How to risk it all for your idea

We’ve changed our business model a whopping three times, and that’s only this year. We started by selling city-based quests, with young people as our target audience. But the majority of our actual customers turned out to be over 45: they would buy the quests to do them with their kids. Although they were happy with our products and came back for more, it didn’t amount to much; our market remained rather small and niche, and we wanted more than that.

At the same time we began to be approached by companies wanting to organize quests for their staff. They were big companies, too, like the restaurant chain ‘Eurasia’, cosmetics chain ‘Podruzhka’, and Lakhta Center. This meant that we finally started making decent money, but we weren’t that crazy about the routine attached to dealing with businesses of such scale: there were too many protracted discussions where you have to fuss over the smallest detail. And then it all could fall through at the eleventh hour.

Another major drawback we encountered was that there weren’t a lot of prospects for growth there. A startup has to grow tenfold at least on a yearly basis to keep afloat, but it’s almost impossible when working in the b2b sector.

We also wanted to provide custom-made solutions; it was very important for us to develop a personal approach to each one of our clients. That’s why, all these factors considered, we decided to quit working with companies, which was very risky as it was our main source of income.

After doing that, we took the route of working with individual customers. We took our startup to several business incubators and discovered that the quests we offered weren’t that much different from traditional guided tours: participants go round the city interacting with a personalized itinerary. So we conducted a couple of surveys, made a video ad with no mention of the word ‘quest’ in it, and put our new concept to test. It turned out that this presentation worked much better.

Surprise Me platform
Surprise Me platform

Starting from March, we’ve been slowly but surely entering the tourism market. We began with Russia-only tours and then expanded to other countries like Georgia. There are 42 tours in total as of now, available in Russian, English, and, thanks to our Israeli partners, Hebrew.

What is special about the tours we offer is that they are created by locals who draw on their unique background and interests. It is thanks to this that our tour collections boasts such gems as a ramble through the city courtyards or a bar crawl, but few people actually get to complete the latter for obvious reasons.

People appreciate the individuality of the guides and often purchase tours based solely on its author and how similar they are to them. We noticed this pattern and decided to use it to boost our platform by transforming Surprise Me to a kind of social network for travelers. Each author has their own personal profile where they talk about themselves, their interests and favorite routes. We want to give the authors an opportunity to promote themselves and their products and increase their Surprise Me audience.

All prices are set by the guides, but they often underestimate themselves, asking for the lowest wage possible, so we try to find the right balance. The general rule of thumb is that all authors get 30% commission from each tour sold. If a client was brought to us by our partner, they also get the same share of the profit. We cooperate with tourism bloggers, related social media communities and booking services such as lowtrip.

There were cases when guides complained about their commission being too small for their liking. But when they discover to what lengths we go to attract potential customers, they take their words back. We truly use all means possible to promote our service. Internet-marketing, сontextual and targeted ads, PR campaigns: we do all this and more.

Founders of Surprise Me
Founders of Surprise Me

Run, adapt, earn

How did we use to work in the b2b sector? We phoned a company, arranged a meeting and, if all went well, closed the deal with money in our pocket. Easy-peasy.

How do we work in b2c now? First, you make a landing, then you test it to check how well the idea is packaged and how people react, what they click on, what is left unnoticed. Following that, you need to attract a client to your website, calculate all connected costs, pay back your staff and make sure that you yourself get something in the end. This kind of work requires constant analysis, timely check-ups, and new ideas.

I subscribe to the idea that managing a startup is like running in the dark. You run, oftentimes instinctively, not knowing where exactly you are heading to and whether your new idea will take off or fall flat. All you can do is to launch it and monitor its success. If there is demand, you continue. If not, you just change direction. When I first came up with my quests startup, there were five similar companies on the market, and nowadays they don’t even exist anymore.

We never follow a monthly plan, we make do with weekly ones: we set our goals on Monday and report back on Friday. If we lag behind, we do our work on weekends. Sometimes we only manage to leave the office at midnight, sometimes we work nine-to-five like normal people.

However busy we are, we try not to compromise on our leisure: we explore the city together, host office parties, develop websites for fun. At the peak of the Telegram vs. Roskomnadzor battle, we decided to jokingly address the question of what will happen should the authorities decide to ban all modern technologies and created Gulligram, a pigeon-post messenger.

‘Let’s do it,’ says one coworker, and the next thing you know you’re spending a sleepless weekend creating a website out of sheer enthusiasm. And then your joke gets two and a half million views in the space of a week. That’s how we like to relax.

How to assemble a dream team

Finding committed people to join the team is not that straightforward. There was one time when we hired a great professional, but he only lasted a month: he liked to work regular hours and it didn’t suit us because we often get emergency tasks coming at us at 3am. We couldn’t rely on that person, so we had to let him go.

If a person is willing to work, we’ll be more than happy to teach them how to. We get people that don’t have a slightest idea of how things are done, but are eager to learn, and we try to help them in every way we can: we give them opportunities, our time, our advice. If they manage to take it all in, we offer them to stay.

One of our coworkers initially came to us as part of a two-week internship with no knowledge whatsoever: he began with reading textbooks. Now he is a skillful specialist responsible for assembling tours, and we’ve raised his salary twice in the past year.

Surprise Me platform
Surprise Me platform

How to find an investor

It’s a simple task, really, not a top-secret backroom deal that you might expect it to be. You can find potential investors by googling them. Rusbase and annually publish articles on who invests in what, so all you have to do is to contact these people. But you shouldn’t agree to the first offer you receive: take your time and find a person who shares your vision and will give you more than just financial support.

We’ve been lucky enough to find one. Alexander Rumyantsev is a top venture investor with over 50 projects up his sleeve and just a great guy. He fully trusts us and is always ready to help with his impressive knowledge and expertise.

Many business angels are very tight-fisted, and the little money they offer will only damage your project, so it’s better to give them a pass. Alexander first approached us some time ago, but we refused him as we understood that the money he was then ready to part with would be of little use to our developing startup. We needed to grow, and when time passed, we got in touch with him once again. He said, ‘Great! You’ve really grown as a project, and now I’m ready to offer you more.’

Surprise Me founders on the service's policy of  confidentiality
Surprise Me founders on the service's policy of confidentiality

Now his investments help us work on a small pilot project for the US market. We’ll see if the audience likes it, and if it does, we’ll launch something bigger.

Sometimes I regret the fact that initially, I didn’t give this startup everything I could because of another job I worked on. Everything happens for a reason, sure, but I know that if I had given it my best, we would now be on a whole other level. If I could say to my younger self, ‘Quit this job and go where your real interests are,’ I would definitely have done that without a moment's hesitation.