For Justin Shelby, the story of how he started his company starts with a look at the U.S. labor force, of which nearly 40 percent is projected to be self-employed by 2017. He recognized a rapidly growing subset of that population are “solopreneurs” in service-oriented professions such as personal trainers, massage therapists, nutritionists and hair stylists — “a whole universe of people who don’t work in an office, they are going from client to client, on the go, and have no support staff,” Shelby said.
“Everything related to their business sits squarely on their shoulders” he said.
Even in this age of mobile devices and apps for everything, Shelby says most business utility software is made for larger organizations. The solopreneurs he is targeting just need quick and easy software to keep up with their businesses while they are out in the field, he said. So he used his technology and consumer products background to create the software, which he dubbed Artichoke.
“Service providers go into their chosen profession because they love working with clients to provide a specific service — not to do administrative tasks. The more successful these service providers are at gaining clients, the less time they have to keep up with all of those tasks, like scheduling, payment collections and trying to mitigate no-shows. The choice becomes working nights and weekends to keep up, losing billable hours to take care of administrative tasks, or just getting buried.
“Our solution is called the Artichoke Client Management Application. It’s a mobile Web app and works on any mobile device. It keeps calendars and schedules, sends clients automatic appointment reminders, sends and stores info about accounts and payments, and keeps profile information on clients. We’ve studied these occupations and developed a core set of features that pertain to these service-providers, making the product intuitive and very easy to use. Artichoke was developed for the independent professional using a mobile device from the first diagram and the first line of code. It makes a big difference.”
“Our phase-two plan for the product is to incorporate predictive scheduling tools to help automatically schedule clients for follow up services. This isn’t a traditional [customer relationship management] tool because it started with a focus on understanding the needs of the independent service provider through 15 years of direct experience.
“Our biggest challenge right now is testing marketing channels and user groups to identify those with the best combination of efficiency [customer acquisition cost] and return. There are other small-businesses apps, but we are really targeting the type of service provider who is always on the go and not tied to a computer. We’ve put time and money into Google AdWords, social media and channel partnerships, and continue working to refine our approach. Right now, we’re registering users for the beta version and now have some initial data on acquisition costs and user profiles. The fast-growing wellness professions are particularly aligned with our value proposition.”
Elana Fine, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business
“Selling to solopreneurs is similar to a direct-to-consumer model. You will likely have to invest significantly to generate awareness for your product and convert that awareness to action. As a result, your customer acquisition cost will be extremely high for each initial customer. Companies often fail because they run out of money before they figure out a profitable business model. Working with small businesses amplifies that risk because they tend to go out of business quickly and you may never recoup your costs. Learn from those that have come before you and minimize these costs by testing and optimizing different acquisition strategies.
“As you test, figure out how you can get more people on your system in higher numbers. That comes through some targeted marketing, but also consider channel partnerships. Perhaps you can forge a relationship to become the official business app for masseuses, as an example, to grow your client list. You could partner with trade schools to offer your service for a short period for free to new graduates, then work to retain them as customers. This is similar to how XM radio works with car companies to hook to new customers who get the service when they buy the car, then continue to pay for it if they like it.
“From a customer relationship perspective, consider offering training to go along with your app on how to actually run a business.”
“I agree with your suggestions 100 percent ... We’re leveraging 20 years of experience in product development, channel marketing, software engineering, in combination with 15 years in the health club business to apply key learnings to Artichoke. I go back to earlier in my career at Black & Decker when the professional products group reached students in vocational schools with the emerging professional brand DeWalt. Artichoke can reach potential clients at the entry points for these professions. Schools that provide initial required credits, certifications and continuing education are great starting points. We’ve have been developing these partnership opportunities with career placement centers in some local massage schools as a start. Students are hungry for ways to succeed long term and have no hesitation to use technology to make it happen.”