Meet James Downing is the Founder of JellyChip, an exciting online social media enterprise network where members earn points in fun ways for charitable organisations. This is his entrepreneurial story.
Where did you get the idea for your business?
I believe the internet was designed to connect people at a life-changing level. Social networks generate massive traffic and buzz, but it occurred to me that user engagement seems to go nowhere after that. I created JellyChip because I think that people are inherently looking for something else in their social media experience.
As part of my studies at RMIT (Master of Business, Information Technology), my research found that people seem to have been less supportive of charitable organisations since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and that Australian giving trends appear to have plateaued. People are more sceptical nowadays towards charitable organisations, which led me to think that old notions of charity are dying.
So, I designed, programmed and published a smartphone app called Pocket Rice, which was a huge success. It allows users to help to solve hunger by awarding them rice in return for answering trivia questions. Rice purchases are funded by pop-up ads that appear at in the app, with all funds directly donated to provide rice for people in developing countries.
In this way, JellyChip is the online social network friend of Pocket Rice and shows that people actually do want to do good, particularly if it’s in a fun way.
How did you get your business started?
Essentially, I took a leap of faith and quit my corporate job in order to seek investment in JellyChip and to pursue it full time. As soon as I quit, I found that I had both the impetus as well as the challenge of seeking that investment: I was an unemployed entrepreneur with a dream.
I contacted venture capital companies across the world and – to my great surprise – I was quickly identified by two major European investors as a perfect fit for their current portfolios. Soon thereafter, I set about preparing to pitch our investors in Europe. This was probably one of the most stressful periods for me in developing JellyChip, but on my trip to pitch to the investors in Europe I was successful: I returned with the funding that was the catalyst for finally realising my dream of founding JellyChip.
From there, we recruited overseas programmers for the project, incorporated the company, applied for trademarks, and created the initial branding for our digital and physical marketing
What lessons have you learned so far on your business journey?
- Teamwork. In the start-up environment of JellyChip, it’s simply not possible to silo myself into responsibilities that are independent of my staff, because our work is often completed in such close collaboration with each other. It’s like the student groups I participated in whilst studying at RMIT, but this time it’s real-world. There’s an intense interconnectivity with my staff that I’ve had to accept when creating a new business. Yet it’s a rewarding process as we’ve bonded through our struggles together. This has really taught me the value of teamwork.
- Communication. With JellyChip, I’ve found it’s essential to have an open dialogue with my staff, investors, users and clients. We live in a supercharged digital world where connectivity is everywhere: the expectation is to answer queries promptly and in a relevant manner. In this sense, any form of delay can be mistaken as a deliberate attempt to sideline meaningful communication with our range of stakeholders.
- Change. JellyChip is changing over time as the company evolves, thanks to new ideas and the evolution of our product. What initially started out as an idea I pitched to my investors is one my developers have transformed into a product, which is being moulded and transformed daily by our network of users. I’ve needed to overcome some control anxiety to ensure that JellyChip can be changed by key stakeholders who want input as to how we should grow and adapt to market needs.
How important for you has it been to have a mentor?
It’s been crucial for me to take advice from a range of influential people on how to create not just a social network but a company. I’ve found this is essential to allow JellyChip to be successfully run, not just by one person but by consensus. My experience has been that it’s vital to be able to take both advice and criticism, and to process it into something that can be useful. It’s not always the case that advice received from your mentor or investor can be used straight away, but it’s important to have sounding boards.
Mentorship needs to be selective. I’ve sought individuals for mentorship who align with both my vision for JellyChip and our product. And I’ve found that mentorship is important both for the tough days and for the good days. In fact, my best mentorship has taken place during the tough days, where options can be discussed and the next course of action decided upon. Here, mentors have become like friends, whom you realise are with you through the entire journey of your start-up.
What are your top three tips for starting a business?
- Believe in yourself. I’ve found on my journey with JellyChip that ability can be learned, but not the belief that you have in your vision. If you have a sense of personal drive and conviction that refuses to be weathered by the criticism of others, then you can become an unstoppable force.
- Persistence. The start-up journey is not a sugar-rush sprint that takes you from zero to hero overnight. Start-ups, communities and brands take time to build and realise. The idea of ‘just keep going’ has been very important to me in creating JellyChip. I now let my circle of friends and colleagues know to be aware of the commitment that creating a start-up will place on you over a number of years: you are in for a long fight.
- Integrity. The most important piece of advice I could give to anybody starting their entrepreneurial journey is in regards to integrity. For me, integrity is the pillar of JellyChip. In the unlikely situation that our idea fails, we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that we were honest in all of our dealings from day one. I’ve come to understand that integrity is the special ingredient in an entrepreneur. It’s incredibly important and something I would encourage in everyone who is starting out on their own creative journey.