There’s always a mad rush before an office birthday party. The office manager is usually tasked with buying the greeting card which is then hurriedly passed around the hands of various staff members. This is usually done surreptitiously which is hard in shared office settings.
Money is traditionally collected too, which always ends up being an assortment of whatever loose change people have lying around, and promises to Venmo the remainder to the person in charge. In other words, it’s a hot mess. And this was long before the pandemic made office parties a relic of the past. Val Hinov, a Bulgarian game designer turned Scottish entrepreneur and founder of Thankbox, thought, “There’s got to be an easier way to send cards,” and he couldn’t have been more right.
Val spent a lot of time in various offices large and small pre-pandemic. He watched and participated in countless office parties as he explains, “I worked as a contractor for many different companies in the UK, specifically Scotland, where I live in Edinburgh. Every team I was on, whenever someone had an occasion – like they would be leaving the company, or they had a birthday, got married, or had a kid – the same thing would happen.
“At the last possible minute, someone would remember the upcoming event, and they would buy them a card. That card would circulate – to be shared discreetly, except it never was. Plus, there were always a couple of people working remotely who couldn’t add anything. And those who could sign the card always only had space to add two words. And then we’d have this envelope that was tearing with coins, and you were supposed to add cash, but who uses cash anymore?”
The Entrepreneurial Itch
Val looked online to see if any solutions existed, and what he found wasn’t impressive and didn’t have the functionality Val envisioned. That’s when he had a bit of an epiphany, as he says, “I thought – this is something that I could do.” Val realized that he could build an online portal to simplify this process. Val had caught the entrepreneur “itch” before, but when his first startup failed to launch, he felt drained and depleted. But, he couldn’t ignore this new idea. So, despite his previous trials, Val decided to jump into this next venture.
He linked up with the designer who was involved in his first startup. They worked well together, and this time was no different. The two of them quickly mocked up a landing page that had all of the specs Val was looking for from his competition. The duo landed on the name, Thankbox, and quickly bought up the domain. Thankbox would allow customers to send cards virtually and include add-ons like personalized videos, money gathering features and more.
The site is super simple, and that’s on purpose. Val wanted to make it very user-friendly. Say, for example, someone in your office, let’s call him John, is leaving. The Thankbox customer user decides whether to collect money for John, if they want to add a multimedia component from each participant (like a video message) and then a space to enter their payment information.
Val always wanted the cost of a Thankbox to be cheaper than a physical card but with a lot more usability. For $5.99, Thankbox users can set up a basic card and then receive a link to share with all of their officemates via email, Slack, or the preferred method of communication for their particular office. For $9.99, there is an option to add premium features like music and videos.
But then, as often happens, life got in the way. Val was still an independent contractor so his days were jam-packed, and he also found himself working at another startup, “trying to help them out.” Val didn’t have enough hours in the day to work on Thankbox. Then the pandemic stopped everyone in their tracks.
Val was no longer consulting at the startup, but working remotely along with employees being sent home from offices en masse. That’s when Val’s idea came right back to him with urgency. Val says, “I thought to myself, if you don’t do Thankbox now, you’ll never do it.”
But how could he build it quickly? Val is a self-described “techie”, but all of his experience up until this point had been in the mobile app space. He did not have much web experience. Thankfully, what Val lacked in experience, he made up for in connections. Val enlisted a good friend who was also a full-stack developer. The two of them agreed on a profit-sharing agreement in exchange for a buildout since Val did not have the money to pay for development.
Val’s friend would set up the site and teach Val along the way. Val shadowed him relentlessly, “trying to learn CSS, trying to learn the web framework, and trying to learn the database.”
Val learned a tremendous amount of PHP which was quickly put to use building out the backend of the site. Val’s friend set up the frontend in RGS, and through the miracle of screen sharing and video conferencing, the two worked together, albeit entirely remotely.
Val asked his friend questions about everything. His friend patiently walked him through the subsequent steps with the idea that once he stepped away, Val would take the lead. But just in case there were problems, he’d be there to support Val.
Val learned important lessons from the previous startup. He says, “I learned not to build something for months and months and months without ever showing it to anyone. It’s a classic founder mistake. You don’t know who you’re building for.”
This time around, Val was laser-focused on his business model. Although he didn’t yet have a “clear monetization strategy,” he knew that he wanted people to pay for the service from the beginning. All in, Val and his friend went from initial design to ready to launch in just eight weeks.
It was a chaotic time because Val was quarantining with his family and his then two-year-old was home because daycare had also shut down. It was the early days of the pandemic and no one knew how long it would last. Val was still contracting, too, to pay his bills. As Val says, “It was a bit mental, but I guess the energy carried through.”
Once Val launched Thankbox, he promoted it on all of his social media channels. Because Val is a contractor, he has quite the Rolodex. His likeability means that he has a deep contact list and his LinkedIn connections run the gambit of industries and corporations.
Val also stays in touch with his friends from university and his first sale came from a college friend who was working for a big tech company. The transaction validated Val’s work, and induced such excitement he had to run it off in a classic Rocky Balboa moment. All of those sleepless nights had paid off: his idea worked. Val’s energy sustained him not just on that celebratory sprint, but in the early days of Thankbox.
Val watched how Thankbox spread through offices. One participant would then take the idea to a different cohort of employees. Val realized that if the product was excellent, people would share the information with coworkers and friends with little advertising needed.
Val built the features as he went. He constantly asked customers for feedback. Val explains, “People would ask me why Thankbox isn’t doing ‘this obvious thing.’ And I thought, why isn’t it?” The first few months were spent “iterating, branding, trying to find value propositions in a way that outside people would understand, and finding a channel to bring in more people.” He decided to spend a nominal fee ($50) on advertising to boost sales.
Val took a few missteps in the developer role. Early on, Val wanted to build a feature that would allow Thankbox receivers to send emails of gratitude to everyone who participated. But somewhere in the code, Val goofed and the email was sent to “everyone who had ever left a message on any Thankbox ever.” Live and learn.
Val decided to give himself one year to get Thankbox out of the red. Val says, “I thought if after a year it’s still in the red, maybe I revisit this.” He was constantly tinkering and simplifying the product for his customers and prospects. He redesigned the website and included explainer videos with eye-catching animation. Val’s big break came with deciding to run search ads on Google. Val says, “In retrospect, it makes a lot of sense because when someone needs a card, they need it right away so they look on Google.”
The Power of Adwords
Val started experimenting with adwords on a small scale, spending “between five and ten bucks a day.” He started with Bing ads to test out his idea. The results were astonishing. Thankbox went from $200 in sales in September 2020, to $800 in October, to roughly $4,000 in December 2020. By February 2021, not only was Val not in the red but he was turning $10,000 MRR.
The hyper-growth came at a cost. Val was an insomniac as he continued to perfect Thankbox. He says, “At some point, it was scaling so much – 30-40 percent a month – that I thought, ‘How will I survive this?’ Things were breaking. Customer support was through the roof because it’s a B2C service.”
Val needed to hire employees, which was only possible after such astronomical growth. Val hired support staff but continued answering all of the customer support questions. He knew he could outsource it, but as a founder, he appreciates the feedback that customers provide.
Val explains, “You can see patterns. If people are all having an issue with one thing, that needs to be changed.” This trial and error is part of what makes Thankbox so successful. It grows alongside its clients’ needs. Val is a problem solver and wants his customers to feel supported. “This is especially true when you’re building a B2C business and you’re targeting people who aren’t necessarily tech-savvy.”
Val added a charitable component as well. Being ecologically savvy, Val couldn’t understand why offices rely so heavily on “paper cards wrapped in plastic.” To combat all of that waste, Thankbox plants a tree for every ten virtual cards sold. In Val’s quest to become a complete carbon-neutral company, he has currently planted over 2,000 trees.
Val’s most memorable feedback came from an elderly gentleman in a retirement home in California who wanted to make a Thankbox for the nurses who vaccinated the residents against Covid. Val was floored twofold. First, that he’d built a site friendly enough to be navigated by non-digital natives, and also that he was truly making a difference in people’s lives. Val calls it “an amazing feeling being in the space of people making one another happy. It’s so rewarding.” Being thankful sounds like a darn good business model.
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