to business intelligence and analytical insights is the imperative. Big companies have a wealth of resources to make sense of customer data but smaller enterprises don’t have the time or money to create something comparable – although they usually have the significant advantage of knowing each of their customers on a face-to-face basis.

The solution was to create a harmonized platform across small and medium merchants, coupled with a physical Near Field Communication-based reader to sit at the point of sale of each merchant. We named the loyalty solution “Buzzoek”, a play on the Dutch word ‘bezoek’ – to visit.

Believing fully in the idea, and keen to really test myself outside the corporate world, I took the jump and resigned from my job in February 2013. I moved to the startup and have been the sole full-time employee for the past month. Initial merchant reaction was very positive during market research, the company was officially incorporated at the start of March (under the name Shopper Concepts) and the team (and idea) received further validation by being voted winners of the INSEAD Entrepreneurship Bootcamp held in the Netherlands a few days later.

The future

Although things have started off well, both of us know there is a very long way to go. Every decision is a tradeoff – usually deciding which of Cost, Time and Quality will suffer. Family, friends and the team ourselves have funded the startup so far but professional investors are needed to take the company to the next stage.

As we write this, we have just started approaching potential investors so are very much in the early stages. There are exciting times ahead, and I am looking forward to the challenges. I have no doubt that we can make this succeed, but I also know it will be a lot of hard work. It’s daunting… but really exciting! One thing I’ve found already – only a few weeks into running a startup – is that everyone is rooting for you to succeed. It seems like every person you speak to contributes something: new ideas, new contacts, new insights… My experience so far has been that once you take the plunge into the world of entrepreneurship, it’s not that scary at all… but it is certainly challenging. Every day is new challenges, every day is a huge learning experience. It’s like doing the INSEAD MBA again… but even faster!

For more information about Shopper Concepts or Buzzoek, you can view a company summary here, or email John at john.staunton@shopperconcepts.com.This blog post is part of a series of articles about Prodigy entrepreneurs.

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