Pivot Puzzle: This platform went from 20.000 members to 30, on purpose

Find out why this was a logical business move

Yay, new format experiment. I present you with a pivotal moment in a startup. I don’t answer right away. Can you figure out the ‘right’ answer for this Pivot Puzzle? (trademark pending). Reading time: 5-10 minutes.

In this edition

  • Insights in three pivots of the same startup aiming to realise their vision

  • The data that informed these pivots

  • How a platform went from 20k to 30 members on purpose

  • A pivot puzzle for you to solve

Hi, meet Beatrice

On 1st of September 2021, Beatrice emailed 20.000 members of her platform with this message at the start, announcing her pivot:

Subject: No more Smart Tribe. Welcome Science Says!
"The biggest problems the world is facing in healthcare, education, climate change and many other issues will not be solved without the help of science.

[…]

As a result of our work with thousands of incredible people on Smart Tribe, we proudly introduce you to our new platform, Science Says.

[…]

[Our old] networking platform will stay open until the end of September.

The old platform shut down, making room for a new one. This is the story of how her startup used its vision in deciding to go from 20.000 members to 30.

It's the story of Beatrice Zatorska, co-founder of ScienceSays.

When you talk to Beatrice, you get sucked into the conviction that comes with a passionate entrepreneur.

High energy combined with honesty about the steps and surprises of the process. From the start, she fires up, excited to tell her story.

How the hate of academia started it all

Beatrice worked as a consultant for 20 years. She fixed problems in many industries, often with the help of academics.

Example: She was working with a company in California to optimise its supply chain. She discovered a problem that could only be solved by a smart cookie. Fortunately, she knew an 80-year-old Russian mathematician that had an improvement in the design of a microchip, exactly what the company needed.

She flew him to California to help a company save millions, as you do with Russian scholars. In this way, she helped academics to commercialise their work.

She bridged the gap between industry and science for 20 years, yet not without frustration.

Empowering scholars

She saw that industry-academia partnerships don't empower the scholar, they empower the institution. It's not that institutions such as universities are known for their fast pace.

"I worked with institutions for many years, I hate it", Beatrice tells me.

Furthermore, researchers and their research gets ignored. I don't know about you but before my PhD, I barely read any academic papers.

Beatrice tells me that 70% of extreme environmentalists (such as Extinction Rebellion) are scientists. Scientists are fed up, they don't have a place to share.

There are many problems in the world and only 2% of new technologies coming from scientific research, Beatrice cites.

She started to hate the way academia functioned. From her home in Oxford, she shares what her vision was from the start: to democratise academia and empower the scholars.

The first version flopped

1.5 years ago, she launched the first version called Science 2 Innovation.

A website where scientists could share the results of their research in laymen speak, to be shared with the world.

Before this, they did 76 interviews with scientists and people from the industry. These interviews were the start of good relationships with some of these scientists. They thought some of the scientists sure would start writing on their platform.

However, they didn't. Nobody wanted to write, no matter how often they asked. These scientists were good at explaining their research, but not working on explaining where it leads in real life.

After three months, they gave up on this. In hindsight, Beatrice reflects: There was no motivation for them. A key problem, but it would only get solved later, in an interesting way.

Running into the perfect co-founder

Beatrice didn't tackle the previous version alone, but with Kris, her co-founder. She ran into her co-founder at an event in a pub related to an accelerator. Since then they are inseparable and things have started moving.

Kris had just quit his job as a data scientist at Elsevier, an academic publishing house.

Before that he worked at Mendeley, a tool for researchers that was acquired by Elsevier in 2013 for ±$80M. And before that, he got a PhD in applied computing.

He knew the academic world and its flaws all too well.

His techie background in the academic world was a good match for Beatrice's business background. They shared a vision to tackle the challenges of academia.

Right now, they are working full-time on making their vision a reality. She says she never says goodbye to her co-founder, as the first thing in the morning she picks up the conversation where they left off.

A pivot with surprising results

Science 2 innovation didn’t have any traction. At this point, Beatrice & Kris were fundraising. Investors wanted to see traction.

People had reached out to them that they liked their vision, but they told them that they didn't need a platform to talk. It was about the conversations with each other.

With the failed first attempt and time pressure from the investors, they build SmartTribe, a networking platform for science and industry. It started as a simple website with a spreadsheet for the first 200 customers, later turned into a functioning platform.

I ran into this platform last year. I was able to meet some people from incubators. I was unaware of its size, but it seemed I was not alone on this platform. It got much better traction than their first idea.

"That [SmartTribe] just went crazy", Beatrice tells me, "because it grew to 20.000 people in a year."

Quite some meetings were arranged via the platform. Some scholars reached out to Beatrice about upcoming conversations with industry.

'Can you help me prepare for this meeting?', they anxiously asked Beatrice. Afterwards, these scholars were very happy, as they made genuine human connections in their field of expertise.

Value generated, it seems.

Serious growth without any ad-spending

I was curious about their promotional activities. Not a single ad-dollar (or pound) was spent. Word of mouth and individual outreach on social media were the main drivers.

I wondered what the rapid growth meant to Beatrice. It surprised her it took off like that. "It means there is something. It means there is massive interest. It wasn't just academics on the platform. It was 50%-50% industry and academics"

She says: "We are right, there really is a need from both sides to talk to each other on an individual level"

Very promising results. The investors were pleased and they got funded.

We got 'hacked'

When they first started, SmartTribe had a focus on just AI/data science. But soon, scholars from life sciences came pounding at the door: "We want in, you have to open up!”, Beatrice recalls.

Regardless, everyone started coming in, as people ignored the AI or life sciences label.

"They hacked us"—hacking here is used by the definition that a solution is used for something else than intended. Something that will pop up later, too. They soon opened up the platform for anyone. And in 12 months, raked in 20.000 members.

Problem: A too open platform

The open nature of the platform sprouted rapid growth but also had issues. They had no control over how people were using the platform.

In their user research, a couple of uses popped up:

  • People were asking for jobs

  • People started startups from the platform

  • People got consulting work

  • People got project work

Beatrice tells me she didn't want this to be a recruiting platform. Kris and she wanted to democratise science. And this is where the pivotal moment starts for the startup.

Problem: Talking to experts for free

Industry people liked it as they could directly talk to experts. And have you ever spoken to a researcher about her/his work? They pour their heart out for free.

And then Kris and Beatrice reflected: "Wait a minute. We are not actually solving the problem. Again, on top of research papers and teaching, we give researchers another task to give your time for free to industry people."

Beatrice didn't like that. "We shot ourselves in the foot." This was not empowering the scholar. They are burdening the scholar with unpaid work.

Furthermore, they had issues with monetising all these connections and conversations. They were not able to find a model that suited their needs.

Although the 20.000 members reflected a need in this market, they felt they needed to have a better solution.

The pivot puzzle: What would you do?

To summarise, Beatrice & Kris are aiming to democratise science and empower scholars, by bridging the gap between industry and science.

Their SmartTribe platform got 20.000 members. Yet, they feel they are not achieving their mission. They are just generating more unpaid work for researchers and as a startup, they are not able to monetise this.

I asked her a couple of times whether her vision changed over the journey, but each time she said no: I knew what I wanted to achieve from the start.

The means changed, but the end goal did not, citing Reid Hoffman's writing on pivots. They knew they needed a pivot to a better working model. But which one?

Take a minute to reflect, to wonder, what would you do? Send me an email, reply if you want :) Next week, I'll share the answer (and maybe some ideas that came in).

Update:

Read part 2 here

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