Wendy Tan-White is the founder of Moonfruit, a highly successful internet company which allows users to create their own websites. She is most recently famed for creating one of the most successful social media marketing campaigns ever. Her idea? To give away one free MacPro a day for 10 days on Twitter. Her execution and social media smarts sent Moonfruit’s popularity into orbit!
These are the notes following Wendy’s inspiring talk at the last Women Unlimited meetup. We hope you find inspiration, learning and motivation from her responses. Wendy’s journey hasn’t always been easy and she talks freely about the challenges and triumphs during the dotcom boom and bust and how she has grown her business into a £9m company from these shaky beginnings.
Women Unlimited: How did you get started?
Wendy Tan White: My first venture into the world of the internet was in 1999 when I helped set up Egg, the internet banking company; this was my first taste of commercial websites. I had moved from pure technology into heavy marketing by this time and there were an incredible amount of opportunities using internet technology that I could see. When I was thinking about leaving Egg to set up Moonfruit, I told my mentor at Egg what I was planning to do and he was incredibly supportive. He let me work part time at Egg while I was setting up my business which turned out to be quite a crucial thing. Every entrepreneur knows how difficult it is setting up on your own while trying to make ends meet.
The timing of my move was also crucial because it was when the dot com boom was reaching its peak, which acted as a catalyst for me because it increased my belief that I could accomplish my goal. Moonfruit was launched with money borrowed from friends and family and some of the Moonfruit’s co-founders. We built a prototype with our money then set about trying to raise the capital and ended up raising £400,000.
Moonfruit launched in 2000 and we had 500,000 people using our website builder which was great, but none of them were paying us any money! Our investment capital dried up and we didn’t have enough money to continue. We were very fortunate that our main investor didn’t close us down. They gave us the choice that if we were willing to take on the customer liabilities of the business we could buy back the company for a fraction of the investment they had put in. I feel like they did this partly because we had always been very transparent with them. Some others have attributed this deal to the fact that I’m a woman; I don’t know whether that is true or not, but one thing I have found about women in business is that we are a lot more communicative with the investors and don’t feel the need to put on a front.
WU: You got your initial funding from friends and family; did you find that difficult?
WTW: Taking things from friends and family is a double edged-sword. There are emotional costs involved, as well as financial costs. When you are doing well, everyone thinks that your business is great, and they are riding the high of success with you. But it can be incredibly difficult when things go wrong. When our company crashed, none of those people who invested in our company got their money back. I went through a lot of personal angst and guilt about my responsibility in the matter, but I had to clear the mess up. The first people I had to sort the mess out with were my friends and family. This was painful. My parents had invested a significant amount of their savings; to make it worse friends of my parents who I didn’t know very well had also invested and I had to go and straighten things out with them as well. What I learned during this period was the importance of meeting my investors face to face and sorting things out. If you don’t do this you cannot move on.
I had a tough couple of years after the crash sorting out a lot of messes, and deciding whether or not I wanted to continue. I was tempted for a while to go back into corporate life, but I still believed in my company and I wanted to finish what I had started.
I bought back my company and basically asked the 500,000 people who used our products to start paying for them. We re-grew the business from the grass roots up and after four years we were back up to employing 10 staff.
It is always a good idea to partner up with people, especially in today’s climate where you may find it difficult to secure funding. If you get with the right partner it can really help push you through.
WU: What do you put your growth down to? While everyone is retrenching, you are expanding.
WTW: My company group has grown 35% and Moonfruit has grown 70%. I think the drivers for this success is that we were in the market place quite early on. Blogs helped us a lot because it is necessary for people to be able to advertise themselves as widely as they can as cheaply as they can. This climate has created this whole new market of freelancers, consultants and small businesses who all want their own websites.
We did two major things this year to help the business grow. Firstly, I did a campaign for Gambi (out ethical hosting company) concerning the liberalisation of the internet. Next year people will be able to set up registries to have any extension to their websites. For example, right now we have dot net, dot com, dot uk etc, but next year you can have anything such as dot NYC, dot London, dot Microsoft and dot apple. For companies this means a significant shift in their strategies. If you are plumber for example, it could mean that you have to be accredited to have the dot plumber extension, but it would also mean that as you are accredited, more people would visit your site.
Then of course, we did the Twitter campaign! Social media is ideal for women because we like to communicate, and Twitter is great because conversations are updated rapidly. We decided to celebrate our tenth anniversary by giving away a free MacBook to 10 people who wrote the most creative sentence including the word Moonfruit. Traffic to our site increased 1300%. We were number one on trending topics for three days. We got picked up by Forbes Today, The Wall Street Journal and Silicon Valley publications; in all we had over 300 articles written about us since the campaign. We now have 32,000 followers on Twitter compared to 400 at the beginning of the campaign.
My advice here is to make sure that whatever campaign you run fits your brand and your customers. Ensure that what you are offering is something that they can relate to and actually want.
WU: How have you found your new clients?
WTW: Mainly through word of mouth, but we have always had a lot of partnerships. With Moonfruit we have a lot of people who distribute our brand, Sitemaker, as a white label. If someone wants to be a reseller for us we simply give them the modules and charge them £500.
WU: How do you target the reseller market?
WTW: We have a strategy of free products which people have the option to upgrade. We have a lot of people who will trial us, and they are by far the best type of advertising. Every time someone views their website they see “powered by Moonfruit” on it. We are looking to add more premium services so that we can upsell to our customers. We want to broaden our free base so that we have more people to channel to that. We are also tweaking our conversions at different rates. For example one of the things we did was to change the position of a button on a particular page where people were building a site to make it much clearer, and that immediately made a difference to our conversion rate. It is worth doing the bread and butter stuff like the tweaking of your websites as well as the big stuff like marketing.
WU: Have you invested in marketing and PR?
WTW: Yes I have. We picked up a PR agency in October of last year. We pay them a £4000 monthly retainer. It is good to have someone to bounce ideas of who is not part of our company to give us perspective. Interestingly they were very sceptical about the wisdom of the Twitter campaign, but they have since come round! I still prefer partnerships as a means of marketing because they can generate publicity almost immediately.
WU: Based on your last ten years in business, what ten things would you advise women about who are in business or setting up their own business?
WTW: I’d say believe in what you are doing. Do something that is sustainable and that you enjoy because very few companies make it overnight. Make sure you are doing something that you want to do because it will absorb all your time. Don’t neglect your family or your well being. Your company does need to make money so you have to figure out how to do that. Be bold and ask for what you want. Have a sounding board, e.g. a mentor who you can bounce ideas off. Do make partnerships but remember that you do not have to be with that partner forever. Networking is extremely valuable.
WU: How do you cope with being a businesswoman, a wife and a mother?
WTW: My husband has been very supportive in both my business life and as a husband. Some people want to have it all; I don’t think you can have it all at once; but I think you can phase it. There will be periods where you are more focussed on family and other times where you are more focussed on the business. Interleaving is very important. I couldn’t do what I do without my husband’s support and belief in what I am doing. My family, especially my mother and mother in law have been great in helping me with my children. I warn them well in advance when I may need their services. I also have a nanny three days a week.
Business people tend to have a habit of putting a lot of extra time into the business both when it is doing well, and when it is doing badly, but you have to cut yourself off from your business at times. This summer I’d planned that I would spend a lot of time with my family, so I’ve had to be quite strict about ensuring I do that. I make sure I’m there for my children before they go to bed, and if I have any extra work to do I deal with it when they are asleep. You do feel guilty sometimes that you aren’t there as much as you should be, that is inevitable. But make the time that you have with them special. I like to think that when my children are older and look back over their childhood, they will remember that the times they had we me while infrequent, were great.
My children give me a lot of balance. When I go home to them they don’t care about Twitter! They just care about their stuff and that plays a huge part in pulling me out of my world and into theirs.
A question from the Audience: What do you think you will be doing in 10 years time?
I love doing business, but in 10 years time I don’t think I will be doing Moonfruit; I’d like to have handed over the reins and be investing in someone else by then. I’d also like to have the freedom to take six months off work to go travelling before launching out into another venture!