Interview with ThanksBox

What’s your name and where do you come from? I’m Merlin, I’m the CTO and co-founder at ThanksBox , I’m originally from sunny Norwich and currently calling Hackney home.

How did you spot a space in the market for your product or service? I’ll start this by explaining what we do as briefly as possible. We’re a small software-as-a-service company focused on employee engagement. Now, you may or may not have heard of employee engagement but it’s a hot topic in the world of HR right now. Everyone has varying definitions but we like to define it as the emotional (rather than contractual) relationship between employee and employer. It’s quite an intangible thing, but the idea is, if this relationship can be nurtured you get the mutually beneficial result of happier employees and more productive companies. However, the existing marketplace for tools like this are quite narrowly focused and a lot of them just offer perks and benefits (Pizza Hut vouchers etc).

Our mission at ThanksBox is to improve this relationship between employee and employer, but through our own wider, more holistic opinion of what employee engagement is. We help people share amazing work, have their ideas for company improvements heard, raise challenges for people to solve, quickly gather opinions or gain consensus on issues and nominate employees for awards. Essentially all of the things that either fall outside or above and beyond a standard job description or daily activity, but are key to motivation and job satisfaction.

We also offer a data analytics platform that collates all this data and imports existing employee KPI data giving a fuller and more accurate picture of employee contribution (rather than just KPIs). This allows managers to give rewards more fairly and also gives leadership a realtime measure of company activity.

I think it’s fair to say that all three founders of ThanksBox felt the pain we’re currently trying to solve way before we thought about starting a business around it. We’d all previously had jobs where we’d faced these frustrations both from a standard employee and manger / team leader level. We saw a marketplace that had employee engagement tools that we’re really narrowly focused, or project management tools that didn’t seem to care about employee engagement. This left a huge gap, which either means we have a really stupid idea or a great idea, I’m still hoping it’s the latter!

How long did you think about your business before bringing it to life? Things happened really quickly for us! We mocked up some designs and hunted down some HR directors on LinkedIn to discuss how some ideas and to understand how something like this could work… a very non-committal inquisitive research process. After each meeting we’d go away and improve the designs based on our learning. I think it was the fifth person we met loved the idea and told us she wanted to trial it in her company in a months time! We quickly hurried away and spent every weekend and evening after work building our MVP (minimum viable product). It was less than two months from our first research chat to having users on the product, we registered a company shortly afterwards.

How did you raise the funds to start your business? The first year and half we were entirely self funded. We started by working in the evenings after our day jobs, then transitioned our day jobs down to part time, then quit, then burned through all our savings, then panicked, then spent all our time pitching to angel investors through various networks. I think it’s fair to say that raising a first round of investment, in an unproven marketplace with three founders who’ve never run a business before, right in the aftermath of Brexit is bloody hard! We just closed our second round a few weeks ago and are in a great position for the rest of the year. We feel very lucky to have picked up some strategic investors along the way too, offering more than just money.

How do you stay informed – networking, newspapers, social media? To be honest I’ve made a conscious decision to avoid HR news for the most part… I feel like we’ve come to this industry as outsiders with fresh ideas and I want to preserve some of that naivety. I always enjoy reading things from David Hieatt , he manages to write in a very concise and accessible way while being passionate. Seth Godin ( and Tomasz Tunguz are great too. I’m also big into my podcasts, How I Built This is absolutely essential listening for anyone starting a business!

I’d also wholeheartedly recommend Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull (co-founder of Pixar)… It’s especially relevant to me as it’s about how a computer geek turned his attention to creating amazing workplace culture.

Tell us about one of your business low-points and what you learnt from it Wow, so many to choose from, running a small business is definitely a rollercoaster ride, the highs and the lows are frequent and amplified. I think the first (and so far only) time we lost a customer was possibly the lowest low point. Obviously losing a customer is never great, but this was very early on, and we only had two customers, so losing 50% of your business totally sucked! We had to just take it as a learning experience, work out what we could have done better. You ask yourself some hard questions, but for us the will to carry on has always been much stronger than the doubts.

Name five qualities people need to be successful in a job like yours
Optimistic – I think this is essential to run a start-up, you have to believe that things can be better, that you have the power to make them better and that you will succeed in doing so… So much so that you can convince other people too!
Realistic – The optimism also needs balancing with realism, there’s an art of planning for worst case scenarios while being optimistic that they will never happen. This is especially true with financial planning.
Communicator – one of the main roles of a CTO is gathering and translating requirements between the wider business and the tech team (and back again). I’m constantly paranoid that I’m either patronising or confusing people!
Empathic – when people talk about “user experience” it’s easy to start thinking abut “the user” as a single entity. Obviously this isn’t true for any service, and for us the range of people using ThanksBox is extremely broad. We spend a lot of time finding and talking to as many of these people as we can, ensuring what we’re building works for them all.
Abstractionist – the art of software development is all about spotting common use cases and building yourself a library of modules and components, like lego blocks, that can then be reassembled to meet new needs. It’s a fun, very satisfying, never ending puzzle.

Do you have a business mentor? We have a couple of them. They’re good and have definitely helped us out at several points along the way, but I think it’s easy for founders to put such high expectations on what a single person can provide in the hour or so you might there attention each month. These people can’t be experts in everything, I think it’s important to also cast a wider support net and get help everywhere you can.

What’s been your favourite piece of press coverage so far? This is something we’re totally slacking on and hope to make some progress with this year. Our best piece to date was an interview with our CEO Luke Fisher on the Happy Melly blog, they’re a professional happiness network and we’re very happy to be associated with them as we think they’re doing some great work in the industry.

Name one of your favourite start-ups Hard choice but I’m going to have to choose CityMapper… They’re based in London, I use their product on a nearly daily basis, it’s head and shoulders above the competition in terms of comprehensive functionality and UX, and they manage to keep it fun.

Quick fire round

Apple or Android? Currently Apple and has been for years, but I’m getting more and more tempted to make the switch!
Mac or PC Mac for sure, Linux would be a second choice for me over Windows.
Apples for hand or melons for feet? Hmm tricky one, I love cycling so either would be quite problematic. Think I’ll go for the melon feet and try and carve them into shoes!
Name two chocolate bars you would put together to make a super bar Green & Blacks Burnt Toffee mixed with a Snickers, mmmmm.

Communication tools for the modern workplace. ThanksBox offers a suite of connected communication services that create efficiencies and improve employee engagement.

Twitter: @thanksboxapp