June Meetup with Dan Conlon and Russ Huntington from White Menu

Dan Conlon in actionYorkshire’s journey into discovering the benefits of the lean startup methodology continued with another fascinating evening of networking, product demonstrations and insightful talks.

The evening began with the usual mixture of networking, excellent finger buffet and drinks. The diverse crowd of advisers, startups, experienced entrepreneurs and interested others enjoyed the pre-amble.

The evening began with Russ Huntington introducing his latest creation, WhiteMenu. A website builder for restaurants, bars and cafes. Russ started out by explaining the key benefit of the site. This is to make it easy for his target market to easily setup an SEO-friendly website that is straightforward for a non-techie to update and maintain.

One of the current problems that Russ had identified, was that restaurant owners don’t have the budget for a custom site. The target market often struggles to meet their bills, so an inexpensive, easy to use system meets their needs. The other alternative is a cheap DIY system. Again these types of solutions leave most Restaurant owners confused and unable to get past the setup pages.

Russ walked us through the technical architecture and illustrated how his application was well architected for growth. WhiteMenu really took advantage of some of the benefits of the latest cloud technologies with the ability to scale simply, and having dynamic content delivery that was separate from the rendering engine.

Continuing in the spirit of interactive sessions, Russ commandeered a member of the audience, to illustrate the simplicity of his product. The audience member ran the demo, under the watchful guidance of Russ. Midway through the demo, Russ paused to take questions and how he’d used the Twitter bootstrap framework to develop his user interface and the origins of the name of the business.

Russ ran through the setting up of a new account, some of the key features, including the simple, yet powerful dashboard, the ability to simply customise the site and the ease of adding new images and new pages.

One of the most powerful features demoed was the Livebooking and Open Table integration in just a few clicks it was possible for the demonstrator to set up a seamless integration into various booking engines. With the remaining time, Russ walked us through his impressive theme manager which allowed a user to quickly change the look and feel of the site.

Russ rounded off the demo by explaining his pricing structure. He had opted for annual fees to prevent losing money from cash strapped restaurant owners that would cancel half-way through a contract term. A painful pivot but a valuable learning. Russ took questions from the floor again, with the focus being whether WordPress was a competitor. Despite it’s ubiquity, WordPress was deemed to be too difficult for most restaurant owners to configure and customise.

Everyone broke for more drinks, buffet food and networking.

Russ Huntington at Junes meetup

The group quickly resumed their seats as Don Conlon setup to give the group the lean learnings from his previous two companies. Dan ran through his successful past history before diving into lean lesson learnt on his journey through business. His first company was Donhost, an ISP based in his hometown, Doncaster. Dan started the business at the early age of 19, catching the wave of demand for ISPs. An impressive feat for a young man.

Dan explained at Donhost, although very successful, there were notable failures, these included dealing with the government for grants and the time and effort it took, to hiring problems, where their first hires, looked good on paper but when it came down to delivering results, they struggled. Despite these setbacks, the early business delivered some great insights too, although Dan was young and inexperienced, with many doubters, he ignored the doubters and followed his idea coupled with data to deliver a successful business. Relying on data and not doubters was a key lean principle that Dan followed before lean methodologies were popular.

Dan successfully exited Donhost to the Pipex group, he was keen to sample the highlights of London and very quickly was embedded in the group which included some well known hosting brands including 123reg and Webfusion. One of the highlights of working in a larger organisation was the breadth and diversity of colleagues that Dan enjoyed working with. David Hasselhoff was a key in helping Dan and his team promote the pipex brands!

Key learnings for Dan were that exiting a business was exhilarating however the toing and froing of the the exit process was also a very stressful experience. Dan also worked out that despite enjoying working for Pipex in London, Yorkshire was where his heart was. He left Pipex and headed back to his northern roots to start his second venture, Humyo.

Humyo was a forerunner to Dropbox, it was a first to market and a successful business. However, despite it’s head start, it did not reach the same exponential growth that Dropbox did. With over 400,000 users in two years, Humyo was hardly a failure, it was a great success that ultimately led to an acquisition by one of the world’s leading security software companies, Trend Micro.

The firm went through rapid growth and rapid learning. Iterations and expansion were baked into the DNA of the business with international expansion and big brand white-label deals. Despite it’s success Humyo provided many lessons for Dan and his team. This included ‘outsource non-core activities’. Humyo tried to build everything itself. This resulted in key staff being diverted into non-core activities and not being focused. The company was a pioneer in its field and really worked hard to ensure that viral referrals fed the growth. A key learning was that the company was run on broadly lean principles, however a lot of the overseas business was conducted via partners which diluted the lean philosophies practiced by Humyo.

June meetup audiance

The event was rounded off with a quick Q&A session and an announcement about Dan’s latest lean venture, a hardware startup in the home alarm sector, if you want to be involved in this dynamo’s latest entrepreneurial adventure then contact dan at dansplace.co.uk.

The night ended with a drinks next door at the Midnight Bell. A thoroughly interesting and lively event where the insight and quality grows each event!

Sanjay Parekh

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