At a glance
Name of business: Castle
Industry: Digital Marketing
Key learning points;
A modern approach to finding co-founders
Many attribute their motivation in business to having successfully found, built or integrated themselves within a community of likeminded individuals — but for many this is can be challenge, and for others an impossibility.
ENTER THE INTERNET *trumpet sounds*.
Community based platforms like Reddit can be exactly the tool you need to find the perfect business partners. This was the case for Castle, which was started from a single post on a University subreddit group.
Start with structure
The success of any venture is completely dependent on how much time the founders are willing to invest in it. The founders of Castle agreed from day one that they would meet for four hours every week, and stuck to it. This ensured consistency within the team, with each member staying motivated to keep working efficiently— no easy feat in the early days.
Creative marketing: demonstrating value rather than stating it.
Effective marketing in an overcrowded industry is cutting above the noise in order to get your voice heard by the people who would benefit most by hearing you. That’s exactly what Castle did when they decided to introduce themselves to prospective clients by sending them each a unique, completely bespoke website to show them what they could do. By doing this, instead of sending a bland campaign email, they impressed many and secured leads which became customers and revenue.
Diversify your communication
Your ability to successfully sell a product to your customer is dependent on your ability to build trust with them. While emails have their place, you will find yourself much better equipped to build that trust if you’re willing to meet someone face to face and befriend them.
I love Reddit.
With such a huge collection of highly-engaged communities, it’s so easy to connect with amazing people by just joining in on conversations which interest you. That’s exactly how I got to meet Leo, one of the co-founders of Castle.
Leo and I got talking after I posted a call for founders willing to be interviewed on r/startup after the launch of Inkbike.
A few people responded to the post but among them, Leo immediately stood out to me. It wasn’t just that he was personable, but that his focus, dedication and passion were so immediately apparent as soon as he got talking about his business.
Even though I was nervous about interviewing someone over messages for the first time (every other time has been a recorded face-to-face discussion), I was confident that Leo’s experience would make for a fantastic interview and that there was an incredible opportunity to learn from his unique experiences.
I was absolutely not disappointed, and I’m incredibly excited to share Leo’s experience with you as a fascinating insight into creative marketing and carving a space for yourself in a niche digital market.
I’m Leo, a student at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and I co-founded Castle – an atypical digital marketing agency for real estate agents.
We differ from our competition in that we provide Realtors with a fully customised website using a monthly subscription offer instead of a major one-time fee like traditional web design agencies.
We did this to solve the big issue with the one-fee model, where you might hate aspects of your website only a few months in after you spent $5,000 on a normal agency. Technology and design standards change every few months, and you’re therefore left with a website that looks obsolete.
By opting for a subscription model instead, your website benefits from continuous development and support by the same dedicated team that built it for you from scratch.
What I’m most proud of in Castle however, is the way we provide another service that is so far unique.
We know our work is leading to something much bigger than what we intended
On our website / web app, we list realtors and provide each with a comprehensive profile that pulls all types of personal information (bio, awards, testimonials, language, ethnicity, niche neighbourhood etc.) from external softwares into a single profile. These profiles rank #1 for each agent name on Google.
Homebuyers and home-sellers can then visit this page and filter through the list using different criteria to find the agent that suits them best.
We started Castle 6 months ago, when I partnered with 2 other university students I met through Reddit. We know our work is leading to something much bigger than what we intended. We strongly believe we’ll become a unicorn company sometimes soon, but we also settled with the idea that we needed to build stable revenue before doing anything crazy.
I love that – the platform you’ve built to profile the realtors is something I’ve never seen done before and it feels like it actually humanises the process of finding property online, which is absolutely something I’ve never seen attempted before. I’m glad to hear you like it! It means there’s a market fit for our idea.
You phrased it perfectly with “humanise the process of finding property” because there are 15,000 realtors in Vancouver alone (where we are), which makes no sense given that they all do the same job. I mean, why choose one over another?
One way to go about it as a seller is finding an agent who’s transparent, fits your personality and specializes in your niche (e.g. Millenials in West Vancouver). That’s already a challenge in itself as for many, realtors have such a bad reputation.
Brilliant – I couldn’t agree more.
Another part of the Castle story that I really love is that you met your business partners through Reddit – what’s the story behind that happening?
That was actually the result of my partner publishing the below on the subreddit for our University.
20 people commented on that post, 6 followed up and 3 actually met. That’s us. Since then, one other person has joined our team.
With regards to our relationship, it’s very special. We have very different backgrounds, stories and interests, but I guess what unites us is our passion for experimenting with, and building a start-up.
We got to work on the very first day we met up, without having discussed any ideas beforehand. Since we’re all quite serious, we quickly settled on holding a weekly meeting – Sunday 10 am to 2pm – which was mandatory to attend.
This was a success and everyone attended each meeting every single weekend for the first 4 months.
In that time, we settled with the idea of designing, coding and maintaining fully custom websites for Real Estate agents in our city of Vancouver, Canada. We saw this idea as being a niche market since it uniquely combined:
- being a realtor;
- being in Vancouver;
- seeing value in design and having a custom website to stand out (most realtors use templates, and in fact 3,7754 agents share the exact same website template in Vancouver alone).
So the concept was defined. The next step was finding out whether there was demand for it. That’s the tricky part.
In the course of this adventure, I learnt that a great marketer is the foundation of any start-up. We were new to business and there existed huge competition (the real estate marketing market is saturated – last time I checked Google Keywords, the ‘Top of Page Bid’ was $22 for “real estate website”).
In the beginning we didn’t really pay much attention to whether we were actually able to deliver the product – we thought we could without major issue.
So our first step was marketing the product we didn’t have. And if you have no proof of work (like us), you either pretend like you do or you simply bring price down (the rule of offer vs demand).
It felt terrible to know we had to start this low and pay ourselves a $13/hour divided between 3 co-founders (that was painful to calculate) but we thought this tactic would create buzz, and it certainly did.
Another marketing tactic we used was to write a program that, at night, crawled through public lists of real estate agents in Vancouver and passed out the information it found back into an Excel sheet in an orderly manner.
Most people ignore the power of automation
A week after we ran it, we had compiled 500 emails addresses. We were already very happy about our trick (we honestly felt like hackers), but we’re most pleased with what we did next.
We designed a website template of which the content changed function based on whom we sent it to. For example, if we sent that website link to John Joe, the website header would display something like “Browse John Joe’s properties”.
We applied that same formula to all the other contacts we’d amassed using our web-crawling program and then displayed them on our website.
In other words, on a regular Monday morning ‘Joe the Realtor’ received an email from us out-of-the-blue, entitled “I did something for you”. When he opened it he found a bespoke website built to his name that was ready to be used.
Most people ignore the power of automation. So the majority of the people who received our email believed we put tireless hours into building a website that we were giving to them for free.
That honestly worked out to be one of, if not the best thing we could have done. We sent out the first 30 emails and within 48 hours 17 people had clicked and we had received 9 answers. The standard click rate for the creative industry is 0.7%.
They were mostly people politely thanking us for the effort and letting us know they felt bad about refusing it, but it also gave us 3 serious leads. Out of those 3 serious leads, we started working on 2 websites.
It was hard, but where we are now has meant that it was worth it.
That gave us our start.
Unsurprisingly, some of our first few clients did try to take advantage of us by asking for changes so regularly and over such a long period of time that we began losing money.
However, it gave us the opportunity to perform some root-cause-analysis of issues in our early business model so that we could make corrective actions early on in our business’ life. We learnt to filter clients and work only with the best.
In the following 4 months, we changed our pricing model three times and renewed our approach to marketing by incorporating social media as a service. It was hard, but where we are now has meant that it was worth it.
And how did you go about organising the work between yourselves?
We agreed early on about the way we would divide up work. One person took care of the technical part (programs and website development). They coded the websites from scratch and did an awesome job for what we were getting paid.
I’m talking a fully custom website with all kinds of features. For example, few UI / UX details that matter a lot to the eye but which most agencies don’t provide at all (animations, shadows, transitions…)
Soon after, we realised we needed better design, so I taught myself how to do web design. I also manage marketing at Castle — which includes client prospection, business development and social media.
The third co-founder helped around on both the technical and marketing front. Since then, they’ve played a pillar role after learning to code entire websites.
Our last recruit is a friend of a friend. They’ve been our head of photography taking beautiful portraits of agents over at @realtorsofvancouver and helping with some websites.
Give up on some clients: we are still getting absurdly low traction for the value we provide. Most agents don’t see any benefits to our services. Those same agents generally happen to be above a certain age and tend to have relied solely on connections to sell/buy houses.
We quickly learned to give up on these people, and instead to address the agents who leveraged social media and valued design: young real estate agents.
Make friends: another lesson we’ve recently learned is to meet with potential clients without selling them anything. Fixing a single face-to-face meeting with an agent every week was our most recent and yet most powerful tactic.
We’ve learnt that people value customer service over the product itself
We take the opportunity to know them better. Once you’ve invested that time, explaining to them our services and converting them to paying clients is easy.
Discuss money with your team – I never thought money would be a major factor in our everyday work on the start-up. I’ve always imagined doing it for fun during my free time as a student. All these thoughts rushed to our heads when we landed our first client.
There was a celebration, and then few days of: “wow… we can actually make money building a cool product for society. This could be big if we stick to it“.
Ultimately, we settled with the idea of reinvesting all profits without cashing in a single dollar for the first $4,000. Discussing these topics early on will help avoid unexpected obstacles (e.g. a co-founder leaving and taking his equity or intellectual property).
What have you learnt since you started working on Castle that you wish you knew at the beginning?
I wish we had approached marketing differently and made connections in the professional / adult world earlier on. We should have approached real estate agents as students and asked them genuine questions. Instead, the first contact we established with them was as a business looking to sell our services.
Once you’ve built trust, the price at which you sell your services is only a detail
As a result, we’ve had to rely solely on email campaigns and social media outreach to put our name out in Vancouver.
All this to say that we’ve learnt that people value customer service over the product itself. They value the experience, the connection and how comfortable they feel with you as their new digital marketer. Once you’ve built trust, the price at which you sell your services is only a detail. They will trust you in fixing the right price.
Secondly, I wish I had tried harder. Sometimes I feel proud of what we’ve accomplished but I cannot stop imagining how things would be if we had done things differently. It’s a very human thing to do. I should have put more effort at times on Castle.
For example, I looked back and wonder if I had called that client (instead of emailing her like we did), would we have reached a deal? Or if I wasn’t too shy, and have pitched our services at that major real estate event, would I have doubled the sales from our business in a single evening?
When you miss opportunities like these, you can only blame yourself for not trying harder. It’s a matter of priorities. I guess that if I was starving, I wouldn’t think twice about trying harder.
What were the most important tools for you when you were getting your business off the ground? (i.e. what tools/hardware/software did you find relying on most during the earliest days?)
Fiverr was brilliant as it allowed us to outsource basic tasks cheaply. That saved us a ton of time and we found people with more experience able to solve some basic mistakes we had made.
MailChimp was greatfor blasting out personalised emails. It tells you things like ‘how many people opened your email’, ‘how many times they opened it or forwarded it’, ‘which link they clicked on’ and more.
So I used it to find the best email pitch possible. I like to compare it to a game of gladiators. You send out 2 different sales pitches and you keep the one that worked best. You take the winning pitch, draft a second one changing few variables (more polite, more links, without price…) and send both out again. Repeat 20 times and you get the perfect email pitch!
Spotify; because if you’re going into entrepreneurship, you’re gonna need that 1am music. Plus, Spotify’s algorithm suggests some really good stuff – you can listen to our startup’s playlist here.
Also, I know it’s a mainstream answer but most people underestimate Instagram‘s power. If you’re good at crafting visuals and targeting your audience, you have the secret sauce to marketing. I’ve enjoyed Instagram so much as it resonates really closely with our startup’s vibe and so I started experimenting with ads.
I used the same gladiator tactic that I described with MailChimp, and after having done the work I can now guarantee a serious lead for every $5 I put into my ad. Our basic product sells for $99 so that’s a huge return on investment (check out Castle’s Instagram).
The best tool though? My co-founder Daanyaal. Shout-out to him for putting up with my personality. You need a partner you can count on for working at 2am and partying the next day.