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Product | People | Potential – our chat with Howbout

Here, our chat with Neil Tanna, CEO & Co-Founder of Howbout. Howbout is a social planning app that combines events, group chats and calendar sharing to make organising plans simple. It automatically finds dates that work, easily coordinates diaries and arranges plans with friends in seconds.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real-talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Jake @ ADLIB: Hi Neil, great to meet you. Can you start us off with an introduction to you and Howbout, please?

Neil: Hey Jake, great to meet you too! I first had the idea for Howbout when I moved to London in 2015. At Uni, making social plans and seeing friends was easy: everyone was generally free, lived close by and things were a lot more spontaneous. After graduating, everyone moved further away, people become a lot busier and everyone has a lot more things to juggle. Suddenly, organising any social plan – from a quick beer to a weekend trip – got a lot harder because of the need to pin down and organise the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ each time. As we all know, a lot of the time the pain of planning usually stops the plan from happening and I saw a clear need for an app that made social planning quick and effortless.

At the time, I was training to become a lawyer and was too busy focusing on my legal exams and the job itself to really give the idea any proper thought. It was always on the back of my mind, but I suppose I was coasting.

My perspective changed completely in 2018. My mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer and that was the wake-up call I needed. It’s a phrase we’ve all heard, but only in that moment did I finally understand the phrase “life is too short”. My mum knew all about the idea and I promised her I’d go for it. She sadly passed away in March 2019 and by August I’d gone full time on Howbout.

At a similar time, my two Co-Founders also went full time. We focused on building the first iteration of the app and the business plan and launched a closed beta to 129 testers in our target market. After a lot of testing and improvement, we launched the app publicly in December 2019.

Jake @ ADLIB: Can you talk us through Howbout?

Neil: Howbout is a free social planning app that combines events, group chats and calendar sharing to make organising plans simple. Plans can be made in seconds and not only include the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’, but each event also has its own built-in chat and syncs directly into your calendar. It solves arguably the biggest planning pain point by instantly finding a time and date your whole group can make for you. For example, if you’re organising after work drinks on a Thursday or Friday, a Saturday brunch or a week away, Howbout can automatically find when you’re all next able to make it by securely attaching to your existing calendars and finding when works. The app also lets you share calendars with your closest friends and you can invite anyone to an event whether they have the app or not.

Think of Howbout as an app that combines the best elements of Facebook events, WhatsApp, Doodle and your calendars together.

Jake @ ADLIB: You launched under a different name, right?

Neil: Yes, that’s right! We launched as ‘ZYNG’ and have recently rebranded to ‘Howbout’. Unfortunately, quite a large US company wasn’t happy about the similarities between their name and ours and applied some heavy pressure. Looking back at it though, it was a really good learning opportunity for us and we prefer ‘Howbout’, especially as there’s a much closer link between our product and name now. ‘Howbout’ is a play on the phrase “How about…”, which is used a lot in social planning, for example, “How about we do this / go here / next Wednesday” etc. It actually works much better than ZYNG ever did, so we’re happy with how it all ended up!

Jake @ ADLIB: What’s the journey been like so far in the last year and can you tell us about your recent investment round?

Neil: We launched in December 2019 on both the Google Play and Apple App stores. We hadn’t raised investment at that point and the company had been completely bootstrapped by us three Co-Founders. We’d managed to build the first version of the product in-house for less than £500 which, looking back on it, we still can’t believe!

When we launched, because of a lack of any sort of proper marketing budget, we set ourselves a target of 500 downloads in our first month, which we reached in our first week. We exceeded 4,000 downloads by March and were growing strong on very little paid marketing. We learnt quickly that the product spoke for itself because everyone knows about the problem we’re solving, so we didn’t have to worry too much about explaining the problem to people – we simply needed to point them in the direction of Howbout.

We waited until after we had launched to have proper conversations with investors because we wanted to show some initial traction and excitement for the product. We were keen to find the right sort of investors – ones who believed in us, the product and could add value in some way – whether through further introductions, advice, experience in our area etc. We hustled hard in those initial months – sending emails, using our network and extended network, attending random pitch events, finding people on LinkedIn etc. Thankfully, we were able to close our first found in February, which amazingly included Claire Valoti, the VP International at Snap and Amir Nooriali, who’s the CCO of Callsign. Claire also joined our Board as a Non-Executive Director. Both of them have had a huge impact on our thinking and we’re really lucky to have them as part of the team.

Jake @ ADLIB: You’ve managed to bring on two great investors, what was it about your product that made them join the team?

Neil: I think, firstly, they agree that it’s a clear problem that needs solving and they can see the potential in it. There are plenty of tools out there that work to solve similar problems on the professional side, like easily scheduling meetings and finding when people are free in the workplace.

Jake @ ADLIB: Like Slack or Microsoft Teams…

Neil: Exactly, and tools like Calendly and even the features in-built into Outlook. There are so many things to help people have an efficient work-life, but there’s nothing out there to help solve similar problems in our social lives. There are only really two solutions out there: Facebook events or WhatsApps groups, but neither really works. A lot of the millennial generation, our target users, don’t use Facebook or Facebook events as much as they used to, and especially not for casual events like a beer, dinner, or holiday.

More often than not, people use WhatsApp to organise plans, but it’s such a frustrating experience. It’s definitely more informal and fluid than a Facebook event, which people like, but all the main details, information and links are lost in an endless stream of messages. It’s also so manual – you have to constantly go back-and-forth to find a time and date everyone can do, screenshot google map pictures to agree where to meet, manually add the event to your calendar and keep scrolling back up to remind yourself of the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’. Howbout essentially provides you with the structure of a Facebook event with the speed and informality of a WhatsApp group, and throws in a few modern features like automatically finding the date that works and calendar sharing.

The other side of it is their belief in us as founders. All three Co-Founders left good careers to jump fully into this and we’re really passionate about it. We have very different backgrounds, but we’re all equally driven and enthusiastic about the problem we’re solving.

Jake @ ADLIB: That leads nicely onto the People part of the interview, can you tell us a little bit about the founding team and their backgrounds?

Neil: I set up ZYNG with two of my good friends from Uni – Duncan Cowan and Jake Jenner. After Uni, Duncan worked as a Spacecraft Engineer and he is without a doubt one of the smartest guys I know. He’s got a ton of app and web coding experience and I somehow managed to convince him that co-founding Howbout would be as exciting as putting satellites in the sky. Jake worked as an investment banker and private equity investor after Uni, but like me saw a lot of excitement in the prospect of running and growing a tech start-up.

We bring a lot of different experience and skills to the team which I think is really important. A big reason we were able to keep costs so low at the beginning was because we were able to do so much in-house: app development, design, marketing, legal, financials etc. But more important than that is we all have the same passion, hustle and drive. Launching a tech start-up is not a glamourous life. There’s been a lot of all-nighters, crashing on each other floors and we went without a salary for a long time.

It’s crucial that we all have the same vision, determination and, in one sense, obsession with the problem we’re trying to solve.

Jake @ ADLIB: What’s the plan moving forward from a People perspective?

Neil: We’ve hired our first employee – Callum Murray – who’s joined as a Software Engineer. In these early days, it’s crucial our product continues to develop and grow and we can only grow as quickly as our Software Engineers can take us. Until now, everything has been built by Duncan, and he’s done a phenomenal job but you can only go so fast as one man.

Callum used to work with Duncan and he’s s a Deep Learning specialist. He’s another really gifted coder and was involved with the coding on the Mars Rover so we know we’ve lucked out! The first handful of hires a start-up makes can make-or-break it, so it was really important we hire right. But it’s a two-way street – just as we were looking to find a gifted coder, we needed to prove to Calum that we were worth him leaving his previous role for. We essentially needed to pitch him to join us, just as we would pitch an investor. It was quite a lengthy process, as we needed to make sure personalities clicked too.

Jake @ ADLIB: Absolutely, at that early stage, you need people to be able to connect with the founders as recruitment for start-ups has become so emotive. There are exciting projects everywhere, so you really need them to buy into the vision or product…

Neil: Exactly, as an early-stage start-up employee, it’s really important that they see the vision and want to help the company get there. There’s so much ownership of tasks needed and early start-up employees can have a huge impact on the direction of the company. For example, as our first employee, Calum is involved in a lot more than his job spec. He takes part in product strategy discussions, marketing chats, business strategy meetings etc. You need someone who can roll up their sleeves and get stuck in, which is exactly what we got with Calum.

Jake @ ADLIB: Especially if there’s only four of you in a room working long hours, you need to get on with them and they are working as hard as you.

How has virtual onboarding gone for you?

Neil: It was definitely an experience! We hadn’t onboarded anyone before, let alone virtually onboarding, so it was definitely a learning experience! Thankfully, we hadn’t yet signed for a lease anywhere before lockdown hit, but we were definitely expecting to onboard Calum into an office where he’d be working side-by-side with Duncan! There was a learning curve for the team, but we quickly adapted to virtually working and collaborating. We use Microsoft Teams, which I’m a huge advocate of, and that’s really helped us transition into the new way of working.

A big challenge with virtual onboarding is how you integrate the new person socially, without the after-work drinks, team lunches and general office chats. It definitely helped that we’d met Calum a few times and that he and Duncan knew each other well before he joined, but we’ve also made an effort to have regular Zoom drinks, virtual pub quizzes etc. Thankfully, Howbout’s been quite handy…

Jake @ ADLIB: We use Teams and we’ve onboarded people during the pandemic, and while it’s not ideal, it’s been a lot smoother than we thought it would be.

Neil: You can make the most of it, but there’s nothing like meeting face-to-face over a pint on their first day, rather than doing it in your living room!

Jake @ ADLIB: If we move on to Product, we’ve spoken a bit about the why and how regarding Howbout. Can you tell us where you are with product development now and how you are seeing that changing over the next year or so?

Neil: Two big things underpin our product development strategy. The first is the need to work agile and constantly iterate, and the other is placing a lot of importance on analytics.

Agile development for us means constantly iterating, testing, reviewing, and gaining feedback. We have a really strong beta community who we constantly go to for feedback on new features, design and functionality from which we grow, learn, and adapt. It’s a constant learning and feedback experience.

When it comes to analytics, we’re pretty obsessed. It’s crucial that we make decisions – from UI, UX and feature decisions to marketing and user acquisition decisions – based on our statistics and how users are using, interacting and engaging with the app and our brand.

Compared to when we started to where we are now, we’ve pivoted to focus on certain areas over others by learning how people actually use our app. An idea only ever gets you so far – it’s then about execution and implementation of it and how consumers react to it. It’s all about staying flexible and growing as the product grows. We’ve learnt a lot about how people use the product, which has identified, for example, the need for us to build a web app to sit side-by-side with our app. We’ve also got a lot of plans to add additional event-planning features within the app, and integrate with businesses in the not-too-distant future. Watch this space!

Jake @ ADLIB: Anything else that you’ve focused on?

Neil: One thing that’s been a real focus for us is reducing adoption friction. People are fed up of downloading new apps, especially if they need their friends to sign up for it as well. We’ve built the app in a certain way so that only the host needs to have Howbout downloaded to create the event. Instead of relying on the actual app, they can invite them via a WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, email link etc, and everybody involved has all of the details of everything on there. If they want additional features, then they can download the app themselves – essentially giving them the “try before you buy” experience. We’ve also worked hard on streamlining our user onboarding experience, which has had a positive impact.

Jake @ ADLIB: Finally, when it comes to Potential, what’s the ultimate aim for Howbout?

Neil: We have to be visionary about this. If you have the vision, then you have something that you are working towards, and that keeps your passion up.

We want to be the go-to app for arranging plans. We want people, no matter if they are using their laptop, tablet, or phone, to think of Howbout as their number one planning and scheduling tool for social events.

Sounds great, thanks, Neil!