Interview with The Backscratchers co-founder Patrick Elliott

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Recently we had the chance to catch up with The Backscratchers co-founder Patrick Elliott for a quick chat. The Backscratchers was part of the SpringBoard accelerator programs graduating class of 2012.

The Backscratchers is the talent marketplace and professional network for the creative industries. Companies and freelancers create personalised profiles, showcase their portfolios and are connected to the talent they need to execute their projects. The website addresses two fundamental problems for creatives: a lack of access to necessary resources and fragmented networks, whether by geographical location or creative discipline. The platform enables cross-disciplinary interaction, allowing creative professionals to work via exchange or payment, resourcing their projects and enhancing their reputational value, bridging the gap that currently exists between professional networks, creative portfolio websites and talent marketplaces. Where Kickstarter is transforming funding for the creative sector, The Backscratchers addresses the other side of the creative equation: people and resources.

How did you come up with the idea for The Backscratchers?

The Backscratchers is first and foremost a tool for creatives and, as with pretty much most startups, it came about while trying to solve a problem that we faced personally. I met Jody while completing an MA at City University, London. We both have backgrounds in the music industry – Jody as a blogger and publicist, myself as a musician – and so clicked more or less straight away. She needed a photographer for a gig she was reviewing and I needed a designer for my latest EP, yet neither of us could find the right person. We asked around and trawled social networking sites but to no avail. After taking this personal experience and marrying it with our research in the creative industries, we discovered the true size and scale of this problem and decided to act. It helped that there was a university-wide business plan competition running at the time with an attractive first-place cash prize…

What were some of the challenges that you faced starting a company?

One of the very first challenges we faced was finding the right people to help us build the platform. Lots of people saw the value in a product like ours, but convincing them to follow our lead and make the idea a reality can often be tough. Some people really don’t like uncertainty and are averse to taking risks (especially financial ones). After months of searching, we found the perfect person, Leo Critchley. Leo is now our CTO, an accomplished developer but also a published author and illustrator. He understood both sides of the business and once he knew what we were trying to do, he jumped on beard.

Another challenge was the lack of resources (money!) and time to focus on the business. Keeping a roof over your head and food in your mouth has to be a priority, so for a while we were working all sorts of crazy hours outside our other full-time jobs – standard startup initiation. Finally there’s the mandatory forgoing of friends, frivolity and weekends.

What major pivots have you made from the conception of The Backscratchers to where you are now?

Broadly we’ve actually stuck to our original aims, which is amazing considering the journey we’ve been on over the last year. Of course, there have been some significant shifts in our trajectory. Where the focus used to be on skills exchange only, the site is now open to the sharing and employment of all resources, namely skills, materials, spaces, networks…and money. Originally, we thought that adding money into the equation would be detrimental to our fundamental goal – aiding the accessibility of vital creative resources to those who need them – but then we realised that it was silly to deny individuals and companies what they want, which may well be money! So, we now enable users to pay each other for projects, in addition to doing straight barters or skill exchanges. This allows our users to truly use all of the resources that we offer to complete their projects.

You were part of the Springboard accelerator program, what difference do you feel being part of an accelerator made to your company?

I can’t understate the impact Springboard has had on The Backscratchers. Obviously it varies depending on the state and size of the company, but for us Springboard did exactly what it said on the tin – took us from A to Z at incredible speed and helped us build a solid platform from which to launch our business, ensuring we had the best possible chance of survival and success. They challenged and championed us in equal measure, forcing us to regard the business in a different light and from every angle with every possible hat on. We’ve also met so many clever, influential people through this programme that we would never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. The support network is fantastic and we’ve formed lasting relationships with many of the mentors, all of them experts in their field.

What advice would you give to people looking to start a company and work on developing a business plan?

You can’t go it alone. If there’s one thing Springboard confirmed it’s that building a strong support network, is vital to the success of early stage businesses, indeed any stage business. Get out there and meet people who can open doors for you. There’s a lot of noise in the startup space, but broadly most people are happy to help where they can and redirect you where they can’t – make use of ‘entrepreneur’s empathy’!

Secondly, find a way to galvanise your thoughts and efforts and start moving forward. For us the catalyst came in the form of the business plan we wrote for that competition back at university. Beyond the prize money we won and the contacts we made, it forced us to actually act, to flesh out the idea we had and get a move on turning it into a business. On this note, I would also say that, while a business plan is useful for articulating and documenting strategies and roadmaps, be prepared to deviate from it! Inevitably you’re going to duck and dive, chop and change, and you’ll do so often in order to give your company the best chance of success.

It’s often said that the business you end up with will be very different from the idea you started with. We’re only part of the way there, but already we’re heading in exciting new directions and loving every second of it.

A big thanks to Patrick for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer some of our questions. You can follow their progress on twitter.

We will be reconnecting with Patrick and his team sometime early next year for a video interview to see how things have progressed from now to then, so stay tuned!