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The Story of How My Startup Dealt With Investment



About 12 months ago I was all about seeking investment. We had decided that the only way forward for our startup, The Perch Project, was to secure cash investment. That became my top priority. That’s not the offbeat part of the story – many startups reach this point. Most of the time, an injection of cash is needed to expand, develop and/or market the product. Our primary need was development, followed closely by a marketing budget.

We had scraped by up until this point. We had leveraged the FFF network (friends, family & fools – minus the fools in our case) and managed to get a basic MVP operating. We had our B2B-facing auction system developed by a firm specialising in auction software. To save cash, we purchased an ‘off the shelf’ system and paid to have it modified and updated to suit our needs. We had the B2C-facing apps developed (both native iOS and Android, which I’m not sure I would do again) via Upwork. This was a very cheap job and our apps reflected that. Most of our resources went into the auction system, which only our venue clients can see.

I then hit the pavement and painstakingly talked around 50 venues through our vision and signed them up to the system. Excellent. Now we had basic tech, we had a solid base of venue sign-ups. We were just missing something crucial: consumers, customers, a B2C market. Without them, we had no value to offer to our venues. Sure, we had a little cash left to do some basic marketing and we had a couple of media based contacts to do a little initial coverage of our launch. This resulted in a very promising looking spate of downloads. The spate then slowed to a trickle and then something less than that. What to do?

We needed lots of users and we needed them fast. The trouble is, that costs money. Getting your app onto an individual’s phone is far more expensive than it used to be. Back in the ‘good old days’ you could bank on around 30-50c total acquisition cost for each download. This time last year, that cost was more like $1.00-1.20 per download.

A new app just isn’t greeted with the same curiosity and glee (yes, glee – app glee is a thing). To add to the squeeze, we knew that our little apps weren’t going to win any prizes for usability in the near future. We had all the UI/UX designs to fix it but we did not have the funds to develop those fixes. Furthermore, we had a cunning plan around how to growth-hack our user acquisition beyond the app stores, but we needed the development funds to implement it.

So, off I set with a pretty little investor kit tucked under my arm to find us some investment. It did not go well.

Firstly, I hit the pitch circuit. There are a few pitch events in Brisbane that will put you in front of investors. I applied to all of them. I even applied to events in Sydney and Melbourne. This can be a time consuming process. Each event has their own application method and each will have a different focus for the event that you will need to position your pitch to fit into.

Occasionally, I would get through into the live pitching, but mostly I wouldn’t get past the initial application round. Demoralizing? Of course! No one enjoys getting a ‘no,’ but hearing ‘no’ is a big part of having a startup. The result from the live pitching events was the same. No joy on the investment front. (On a side note, live pitching is scary but vital for a startup. Take every opportunity you can to pitch your business.)

Pitch events did not get us the result we needed, so we went to Plan B: VC firms. I arranged meetings with every firm I could. I think I almost saw every firm in Brisbane. I sat down and pitched over coffees and lunches and once to a room of people. I got the same feedback every time: “Well, it’s an interesting idea and you have done well to get to this point but the market is too crowded and you are too early stage.” In hindsight, they were all completely correct. It is a crowded market we are playing in, no doubt about that, and we were very early stage. At the time though, this feedback was very frustrating and, again, demoralizing.

Luckily, we had a Plan C. I went to see high net worth individuals who were not involved in the tech space at all. It was audacious, but this was the last card in our deck. So, off I went with a less tech-focussed investor deck and drank more coffee and ate more lunch. I met some truly impressive people during this time, all of them introduced to me through some well connected friends and family. It was quite a valuable experience spending time with these people and hearing their view on what I had to say and I am grateful for the time they all gave me. However, I couldn’t convince them to open their wallets or ask where to sign. Oh dear. Now we were fresh out of plans.

We still had a deep belief that we were on to something and that we could address a real problem but we had come up against a series of brick walls in the quest to move forward quickly. We resolved to keep pushing on as best we could. We went quiet and kept our heads down to put in more hard yards. And then something happened.

It was around this time that a friend introduced me to another friend of his, thinking that we could somehow work together. He introduced me to the CSO of a small tech company here in Brisbane who has a lot of experience dealing with e-commerce, m-commerce and digital solutions across a bunch of industries. Off the back of this initial introduction we went from chatting about content sharing to working together on a project and finally, he offered to take on all the development work in exchange for equity.

And there it was. We had an investment offer. It wasn’t the sort of investment we had been seeking, but it was almost exactly what we needed to move forward. It was a resource investment offer.

So, of course, I panicked. I went into hyper-worry mode. What if this was the wrong decision? What if this was all part of some dastardly plan to take over my nascent company? What if I lost all control? What if I am not competent enough in the face of this new partnership? Finally, after a good month of sleeplessness I came to the conclusion that this was a time to be brave and take the offer. We needed to move forward and this was the only bridge in sight.

It took longer to get all the formal arrangements in place – enter lawyers – but it got done and we had a shiny new business partner and some kick-ass resources. I have found this new partnership is a lot more than just access to development talent though. What I am finding really valuable is our weekly meetings where I have someone else to strategise with, someone who has a different point of view and whose main concern is moving the company forward. I love having another person who is just as excited about our achievements and who will waste no time in telling me to rein it in when I get too outlandish.

This type of investment didn’t by any means tick all the boxes. We still don’t have a marketing budget and, whereas a regular investment round clarifies a company’s value, this has actually made our company really tricky to value. We also have to be quite strategic in getting our dev work done because there are obviously other projects that our partner’s team needs to work on.

Despite all this, taking on this new partner has been one of the best decisions we ever made for our startup. Since we joined forces, the company has formed new partnerships with some of the most influential digital publications in lifestyle/food in Brisbane. We closed out last month at 30,000 interactions with our feed (as opposed to 1,000 the month before) and our expansion plans are both scalable and achievable. It’s an exciting time.

It may not be the most traditional form of investment, but exchanging equity for resources has meant that the position we’re in now is stronger than it has ever been. And, of course, I’ll always buy that friend who made the crucial introduction a beer when he comes to town.


About the Author

This article is written by Simone Perkins, contributor of The Tech Street Journal. Simone is Co-Founder and CEO of The Perch Project. She has had the pleasure of working on Perch within the startup space in Brisbane for the last 3 years. Simone likes to drink shamefully un-craft beer and really dislikes the term ‘CEO’. See more of The Tech Street Journal.


Women on Top in Tech – Dawn Dickson, Founder and CEO of PopCom, Inc. and Founder of Flat Out of Heels



(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Dawn Dickson is the Founder and CEO of PopCom, Inc. (formerly Solutions Vending, Inc.), the company behind PopCom Kiosks and the PopCom API, which provides a software solution to make vending machines more intelligent. She created the company after her own struggles to find vending machines that could sell her roll-up flat products, Flat Out of Heels, at high-traffic areas like airports.  She was awarded First place in the PowerMoves NOLA Big Break pitch Competition and second place in the 2016 SBA Innovate Her Challenge.

What makes you do what you do? 
I love solving big problems and working with amazing people to get it done.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
After working in the vending industry for three years selling Flat Out of Heels in vending machines in airports and nightclubs, I was frustrated with the lack of data I was able to collect from my hardware. I also wanted more engaging and interactive experiences for my customers and after speaking with several retailers they felt the same way. That is when I decided to focus on PopCom and developing a software solution to solve the data problem in self-service retail.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)? 
The fact that I am not the usual, leadership demographic is the main reason why I was up for the challenge. The industry is in need of a change and I believe someone with a unique and different perspective and experience is needed. I look forward to collaborating with the industry leaders and veterans to build a product that everyone loves and finds value in.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work? How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him/her?
I am involved in several different industries and sectors – retail, self-service retail, hardware, software…so I have to learn a lot of information quickly.  There are several people that I look up to, follow their career, and seek advice from. I was fortunate to be able to participate in some of the country’s top accelerator and entrepreneurship development programs, including Techstars, Canopy Boulder, and the BIxel Exchange – the mentorship and network I gained from these programs has been invaluable and very instrumental in our progress.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent? 
I have learned that spotting talent takes time, it takes patience, and building relationships with people and networks to meet new people, most of my connections come from introductions. I focus on finding the right fit for the company culture, there is a lot of great talent out there, but the culture is different, I want us to be on the same wavelength. I am fortunate to have met some great people through the programs I was in that came on as mentors, advisors, and eventually full time team members. I take time to get to know my team individually and understand what their personal goals and ambitions are, ask them what their dream job looks like, understand their needs so they can be happy at work and be fulfilled. I believe in self-care and making mental health a priority, if a person is good within themselves they radiate positivity and are more productive.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I am a black woman so I am diversity. Naturally, we attract people we can relate to and have things in common, so I found that my team was heavily female and my diversity initiative was finding more men…when I thought about it I found it funny. Now I have a balanced team of men and women from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives which is exciting.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb? 
To be a great leader you have to be a team player, my rule is I never ask someone to do something that I would not do myself. I also have a rule to give the team the freedom and flexibility to work when and how they are most productive. That means some of us working different hours and being in the office different days, but happy team builds the dream!

Advice for others?
My advice is never give up if you believe in it. I started my company selling shoes in vending machines in 2011, it took me 7 years, a few failed hardware attempts, and many people telling me it would not work because the market was not ready. I was patient and what I believed would happen is happening. In May PopCom is bringing the PopShop to market, a next gen smart vending machine to sell and sample products. Our API will be ready in July and for the first time vending machine and kiosk owners can understand their conversion rates and have the level of data and analytics available that eCommerce stores have, but better. It has been a long journey and I feel it is just getting started, but I am only here because I never gave up.

If you’d like to get in touch with Dawn Dickson, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn:

To learn more about PopCom, please click here.

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Callum Connects

Elaine Zhou, Co-Founder of China Women Equipping Center



Elaine went on a journey of self discovery and once she knew her true self she could be successful in her own business.

What’s your story?
I am very proud of where I came from and I am grateful for where I am living and working today. Singapore is my adopted home and it is my aim to always contribute to and serve this country and its people.
Twelve years ago, I moved to Singapore for an internship opportunity. I was twenty one years old and I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t speak English, I didn’t understand the culture or the customs. Everything was new and strange to me. Everything was difficult, but my parents had tremendous faith in me.
My parents have worked diligently on the family farm to raise us and send us to college. My parents had a huge influence on me. The important things I learnt from them are to love, to never give up, to be a hard worker and to have a can-do attitude. These are the qualities that I embrace in my daily life.

What excites you most about your industry?
We offer more than just training. Our business is a resource to be leveraged for transformation, improved teamwork, leadership behaviours, communication skills, relationship skills, coaching skills and increased job satisfaction and productivity.
Our passion and purpose is to help people grow as leaders and to create tremendous results by serving others well. We take people to daring destinations, beyond their imagination.
My greatest joy is to see people grow, change and transform and live a purposeful life; this is what motivates me to do more and do it well.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in China and I have spent all my adult and professional life in Singapore.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore and China.
Singapore is a very sophisticated and systematic country. It is a structured and highly efficient business environment and people are generally nice and honest. Also, the convenience and diverse culture is a great advantage for people who want to settle down there, no matter if they are from the East or West. You always feel at home in Singapore.
I also like China because of its fast growth. The population and the market is here. However, it takes time to settle in because of the language barrier and the very different traditional culture. But you will also find it is very interesting and you’ll want to learn more about China. The people are nice if you know them well. It is always about relationship first and business second, and when you are in a business meeting, you really have to master the skill of “reading the air.” It is a skill to let people know and understand you; your values, your background, why you think in that way or why you do or do not do certain things. Doing business in China is like swimming in the ocean; it is an abundant ocean and it is full of risks. Always know your values and stay true to yourself and make decisions close to your heart. It will help you see things more clearly and get things done in a way that doesn’t violate your values.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Be yourself, Elaine.” That is the best advice I have ever received. It was a big ‘aha’ moment for me. It was also the moment I truly and honestly looked within myself. I realized that when I am being my true self, and not trying to be someone else, I am able to connect with people instantly in a genuine and authentic way. It is a great feeling.

Who inspires you?
There are so many people who encourage me, lift me up and challenge me everyday. My mentor, John Maxwell who helped me discover my purpose in life; Michael Griffin, for his passion for Christ which is contagious and Wayne Dyer, my spiritual mentor who passed away in 2016. Also, people who are living with a purpose and striving everyday for their dream, they really inspire me. My clients, mentees and students. When I see that joy and peace in them, that inspires me to do more and do well. My team inspire me, especially when they said, “Elaine, I joined the business because of you.” They inspire me to make it work for the team and the business because it is beyond my own self interest. I am grateful for having so many people in my life who inspire me.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
China is a big country, we all know that, and it is also an internet giant. Recently on a team meeting, one of the directors who manages a successful beauty business, shared with us, that everybody is on the internet, especially on WeChat. People are obsessed with online communities – for ordering food, getting taxis, forging relationships, connections and friends. Almost anything and everything can get done online. But right now, there is a new trend; more and more people want the “offline” experience. It usually takes one to two hours from one place to another in Beijing, but people want to make the effort to have a real connection with other people, to attend networks, seminars, workshops and business meetings.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I started my first business when I was 24 years old, it failed. One year later, I started my second business and after a year and a half, I closed down the operation. After several painful experiences and two failed businesses, I started to look within myself, and seriously and intentionally invested in my personal growth at the age of 28. If I could turn back time, I wish I could have grown a lot earlier. I strongly believe that the level of our success is determined by the level of our self growth and we are always learning, everyday. But I also understand it is not the only way to live. I also consciously and intentionally try to live in the now. It is a beautiful and great way to live. In fact, I am grateful for what I have gone through; the pains, setbacks and challenges in my earlier life.

How do you unwind?
I like to stay connected with nature. For example, taking a walk barefoot on the grass and smelling the roses on the street. Having a beer or coffee along the riverside with friends; reading a good book; hunting for nice restaurants; swimming or running.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Thailand – nice beaches, food and people.
Bali – fantastic beaches and food, great people.
Malaysia – Nice food and people, particularly Langkawi, Penang and KK.
Of course Singapore, it is always a place dear to my heart. It’s my home.
There are a lot of other interesting places in China which I am still exploring.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The Law of Success by Napoleon Hill
The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
Tao Te Ching: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life by Wayne Dyer
Developing the Leaders Within You by John C.Maxwell
Start with Why by Simon Sinek
These are some of the books that truly transformed my thinking and shaped my values.
I used to read a lot of different types of books, from sales, marketing, branding and management to different business models. I found it is really hard to master all of it and I was not optimizing my own strengths.
Entrepreneurship is a skill to be learnt. But it is really important to recognize what we are good at and what we are not so good at. We can not be everything.
Entrepreneurship is a journey of self-discovery and soul searching. It is all about learning and striving. We should try and always remember why we started our business in the first place.

Shameless plug for your business:
The China Women Equipping Center, is something both my team are I are very proud. We have put our hearts and souls into it, to help women in China grow and transform. As a developing country and with the rise of China, people are not lacking in money, everywhere is full of opportunity, but the challenge is the civilizations, values and faith. In fact the Chinese government puts a lot of effort into improving and shaping the international image to ensure it is making progress. But people are still facing a lot of pressure, especially women.
One of our business partners who is runs traditional Chinese medicine retail stores, shared that 80% of his patients are female, and the reason they are coming to see him are anxiety and depression.
Our China Women Equipping Center creates a safe and comfortable environment for women to help build their values and characters. My local team and I are very passionate about our mission and purpose. Beijing is our headquarters in China. We are planning to take three to six months to establish our business in Beijing and grow and expand to other major cities in China after that.

How can people connect with you?

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
Download free copies of his books here:

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