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Made In SpacePortX - Bristlr

Written on Tuesday, 7th July 2015.

SpacePortX and Ignite Accellerator resident, John Kershaw, tells us his beard fuelled story and what brought Bristlr come to life.

In October I told a joke. In July (as I write this) I’m on my way to London to meet with investors. These two things are directly connected.

I made a joke about how there are so many really silly, cliché sounding startups out there, that there should be one for beard stroking. Specifically, an app which connects those with beards to those who want to stroke beards. On the train ride home I came up with the name “Bristlr”, and by the time I went to bed I had a fake signup page built.

I made a decision that if I could get 100 people signed up to my stupid startup idea, I’d try to make it real.

80 people signed up. Close enough!

Two weeks later Bristlr’s first prototype was launched, and sucked, and nobody used it. You logged in and could see a list of everyone in the world. You would like people, and if they liked you back the heart went red and you could message them. That was it.

I had a funny idea, and a barely-functional product.

I pushed Bristlr out into the world in its current state (via an unpopular reddit post here, an uneventfulProduct Hunt submission there) and had a few hundred people check it out.

And then I was picked up by the blog Elite Daily. And then I was picked up by the Daily Mail. And then my life went really weird.

I was on the radio, I was in print, I was on TV (regional news counts). Bristlr exploded and I found myself running a joke that had gotten way out of hand.

By January, there were 30,000 people signed up to Bristlr. I was building features as fast as possible, knowing I had less a metaphorical leaky bucket of users, and more a pipe. If I couldn’t get people hooked, if it wasn’t good enough, Bristlr would fail.

Side point: my personal mantra, and the phrase which has guided every major decision with Bristlr, is “Why will it fail?”

I was joining the startup journey whether I wanted to or not at this point, and had only pop-culture references, a few anecdotes, and my wits, to help me. I reached out to find smarter people. Of all the decisions I’ve made withBristlr, this was the one which has had the most impact. Butterflies causing storms and all that.

I came to my first Silicon Drinkabout (@DrinkaboutMCR), and stood awkwardly until Gabi (who’s name I then couldn’t actually remember for around a month, but it’s ok because I was good at hiding this fact) introduced me to a few people. Most people were full of great advice, a few people were full of crap, some people full of both. This awkward evening was my first introduction to the community which would later help shape the company, and to which I’m very grateful.

The local startup community is small, and finding its feet, and overdue, and I love that. Manchester is primed, it just needs people to trust it. There’s some incredibly smart people around.

A few months into my startup adventure I met Paul Smith at a Drinkabout. He had a beard and a sense of humour. He liked   Bristlr. Well, maybe not “liked”. More “thought it was not-the-worst-thing”, and he saw there was something actually happening with it. We had numbers, we had “traction”, and we had a working product. Paul installed it then and there in front of me.

A few months later and I found myself, and Bristlr, on theIgnite Accelerator in Newcastle (which Paul helps run). And they’re the country's best pre-seed accelerator for a reason.

Explaining what the process is like, is hard to explain properly. There’s mentoring, advice, investment, networking… the best analogy I have is like a human cannon, only it fires businesses out rather than people, and there’s way more spreadsheets… but maybe it’s better if I just describe the impact.

I went into Ignite with a weird idea and a vague understanding I’d hit on something interesting. Now, three months later, I have: clarity on my business model, confidence we will grow and dominate, the skills needed to function in the business world, obvious next steps (spoiler; it’s not just about the facial hair), an audacious -- yet achievable -- target, and I’m raising a seed round of investment from people who believe in the company, the idea, and in me.

We’re beyond beards now.

If you’re thinking it might be fun to chase your ideas, do it. It is.

If you’d like to chat more about Bristlr, startups, how you even begin with stuff like this, share knowledge (as wanky as that sounds, it’s super valuable), how you can grow your idea, or if you’d like to join in with Bristlr’s seed round *wink wink*, get in touch. I’m always around and happy to help.

Written on: Tuesday, 7th July 2015