Building and Automating a Lucrative User Testing Platform

Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?

I'm Andreas Zhou, one of the co-founders of Askable, which is based in Brisbane, Australia. Askable is "Uber for user testing". For a UX designer, it's the fastest and easiest way to find and manage participants for face to face usability testing. Designers get great feedback on their UX, and participants get their ideas and opinions heard while making some really good money on the side.

In 2007 I dropped out of design school to start a web design business with my co-founder, John Goleby. I spent the first few years using Photoshop and building simple HTML/CSS websites. Thanks to John’s talent in sales, the business grew and I ended up having to become a jack-of-all-trades, and have since worked on projects as a video and audio producer, digital marketer, project manager, UX designer, and programmer.

We launched the MVP of Askable in July of 2017. Last month we did $31,000 USD in revenue and have grown at about 30% month to month.

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What motivated you to get started with Askable?

Our UX designers work on hundreds of projects for pretty much every conceivable type of organization, from small local businesses to multi-million dollar government departments. But we noticed that recruiting and managing participants for face to face user testing was a consistent problem. At the time, our two options were: use an old school market research company which was slow and expensive, or do it ourselves with online forms and spreadsheets which was always ended up being a huge time sink.

I think the best advice I can give to anyone looking to start their own startup is to think hard about solving your own problem.

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In the age of Uber we thought, "Why isn't there the equivalent for usability testing? Why can't we push a button and have people from our target demographic just show up at the door, ready to give feedback?" We felt that if we could figure out a solution for ourselves, there would be tons of other people who would find it useful.

We looked around and found that nobody was really doing anything in that space, so we decided to give it a go. Luckily, we had an existing internal incubator program that allowed all full-time employees one day per week to work on any project they wanted, which made it easy to get started on an MVP without looking for external resources or funding.

What went into building the initial product?

The first version of Askable was hacked together with a bunch of existing products, which took about a week to build. The client would fill out a Typeform that asked basic questions, such as how many people they wanted and what kind of demographics they were after. We'd then email them with a quote based on their requirements. Once they agreed to move forward, we made another Typeform for applicants to fill out. The applicant Typeform would collect basic information and asked some screening questions based on the client’s requirements so that we could identify those that were eligible to participate in testing.

To find applicants, we would create a free ad on Gumtree (the Australian equivalent of Craigslist) and direct them to fill out the applicant Typeform. We'd then move all of the eligible applicants into a Google spreadsheet and message each person to arrange a time to test the client's UX design. The client would get a copy of this spreadsheet as well so that they could track the work. We'd manually send out reminder messages to each participant until they’d completed their interview. After they’d finished, we'd pay them with PayPal or transfer money to them directly.

The best founders are hyper-focused. They don't get distracted by the flashy but ultimately unimportant details.

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Though our internal incubator program allowed for one day a week to work on a project of your own design, you were responsible for convincing other people to join you (and subsequently spend their one day per week working on your idea instead of their own). At the time, the only people interested in working on this particular project were UX designers, so the first version was inherently limited to what they could actually build. It was a great way to test the concept with paying customers without heavily investing in a custom built system.

How have you attracted users and grown Askable?

When we launched the first version in July 2017, we reached out to a bunch of local agencies — mostly UX designers we knew within our own network. We got one sale that month from a smaller agency, also based in Brisbane. We managed to get the full 20 participants that they requested and got great feedback for them, which gave the Askable team confidence to reach further outside of our network for future sales.

Our first real big marketing push was basically cold emails, which has remained by far the best channel for customer acquisition. Because we had a really specific target audience, it made sense for us to use LinkedIn as a source of prospective customers. I used a tool that scans LinkedIn profiles to identify individuals that match your target demographic, and then performs a search for any corresponding public email addresses. Our first push had a reply rate of around 50%, of which 80% were positive responses.

I think a key factor to the positive response rate was the fact that we were designers ourselves, and most UX designers really empathized because they had experienced firsthand the pain of recruiting and managing user testing participants. We also tried attracting clients through posting some paid advertisements on Google, but they didn't work very well. We found that many of the keywords like "focus groups" or "product testing" brought in people who were looking to make money by participating in tests rather than clients who wanted to book us to do the testing for them.

It’s been pretty easy to get participants to sign up for testing jobs since the money is really good. We paid $80+ for a 45 minute session. In the early days we spent a lot of time on the phone calling people we knew and asking (i.e. begging) them to participate. As we’ve grown, we’ve mostly stuck to using free Gumtree ads, or sometimes paid Facebook ads.

I think the best advice I can give to anyone looking to start their own startup is to think hard about solving your own problem. It goes beyond domain expertise. There are immense benefits, especially in sales. Being able to really empathize with your customer because you’ve been through the pain yourself is a huge advantage, as is being part of an existing community. It's super powerful stuff.

What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

We charged money from day one because we had to. Without charging clients, there was no way for us to pay the participant incentives, which would have left us without participants and collapsed the whole system. So that was baked in from the start. We decided to turn a profit by charging a recruitment fee of $50-$80 per participant, depending on the client’s requirements. Because most of our early clients were UX designers in our personal network, we knew they were already paying exorbitant recruitment fees to market research companies (sometimes upwards of $250 per participant), or spending hours and hours doing it themselves. So our value proposition was already pretty compelling.

Most of the early expenses went into hiring people to help us handle the bookings manually while we built a platform that could automate the entire process for both clients and participants. Fortunately for us, we already had a lot of the payment handling experience and software in place from the pre-existing business, which made it easy to get customers set up on Xero and start invoicing. We have since introduced Stripe as a payment method but have found that the bigger, slower moving organizations still prefer making payments by invoice. Aside from salaries, our expenses are pretty low. We use Amazon for hosting, Twilio for SMS, and Sendgrid for email, which means we can undercut the incumbent market research companies by a non-trivial amount and maintain a healthy profit margin.

While our revenue is growing, it’s important to keep in mind that numbers are inflated by participant incentives. Around half of the $31,000 USD we did in February was paid out to the participants. A lot of the revenue growth has come from word of mouth but we also continue to push hard on the sales front with email outreach and by attending or sponsoring UX design events.

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What are your goals for the future?

We've got a few ideas for upcoming versions of the product based on feedback we've gotten from our existing users, mostly around improving the experience for both sides of the marketplace. We want to add ways for clients to get more specific with their requirements and guarantee better participant eligibility matching. At the same time, we're planning a native app for the participants so they get a better mobile experience, and scaling up the amount of client bookings in the target cities so there are more paid opportunities per registered user.

A big part of being able to hit our targets is expanding the Askable team. Being able to grow the team by bringing in existing talent from the pre-existing business has been awesome and saves a ton of time in the hiring process.

The revenue goal is $100k per month by June, which we I think we can achieve if we maintain our current trajectory. Our goals for later this year will be to test the platform internationally and launch in more cities.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

I think one of the biggest challenges we faced early on was getting people to actually show up. It wasn't a problem with our first few test bookings, because at that point we were calling each participant up, talking to them, establishing rapport, and sending out really personalized reminders. Plus a lot of the first participants were our own friends and family anyway, so we could rely on them to show up. But once we scaled to a point where the time intensive, personalized reminders were no longer feasible, we were seeing a lot more no-shows.

From a client’s perspective that's pretty much the worst experience you can have. Having two designers sitting in a meeting room with all their stuff set up and ready to go, only to realize that your participant is not going to turn up is such a waste of time. We had to really quickly figure out how solve that problem. We tried a bunch of different approaches, including taking a leap of faith and paying participants half of the incentive up front.

I think one of the biggest challenges we faced early on was getting people to actually show up.

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This meant that if they didn't turn up, we'd not only have to write that money off as a loss but also pay for the incentive on a replacement participant. We found that this worked pretty well, but ultimately impacted our cash flow.

Another huge challenge for us, and I suppose for any marketplace type startups with two sides to the userbase, was how to scale availability and demand at the same time. We were finding that a lot of participants would initially register, excited at the opportunity to earn money, but then one of two things would happen. Either there weren’t enough jobs in their area for them get into consistently, so they’d drop off, or they'd sign up and immediately get peppered with way too many notifications for opportunities and get overwhelmed. This is still a challenge for us today, but we found that being careful and deliberate about how fast we scaled either side of the market has made it much easier for us to manage the problem.

The main lesson we've learned when thinking about these types of problems is to keep a mentality of "Let's just give it a go." I think it's easy to fall into the trap of "Oh man we've got paying customers now, we can't screw this up," and start playing it too safe. But a lot of the best solutions are hidden in seemingly crazy or risky ideas, so it's super important to maintain that "try anything" mindset, even (or perhaps especially) once you've grown to a point where you have a reputation on the line.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Where to start! I've watched every episode of Y Combinator's How to Start a Startup series (both old and new) and their podcast series (both old and new). There's a lot of great stuff in there. I also just finished reading Elon Musk's biography, and that's definitely had a huge impact on me in terms of how I think about risk and making big bets on the future. I also draw a lot of inspiration from Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia of AirBnB because I really resonate with their story and I'm a huge fan of their product design, company culture, and testing mentality.

Something that the dev team tried early on which turned out to be super successful was doing code camps. We'd find a quiet house somewhere and stay and work from there for a whole week. During that week we found that we were able to write and ship three times more stuff than we could while sitting in our desks back in the office. Living and working together helped us a lot, too, since we'd only previously worked together in a formal business environment. It was a great way for us to inject a bit the startup feel into our team. I think this is particularly useful if you're only working on your project with friends or co-workers part-time, but want to experience how you work together as a full-time team while trying to launch something quickly.

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One bit of advice that comes from the Y Combinator partners, who've seen some of the most successful startups go through their batches, is that often the best founders are hyper-focused. They don't get distracted by the flashy but ultimately unimportant details. They focus on building product and talking to users. Applying that mentality to how I approach work every day has been really useful in helping me to eliminate a lot of noise and think critically about important sounding tasks that are actually huge distractions.

What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?

I mentioned this earlier, but solving your own problem is really one of the best ways to get started. Through our internal incubator program we launched 50+ products, most of which didn’t solve any of our own problems, and none of which ever got to product-market fit. I think there are so many benefits of solving something you're close to that don't get mentioned. It makes the product an easy sell, and growing the team is easier because you're able to tell a more authentic story. It makes sticking with the idea through rough times easier because it matters to you and carries personal significance. It makes getting to market easier because you know the landscape better.

A lot of the best solutions are hidden in seemingly crazy or risky ideas, so it's super important to maintain that 'try anything' mindset.

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I think another mistake that teams make is working on too many good ideas at once. It sounds stupid, but I think a lot of great teams fail not because they tried bad ideas or that they didn't try enough good ideas, but because they didn't get hyper focused on one idea and really execute the crap out of it before starting on the next one. I know founders that are super cautious about hiring bad people, but in reality the thing that's silently killing them is actually the super smart people that are really good at coming up with a lot of really legitimate sounding ideas and have no one to reign them in.

So the team works on one idea until another, equally good sounding idea emerges, and then starts working on that, and then the next one after that, and the next one after that. And now you're spread too thin across too many things and you’re not doing any one thing particularly well. I think it’s natural. People get bored of working on the same thing day after day, testing it and improving it incrementally, so they get distracted by the newest, shiniest sounding idea.

I feel like the reality of creating something great is actually really repetitive and painful at times, and requires a ton of self-discipline. Sometimes that just doesn't seem as appealing as a fresh, new "good idea".

Where can we go to learn more?

You can find us at Askable. Thanks for reading, I'll try to answer any and all questions in the comments below!

Andreas Zhou , Founder of Askable

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