When you ask an entrepreneur what triggered their start-up idea, they’ll usually recall a pivotal moment of frustration. For London mates Tom Putnam and Mark Jenner, that moment was when the pair had a lunch date at the pub and Mark showed up late.
“One day we met up for lunch and Mark got lost on his bike on the way there,” Tom recalls. “We talked about how frustrating that was and that it would be helpful to just have a compass on your bike. Then we got onto (naively!) how it couldn’t be that hard to make a compass point to somewhere you’d searched on your phone. That was the start.”
Tom and Mark’s idea was to help get urban cyclists where they needed to go without taking away their freedom to explore. While navigation devices are nothing new, most direct you with turn-by-turn instructions, which can amount to uncomfortable and unimaginative rides. Not to mention it kind of sucks the fun out of the whole thing.
The pair began developing a piece of tech, aptly named Beeline, that works on a concept of “fuzzy navigation”. Once you plug in a destination into the app, Beeline’s screen displays an arrow that constantly points you to your destination and tells you how far you have to go. That’s it. It’s a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure tool that lets you try out new shortcuts, cut through your favourite park or zip down an alley way to avoid traffic.
Armed with their idea and enough enthusiastic feedback from friends to know they were onto something, the pair launched a Kickstarter campaign, meeting their goal of $103,000 in all of two days, and raising $229,000 in total. Their Seedrs campaign that followed raised a further $850,000, giving Tom and Mark the financial backing they needed to officially launch Beeline in January this year.
“The best is when we hear of people using it for completely different things than what we intended,” Tom says. “Someone sent us a video of backcountry skiing out in the mountains – a far cry from the urban cycling we thought they’d be using it for.”
The start-up now has a London office and a team of seven, including a CTO who happened to be one of the company’s original backers. And while they haven’t faced any “catastrophic cock-ups” until now, Tom admits they’re reminded daily of how much they still don’t know.
“Every day, we’re stepping into new territory, which we don’t necessarily have experience of, whether it’s working out how to solder circuit boards or how to negotiate our first retail partnership. We’ve found the best way [to learn] is just to ask for help as much as possible and it’s amazing how much people are prepared to offer.”
As for what advice he’d give to budding entrepreneurs who are yet to take the leap, Tom’s advice is simple: don’t.
“Don’t take a leap, just take a small step. Then another, then another. Leaving your job and putting all your savings into something is terrifying. But staying up late a few nights to make some mock-ups and show some friends to see if they like it isn’t. If that works, take it from there and before you know it you’ll be leaping.”