Insight into the life and career of Alicia Coad
Think responsive: Building a business start-up with flexibility in mind
Starting a new venture demands a responsive attitude to the first few years of operation, perhaps more so than any other point in the business lifecycle. We chat to Alicia Coad from ChatFOSS, who learnt the value of this mindset on her journey to bring a new mobile device app to market.
What is ChatFOSS and how did you get the idea for it?
ChatFOSS is a secure communications app designed specifically for families, and the idea came from a concern I was experiencing as a parent in the social media age. I discovered that my daughter, who was nine at the time, was chatting with strangers online through services such as Facebook and Instagram. When I voiced this concern to friends, I realised they were experiencing the same challenge with their own children. Although I enjoy social media, I started to pay much more attention to the risks, not just for children, but adults too – particularly the rise in identity theft. One of the key challenges is that we tend to forget the public nature of these services. For example, even if you share a photo on Facebook with just your friends and family, there’s nothing stopping them from sharing that photo with people you don’t know. Anyone can search for you, and even add your name to groups. ChatFOSS significantly reduces the risks because it uses a secure and controllable environment in which family members and friends can chat and share content in complete privacy. We also wanted the service to be easy for people of all ages to use. One of our favourite messages is that ChatFOSS is for anyone between 5 to 105!
How is the journey to market going?
It’s been a huge learning experience, but we’ve kept an open mind, and used the insights to shape our strategy as we go along. One of the biggest changes has been our target market. At first, we began with a B2B mindset of promoting and selling the product through schools as it seemed a logical association with teaching e-safety to pupils. Although the schools we spoke to were extremely enthusiastic, we encountered the debate over who is actually responsible for the e-safety of children. At present it falls to parents, which meant changing our model from B2B to B2C, with schools playing more of an advocacy role.
What other challenges have you faced, and how did you tackle them?
Once the idea had been fleshed out, the next step was to work with a technology provider to develop the solution. Thankfully, I had a head-start. My brother works for StayPrivate, which provides a secure cloud-based communication solution for businesses. They were keen to be involved, and the decision was made to take their core product and create a retasked version for families. However, retasking can often be more challenging than building a product from the ground up, particularly when trying to deliver an extremely secure solution with a highly intuitive interface. To guide us, we undertook a great deal of user testing with people of all ages, from 5 years upwards. We didn’t quite get to test it on anyone who was 105, but made sure we used the broadest age range possible.
Messaging has also been a challenge as we soon discovered that awareness about the risks of social media is still very low, which meant a need to build awareness into our marketing. However, we can’t position ourselves as e-safety experts, so we try to be clear that we are a service provider that helps you to achieve the principles of e-safety.
How has your previous experience helped you?
My career to date has been quite varied, and I think this has helped me to be open-minded and flexible. I worked for one of the largest global law firms, which gave me a good understanding of how to build strategies and deliver them to a high level of professionalism. However, large businesses tend to offer excellent facilities and support, so I found myself in a completely different world when I later worked in PR for an independent school, having relocated because of my husband’s work. I think this was extremely useful experience for ChatFOSS though, as it helped to balance my knowledge of strategy with the hands-on experience of delivering all aspects of it.
What advice do you have for anyone starting a business?
Launching a business is a journey, and you should be prepared to shape it as you go along. Try to be as open as possible to insights wherever they come from. You also need to be prepared to work hard, be patient, and try not to get too despondent about wasted effort. At one point, I felt I had lost a huge amount of time on a seemingly useless piece of work, only to discover it was extremely valuable further down the line. I also think it helps to be a little over-optimistic, which helps to carry you through the challenging times. With ChatFOSS, we feel we’re 90% of the way there. We know the last 10% will be tough, but anticipate it to be highly rewarding.