Interview With Valentin Hinov
Describe your product or service:
“Thankbox is an online group card and cash collection service. It aims to make celebrating occasions within teams joyful and easy.”
Describe your company values and mission:
“We want to help companies keep morale and camaraderie up even when everyone is working remotely.”
How are you funded? I.e. venture capital, angel investors, etc.
How big is your team? Tell us a little about them (I.e. co-founders, freelancers, etc.)
“As a solo founder, I do most of everything. I have a few freelancers to help me out — for design, marketing, PPC management, and development.”
Did you always want to start your own business? What made you want to become an entrepreneur?
“My parents founded their own company in Bulgaria in the ‘90s — just as capitalism was kicking off there. I watched them work hard and succeed, so I think the spirit of entrepreneurship was planted in me from an early age.
I've also always had a need to create something on my own. Ever since I started coding, I've had side projects I've worked on — even while working full time. I released one of my first own apps while I was still in Uni and managed to get it to 20,000 installs without any paid marketing. That's when I knew that I can actually make products that people want.
The desire to turn this skill into a business didn't come until I was in the second half of my twenties, though. It is then when my coding skills combined with the idea [of generating] products that solve problems I see in the world.”
How did you come up with your startup idea? How did you decide to actually act on the idea? What gave you confidence that you were on the right track?
“I live in the UK where there is a big office occasion [or] celebration culture. I’ve been a part of many different teams and each of them would celebrate things like someone leaving, someone’s birthday, or [a] work anniversary by getting a paper card and everyone signing it. While the end result was nice and the recipient was happy, the whole process was always a hassle. The card would usually be bought last-minute by the person’s manager. Then [they would] have to chase people around the office to (discreetly) sign it. Some people that weren’t physically present in the office couldn’t contribute at all. If there was an envelope cash collection, people would have to run to the ATM to get cash to leave in there because who uses physical cash anymore, right?
In November 2019, during another one of these occasions, I thought to myself ‘there must be a better way to do this, online.’ I did some research and found that there was really nothing that covered both aspects of this – both the message and cash collection. That’s when a lightbulb turned on – this is something I can do! So, I started brainstorming early designs on what would eventually become Thankbox. I had just bought the domain and started planning out a landing page but then I paused further work, as I had too much on my plate at the time – full time freelancing and joining another startup as a technical advisor.
Then March 2020 happened. Everyone was going to work remote[ly]. I decided that if there was ever a time to do Thankbox, it was now. Nobody could do the paper card thing anymore and companies would need a way to do this.
The first version of Thankbox went live two months later in May. As soon as it launched, it started getting used and people loved it! It was weird, but I really felt like I had hit product market fit almost immediately. That gave me a huge amount of confidence to continue and to try to get it into the hands of as many people as possible.”
How did you come up with your company name? Did you have other names you considered?
“I was really struggling for the name, so I ended up using one of those company name generators — where you plug in a bunch of terms you'd like to be in the name and it starts spitting out combinations. One of them was something like ‘Thank pack.’ I looked at it and I thought ‘What's another name for a pack? Box!’ And that's how ‘Thankbox’ was born. I love the name and haven't ever considered changing it.”
What is the greatest challenge you faced in starting your business, and how did you overcome it?
“One of the biggest challenges I had to solve, even before starting, was how to handle the cash collection aspect of the product. I wanted to offer users the ability to add cash to the messages they leave their friends and then pool all of that cash into a gift card that the recipient gets at the end. I could easily collect the money using Stripe but then how could I convert it into a gift card when the Thankbox was sent?
I spent weeks searching for a service that did this and, after I found one, I had to actually convince them to let me use them. They are mostly tailored to businesses issuing gift cards for their own employees, not some random company collecting money from its customers and then converting that to a gift card for someone else. Luckily, they gave me a shot. I've now issued over $600,000 worth of gift cards through their service.
My other obstacle to overcome, as boring as it sounds, was accounting. Since Thankbox deals with a lot of cash collection, I had to gain some confidence in it in order to keep my books in order. I invested a little bit of money talking to an accountant at the beginning, who helped me understand what I had to track & how to track it. I even ended up writing my own tool to generate accounting reports, just so I can avoid any mistakes in doing them myself.”
Who is your product or service made for? Who is your target market?
“This is hard to answer since Thankbox can and is used by a variety of people.
One major use case is teams within companies celebrating individual occasions. For example, someone's birthday, wedding, or saying farewell. This is the use case I envisioned when I first created Thankbox and it's still one of the most used ones.
But it's also used in families and groups of friends who aren't together to celebrate important personal milestones like anniversaries or even just saying ‘get well soon.’”
What's your marketing strategy?
“My biggest paid channel is PPC search ads. It's been a very good channel and an important source of Thankbox's growth.
I am also pouring a lot of effort into SEO and have begun seeing good results there.
But, the most important channel is word of mouth. Thankbox as a product has amazing networking effects. Mainly because in order to use the product (a card) you have to send it to others (to sign the card). I've noticed multiple times how once Thankbox makes its way into one team at a company it quickly starts being used by other different teams there.”
How did you acquire your first 100 customers?
“I started tweeting about Thankbox and posting on my LinkedIn as soon as the development kicked off in March 2020. I have a small following, but some people noticed it and became interested. A lot of my early traction was just from my personal network.
On the day I launched, I surprisingly saw a Thankbox was created almost immediately. It was an old university buddy of mine who was following me on Twitter. He works at Ubisoft and, just on the day I launched, they had someone leaving their team, and he decided to use Thankbox so they could say goodbye. He bought it the very same day, and his whole team loved it! I was thrilled — I didn't expect that at all. It gave me a burst of motivation and validation that I still remember and feel.
So, my first 100 customers were people from my personal network and then people they knew as they spread the word.”
What are the key customer metrics / unit economics / KPIs you pay attention to to monitor the health of your business?
“The Thankbox abandonment rate is a big thing I track. Because a Thankbox is free to get started there's a natural rate of abandonment. That metric is very low, at about 25% and I make sure it only keeps going down.
I also try to keep … track of how well networking effects are working — as in how many new customers a month are coming in recommended from someone else.”
What's your favorite entrepreneurial book and podcast?
“Favourite book has got to be ‘Building a Story Brand’ by Donald Miller. I've reread that book a few times and it [has] had a massive impact on how I built Thankbox as a brand.
Favourite podcast would be ‘Indiehackers.’ That podcast made me believe bootstrapping is possible, and I am continuously inspired by the stories founders share on it.”
What is the biggest lesson you learned during your journey?
“Talk to your customers! Honestly, do it. I didn’t do it at all at my last startup, but I forced myself to do it with this one. And guess what? It’s never stopped paying dividends. A lot of my early users were people I knew since they found out about Thankbox from me posting on Twitter or LinkedIn. I got as much feedback from them as I could. They really helped me polish and craft Thankbox into the experience it is now.”
Who is your support system?
“Sharing your success and hardships with people who love and support you is vital, especially when you’re a solo founder. For me, this person has been my wife. She is my biggest fan and has been sharing my joy and sorrows since the beginning of Thankbox. Her support in this has been invaluable to me – she can both motivate me when I’m feeling down and ground me when I start losing my way.”
How do you stay motivated?
“When things get hard I remind myself, ‘I [would] still rather be having a hard time with my own business than a hard time working for someone else.’”
I also try to maximize fun for myself whenever I can. I would not have got[ten] into startups if I didn't enjoy it, so this is important. If I have a day of unpleasant tasks ahead of me, I make sure to add a fun little task that I know I'll enjoy — even if it won't necessarily have the biggest impact.”
Did you have to develop any habits that helped lead you to success? If so, what are they?
“As a technical founder, I really had to train myself to think as a product person and less as an engineer.
This means stopping coding when the solution is ‘good enough’ rather than ‘perfect.’ And focusing more on the marketing and product development parts of running a business.
One of the most important habits I've developed is to try and put myself in my user's shoes and really try to understand the problem they're having. This has resulted in Thankbox being one of the simplest and most pleasant products to use on the market — a point my users continually bring up in reviews.”
What are you most proud of as an entrepreneur?
“Before Thankbox I had another startup, called Curated. It was a social network app for sharing your favourite content. I knew nothing about startups when I built it and made a lot of the classic mistakes — building without validating, not talking to users, and not having a clear monetisation strategy.
It was a painful experience to go through, but I am really proud that I managed to learn from it and bring those lessons to Thankbox. I validated it, built the MVP quickly, and had a clear monetisation plan from the very beginning. It managed to start paying for itself within the first year of its inception, and I am now on track to dedicate myself full time to it soon — a goal I've had ever since I started on this journey.”
More on Thankbox
Thankbox serves as a one-stop solution for choosing, signing, and delivering greeting cards and gift cards.
We were fortunate enough to hear some valuable insights during our interview with Valentin Hinov from the employee engagement startup Thankbox that will inspire, motivate, and teach aspiring and established entrepreneurs alike.