Why ScholarTribe Failed
After an awesome two-years, I’ve decided to close ScholarTribe. In this blog, I share my reflections on why ScholarTribe failed. I’ve written these reflections primarily for my own process of learning; however, I’m sharing them in the hope that others will find them interesting and maybe even useful.
Many of my friends and network have been shocked to hear that I’m closing ScholarTribe, universally responding “What?! I thought ScholarTribe was an awesome idea.” And I agree, ScholarTribe is and was an awesome idea, but an awesome idea is not a golden ticket — it’s the foundations that a successful business can be built on, but not the final product.
The ScholarTribe Story
The idea for ScholarTribe came when chatting with PhD student friends of mine in early 2021. For context, we were still amid England’s third lockdown, so this was by phone, zoom, or PlayStation headset. It struck me that these intelligent, motivated, and underpaid PhD students were frustrated by the lack of tangible impact they could see in their research, with many of them feeling disconnected to the non-academic world. Hearing this, my entrepreneurial ears pricked up and I started to think about the other side of the coin — did the non-academic world want to work with them? Picking up the phone and chatting to friends at startups and scaleups, it became clear that they would want to work with PhD students, however they didn’t know where to find them. The idea for ScholarTribe was born.
At risk of this blog becoming a self-indulgent memoir (maybe I’ve already missed the boat), here’s a whistle stop tour of the next few years: Having had the idea for ScholarTribe, we (I’d recruited Andrew Grassick and Shobhan Dhir) wasted no time, throwing together a simple website and hammering my network for early adopters. Like every budding entrepreneur should, I took The Lean Startup as prophecy and went into full concierge MVP-mode. In no time, and with just a website, excel spreadsheet, and my email/phone, we were revenue generating with clients hiring sustainability-related academics to write articles, provide LCAs, and consult investors during DD. After six months, with confidence in our early proof of concept and a vision of what we wanted to build, we raised ~£100k from angel investors.
For this round, we had a clear objective, to build a simple yet operational product (MVP) and show proof of scalability. Kicking into action, we hired a Business Development Manager, Academic Lead, and (much later) a Product Manager — a strange decision from me considering our stated product goals — I’ll come back to this. Over the next year, we built an operational freelance marketplace (quoted $50–80k to build, we built it using the no-code tools of Airtable, Zapier and Softr for £12k including salaries- shoutout to Narumi and Dan, you’re both legends), and continued to hone our core offering of services to happy and (sometimes) recurring clients. However, as we came nearer to the end of our runway, it became clear that we hadn’t come much closer to our stated round objective of proof of scalability. As such, I didn’t have confidence in the future of the business.
I’m going to leave it there, but I implore anyone interested in any part of the journey to reach out. Whether you’d like to look under the hood of our Airtable product or hear some more about our business development hustle, I’m happy to chat.
Why ScholarTribe Failed
I want to start by reminding myself (and readers) not to confuse a bad outcome with a bad decision. While ScholarTribe has ultimately had a bad outcome, it was not a bad decision to start the business and I do not regret it for one second. As I explain below, I see factors both within and outside of my control that led to ScholarTribe’s failure, many of which were not initially apparent. However, as Founder and CEO, the buck stops with me, and I’m proud to take responsibility for both the success and ultimate failure of ScholarTribe.
Jumping straight into it, we never fully understood our value proposition. A value proposition is the reason why a product or service is right for any given customer. This is crucial for a product builder to understand so they know what to build and why, and it’s crucial for a marketeer to understand so they can communicate this value to the customer. While we made progress in understanding our value proposition (shoutout to Jed Comyn for his mentorship — and also here’s a great book recommended by Jed for “discovering the right product”), we never fully grasped our value and this came through in our inconsistent business model and pricing.
Early on, our business model was heavy touch, managing projects from start to finish for clients (from academic matchmaking to project management to invoicing), which we did on a commission model (20%). Some clients appreciated this, while many found the percentage high since the value they were getting out of our service was only academic matchmaking, as they wanted to control project management and invoicing. Moreover, as well as not aligning with our core value proposition (matchmaking), project management was sucking our time, limiting our services’ scalability. Channelling my inner-Zuck (not something I want to do regularly), we moved fast and broke things, simplifying our business model to being light touch, moving to a fixed fee model for which clients paid $250 for matchmaking, and $750 for matchmaking and onboarding. Honing in on our value proposition (matchmaking), this new model gave clarity to clients, but lacked in other areas. For example, since we had such a variety of projects going through the platform the price relative to project value was all over the place (we had clients posting $250 — $20,000 projects).
Unit economics were also a problem, with customer lifetime value (LTV) being less than customer acquisition cost (CAC). As with many other freelance marketplaces, we priced our service (with eyes wide open) low, striving to make up for this in high transaction volume. Unfortunately, this was a challenge since our most popular projects (transactions) through our platform were occasional at best — e.g., companies might hire an academic for their scientific advisory board once every five years. Infrequent use also leads to low loyalty and customer retention since customers have more time to (inefficiently) find a solution to their problem and be distracted by other channels. In our case, we lost customers to disparate and slower channels such as university innovation programmes.
All this, and we hadn’t even got to the problem of disintermediation yet! Disintermediation is a problem that many marketplaces face when the two sides of the marketplace cut out the middleman. Luckily, we had clients and academics with integrity so we never faced this issue, but since our value lay in the matchmaking, we certainly would have felt this at some point. For the readers interest, Homejoy was a marketplace killed by disintermediation.
Moving onto some more personal reflections of my time as ScholarTribe’s Founder, being a solo Founder is brutal and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. While I had a brilliant support network of friends, family, advisors, investors and founding team, nothing beats a cofounder in the trenches with you. Finding the right cofounder(s) is a challenge, but I would have seriously benefitted from the extra hands, soundboard, motivator and all-round partner in crime. Ultimately, I did actively search for this person but never found the right fit. Once I’d worked on ScholarTribe for six months or so, I was too controlling and personally invested in the business to keep searching for a cofounder, but on reflection this shouldn’t have stopped me. A cofounder can and should add value to the businesses whenever they join (within reason), especially when you can expect to be building a successful business for years not months.
I made hiring errors, hiring for the wrong role at the wrong time. To be clear, I hired brilliant people (personally and professionally) throughout the ScholarTribe journey, and I continue to be cheerleaders and friends of theirs. However, I made mistakes hiring good people into the wrong roles at the wrong times, and this was costly in time and money. Notably, I hired a business development manager while we were still building our product and working on our value proposition. They didn’t know what they were selling or how to sell it. With limited funds, we had to let them go and double down on product.
I’m proud of ScholarTribe. There’s a climate emergency and we built something that allowed businesses to work with knowledgeable climate-related academics and make positive decisions for their business and the planet. I learnt a lot from ScholarTribe, wearing every hat as a solo Founder from fundraising to product management to business development, and I got to work with clients and colleagues that I respect while I did it.
For now, I’m taking some time to reflect and plan my next move. I loved being a Founder and certainly have the ambition to start a business again, but not right now. Having worked for myself for the last couple of years, it’s time to learn from wiser minds.
Having said that, both personally and professionally I’m being drawn to the ocean, becoming more inspired to work on marine conservation and/or blue carbon by the day. Over the last few months I’ve loved reading Rewilding the Sea, Eat Like a Fish, The Sixth Extinction, and since I live in Cornwall, I’m not lacking in inspiration to protect and work with our beautiful blue planet. Anyway, watch this space, I’ve enjoyed writing this blog so much, I’m hoping to write something on blue carbon next week (for my benefit and enjoyment).