User testing and co-founder dating! What a management consultant turned founder has discovered about running a startup.

ALL IN, a start up whose mission is to help people get together more easily.

I understand you're a bit of a sportsman. Why don't you tell me a bit about that?

So I don't know if I’d qualify myself as a sportsman because it sounds like I'm talented at it, but I love sport. I play and organise a dad's football setup that started when my son began at a new school as we'd moved to a new area. I was on the side of the pitch while he was playing football and I said to one of the dads "Why don't we play while they play". The guy turned to me and said "Oh, I love that idea!" So the next week I had a dozen dads in shorts running around the pitch alongside where the boys were playing. That has now turned into a group of 60-70 people. We've entered the FA people's cup, won the county level a couple of times and got close to making it to the national finals. We have regular Monday night slots, and occasional games where we hire Maidstone football pitch and go and play there. Afterwards, it's a bit like that scene in Fight Club where they're all kind of wandering around on crutches. Middle-aged men who have tweaked a knee or bruised a foot and most of us are somewhere between recently injured to making a comeback.

Hold on a minute, you can't tell me in one breath that you're not a sportsman because you're not talented and with the next breath say that you won all these amazing competitions.

It certainly wasn't down to me, the other guys on the team are quite good. Once I was playing Goalie and did get to save the final penalty as well as score the winning penalty. I have a very grainy video of me doing that which is probably one of my finest sporting hours.

I think that's amazing. I love that story. So I guess that leads us nicely into how you came up with the idea for your app All In.

Absolutely! All In solves what I was seeing day to day for all kinds of organising. On a Monday night we would play football and we'd have a WhatsApp group of people and I would say, "Right, who's playing this week?" Some would respond and say "I'm in!" And then as you get near the day, the same people would say, "Okay, I'm out, can't make it". And then someone would shout, "okay, so how many have we got?" And it starts again.

Then you have a round of people asking "What time are we playing?" And "Where is it?" So it seemed easy to me to have a service that allows you to organise a group within the app itself.

There are other team sports apps out there but some people find them complicated to use.

Our challenge was to make something that allowed casual users or people organising events, like our sport group, to do so really easily.

What we found with our Monday Night Football, is that adding a feature which makes a list of attendees based on how quickly they respond helps make the process of organising the event fair. Where a person's name comes on the list depends on how quickly they respond. We play nine a side on Mondays, when the list gets beyond 18 plays it puts people on a waiting list. Then as people drop out the people on the waiting list get bumped up. So there's no question of what order the responses came in and whether you're playing or not, so people can't get too disappointed when they miss out. It makes it very clear and everyone just "gets it".

Often when organising an event there will be some kind of cost element to it. For our football, for instance, it's the pitch fee. Normally you'd be chasing people for the money. It's difficult to get the money back from people without falling out with them. It might be that one of your best mates owes you £12.50. You don't really want to keep chasing him for £12.50.

So the app takes care of that and makes it easy to work out who owes what and split all your costs. Whether you're on a weekly football match that's costing a fiver a go, or you've gone away for a weekend, and your group spent the best part £3000.

The app just works out who owes what nice and easily so that you can pay each other back in a few taps.

And then there's the payment side of it. It just seemed like lots of people were sending around photos of their bank cards saying "my sort code and account numbers are on the bottom" Or then you need to find out exactly how their name is registered on their account. Is it James Paris, Jamie Parris or Mr. J, Parris? We take care of all of that.

So all the organiser needs to do is say, "James, you owe £71.28". The app will do the chasing to make sure that you're not falling out with the person. You can pay just by tapping a couple of times. It's all secure, everything's encrypted.

We're just trying to make it easier for people organising, so they don't end up out of pocket and for people that are joining in don't have to spend too long interacting if they don’t want to, they can just pay up and go.

So how did it follow on then from sports because you're also targeting another couple of use cases as well?

I used to do a lot of "weekends away" with friends. Whether it was a stag do or whatever. More recently we've moved into a phase of going on boys' cycle trips. And equally,my wife would be on spa weekends or golf weekends or things like that. There was always some confusion over who had opted in or out and then people were chased at the end of it for money. Finding dates which fit into everyone's diary was always a big challenge too. Some people use Doodle to find a date.

So we thought, "Well, why don't you take the functionality of finding a date. And then from there, you’ve already got your group together, you've got your chat, you've got your expenses, and you're just updating them as you go."

Running these weekends, I found that I would be the guy left with a spreadsheet at the end of it working out who pays this and who pays that. I built a spreadsheet and was quite pleased with it. But it still takes a bit of time to plug in all the figures, then send it out to people. So it just felt like a better way of doing that. Again, there are apps for doing cost splitting out there. But then they don't all do the payment and other parts of it.

To me, it really feels like a round peg fitting a round hole.

Let's slow down a little bit because you've built this amazing app. And you've alluded to the fact that you were really into spreadsheets. I understand you were a management consultant before you became a founder. That's a big leap from being a management consultant and having that idea and then deciding to actually do it. Can you take me through that?

Weirdly, my day job is very similar to what I was doing beforehand. I started as a management consultant, I then moved into contracting and I would work as part of small teams going and sitting with users understanding what they need, and building it. Then getting feedback on the build and refining it and improving it.

The different things in my life now are the marketing and sales sides of things. But the rest of it is just exactly what I was doing before as part of a team with a solution that is something that's really dear to me and to my co-founder as something that's always a problem in our lives.

So it's quite a logical step.

The reason it happened more than anything was because of Lockdown.

I had a contract that had finished on the 31st of March 2020. Lockdown started and it was quite difficult to find new contracts at that time because a lot of contractors were released to the market. So it gave me an opportunity to focus on All In.

I signed up to the Founder Institute accelerator because I live in the countryside. And the idea of figuring out who to I talk to and how I could get it going was all a bit big for me. I didn't really understand where to start. So I joined the accelerator.

Through it I've met lots of connections, I understand more about the process, the wonderful world of SEIS and investment tax reliefs and things like that. So it kind of just happened off the back of the change that came when we started Lockdown. And it gave us a really good opportunity to build All In while people were inside.

Then they could try it once we came out of those lockdown phases.

Okay, you've come up with an interesting point about living out in the countryside. I think everybody that I've spoken to so far in these interviews process has lived in London or near a city. I moved to the countryside last year. Our team at Rbbl is remote. It's quite an interesting change from living in London for a long time and then coming out to the sticks. Having to manage the team and the business and the process of how you do everything.

How did you come across the Founder Institute?

It was from a book called How to Build a Billion Dollar App. There was a section where they talked about a particular template agreement and how there was a really good one from the Founder Institute. So I looked them up and they had a cohort that was starting in five weeks’ time. I applied and had to go through their rigorous test.

Previously, like you, I lived in London for 15 years or so.  My wife is London born and bred. We moved out to the countryside in 2012. So it's, it's been a change, but actually with the ability of remote working and video calls and everything else, it works brilliantly.

But I feel like we've moved out here and we are very separated from the startup scene in London. You know, we have to actively go into London to speak to those people or find that group. Because they're not coming out here.

Also, it we found it quite difficult to find people around our local area, who are kind of the same boat as us. Have you found anybody locally to you that are in the startup industry?[JH1] 

Yeah, I mean, it's not like there's not a dramatic startup scene here. But there are a lot of people that you meet as a founder, then find out they're living the next village. I chatted to an investor at one point and found out he was walking his dog on the same dog walking route I was walking ours over the weekend. We have friends who are setting up their own companies. We've also become friends with people who work for the vineyard Chapeldown, which is now a roaring success from a wine point of view.

So there is some of it here. But in terms of the scene to go and chat to other founders and things like that, nothing beats going up to London.

It's great because London's very easily accessible. It's an hour away from here. I used to commute every day from here anyway. So it's not a big change.

But what's nice is that you can pick and choose when you need to go. If I need to go in, I can, but if I don't need to I don't. We all work remotely. I've only met my co-founder once. We've been working together for two years, and we met in person for the first time at Christmas last year. It works brilliantly. We have daily stand ups but then work around our own timetables during the day, jumping on video calls. He'll often send me any work he's done that he wants me to look at, at 2-3-4 in the morning.

You’ve met your co-founder face to face only once? How did you guys meet to start off with?

So it was through a request I put out on LinkedIn. I posted that I was looking for a co-founder, then a guy that I worked with Accenture put a note out on his network saying that I was a good person to work with. Then this gentleman got in contact. And then we "dated" for a little bit, because that's what you do, you know, to check that we were after the same kinds of things, and check that we were compatible. Everything's gone really well. So it's been great.

I'm gonna pull you up. I can think of some people reading to this, thinking that having only met a co-founder once in person, it's very difficult to build up trust, even on a zoom call, with somebody that you're going to be working with, sharing your business with and sharing the potential upside of your business with. How did you build trust in order for you to accept him as a co-founder?

I think it's that dating phase that is so important. We worked together for two months. I made no commitments and no promises to him at all at that point. We had the initial meetings about what we were doing. I started bringing him into meetings with our external developers. He came in and sat on those so I could gauge his view on the work and how it was going. What suggestions he had about it.

I asked him to put together some plans for where he would want to take the business, to see how compatible that was with what I had in mind.

We had a couple of zoom drinking nights where we had a chat about important things in our lives. We got more familiar with each other. He's at a very similar stage in his life to me. He's got two kids, and he is a sports coach that every weekend takes his kids to football. He coaches his daughter and his son. So there are a lot of similarities.

I think, after a while, it didn't matter that you haven't seen someone face to face, because we actually interact the whole time. Like we would if we were in the same room.

So I don't feel like I would have learned any more by being in the same room with him than I have from the amount of time we spent together anyway. It wasn't a rash decision. I'm just very happy that I found a person who is so compatible as a working partner. Because I think as a founder, the whole life is so difficult anyway, mentally. Actually having someone else to go through it with is tremendous.

So everything in your relationship with your co-founder has been just fantastic?

Yes, but that doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything.  You've got to have some tension. You've got to have differences of opinion. You've got to challenge one another because otherwise, it's not going to work.

But what's important is when you have those challenges you both can be reasonable in terms of understanding the other person's point of view, and actually, no one's going to be 100%, right all the time. So you want to have that check and balance against it all.

I do a lot of testing of the stuff that he builds. I really feel for testers, because it's quite a thankless task. Someone builds something, if you find a problem with it you don't have good news for the person who built it. You're going "I've tested that thing you spent a week building, and I broke it here". You're giving bad news.

My co-founder will send me stuff at two, or three in the morning, which is ready for the next round of testing. I start work at six, so when we're on a call at nine I give him a list of things to change from all the hard work he put in. There are times he probably wants to throttle me for that. But it never shows. We get on great.

I think it's really important that you have give and take when you're working with someone. I think we both understand that.

So is there a particular way you found to give him that information, saying "I've got this list of things you need to fix"? Early in my rowing coaching career, I used to give what was called the shit sandwich. So you say a good thing, then a bad thing, then a good thing. The problem was it doesn't work as a method of feedback. People just hear the good stuff, and don't hear the thing that you actually want them to change. So how are you communicating those things with your co-founder?

Everything's evidence-based, right? So you find something and you say, "I found this, it did this" and give a screenshot explanation.

Something which must be frustrating from his point of view is that a lot of issues seem to only happen in my house. I'll find something and say, "look, this has happened". And then he'll send me a note saying, it's working fine in my house. And it genuinely is.

We don't get off calls seething or anything like that. If we find something goes wrong, it's more a case of, "right what's the root cause of that? Is it affecting anyone else" and that takes more priority than anything else. So it's just understanding the issue and trying to work out what's caused it.

You put a positive spin on the fact that it needs to be fixed in order for your customers to do to do "this"

Yeah, that's it.

One of the big learnings we've had is managing subjective opinions of our designs. So there will be times where I would prefer something. Just to take an arbitrary example maybeI prefer green, he prefers blue. And then you realise, actually, neither us is right, you need to go and talk to users. That's been a big learning because there are times where, actually, if we’ve both got the same opinion, then great, but we still might be wrong.

So it's, it's a matter of talking to people. And knowing that is quite reassuring, because that diffuses any potential tension over who wins in a discussion because you need to go and ask other people.

Or if you've got a feature that you think is quite important, but the other person doesn't think it's that much of a priority, you can say "well, actually, let's wait and see if users ask for that". If they don't, then it may not be as important. And so understanding that it's less about what you think, and more about what users think, is helpful.

Let's expand that point a little bit. Because you said that before you became a founder, you were working in small teams, where you were sitting with users and asking them what they want. How did you learn that methodology? And was it the same as the lean startup methodology?

It's very different.

Yes, you go and talk to people. But then you go away, and you write up a bunch of the very long list of requirements, and then you put it back in front of users, and they probably don't pay loads of attention to it, because a very long list of requirements is not exactly exciting to sit through. Then you go and build it and then you put the finished product back in front of people. And that's where they might say, "oh, okay, that's not what I wanted."

That's the difference with the Lean approach. I've got more agile over the years and less waterfall, because you're working in rapid iterations for people. If you're doing the wrong thing, then you haven't spent six months doing the wrong thing. The nice thing about the learning from the startup approach is you're actually letting users play with it in an interactive way. All you've done is draw some pictures at that point, you haven't built anything.

Or at the next level, sometimes we'll push out 20-30 releases a week, and they're all tiny releases, but every time you do it, you're just watching to see what people do with the new features. Whether they click on anything you think really obvious or not obvious. You don't know until you put in front of the user and see what they do as to whether or not it's going to give the end result you're hoping it will.

It's very different to what you do as a management consultant. As a consultant you know the problem you're trying to solve upfront and all your costs and estimates will be based on the end solution. Then you work through and produce it towards the end. You might also do another iterative round based on the fine-tuning stuff. But you're not building it with such user involvement up front, you're asking them questions, but you're not spending as much time tailoring it. So that's been a good learning process.

I understand your last release of the app was a complete redesign. What are you going to be working on for the next six to nine months?

So we've just put out a lot of changes, which we're really excited about.

On the original release, all the existing features were working well, but the feedback on the design was generally bad. If we put it in front of our target audience to a large degree people would say "I love the app… you aren't going to keep it looking like that are you?"

So we've, we've changed that and the feedback has been really positive, people tend to say words like, “clean” and “fresh”, which is great. So that's a big step up.

Our focus at the moment is just bringing in more international users. In the last week, we've made our web app available globally.

The native app is only available on the UK app store. But now you can get all the functionality that you get through the main app by sitting at a computer or using a web app through your phone anywhere in the world.

Also, lots of the focus is on watching what users do with the new release. So the plan for the next six to nine months is fundamentally around fine tuning for the user to try and increase the stickiness of the product.

How many downloads have you had at the moment? (As of 23rd May 2022)

We're on 1200 downloads at the moment, all on the new release.

Congratulations, that's awesome. When did you release the app?

We put version one out in the stores in August 2021, and then the v2 sexier version was launched about a month, six weeks ago. So we'd like to think of the v1 as a kind of beta version, it was more than an MVP. It was a fully downloadable app. But it fitted the ugly baby criteria, based on what people told us. We quite liked it. But you know, end user feedback wins.

You keep mentioning that you've had feedback from users. Who are these people? And where are you contacting them?

So what we're trying to do is outreach to people as they join the app. It's not dramatically successful in terms of the hit rate of people responding because people don't really want to be approached necessarily.

But we get a bit of viral growth from groups where one person in a football group who joined then set up their own football group through it. One individual has given us a very lovely quote about All In. I didn't know that person until after they'd started using the app.

What's interesting, actually, is the number of friends who have started to use it since we put v2 out there. They hadn't picked up V1. So the learning has been that even though they're friends, it doesn't necessarily mean they're going to use your app.

We had some friends that were off on cycling weekends over the last few weeks. They've sent me some feedback today which I'm glowing about, which is great.

You just mentioned that you had some feedback that you're glowing from, tell me about a time when you've been the proudest about your venture so far.

I don't know if I've got a specific moment. There are lots of little ones, like putting out the new release and having people get really excited who have previously not been as supportive.

Some of our advisory board, for example. We've got some great guys, and they are really ruthlessly honest. I think watching them change from "Yeah, this is wrong” or “that's buggy” or “we need to change this" etc to saying  "this looks super fresh, super clean, we think it can go viral"

Seeing people who you have actually turned around on the product has been really satisfying.

Back towards the start of our conversation, you mentioned that you've had to learn sales and marketing as part of your venture. How's that been going and where have you been learning from?

It's all learning online. I have so much respect for marketing people. It's so difficult.

You get these ideas, and think it's going to be brilliant - "I've got a great idea for this advert”, “I've got this great idea for this video that we're making". And you've spent ages building them and or getting a designer to do some work. Then you put it out there and it doesn't get a response. It drives you crazy.

I've done some jokey videos that we were really pleased with, but when you put them out there, there's often a resounding Tumbleweed response...

Equally, when we got our first troll comment. You realise it's out there, but until you get one you don't really know how it's gonna affect you. I think, looking at it as a positive if people are finding your adverts and saying mean things, at least they found the advert. Previously that person you didn't know existed. Now they do. And we're not for them, that's fair enough. You can't please everyone.

What's been your best learning from the marketing that you've been doing so far?

I think everything that talks about A/B testing and the funnel is really important. Small amounts of money spent working out the whole funnel and testing as far as you can along each part of it, trying different things. I think that experimentation, and not putting huge amounts down while you do that, I think is really important.

Is there a particular course you use to learn all that kind of marketing funnel stuff?

I’ve been using Ad Espresso, and also worked with an external consultant - to do some Facebook, and Instagram advertising. They were happy to give us some training so we could do it ourselves. Then I've got a load of books on my reading list - Made To Stick and Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, Contagious by Jonas Berger and Purple Cow by Seth Godin.

Tell me about a time when you were probably at your lowest ebb during this venture you're undertaking and how you overcame it.

So I think I think there should be more support set up for founders because I think it's super, super hard. The whole life is super hard.

The challenge you have is you can only say positive things. So you can't tell your business partner that you're having a bad day, you can't tell your advisers if you're feeling down, because they're giving up their time to help. You can't tell your investors, otherwise they're not going to invest in you, if you ever suggest it might not work

So you end up in this place where I just go and unload to my wife.  She is a tremendous support in all of this. I have huge respect for my wife for putting up with me for everything so far, because it is a constant cycle that you have to keep going through.

It's not easy to try things and fail and try and fail and try and fail. But there is some good that comes out of the process.

So I can’t give you a single time when I’ve been at my lowest, it’s just there is a cycle it goes through. Then you get you have other days where you get feedback on your app that makes you glow. Or you put a new release out there, or you’ve got a new feature that you’re working on, and your business partner sends it over to you to test it. Brilliant! Awesome! Then you’re back up again, right?

So it’s a very fragile situation. But you need some kind of outlet and bless her, my wife is my rock. I’ll go and vent to her.

She always says, “I wish I could help. I wish I could do something". But actually, the fact that I could just get it off my chest allows me to get to the next part of the cycle and start thinking about the next feature or the next campaign or whatever it is I'm excited about.

And where do you want to take things with the business?

So the investor question where they want you to say, "Oh, we're looking for an exit", I always find it a bit of a double-edged sword. Saying you’re looking for a quick exit doesn’t inspire confidence you’re going to stick around, but equally saying you’re not looking for an exit isn’t what an investor necessarily wants to hear.

The aim with all this was to build something that we love, to solve a problem that we see every day. So we’re building something that we think is a genuine problem out there, that we can do something really cool with. If, for the next 15 years of my life, I was doing All In and I was fully committed, and we're doing that all day every day,nd it was getting used by people, it was working as a business. I'd be super, super happy with that.

Equally if along that journey an opportunity came in for an exit, we'd listen to that as well. So, I find it kind of ironic that to build a successful business that leads to an exit you have to build something that you don't want to give up, if that makes sense.

I wish you all the best of success for 2022 and beyond.

Thank you, James. It's been great to chat to you. If anyone reading does have any questions in relation to All In you can find us at Feel free to reach out to me, and happy to give thoughts feedback or anything!

James Parris

Managing Director

James was recently poached from the world of elite sport bringing his wealth of experience developing high performing teams to Rbbl