Five years ago we started a journey together, and now in 2017 I sit in a busy co-working space reflecting on the times that have been.
Chalkle, you helped me cut my entrepreneurship teeth. You are the initial reason I ever thought to call myself a social entrepreneur. I’d never even entertained the idea that I could be a business owner (and now I’m the director of four!).
Over the last five years I’ve seen (and supported) many people start their entrepreneurial journey and start a business. But I have not read many stories about the process of ending a business. And I’m keen to talk about that. I’m keen to share my learnings of what it is like to pour hours into a business and after five years of effort realise that it needs to be something else.
At that same time this is the story of a relationship. I’ve never been in a relationship this long, Chalkle is the longest thing I have ever committed to. And, I don’t think I’ve ever loved, or been frustrated by, something more! It’s interesting to think about founding a startup as being in a relationship — perhaps that’s something we, as the entrepreneurial ecosystem, need to talk about more. About the commitment and emotional energy that startups require. This is also a story about that.
Many people say it’s the idea that is important, but with Chalkle I feel that I am still dealing with the consequence of an idea. So I offer this piece of writing, partly as a record of my journey, and partly as the five year biography of Chalkle Ltd.
A cup of coffee
It all started with a coffee (well a hot chocolate for Linc) in a café opposite our old co-working space. He and I connected over a vision of new forms of education, where the community knew its own curriculum and classrooms where right around the city.
Later, in the co-working space kitchen we schemed names and signed business forms. The Chalkle name was chosen because it was the best .com we could find… We signed the business director forms on the 21st of June 2012. That made it feel real!
A month later on the 22nd July we had Chalkle’s launch party. What a magical evening! So many people came :-) It was an awesome hum of community energy. There was a vibe of opportunity, perhaps like a new birth or a wedding, it really felt like a space of potential.
We started connecting people that night — matching those that wanted to teach gardening with those who wanted to learn it. Those that wanted to teach accounting, with those that wanted to learn it. The purpose felt simple to me: connect people who have things to teach with people who want to learn.
2012: Building a community
For the next twelve months Linc and I were busy — organising all forms of classes, in all sorts of places. Wellingtonians knew Chalkle as a humming meetup group that was full of activity. A place to learn sign language, zombie makeup or how to manage your inbox. I loved that year — I think we organised something like 600 classes! I thrived, even though I made very little money: my annual income was $13k.
2013: Identity — CEO?!?!? wtf?!?!?!
I still remember when our first business cards came and I had CEO under my name. Gosh that felt strange. Such a foreign feeling — who, me?!? But it wasn’t just the title that was foreign — the whole experience was. I’m not one of those people who ever had huge business ambitions — I have been driven by impact, but not by business goals. So entering into the Startup community intrigued me. I realised that perhaps one could make impact and make a living doing exactly the same thing.
There is an interesting thing that happens when you are the founder of an organisation or start building a community — the community and brand becomes so much of who you are. Whether is was a joke about being “Miss Chalkle”, or people asking how Chalkle was going more often than how I was going, Chalkle dominated my life in many ways. I’d talk about it to my grandparents, it would be the first thing I would explain I was doing to an old high school friend, it was the logo I represented at big events and was what I spent late nights writing emails about.
I learnt A LOT about the basics of business during that first year. Prior to Chalkle I had never been in Xero, filed a GST return, set up employee systems, made annual budgets, or negotiated equity. It was all new. Your first start up is really one gigantic learning journey — I believe I learnt more new skills and new language terms in that first year of Chalkle than I did in my three years at University. This is where having the Enspiral network around me was so important. Enspiral is a network (and a community) of social entrepreneurs. Some members had started five businesses, some, like me, were in their first one. I think the key thing that was so crucial in those early years was knowing that I was not alone. My Enspiral colleagues and friends were on the same rollercoaster.
By about mid 2013 we started to get nominated for awards. That was strange, and exciting! I’m someone who loves, and hates, being at the centre of attention. And strangely enough the majority of the awards recognise individuals and never a pair of people and only sometimes a community or organisation. I received nominations for Wellingtonian of the Year, Women of Influence and NEXT Women of the year. Linc and I were also named Absolutely Positively Wellingtonians.
Another reason I struggled with this attention is that by this point I had really started to wake up to the realities of the startup rollercoaster… The ups and downs and the highs and lows — but also the balance of being in control and having a plan, through to having no idea what you are doing. But perhaps that is one of my biggest learnings: that no one (fully) knows what they are doing! All those gorgeous glamorous women at the awards ceremonies probably were also sitting at their table thinking about the terror of an email they had to send tomorrow, or the unknownness of which feature to prioritise, or had their fingers crossed under the table that a funding application would be approved. Perhaps we are all like ducklings: Cool and centered on the surface, but madly paddling underneath.
After a year of running in Wellington we launched in Horowhenua, a region one hour’s drive north of Wellington.
I’ll forever be indebted to the Te Takere Library team — they took a crazy leap of faith and brought so much energy, and patience, to bringing Chalkle beyond Wellington.
It was launching in Horowhenua that gave wind into sails of Chalkle being more than just a community in Wellington. Linc had always dreamed of that vision — but for me it was not until we had our first customer beyond Wellington and the first classes were posted on line that I had not organised, that I truly believed it.
2014: Building Technology
By this point, the marketing and admin of the classes in Wellington had almost paralysed me and I could not see where “just running some classes” was going. My passion for Chalkle had been sparked by the initial need, but my ambitions were higher than a community meetup in Wellington alone.
So we decided to build some technology to both reduce the admin burden that I was experiencing and also be able to “scale” the impact of Chalkle.
On reflection we made this decision very fast. It felt like it just made sense, I was so excited by the potential and could so clearly see the need. But I don’t think I truly comprehended the work involved in building a tech platform.
Ants joined me as co-pilot of Chalkle’s future when Linc moved to the States; and at this point we really started to increase our ambition and explore the ideas of a “scalable startup.”
A new logo, a new tagline, and new vision was developed. Ants and I schemed about igniting the renaissance of learning — and I felt a new a passion for Chalkle being rekindled. I was no longer focused on organising the keys for community halls in Wellington. I was now exploring whether we could get external investment, how big the market opportunity was, how many libraries I could visit and how we could sell our dream of a technology solution that could support the Adult Education sector of New Zealand, and beyond.
We also kick started a new team when Matt and Josh joined us. Both of them took on the daunting task of rebuilding the basic Chalkle site into a modern usable educational event management platform.
We aimed for a launch of the new site on the 13th October 2014. The month before was madness. I think it almost broke Josh and Matt. We had moved the office to Ants’ and my flat and work-life balance or separation was just not a thing.
2015: Selling Technology
2012–2013 was all about building the community. In 2014 we built out the technology. So 2015 was a year learning how to SELL technology!
Now, I can not write a line of code, I’m not a developer. But I learnt very quickly how to report a bug, what an agile sprint means, and how to reply to customer tech support emails.
Selling technology is part dark art, part financial negotiation, part human psychology and part magic! You need to be confident like you are selling something that already exists, show mock ups in a way that implies there is software behind them, while trying to understand the actual problem your customer is facing and what technological solution could actually solve it.
We got some good traction:
- Te Takere Library in Horowhenua was humming
- A community on Waiheke was forming — James and Sandra showed awesome enthusiasm for what could happen up there
- Adva gave energy to the community education space in Warkworth and launched a new provider based out of Mahurangi College
- Karen did a mammoth effort kick starting the Nelson community
- Lower Hutt Library had also came on board.
We launched the Nelson community on the same day the new chalkle.com was launched. Now that was a bad idea. Never launch in a new city on the day you launch your new product — that poor community found every bug hidden in the software…
2015/2016: What now??
So there was a lot going on and on the surface it felt great (the duckling looked like it was swimming well). But down below we just could not sustain it. None of us were earning from Chalkle so we were always trying to find work elsewhere.
As 2015 started, Ants and I decided to jump into launching OS//OS, an ambitious conference in Wellington. OS//OS was an incredible opportunity — for Ants and myself and for Enspiral. At the time we post-rationalised that it was also a great opportunity for Chalkle and ran the whole conference ticketing through the site. But in fact OS//OS totally distracted Ants and I from the core business of Chalkle. By mid 2015, OS//OS had been a success, but Chalkle had been severely neglected. At this point Matt had run out of founders runway and we had spent all the investment money so we could no longer pay Josh. So by mid 2015 both of them decided to move on and Ants and I moved offices into the Dev Academy space.
This is probably a key point of reflection — most likely I should have written this blog then. We had no dev team, no money, and for the rest of 2015 and 2016 things just kept ticked along. I did all the support emails and provider payments and Ants took on more of the leadership and strategy role. But nothing really thrived.
So now it is March 2017, and Ants and I have made the call that Chalkle, as educational software platform, as we had built it, is financially unsustainable in the New Zealand market.
So, dear Chalkle, you have given me so much. But I’ve got nothing left to give you. I just don’t think I can problem solve for you any more.
I’ve heard the concept of fail fast and I’ve heard entrepreneurs say it takes quite a few trials at various businesses before it “works” — that has never landed well with me. But perhaps five years is a long time, or a short time, to fail — I don’t know. Perhaps you will be that business I say that I started, but could not continue? Man that’s hard to admit.
So what are the key things I walk away with?
- Startups are hard work. Don’t underestimate that. They will take double (or triple) the time, the money and the energy that you expect to give.
- Startups are the best way to learn business and entrepreneurship. I encourage you to start something and then learn how to touch as many parts of the business as possible. Know the customer pipeline, how to file the GST, what your annual budget it, how your social media page work. Know it all and try to experience it all. It is the best set up for future entrepreneurship work.
- You will become your startup. The blurring line of your startup brand and your own identity will merge. So make sure you are 100% behind the vision and mission from the beginning.
- At the end of the day it’s all about the people. Don’t let any staff member or founder leave slamming the door.
So what now? I guess this letter is mainly for myself — a reflective tool and an output of perspective as I travel forward. It’s also a letter to my friends and colleagues — letting them know about my journey with Chalkle. And it’s sharing and naming the process of closing shop.
Since we made the decision to move on — things have felt good. But of course there is also sadness, regret and a smidgen of “what if”. I feel like I’ve done by best and that some ideas are just not ready to land. Balance has been my keyword — since stepping back from Chalkle I have re-found balance in my life. We launched EXP as a consulting service and I have just launched my own personal website too.
When we gave you the tagline Always be Learning, I thought that was directed at the people who used you as a tool, but now I’m realising perhaps it was all for me?
Thanks for the learnings Chalkle!
PS Ants and I have also launched this blog: Reigniting Adult Education in New Zealand — Five years of Learnings. It outlines our key business learnings of Chalkle and also our recommendations for the future of Adult Education in New Zealand.
PPS Thank you to all the marvellous humans who have helped along the way: Linc Gasking, Joshua Vial, Brandon Mikel, Leticia Murillo Esteban, Amy Peng, Kiesia Carmine, Nanz Nair, Nicola Price, Hannah Varnell, Liz Willoughby-Martin, Craig Ambrose, Mitzi Borren, Sandra Otto, Karen Lee, Jack Tolley, Matthew Kerr, Josh Dean, Genevieve Parkes, and the hugest thanks goes to Anthony Cabraal.
Additionally thanks to these organisations for their support: Enspiral, Akina Foundation, Wellington City Council, Adventure Wellington.