Valentin Hinov of Thankbox: “Talk to your customers!”

Talk to your customers! Honestly, do it. I didn’t do it at all at my last startup but I forced myself to do it with this one. And guess what? It’s never stopped paying dividends. A lot of my early users were people I knew since they found out about Thankbox from me posting on […]

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Talk to your customers! Honestly, do it. I didn’t do it at all at my last startup but I forced myself to do it with this one. And guess what? It’s never stopped paying dividends. A lot of my early users were people I knew since they found out about Thankbox from me posting on Twitter or LinkedIn. I got as much feedback from them as I could. They really helped me polish and craft Thankbox into the experience it is now.

The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.

As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Valentin Hinov.

Valentin is the founder and CEO of Thankbox, an online group card and cash collection service. He is a self-described indie hacker & bootstrapper — someone who’s building a startup without a plan to raise millions in funding or reach unicorn status. During the start of the pandemic, he saw an opportunity to create a sustainable, profitable business and wants to grow it to the point where he could move to doing it full time. Valentin lives in Edinburgh, Scotland with his wife and 3 year old daughter.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up and spent most of my formative years in Bulgaria. I was born just as the country was moving on from its totalitarian socialist past and started embracing capitalism. My parents became one of the first entrepreneurs in this era, setting up a successful IT distribution business in the 90s, which is now one of the best in the sector in the country. I watched them work hard and succeed, often in a very inhospitable business environment and I feel a lot of that work ethic and grit rubbed off on me.

I was in close proximity to computers and tech during my whole childhood. I loved building, repairing and upgrading computers — especially my gaming PC. In retrospect, it’s no surprise my path would take me to software and programming.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If you’re not having fun, then what are you doing?”

I have never been able to work on something that I have not intrinsically enjoyed doing. Any difficult skill I’ve learned in my life I did because I enjoyed the process of learning it.

In my first year of university, I had my introduction to programming. I had never seriously practiced it up to that point so I had a fear I might not like it. Then, one afternoon, I started working on my first coursework — creating a program to solve sudoku puzzles. The next time I looked at the clock it was 11PM — I’d spent almost 6 hours “in the zone” working on this solver. That’s when I knew I’d enjoy learning this skill.

Of course, anything worth building, especially a new business, has its tough moments, but I believe you need to be enjoying that journey. You need to wake up in the morning excited to be able to spend even an hour to work on your product. It’s that passion that fuels the great new ideas and inventions of the world. It makes being on this path much easier.

If I lose that joy, and I start consistently losing interest, then it means I’m not bringing my passion into what I’m doing and it suffers as a result.

Just a couple of weeks after my team and I started working on Thankbox I wrote a small discussion piece about what my definition of success was. One of the points was “We all stay excited about it and are happy to be working on it.”

Including the photo here, in case including it in the article would be fitting

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

A podcast that had a huge influence on me has to be the Tim Ferriss show. I started listening to it several years ago and Tim’s interview style and guests immediately resonated with me. It changed my way of thinking about life and risk taking, giving me the confidence to pursue entrepreneurship. Through listening to his show I’ve discovered books and other podcasts that I’ve in turn learned a lot from. One of his recent episodes with Matthew McConaughey really resonated with me as Matthew talked about repositioning his acting career and the risks he took to do it. Stories like that are constant source of inspiration for me and I really trust Tim in delivering them.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?

I was lucky to graduate high school just a few years after Bulgaria joined the EU. This allowed me to go and study computer games programming — my passion at the time — in Scotland without paying any tuition fees.

I briefly worked as a game programmer, which was tons of fun. Then quickly moved on to being a mobile app developer as I was really interested in developing that skill and there was an increasing need for it in the 2010s. For the last 4 or 5 years I’ve been working as a contract freelancer for different companies — helping their teams out for a 6-to-12 month period at a time.

In 2016 I started work on my first startup — it was a social media app for sharing your favorite content (podcasts, books, etc). It had some initial success, getting featured on the Google PlayStore and some good press in tech publications like Tech Radar. The problem was it was far, far too large in scope for just me and my cofounder to build and it also had no plan to reach monetization. We ended up burning a lot of cash to learn an expensive lesson.

Without it, though, I would’ve never decided to learn more about startups, found online communities of like-minded founders and to the litany of entrepreneurship podcasts and books that I have consumed since then. It’s also while building it that I met some of the people that I have working on Thankbox with me now.

Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?

I live in the UK where there is a big office occasion celebration culture. I’ve been a part of many different teams and each of them would celebrate things like someone leaving, someone’s birthday or work anniversary by getting a paper card and everyone signing it. While the end result is nice and the recipient is happy, the whole process was always a hassle. The card would usually be bought last-minute by the person’s manager. Then he’d have to chase people around the office to (discreetely) sign it. Some people that weren’t physically present in the office couldn’t contribute at all. If there was an envelope cash collection, people would have to run to the ATM to get cash to leave in there because who uses physical cash anymore, right?

In November 2019, during another one of these occasions I thought to myself “there must be a better way to do this, online”. I did some research and found that there was really nothing that covered both aspects of this — both the message and cash collection. That’s when a lightbulb turned on — “this is something I can do!”. So I started brainstorming early designs on what would eventually become Thankbox. I had just started planning out a landing page but then I paused further work, as I had too much on my plate at the time — full time contracting (which I still do) and joining another startup as a technical advisor.

What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?

March 2020 happened. Everyone was going to work remotely and the classic office was never going to be the same.

I was meditating one morning, as I try to every day for at least 10 minutes, and all of a sudden this thought pattern hit me like a train: “This is the perfect time to do Thankbox!”. “If there ever was a time to do it, it’s now!”. “Nobody can do the paper card thing anymore and companies will need a way to do this!”. I ruined my meditation but these thoughts stuck in my mind and wouldn’t let go.

I started thinking about how to quickly get it off the ground with the time and resources I had. I contacted my friend, Joe, a web developer who I’d met while working on my previous startup, and we agreed on a profit-sharing agreement. He would build and support the initial version of Thankbox in exchange for a future share of the profits once certain milestones are hit.

The first version of Thankbox went live 2 months later in May.

How are things going with this new initiative?

Thankbox had a period of steady growth after the initial launch up to September. Initially I knew or was connected to everyone who used it — they were people who followed me on LinkedIn or Twitter as I was posting about it. It was a real benefit to have those early users know me as they felt very comfortable giving feedback and helping me improve the product. They also kept me motivated as all of them really seemed to like it. Within the first couple of months, I already had a few big companies using it regularly.

Where I stumbled and had issues was attracting and acquiring new users who arrived on the site. I redesigned the landing page numerous times and experimented with lots of different acquisition strategies — social ads, competitions, paid LinkedIn posts, all of it.

Then, in mid-October, after just having finished yet another redesign I decided to experiment again with search ads. I targeted people searching for phrases like “online group cards”. Then our numbers started exploding. From an average of 3 or 4 cards created a day we grew to more than 30 a day in November. The ads were working, and people seemed to immediately “get” what the product was about. The networking effects have now also started compounding, as new users, who might have left a message on someone else’s card, end up making one themselves.

The end of 2020 is looking great for the business and it’s looking like it’s going to hit profitability in 2021. My goal is to grow it enough so that I can dedicate myself to it full time.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

For me that person would be Rory, my previous start-up partner.

I met him in university — he had already graduated at the time and was working as an app developer. He inspired me to teach myself how to make apps and then helped me land my first graduate job at the company he was working at. We worked together for a while and he then decided to set up his own freelancing company. After a few years he invited me to join him. Together we did a lot of client work and our own projects as well. We both learned a lot from one another, and I am very thankful for having him as a support during the first years of my career.

Our partnership culminated in a start-up we founded in 2016 and, even though it didn’t succeed, we really enjoyed working on it together and had each other’s backs during the whole process.

We’re both doing our own thing now and live in different cities in the UK but still keep in touch as friends.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

It was my wife’s 30th birthday this year and she was feeling quite down due to the fact that lockdown restrictions meant she really couldn’t celebrate it with her friends. My mum and I decided to make a Thankbox for her — signed from as many of her friends and family as we could find. It had a ton of messages, including from friends my wife hadn’t seen in ages. Some had included old photos and stories from her childhood.

I was next to her when she received it on her birthday. I looked at her as she scrolled through the messages on her phone and I saw the tears of happiness in her eyes. She read them all and reread them again. I just sat there thinking “Yep, this is something special and I am proud to have built it”.

Thankbox has been used to celebrate weddings, new babies, farewells, retirements and birthdays. I feel immense gratitude to have helped people bring joy to each other through my product.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Talk to your customers! Honestly, do it. I didn’t do it at all at my last startup but I forced myself to do it with this one. And guess what? It’s never stopped paying dividends. A lot of my early users were people I knew since they found out about Thankbox from me posting on Twitter or LinkedIn. I got as much feedback from them as I could. They really helped me polish and craft Thankbox into the experience it is now.
  2. Share your success and hardships with people who love and support you. If you’re a solo founder this is vital. For me this person has been my wife. She is my biggest fan and has been sharing my joy and sorrows since the beginning of Thankbox. Her support in this has been invaluable to me — she can both motivate me when I’m feeling down and ground me when I start losing my way.
  3. Not everything that looks to be “on fire” needs to be fixed right now. Being too reactive is something I still struggle with. I feel it whenever a user mentions a bug in the product or when I get a piece of bad feedback. These things inevitably happen, and happen more often as you scale, and my first reaction is always “Oh god, I need to fix it now”. But more often than not, I don’t. I’ve been learning to be less reactive and to take a step back, especially when something feels “urgent”. I try to think it through so that any “fix” I do has been thought out and is appropriate, not rushed. Regular meditation definitely helps with this as it allows me to catch myself falling into that thinking trap quicker.
  4. I wish that I learned that being genuine with your customers is the best way to be. I think business leaders often try to wear a mask of uniformity — showing neither happiness nor fear — I guess because of the need to project “stability”. I’ve come to take a different approach lately — I try to share my joy and hardships with my team and my customers. More often than not I get understanding and empathy which helps strengthen the bond people have with the business.
  5. It’s ok to mess up — and being open about it is crucial. In August we released an update to Thankbox which allowed recipients to send a reply to everyone who had left a message on their card — to thank them. The first time this happened though, the reply was sent to everyone who had ever left a message on any card.When I saw it happening, I just had a moment of panic — “what would our users think?”. We quickly sorted it out, but I made sure to contact everyone who was affected and apologize. Almost everyone was completely understanding and even joked about it.

So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?

There are 3 key things that help me — meditation, walking outside in nature & keeping my phone on do not disturb for long periods of time.

I try to meditate every day for at least 10 minutes — even when it doesn’t feel like I’m doing it “right” — like when my mind is way too busy, it’s still very helpful to just start the day with 10 minutes to yourself. I am much more likely to avoid distractions during the day or catch myself going down unproductive trains of thought.

I am very lucky to have some amazing nature walks near my house and I try to go for a walk or run at least three

times a week. It really helps me reset and focus.

I put my phone on silent whenever I need to really focus on a task while working. I also do it during family time and when meeting friends. The latter use case is way more important — it’s very easy to be with someone but not really “be” with them when 50% of your attention is on your device.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

The polarization I’ve been seeing in political views and actions in recent years has been terrifying for me. It makes me wonder about the world my daughter will grow up in.

I would like to inspire a movement that encourages us to spend more time with less “like-minded” people. “Like-minded” here could mean political views, or outlooks on life in general. I believe that after we get past discussing our differences, we find out we have a lot more in common with each other than we’ve been led to believe. Everyone has their own challenges & suffering, and we all have a need for joy, happiness and belonging. Showing a bit of kindness and understanding to someone who perceives you as “different” can quickly melt away that armor.

At the end of the day, I believe we all just want to be kind and be shown kindness in return.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

I would love to meet and have lunch with Stripe founders Patrick and John Collison. Stripe, the online payment processor, is one of the most valuable companies in the world and it didn’t exist at all 10 years ago. Patrick and John’s story is a fantastic example of perseverance and optimism. I’ve heard numerous podcast interviews with them, but I’d love to just sit down and really find out what their journey was like and what their views for the future are. I think there is a lot to be gained by understanding their thought process and their ideas about how to run a business.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m most active on Twitter — you can find me @ValCanBuild and Thankbox @thankbox. I often post about what it’s like building Thankbox and I try to be as open about the process as I can. I also try and post regularly on my LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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