Subscribe to The Startup Stack
Software is eating the world — Matt Jonns has seen it firsthand.
His business, ucreate, partners with non-technical founders to start & scale technology companies. It’s an unusual model — part agency, part accelerator, part incubator — one one perfectly matched to the needs of their target partners: non-technical founders.
Domain specialists come to Jonns & his team with an idea — say, digitizing an offline sales quota system — and they pair that founder with a team of engineers & product managers, who vet, build & launch it.
We talked to Jonns about what the soon to be even more online world will look like.
“So many founders get hung up on solutions. And they’ve already come up with a solution before they’ve even really identified whether the problem even exists in the market. So you have to do the work of validating: Does the problem exist? And then don’t jump to the first solution. You know, don’t just immediately think: Oh that’s a SaaS product! That’s a marketplace! That’s a whatever…”
🎙 Highlights Include
- What is the opportunity in non-technical founders?
- How does ucreate’s equity model work & why?
- More small businesses will be moving online in the next 10 years — what will that look like?
- How do you know your idea has a market? How should you vet that?
This Week’s Guest
Executive Chairman @ ucreate
Matt Jonns is the founder & Executive Chair of ucreate, which partners with ambitious, non-tech founders to build and scale highly successful technology companies.
The Startup Stack’s Host
CEO, Co-Founder of Rocketplace
Rocketplace is a curated marketplace of high quality professional service providers. A 3x founder, investor, and board member, Louis began his tech career as a partner at Andreessen Horowitz. When he’s not working or podcasting, Louis enjoys cooking for his family. His pizza, he’d like you to know, is incredible.
Full Episode Transcript
Matt Jonns: A guy goes into his doctor. He says: Doc, you’ve got to help me. I’m really struggling. The doctor says: Well, what seems to be the problem? The guy says: I’m addicted to Twitter. And the doctor says: I don’t follow you. [Laughing] Okay. Nice to laugh at that. You’re very kind.
Louis Beryl: I think that was just the delay. [Laughing] This week we’re talking to Matt Jonns, whose company Ucreate is, well, hard to describe. You might call it a hybrid; part agency, part accelerator, part incubator, all smashed up into one. It’s a Frankenstein of startup functions, and so far, a meaningful one. As of this year Ucreate has helped build 25 companies, which have a total valuation of $130 million. Matt and his team partner with experienced but non-technical founders, like, say, a VP of Sales. People who understand their specific industry [00:01:00] inside and out, and know what innovation in that space should look like, even if they can’t sort it out and zeros and ones. That’s where Ucreate comes in. At a time when the whole world is being forced to make the leap online I was excited to hear from Matt about how he thinks it’s going. Oh, and he’s British in case you couldn’t tell from the joke. So all the way from London talking with us pretty late at night, here’s Matt.
MUSIC INTERLUDESo Matt, the name of your agency is Ucreate. You’ve been in business for five years. You have over 130 people, you’ve worked with dozens of businesses, but basically what you do is you’re an agency that helps start startups. So maybe you could tell us a little bit more about you create.
Matt Jonns: Yeah, absolutely. So the first thing is we try not to describe herself as an agency because we, we don’t think that does us justice for what we actually do for the founders that we work with. If you’re going to break it down where we’re a little bit like an agency, a little bit like an incubator, a [00:02:00] little bit like an accelerator, we take the best bits from all of those. Look, there’s, there’s lots of different ways to skin a cat when you’re building a startup. So it’s not like any one way is right. We are just one of many ways. So at the heart of what we do, we work with non-tech founders. So founders that can’t code. We go in as partners with them on a part cash / part equity model, we help them build their business out. At the core of what we do is tech and product. So we’re building apps, we’re building software. But then we also help them with what we call support services. So raising money for their go to market strategies, commercial strategy. And I think it’s really important as a startup founder, when you’re building your business, that your tech partner is aligned with you. So by having that small slice of equity, that means that we don’t just care about the short term. We care about the long term as well.
Louis Beryl: Tell us a little bit more about the founding story. How did you start Ucreate?
Matt Jonns: I dropped out [00:03:00] of university when I was 19. My family had a small music business selling musical instruments to shops and councils around the UK. And obviously I grew up with that sort of business, I guess, mentality in my family. My dad unfortunately died when I was 16 and I basically took over the business when I was about 18, which was a bit which has a bit mental, you know, it was a bit crazy. I was sort of stuck in there at the deep end, made a load of mistakes. LIterally so many mistakes. But the big thing that I did there was take it from an offline business, you know, more of a shop, to an online business. I built out the website, all the backend systems. We ended up with quite a few staff and a big warehouse. And you know, we learned a lot of stuff. So then when I managed to get out of the industry — it wasn’t a great industry to be in. It was really archaic. Wasn’t a lot of money in it. So I just managed to get out of the industry sort of thinking, what am I going to do next? I thought, well, [00:04:00] I’ve learned a lot over these past few years on how to build products, especially from an offline online basis. And people were coming to me and saying, look, how did you do it? Can you help me? So that’s how Ucreate was born. People were coming to me and saying, I’ve got this great idea. What the hell do I do next? And what I saw around my network was lots of people who made the wrong decision by getting buddied up with a CTO that they didn’t know, a co-founding CTO and quickly discovered that the CTO actually can’t do everything that they need them to do. They either went to an agency who didn’t take equity and the agency just wants to make as much money as possible Whereas the founder wants to build something great They didn’t want to be on accelerators because it was not a good fit for them So this model just sort of came out of tat And I was able to harness the sort of skills that I learned.
Louis Beryl: And tell me what was it like when you started how many of you were there What were some of the challenges you faced ?
Matt Jonns: Oh it was, really tough It was really tough The first couple of years were [00:05:00] really tough. My co-founders are a guy called Vishal over in India And it was having those boots on the ground originally which allowed us to have devs on the ground which allowed us to build stuff at a decent rate That was absolutely key And then in the UK a guy called Dan Cristy and a guy called Pavel who came in as employees number one and two literally a few months after we started. The hardest thing was getting people to go ahead with the projects when you don’t have any you don’t have any case studies you don’t have any real expertise And frankly it’s sort of making it up as you go along
Louis Beryl: And tell me what, was that first project
Matt Jonns: Ironically it’s a company that is now doing really well We’re hoping it’s going to be one of our first exits the company. It’s now called Iplace. And Pete Goodman and the founder of that he sits on our board frankly if he wasn’t someone I knew I don’t think he’d have given us the project So I don’t think the business would have got off to the start It got off to without having someone like that who trusted us to go ahead and start building out [00:06:00] his business
Louis Beryl: Okay So you get the first business and where did things go from there How do you overcome some of these challenges? Where did the next business come from?
Matt Jonns: Oh just networking referrals. Our only plan really was that we want it to focus on non-tech founders So founders that couldn’t code And then we want it to be very specific with the type of non-tech founders. They needed to either be domain experts. They needed to know their industry inside out or they needed to be experienced entrepreneurs. You know they’ve might’ve started businesses before sold businesses before but maybe not necessarily tech businesses. So that was really our only plan there. And then it was just about networking It was about just meeting as many different people as possible We’re trying to do the best possible job we could do on the ones that we had already. And we had some really hairy moments We must have run out of cash numerous times. You know we were always days away from running out of money at the start.
Louis Beryl: Tell us one of those stories How did you get through it.
Matt Jonns: Literally things like asking [00:07:00] one of our early founders to pay a couple of months upfront you know look can you help us out We’re helping you out Can you help us out you know with winning projects and asking them to pay 50% upfront literally is as tight as that We weren’t taking very much money at all out of the business. We were just surviving on what we can. Even though we don’t describe ourselves as an agency, the operations or the go to market, everything is a classic agency business. It’s like any story. I think any agency owner would say that things come out of nowhere at the last minute. A project that comes out of nowhere. People can say that there’s an amazing plan, there’s an amazing process, but at the start, when you’re just hustling and just trying to get wherever you can in those early stages it’s just sometimes a bit of luck but also working really hard as well and doing a really good job and being transparent with your clients and being honest. And saying: Look, this isn’t great right now. This is what we need, can you help us? And [00:08:00] usually they did, but I’m really glad to say that after the first 18 months we really worked out what we were doing. We raised some money. We had some better processes in place and it just started to pick up…
Louis Beryl: Tell us about how the what the business model is today and how it’s really evolved and changed over time to a place where you have 130 people and it’s working.
Matt Jonns: To be honest with you that the model hasn’t changed from day one, we’ve got we’ve just got better. We’ve got more professional. We brought on much better people. We’ve just learned really really quickly. We’ve seen where things go wrong and we’ve identified it, but the actual model in what I said earlier about focusing on domain experts experienced entrepreneurs non-tech founders, that’s the same now as it has always been. You know we’ve really made sure that we’ve got a niche and we’ve targeted a subset of people and pitched all our services and everything we do around that. So really it’s just about — I know it’s a bit of a rubbish answer — [00:09:00] but it’s about getting better as you go and learning really quickly. And then obviously bringing on amazing people. The skill sets that we’ve got now internally in the people we’ve got onboard are really high-end. People that have done the exact things that we need them to do before in their career.
MUSIC INTERLUDELouis Beryl: Hey do you like our show? I do too! If you want to support The Startup Stack the best way to do that is by subscribing and rating us on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to us. Also send dad jokes or if you have them actual good jokes to podcast at Rocketplace dot com. Feel free to send us feedback there too.
Let’s dive into some of the services you do offer. And maybe you could talk about some of the work you’ve done with different companies that you’re excited about.
Matt Jonns: So I think the thing that really separates us from an agency is, yes, number one that we take equity, but also that we help founders with more than the tech and the product. We help them with the commercial [00:10:00] strategy. We help them move investment services. We are helping them raise money. We’re helping them build out their funding strategy. We’re helping them with go to market. And I think it’s just wrapping our services around what they need. So I guess a big difference between us and accelerator as well is whilst we’re partners with the founders, we ultimately work for them. You know it’s very important for us that the founders who work with us are in control. They are the founders and it’s their vision. We support them, we guide them, but we work for them. I think that’s a dynamic you don’t get at an accelerator. So a lot of the type of founders we want to work with, they wouldn’t appreciate being on an accelerator. And I think the exception is really great ones like YCombinator and places like that. I think anyone would want to be on that. But especially over here, they want to maintain more control. So as part of that we feel that by not investing, that keeps that relationship solid. If I’m going to talk about a couple of [00:11:00] example, one of the founders at work with is a guy called James Ward. When he came to us he was the head of sales or head of a sales division at a big company called Xerox. And the reason why we’ve targeted non-tech founders is because I think that they spot problems in their industries really clearly. So he was an expert in his field in sales at Xerox. He’d spotted this problem that he realized could be solved through tech. And sometimes when you’re non-tech you just absolutely dumb it down. You go: Well, tech must be able to solve this! So there’s a company called ClientShare. They’re raising significant money at the moment we’ve been working with James for the last four years. I’m really proud of that business, proud of what we’re doing. And it been a real success
Louis Beryl: What was the problem that he identified?
Matt Jonns: He could see that account [00:12:00] management was broken in his industry. He could see that the relationships between account managers and clients, that there was no tool to serve that. It was all done on email or offline. And that’s a running theme for the type of businesses that we build, that a lot of them — because they’re non-technical — they see solutions that are currently done either by email or offline on pens and paper. And what we do is digitize the process and turn it online.
Louis Beryl: Maybe we could move to advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs. So you probably meet people all the time. Non-tech founders, maybe also technical founders. I do in my job, certainly. And they come to you asking for advice about starting a business. Maybe they’re thinking about working with an agency like yours or outsourcing the tech. You have a very unique agency slash [00:13:00] incubator slash accelerator. What should that entrepreneur be asking when they’re evaluating working with a partner like you?
Matt Jonns: For me it all comes down to personality fit. I think that’s the number one thing. You can tell by looking at case studies and how long they’ve been in the market and talking to some of their clients or their customers, whether they can technically do it or not. But it’s all down to personality fit. You’re going to build a business with someone, you need to get on with them. Something that I’ve learned in the last five years is that software development never goes to plan, like ever. And when you’re a non-tech founder you need to understand that and you need to trust your partner. Or if it’s an agency or it’s a founding team, whatever, you need to be completely aligned. And I think that’s really important. And then it’s [00:14:00] about how you go about choosing the business you’re going to build and how you build it. And you have to make sure, and the agency should help you with this obviously, but you have to make sure that the problem you’re solving actually exists. And it’s obviously a bit of a cliche probably at the moment, but so many founders get hung up with these solutions in their head. And they’ve already come up with a solution before they’ve even really identified whether the problem even exists in the market. So you have to do the work of validating: Does the problem exist? And then don’t jump to the first solution. You know, don’t just immediately think: Oh that’s a SaaS product! That’s a marketplace! That’s a whatever…
Do the work to actually test and validate if the solution is the right solution. And these days you can build things so quickly and cheaply just to test and just to see, that I think solving that one problem is then linked to making sure that you don’t build too many features. I’ve been doing this a long [00:15:00] time now and the single biggest problem I find is that founders, in their head, they want to build as much as possible as quickly as possible. And it’s sometimes the problem with a founder-agency relationship. They go: Well I’m paying you, I need to get as much as I possibly can for my money. And that is the single biggest mistake that you can make because feature blow doesn’t help anybody. So not looking at your agency partner as ‘let me just get as much as I possibly can’ but looking at them and going ‘let me build a successful business with them’ — I think that is is absolutely key. And then something else is that just because something is a tech business, it’s still a business. It still needs to make money. And I think the sort of impression given from Silicon Valley and stuff like that is to go and raise loads and loads of money and burn through loads of money and get more rounds. It’s like, that works to a degree, and for some things that might be right, but what we believe is much more centered around [00:16:00] building sustainable businesses. And for me the goal is to get to revenue as quickly as you possibly can. You know, you need to sell and the founder needs to be selling. And if you can sell within four or five six months of starting to build and actually get some customers onboard, I think that’s absolutely key. So don’t raise too much money try and make it sustainable, and try and get a proper business going.
Louis Beryl: You must meet these founders all the time that are pitching you on all sorts ideas, in all sorts of industries. How do you evaluate what are the questions that you’re asking in order for Ucreate to decide that this is the right client you want to work with?
Matt Jonns: We are completely industry agnostic We wouldn’t say no — obviously unless it was unethical — we wouldn’t say no to an industry. So we very much back the jockey not the horse. That’s another thing that we’ve said literally from day one. So of course we think the services that we provide [00:17:00] and all that the people that we’ve got in the company, we think it’s a big reason why a lot of our startups are doing well. And the industry standard is that 90% of startups fail, which I don’t know how true that is anymore, but I think it’s pretty true. Whereas 90% of our startups are still going. And I think obviously that’s partly due to us, but I think it’s more than anything down to the founder, so we’re very selective of the type of founder we work with. You know the things we said before about being a domain expert blah blah. But also they need to have grit, the nature of determination that keeps them from giving up quickly So I think that’s absolutely key.
Louis Beryl: How do you evaluate the ideas and the business models brough to you by these founders?
Matt Jonns: When we when we start working with them, and in an absolutely ideal world, they’ll come to us and say: Look I think there’s problem that needs solving here, or I want to build something in this industry. And then we start doing discovery work with them. So one of our product managers will pair up with the founder and be having workshops and doing validation sessions, [00:18:00] talking to potential customers, building out prototypes, really challenging the founder and making sure that their bias doesn’t mean that they end up building something that nobody wants. That’s our job. Our job is to make sure that we don’t build something that nobody wants. So whilst we’re industry agnostic, our process should weed out whether the problem exists. And then what was the right solution to build?
Louis Beryl: I’d love to talk a little bit more about what you’re seeing in the industry right now. You know you’re working with dozens of clients. 2020 It was a crazy year. COVID-19, remote work, political upheaval, all sorts of stuff. What are you seeing from your vantage point? What are some of the biggest trends that you guys are working towards?
Matt Jonns: I think there is this inexorable rise of technology. You know, [00:19:00] this is not going away. And what you’re seeing is that if you’re not a tech company you’re going to die over the next 10 years. So digital transformation has been in big companies has been going on for years and years and years and everyone knows that. But I think at this sort of sub 10 million pound turnover company, there’s huge opportunities for them, because all of the customer habits that used to be have completely changed. Things that customers used to do offline they’re now happy to do online, or because of COVID they’ve been forced to do it and that’s not going away. So whilst it’s been terrible and truly awful for many businesses, they’ve now got this opportunity where they can take their offline models and digitize them for cheaper than ever beforeand more easily than ever before. I think that is a massive trend, smaller companies digitizing their offerings and [00:20:00] unlocking value in their business models. Making them more sustainable. Having much higher exits, higher multiples and having a bit of an easier life. Or not an easier life, but a different life. Being a tech founder rather than being an offline business founder. So I think that for me is the biggest trend that I’m seeing. And it might sound like an obvious one but I think at that smaller scale that’s where the opportunities are because it’s going to be the tech companies that are going to create these new jobs that are needed to create taxes, to create jobs, to get us out of this economic mess.
Louis Beryl: And today, I assume your team is distributed. Where you distributed before this year?
Matt Jonns: Yeah we were. We’ve always had an office in India, so we’re very used to working remotely and we actually went fully remote about a month before the first UK locked down because we could see what was happening. We thought it was the right thing. It’s not been easy and I’m [00:21:00] glad that we managed to have an away day back in September with most of the UK team. And that was brilliant. And there’s definitely big challenges with doing things completely remotely like we are. And I know there’s loads of companies that have done fantastic things like Basecamp or Signal 37. How they’ve Built their entire business remotely. But I don’t think that’s how we’re going to want to do it. We we like having some face-to-face time and building relationships. We’ll probably end up having a bit of a hybrid.
Louis Beryl: Is there a piece of tactical advice that you think entrepreneurs out there — maybe non-tech founders that you’re primarily working with — a piece of tactical advice you think they should know for 2021?
Matt Jonns: So it’s repeating something I said before but I honestly think that getting to revenue as quickly as possible is some of the most underrated advice that’s out there. Spending months and months and months building a product, waiting for this perfect product to come out. It happens a lot with non-tech [00:22:00] founders, because they obviously don’t intrinsically understand lines of code, but what they do understand is what something looks like. You know, there’s a great bit of advice I got, I can’t remember where it’s from: If you’re not embarrassed by your first product then you’ve launched too late.
Louis Beryl: I think it’s Reid Hoffman. And the advice about getting to revenue is very similar to advice that we give it at YCombinator all the time which is: Get to revenue ASAP. Do everything you can to get there, because that’s when it really starts.
Matt Jonns: We see it all the time. Cause the founders understand what things look like, and it’s their personal reputation on the line. They’ve told their family they’ve told their friends, they’ve told their colleagues. “I’m building this business.” And when they send it to them, they want to send them a great looking product. But that’s not necessarily the right thing to do, because you’ve been through thousands more pounds building something that you haven’t proven is going to work yet. So yeah, get to market as quickly as possible [00:23:00] and get to revenue as quickly as possible. I think that’s just massively underrated advice.
Louis Beryl: In your neck of the woods, I know Brexit has been a really big thing over the last several years. Has that changed how you either build your company, build other companies, or address client needs?
Matt Jonns: Honestly no. I think It’s however you voted, there’s massive opportunities now. And as business owners and entrepreneurs you have to look at the opportunities and you have to find the best way of moving forward. And in terms of technology and building technology businesses it shouldn’t make a difference. As a country we’re still very open to immigration, and I hope that we’ll continue to do that. And I’m sure we will because the vast majority of this country massively are pro immigration.
Louis Beryl: The kind of ideas that you’re getting pitched, have those changed at all over the last year or two?
Matt Jonns: They [00:24:00] really haven’t. We’re seeing exactly the same things from when we started, which is people spotting opportunities, and wanting to turn them into tech businesses. So I think there’s going to be opportunities that are going to come up and I think that the gumption of entrepreneurs that we’ll get through anything that something like Brexit can throw at you. And you’ve got remember the UK has been massive in FinTech because it’s got this thousand year old financial system, you know these are things that have been in place for much much longer than 40 years.
Louis Beryl: Are there any industries that are moving online today that you’re surprised about or that have been more real? You know you talked about FinTech a second ago. Over the last decade there’s been a huge resurgence of the digital transformation of financial services. What are some of the things you’re seeing today that are just beginning?
Matt Jonns: I think people turning any business model into a [00:25:00] marketplace is something that that I seem to be seeing a lot of. We’ve had people come to us who own recruitment companies and they are doubling down in that particular niche of their recruitment company and turning that into a marketplace. So basically the marketplace of anything is something that I’ve seen quite a lot. You’re seeing a lot of these sort of niche versions of Upwork coming out on these sort of verticals. So that’s something that I’ve seen. I’ve seen much more people come to us and say: “Hey! I’m in this industry and my business connects these people and these people and I’ve just worked out that I could go and build a marketplace.” That’s going to happen at much bigger scale without me having to do it. And that’s a trend that I’ve massively seen, I can see that growing.
Louis Beryl: Rocketplace is a marketplace. [Laughing]
Matt Jonns: Exactly.
Louis Beryl: Is there one thing that you wish you would’ve known when you started Ucreate that you now know today?
Matt Jonns: I knew it was going to be really hard because I’ve already had that previous business experience which [00:26:00] was really hard. I made loads of mistakes in that first business, I am really glad to say I’ve made much less mistakes And the second one…Something from the first time around is that I just didn’t hire a strong enough team. I just didn’t have the right people around me and I know my weaknesses, I know what I’m not good at. I learnt those first time round and as a founder you need to have a lack of ego. You need to be aware of where your strengths and weaknesses are. I see founders that want to do it all, that don’t listen to people. And I’ve just made sure that we’ve brought the right people on at the right stages and let them go on with it. So it’s more what I learned from the first time than what I’ve learned from this one. But I knew it was going to be hard because of the first time around so I’ve not been surprised by that. And I’m really enjoying it so far and love the ride.
Louis Beryl: Tell me what the next year or two have in store for Ucreate.
[00:27:00] Matt Jonns: We want to take our model outside of London. Probably to start with it will be UK but we’d love to come to the States, because what’s incredible about the States is that you’ll have one state that will be like an economy in its own right. I just find that to be so interesting. That you can have Texas or Atlanta or whatever, and you look at the numbers, and there’s like tens of thousands of startups being created that you are almost the size of the whole of the UK in terms of the numbers. So we’re really looking to take our model further afield. We’re really interested in Australia as well. So that’s going to be a big part of what we’re going to do in the next few years. But we’ve built just over 20 portfolio companies so far. And we want to do many more, we want to do hundreds over the coming years. And I’m really scaling the model now.
Louis Beryl: Awesome! Well Matt I really appreciate the time today. Thank you for joining us on The Startup Stack and telling us more about your business
Matt Jonns: Pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.
Louis Beryl: For more on our conversation today visit [00:28:00] www.rocketplace.com/podcast. We upload a new episode every week so if you haven’t yet make sure to subscribe to The Startup Stack in Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. Thanks again for joining us. See you next week.
Announcer: The Startup Stack, written and edited by Hannah Levy, produced by Leah Jackson.