June 15, 2021
10
 min read
Founder Story

How Ellie Howard Conquered the Idea Maze during On Deck and Founded Liminal

Authors

Avatar icon
Ellie Howard
Founder
,
The post originally appeared on MikeWilner.com. It was republished with permission.

Authors

Avatar icon
Ellie Howard
Founder
,
The post originally appeared on MikeWilner.com. It was republished with permission.

Avatar icon
Ellie Howard
Founder
,
Liminal is building a SaaS product that helps brands scale by driving additional revenue from existing customers.

Investors

After founding a company in 2018, I knew it’d only be a matter of time before I came to do so again. Except this time, I planned to use the 10 weeks of On Deck’s Founders Fellowship as a forcing-function, sandbox and launchpad.

Investor's note

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After founding a company in 2018, I knew it’d only be a matter of time before I came to do so again. Except this time, I planned to use the 10 weeks of On Deck’s Founders Fellowship as a forcing-function, sandbox and launchpad.

As an individual, I had three goals, each of which I shared as part of the onboarding process in the ODF7 Slack channel:

  1. To upskill so I could do more with less
  2. To develop and launch an MVP, to build conviction on an idea
  3. To expand my network, especially in the US

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A background in DTC brands

Having seen the challenges associated with scaling distribution as a consumer product brand first-hand, initially as an early employee at DTC underwear brand Heist, before becoming COO at hair colour company Bleach London, I entered On Deck with a question I’d been trying to answer since 2017: “What does a world look like where brands are not spending 40% of their budget on Facebook and Google ads?”

I’d previously worked on this with Nuanced, a conversational-commerce platform for women’s clothing, that I’d stopped working on, on account of it not being the right fit for my personal purpose.

But this time, I was clear on how the question of distribution linked to my personal purpose, my ‘why’: to level the playing field. 

The mission which flowed from this purpose? To enable consumer product brands, whose founders pour themselves into the development of a product and audience, to build healthy sustainable businesses without paying a tax to a middle-man that owns distribution.


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Explorer mode

I may have had a purpose and a question, but I didn’t know what form the answer would take, whose pain I’d look to solve, where I’d unlock value, or what the business model would be. Intent on finding a real problem to solve, as opposed to reverse engineering a vision for the future, I began my On Deck experience firmly in ‘explore mode’. 

Having started by getting to know my peers – I had 70 one to ones in the first two weeks alone – I started by whittling down my ideas, and by posting a shortlist on the Directory for feedback. 

I also set up a Slack channel specifically for MVP building and feedback, which attracted other explorers who were also building and testing early prototypes, and became a high value forum for skills exchange and support.


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Building MVPs to build conviction

“Although I was clear on my ‘why’ – levelling the playing field for consumer brands – I needed to figure out ‘who’ and ‘how’. Having documented an idea maze, and set out a range of approaches to tackling the distribution question across various well-suited categories, I began running customer interviews and building MVPs, each with the focus of enabling brands to scale.

On her website, Ellie Howard documented her different approaches on how she would tackle her thesis around solving problems of abundance.


First up, I built a buyer’s club for serviced apartment blocks. The insight? Those living in serviced apartment blocks have similar preferences / constraints by virtue of where they live, and could act as a ready-made ‘lookalike’ audience for relevant brands. ‘Vertical’ was designed to help residents buy together to unlock discounts with a selected brand for each product category.

I built the site in two days and worked with my concierge to run an email campaign and share QR code flyers with people in my block. My neighbours took up the offer, transacting on the site, and I collected supplies myself from local merchants before delivering by hand.

Quickly, I found that while I might have found a group of similar buyers, the residents weren’t motivated by price and instead wanted to revert to the habits they’d built buying specific items at local stores. I couldn’t unlock wholesale prices as the demand-side of the platform did not want aggregate supply.

Vertical, a buyers club for serviced apartment blocks was the first MVP that Ellie tested during ODF.


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Continual Iteration

Next, I built an MVP for a skincare concierge, ‘Mida’ was designed to work as a ‘demand passport’ for beauty products, serving up routines and products based on parameters set by the user (e.g. basket price, absence of certain ingredients).

I built out a prototype in a day and ran customer interviews, but found that while there was a genuine need to solve discovery, I was unlikely to be able to monetize this effectively without pitting the brands against one another as per a standard marketplace model.

Ellie's goal with Mida would that it would function as "Skin as a Service," providing personalized suggestions to people as tastes and trends change over time.

Next, I ran customer interviews for Freestyle, a consumer to manufacture platform that crowdsourced designs from customers and auctioned these off to brands who would produce them under whitelabel, providing guaranteed income but reducing the need to water down a brand direction for commercial gain.

After running a series of interviews with different design-led brands in homewares, it was clear that their focus was on increasing the speed at which they could respond to demand via streamlining their supply chains, instead of testing out new demand models. 

Finally, I took the opportunity to upskill with no code tools and experiment with an entirely new domain during Global Build Weekend. Together with a small team of fellows that spanned cohorts, fellowships and timezones, I built a prototype for Snapshot, a dynamic profile 'card' that keeps all of your content in one place and enables you to use content to search for other folks within the On Deck community.


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‘Leaving’ On Deck as the founder of Liminal

I’m excited to share that I’ve recently founded Liminal. We’re building a SaaS product that helps brands scale by driving additional revenue from existing customers.

In a relatively short period of time, we’ve run customer interviews with brands and end users, designed a clickable prototype, hired engineers, kicked off the build of our Alpha and onboarded our first brands to a design partner programme.

On Deck has been the perfect place to be in transition. The rare – and precious – spirit of service upheld by those in the community has helped me tackle harder problems than I previously thought possible, and do the messy work of assessing ideas in practice to build conviction.

Having moved from an explorer at idea stage to a founder that is now bringing on board my first customers, I continue to gain huge value from the community, whether that be hiring (my first designer was an intro via On Deck), fundraising advice or friendship and support. The experience has far surpassed my expectations, and I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough.

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