Episode #20 - Yuup

Has society had enough of 'stuff'? Dominic Mills from Yuup

This week Nic and Nat sit down with Dominic Mills, co-founder of Yuup – one of CookiesHQ’s own clients. Yuup is an online marketplace for Bristol-based experiences that launched in September 2020.

The vision for Yuup came from a passionate belief in local communities and the role local people and enterprises have in making them thrive. Dominic had done a lot of reading around the idea of us reaching ‘peak stuff’ as a starting point – that as a society we had accumulated enough stuff, and what we’re actually really interested in doing is going out and experiencing more. But what sets it apart from AirBnB Experiences or Red Letter Days?

Dominic shares the challenges of launching a platform that revolves around bringing people together amidst Covid restrictions, and why Bristol was THE place to start with Yuup. Nic and Nat ask him what he thinks will happen around the drive to shop local once the world opens back up.

Before Yuup,  Dominic had spent 15 years running a successful agency that built products for other people. He describes how he felt about the role reversal, what makes a successful agency/client partnership and his vision for Yuup moving forward.

Join the conversation on the CookiesHQ Twitter. Head over to LinkedIn to find out more on Dominic.

Read the transcript

Nic:
Hello, and welcome to a new episode of the Tough Cookies Podcast. The podcast for Bristol startups and beyond. Today with me is Nathalie as usual.

Nathalie:
Hello.

Nic:
Hello, Nat, how are you?

Nathalie:
Good, thank you.

Nic:
Good. We also have one of our lovely clients, Dominic Mills from a startup called Yuup. Hello, Dominic. How are you?

Dominic:
Hi there. I’m very good, thank you. How are you both?

Nic:
Good. I think we were talking a second ago, it’s a bit mental at the moment, but as the English says, we’re surviving, it’s fine. How is everything in your world? How is lockdown and how is your life in lockdown?

Dominic:
Very busy, which I think is good because I’ve come to the conclusion or came to the conclusion a while ago that was the best way to get through lockdown, just to keep busy.

Nic:
What I do find a bit weird is, I mean, I am a little bit of a workaholic and all these kinds of things, but since that new lockdown, I can’t think about work after seven. I don’t know. This new lockdown is taking a new toll on my brain. Somehow when I get to the end of the day, I need to stop. I need to reset. I need to watch something on telly and then go to sleep. I can’t think about work after six or seven. Maybe the lockdown brain is really a thing after a year, who knows. It feels weird. It’s like the only thing you do is work and rinse and repeat. Somehow, I wonder if there’s an app somewhere that when everything reopens can provide me some excitement and some things to do.

Nathalie:
It’s funny, because I feel like I do a lot more than just work, like homeschooling and cooking and all of that.

Nic:
Yes. I’ve been helping with the homeschooling, but that’s true. But now going back, do you think there is an app somewhere that can help with excitement when the world reopens?

Nathalie:
Maybe there is.

Dominic:
I see where you’re going with that.

Nic:
It’s my new way of trying to do an intro. So Dominic, would you like to introduce yourself, and maybe tell us a little bit more about Yuup?

Dominic:
Yeah, sure. Very happy to. So I’m Dominic and I’m one of the co-founders of a fantastic business called Yuup, which we started last January. Essentially Yuup is an online marketplace for experiences. So to help customers discover, book and gift fun, unique things to do in Bristol. Very importantly to help local people and businesses create and promote experiences. Some of those people are people who might already be hosting experiences, and our job is to help them discover new customers or unlock new revenue. But for many other hosts, it’s about supporting them in creating an experience for a first time, perhaps launching their first small business, which is an incredibly exciting and rewarding thing to do. So we finally launched last September with 40 hosts. Obviously when we started in January, didn’t know there was a pandemic just around the corner. But we’ve been really blown away by how Bristol has responded to the launch, and in particular the way that the hosts have got on board with Yuup over those initial few months.

Nic:
So do you think Bristol was the place to launch a business like this one?

Dominic:
Well, I guess I’m biased because Bristol is home and I’ve lived here for, I think, 17 years. But that’s aside, I honestly can’t think of a better place to do it. Because I think Bristol has a very unique identity in terms of its creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. I’ve always felt that, but in fact, over the course of the last year as COVID emerged and we’ve collectively been through a set of challenges like no other, I think Bristol has really risen to that challenge in terms of the way that people have rallied around and supported each other in their local communities. Which from Yuup’s perspective is fantastic because supporting locals was a big premise of our original idea. Of course that has never been more important than it has become over the last year.

Nathalie:
Yeah, there has been a shift hasn’t there to go to your local greengrocer or buying your wine through your local wine seller, and then going to the supermarket all the time. I think it’s everywhere in the UK, but yeah, in Bristol there’s so many small businesses and people out there doing amazing things. That said, obviously Yuup is all based around experiences and face to face and this human connection, which is pretty much non-existent at the moment, and we’re all doing everything through a screen. So that obviously affected your launch and everything since the launch. So can you tell us a bit more about how that was and how you dealt with it?

Dominic:
Yeah, sure. So that physical connection, as you put it, is something that is hugely important to Yuup, but even outside of our business, we think it’s something that is very important to communities and local people. When we were in the very early stages of our journey, I read a lot around the subject, as you would imagine. One of the things I discovered was this idea of peak stuff. The fact that we’d all got to the place where as a society we had accumulated enough stuff, and actually what we were really interested in doing is going out and experiencing more. That was really the starting point.

Dominic:
But of course, as you say, Nathalie, what we discovered during the early days of lockdown was that there was going to be no such thing as normal trading. And in fact, over the first 100 days of trading, we worked out there were only 23 days where we were operating without some kind of lockdown or tier restriction. So that could have been a big setback, but actually what we’ve seen is this huge acceleration of people’s focus on local. As you say, everybody being a lot more committed to all things local and going to their local greengrocer and supporting those sorts of businesses where perhaps previously they did not.

Nathalie:
Yeah. And wanting to go out when you can as well. Obviously we’re now in lockdown and we can’t go anywhere and we can’t do anything, but I think there’s this eagerness of doing something once we’re out. We’ve been in and out of lockdown for many months now, too. I did it, I did an experience with Timmy and Alice during half term last year, just because we could, and it was something fun to do. It’s a great thing. It was really well organized. It was all obviously safe and small groups and all of that, but I think we all have this eagerness to just do stuff instead of being at home constantly.

Nic:
I wonder how, I mean, this whole shift around local consumption, which we had… I mean, I would say to some extent we were really looking to trying to shop local and local greengrocers and everything even before COVID. But I’m wondering how much that is going to sustain once the world reopens, once COVID is not there. Are people going to definitely understand that our local high street needs us, or are they going to go back to, “I want my convenience back, and I want to order from my big shops and Amazons and everything now that the world has reopened,” basically? Is convenience going to trump versus the sense of community? I just don’t know where the world is going to go in the next 12 to 24 months.

Dominic:
I’m hoping that people will remember this time, and that will inform their future behavior. It’s interesting you talk about convenient, because in fact what could be more convenient than walking along your local high street, or walk into your corner shop and picking up the thing you need? Why is that less convenient than having it delivered to your front door?

Nic:
I guess it’s because it requires an organization. You have to plan to go out, you have to plan to go to the high street. You have to get into a shop, and you have to know what you want, and then you have to get out and pay and all that, which to some extent you can do it with your laptop, your tablet, your phone on the sofa, and ordering from all across the globe. Which I’m certainly not rooting for. It’s not really the way I like to shop, but Amazon has obviously exploded since the beginning of lockdown. So there is something there.

Nic:
I’m wondering if people will have now realized the detrimental effect it has, those big online shopping versus the home and local. Maybe we’re going to see a shift in the high street, especially with the whole lockdown, people are looking to move outside of the cities. So there’s going to be a regain of interest for smaller communities, smaller villages, smaller towns. So maybe they will see a regain. Yeah, I don’t know. I guess I’m not an expert on those, but.

Dominic:
I’m going to go out on a limb here and I’m going to suggest that once lockdown is over, we’re all going to want to get out there and do stuff. More stuff than ever before.

Nic:
That is for sure. Yeah.

Dominic:
If you think about when you go to your local cafe to pick up a coffee, part of the reason you go there is because they make great coffee and you like the coffee. But actually for me, a lot of that, which maybe I didn’t really appreciate before COVID, is about the fact that there are nice people serving the coffee and I enjoy having a chat with them and hearing about what they’re up to. I think this whole experience will have reminded many of us of those things and those small interactions and parts of our day that are incredibly important. Equally from a Yuup perspective, the things that we’ve missed out on over many months now with family and friends, being able to get back to those things and have these kind of meetups face-to-face that we’ve missed out on. Everybody realizes now just how important they are.

Nic:
When we started to talk together, I think it was in January probably last year, January, February, last year, when you were looking for a team to build Yuup, I remember you were really focusing towards the local stores, the quirky experiences. I don’t think I appreciated in our first chat soon enough this importance in your eyes of the local economy. I was wondering, is there a place for Yuup when you have red letter days, you have Airbnb experiences, and you have all those other platforms that do offer experience. I was still wondering, is there a place for Yuup, obviously now that Yuup is live, I can clearly see the difference, but can you talk us through what was your thought process when you were looking at the other competitors and how you were looking to differentiate yourself?

Dominic:
Yeah, sure. So you’re right, there are other companies offering experiences, but we think the thing that makes Yuup different is that we are very much focused on local. So local experiences for people to do in their own communities. It felt like there was a big opportunity there, to connect local businesses or individuals with a side hustle with local customers. In doing so build more resilient communities. That’s really the essence of the idea, in providing a platform that enables individuals who have a passion or a side hustle to share that with others. That idea of creating a marketplace where as an individual with an idea, you can be as prominent as a very well-established business. That’s the thing that will create diversity and range, and both help those people generate a source of income, but also give the people at Bristol the greatest range of really cool things to do in their spare time. As I said, I have lived in Bristol for 17 years. What this has made me realize is just how much stuff happens in Bristol that I wasn’t aware of.

Nic:
There are a lot of really cool things to do over there. When you browse the app you just find stuff that you didn’t know existed on your doorstep. Yeah, I can’t wait for the first reopen to be able to buy at least half of them.

Dominic:
I’ll hold you to that.

Nic:
Yeah, I know there is some sheep herding somewhere in the pipeline.

Dominic:
There is.

Nic:
I hope it’s going to come one day. How do you select your hosts? Do you have a certain process? how do you vet them and how do you get to select, okay, these hosts is perfect for us?

Dominic:
So for us, the key to a great host is someone who is passionate about what they do, because if you spend time with someone, and that’s why for us the face-to-face element is so important, you want to share that passion. You want to learn about the thing, whether it’s a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, very literally, weaving, welding, dancing, musicians. You want to spend time with people who are passionate about their thing, and they’re passionate about sharing it with you. So for us, that’s the absolute core of it. Then beyond that, it comes down to creating the broadest possible range of experiences that we can. One of the things that we’ve done is to get out into a very wide range of communities in Bristol to discover that kind of breadth, if you like. That’s where we find many of the most interesting and undiscovered experiences.

Nic:
What was the response from the host when they learned the first time about your platform?

Dominic:
I guess it’s changed over time, is the honest answer. So back at the beginning, to be honest it was a tough sell because you’re trying to share a vision for a platform or a product with people that at that point you can’t show them because you guys were still building it. But gradually we established a core of initial hosts who really got behind the idea and were very supportive, and it grew from there. What we’re now seeing of course is the network effect with existing hosts. You’ve seen the value in using the platform, referring and bringing other hosts on board, which is amazing.

Nic:
In this lockdown time, how do you sell or how do you market and how do you go out there to bring people on something that you know ultimately you can sell, but you can’t sell. What is going on on a day to day from a marketing perspective and from a sales perspective on Yuup?

Dominic:
Yeah, you mean you can’t sell because we’re in a lockdown?

Nic:
Yes.

Nathalie:
They can’t do the experiences.

Nic:
You can’t do the experiences. Exactly.

Nathalie:
You can buy them to do later, but you can’t actually do anything.

Nic:
From a marketing and sales standpoint, it must be actually a very interesting challenge. How do you get people to understand and go behind the vision, even if realistically, you can’t have the impulse buy of, “Oh, I really want to do that this weekend,” or, “This is Nat’s birthday at the end of the month, and I’m going to buy an experience for Nathalie to do on her birthday.” You can’t do that. You have to plan ahead.

Dominic:
Yeah, absolutely. So we’ve seen significant numbers of people buying for gifts. So for example, in the run-up to Christmas, we saw a thousand, literally just over a thousand people buy experiences as gifts, which was fantastic. This week, for example, we’re seeing high demand for people buying Valentine’s gifts. Clearly this platform is about so much more than gifting and buying now to schedule later. Ultimately once we get out of lockdown, we hope that people will be able to get back to what they were doing in October and November, which was thinking about what they’re going to do this weekend with friends or family, and using that as an opportunity to discover things to do just a few days ahead.

Nic:
What’s the grand vision for Yuup?

Dominic:
Well, right now it’s all about Bristol, but ultimately I would like us to be able to replicate this concept in towns and cities all across the UK. Because I think there’s a huge opportunity to help communities and literally to see thousands of hosts sharing their passion, generating an income, and enabling people to discover things on their doorsteps that they just did not know about. If we can do that, then that will be pretty fantastic. But for now we are very much focused on Bristol, and wherever we get to, we’ll always be very proud of the fact that this thing was made in Bristol.

Nic:
And is a sticker, made in Bristol.

Nathalie:
There is a sticker, literally.

Dominic:
I’ll send you some.

Nathalie:
So it’s funny, because we like to follow what our clients do on social media, and have a bit of perspective and see what people think and what they say about the app and the service. I guess it’s informal market research, we will call it. We’ve noticed with Nic, that actually quite a few people have mentioned about the prices being really high for some experiences. Even though clearly they were attracted with the look of the experiences or the titles at first sight, once they got in, they were a bit taken aback and were like, “Oh, maybe that’s not for me after all.” Is there anything that you have to say about this and do you think it’s fair?

Dominic:
That’s a really good question. So I think the first thing to say is that all of the experience prices are set by hosts. So they’re setting the price based on their understanding of the market. So Yuup aren’t mandating prices, we very much rely on our host to guide and set that. But the second is one of the things that I believe will ultimately make Yuup a successful community is the range. So the fact that you can choose an experience for 10 pounds to do perhaps at the weekend, but equally you could choose a once in a lifetime experience to do for a special occasion for 300 pounds with a Michelin star chef for the sake of argument, and there’s everything in between. I think the average price point is in the mid thirties, £35 mark. But the key for me is that range, and the fact that we are inclusive, and if someone wants to host an experience on Yuup, that we’re supportive and encouraging of them to do so.

Nathalie:
Yeah, potentially there’s quite a few group experiences, obviously small group experiences as well, which is exactly why you’re going, and the whole thought of going out with your friends and family and doing something all together. Mostly you can go and do things as individual, but sometimes you just want to be together and do stuff with other people. It’s funny because I’ll see very regularly new experiences and I’ll just click on them, curious to see, because it is very attractive, as you said, it’s very quirky. The offer, I think, is very wide. It’s very interesting, especially when it’s just literally out there and you can book it to do almost immediately.

Nic:
I’m a guy and I have to buy presents sometimes.

Nathalie:
It’s my birthday soon.

Nic:
I’ve been scouting those websites that offers experiences or whatever. It’s the most uninspiring things that you do. If sometime I buy an experience, I always hate myself when I do it. Because most of the time, this is just such a generic spa day or whatever. Since Yuup is there, I know that this is going to be so different. I know that when the person is going to receive that gift, I can choose something, it has a connection link to this person that sometimes you don’t have with experience.

Nic:
Like buying a spa gift to a person is nice, but not everybody is massively passionate about massages for example. But I know that if tomorrow somebody really likes to do something with their hands, I can go on the app and I can find some weaving experiences or some pallet building things or some candle making. It’s so much more fun to offer something like that than just a spa day or something of that similar vein, that has a really nice image on the front. But at the end of the day, you know that the person was late buying the gift and therefore they reverted to something that they can donate and print. On Yuup there is an effort into mixing who you’re going to give to and what you’re going to buy. You can actually make a much better gift, even if it’s still a gift voucher. It has a connection to me. At least that’s the way I see it. So expect a gift voucher for your birthday.

Nathalie:
I gave you a wishlist.

Dominic:
I hope that was a wishlist created on Yuup.

Nathalie:
Yes it was.

Nic:
Yes, she shared the wishlist with me and I know exactly what she’s been looking for. So that’s great. I had one question, which is more based on your background and the way we work together. So one thing that you probably haven’t presented in your background is that in the past you have run successful businesses. One of those business was running an agency. So before you were building products for other people, but today you’re having your product being built by other people for yourself. How does it feel to change seat and to be on the other side? Because certainly from our own perspective, we found someone who clearly understands what we go through on a day to day, understands the intricacies of building a product for a client, and understand that sometimes things go a bit faster, sometimes it goes a bit slower, and we find a lot of mutual respect. On your side, how does it look like to get your product done by somebody else? It’d be like a builder getting his house done by somebody else. It must be a really strange experience.

Dominic:
It’s a refreshing experience, because obviously as you said I spent whatever, 15 years building and running agencies, and to be able to take some of that experience and build a product of our own is really exciting. I think you’re right, that having worked in that space before, it hopefully makes me more understanding as a client. But also I think it made it easier to choose an agency partner. It’s very easy when you go out and look for an agency partner to kind of make a shopping list of all the skills you need, UX, tech, how to build a product, those sorts of things. But ultimately I think what makes a good partnership between an agency and a client is that you are aligned in terms of your way of working and almost your attitude and approach to things.

Dominic:
In our case, we had a shared commitment to create a product that our users really appreciate and value, and also a very pragmatic business oriented view on it. So not getting hung up on list of features, but thinking about why our users, be they customers or hosts are using this thing. Therefore what’s going to make a great product. So I think that kind of shared understanding has really helped us in working together.

Nathalie:
Yeah, it’s even more tricky in the marketplace app because you have two kinds of users. You have the customers who will purchase the product, but you also have your hosts, and they have very different needs. They have very different journeys. You need to be able to manage both really carefully, because obviously both need to be looked after, but they will require very different features from the app. Obviously you need to be able to manage that properly. One thing I’ve found is actually you seem to be very organized in how you want things done and everything is thought through properly. That probably comes with experience that you’ve had before. On the other hand, obviously, you know how the sausage is made. So on that side, not that we’re not transparent with any other client. It’s also the way we work anyway. But there’s this being conscious that you do know what’s going on behind the scenes. There’s understanding but there’s also, not pressure, but a bit of we can’t mess up basically, we’re here, he knows exactly what’s going on.

Nathalie:
It was a long project. I mean, a marketplace is a big thing to build, and it was made entirely from scratch. So it was weeks, months of building and getting it there. As you said, I think you do need that relationship. We spoke twice a week for six months, I think, every week. If you don’t get on with the people in the team, then it’s never going to work. So you do need that respect and that understanding, and being able to just get along. I don’t think we’ve been in a room together many times, you brought it up, what, two, three times?

Dominic:
Twice, yeah.

Nic:
Yeah, at the beginning of the project, and then-

Nathalie:
It makes things even worse because it’s all over video. So it’s even weirder, with everything that we’ve been going through on our side and your side. But yeah, I’m really glad that it worked out.

Nic:
I have to say, you were talking about how the sausage is made, and obviously you Dominic having been in our position, but I probably have never shared that with you, very early on pre us talking together, like, “Hey, can we work together?” Then very early on when we started, I did feel a huge pressure working with you. Not that you were putting on pressure, it’s almost like I had something to prove. You were coming from such a world that we almost aspire to go somehow, like a larger kind of business type. I did feel a huge pressure, we have something to prove. We really have to impress this team because we are the small fish here and we really want to impress the big ones. So yeah, that was really our mindset originally, or at least that’s the way I did… I did feel it.

Dominic:
I didn’t come across, Nic.

Nic:
I’m sure it did not. I think it did a bit.

Nathalie:
It’s been a great time actually, and a lot was achieved in the past year. Because I think it has been a year now almost. It’s great to see that you’re still carrying on, and actually the hosts are clearly onboarding, and the customers are there, so we’ve seen it grow. Yeah, it’s been a good journey.

Nic:
During the run up for this podcast, we typically do a call with the panelists, and we prepare the questions and we rehearse a bit. So that was a couple of weeks ago. Dominic, you said that Cookies care more and execute better. This is becoming my favorite tagline. I think we are thinking about reviewing our tagline and value to use that word care more. Because for so long, I really hate this kind of like inspirational words, like technology driven or whatever, those kind of words that mean everything and nothing, but the word care really resonated with me. In the next few weeks, I think you could hear me more talking about care all along. But what we do care about, oops, sorry, what were you going to say, Dominic?

Dominic:
I was just going to say that’s great to hear. I think it’s very apt for Cookies. I think going above and beyond is characteristic of the team, even when you’re on your family holiday in France.

Nic:
It did happen. But one thing that we do care about, and I think that’s the reason why we started this podcast originally, is we do care about the Bristol ecosystem and we really want to help the Bristol founders, the Bristol startups, to understand more what it is to run a startup, and also to understand more how an agency works. That’s why these podcasts are like two sides, behind the screens with Nathalie and I that talks about what’s going on in the business, and then talking to startup founders. So do you have any tips or recommendations that you would give, now having gone through for a year through the startup journey, building an app for startup founders and maybe possibly specific to Bristol, any tips for them?

Dominic:
Good question. So I think probably two things. First of all, around momentum. So one of the things that we’ve learned is the importance of both building and maintaining momentum. What I mean by that is having a few simple, really clear goals, and then generating the momentum to achieve them. The reason I think that’s so important is because what you get then is a whole level of energy and focus that almost has a multiplier effect. Which at that stage or any stage in a business, but particularly at that early stage is so powerful. At the same time, of course, being open to learning and not being blinkered to the fact that sometimes you do need to pivot and sometimes you need to be agile in your approach. So we are secondly obsessed with learning, both from what the data’s telling us, so looking at key metrics, and they are hugely important to us on a daily basis. But to your Bristol point, I can honestly say that I’ve learned the most in this journey with Yuup from the communities we’re working with.

Dominic:
So the feedback we get from hosts, from customers, from interested third parties, and it’s that feedback that informs pretty much everything we do. That is hugely important, because that’s what Yuup is about. This business isn’t about us. It’s about supporting people and communities in Bristol to be able to share their passions and able to generate income. If we can be working really collaboratively with those communities, then we’ll be most successful in achieving our goal of supporting as many individuals and small businesses as possible.

Nic:
Which experience have you booked for when the world reopens? Where’s your next experience on Yuup that you’re going to do, or you’re most looking forward to do?

Dominic:
So probably one of the baking experiences. I want to do one of Bryony’s baking experiences, because I’ve heard great things about that. But to be honest, there are so many, it’s very difficult to choose. The longer the list gets, the more time I’m going to have to set aside to do them.

Nic:
I’m not going to reveal which one Nat and I are going to do because that’s a birthday treat. I’m not going to reveal that. But I think-

Nathalie:
You know I’ve got access to the admin, right?

Nic:
True. But I have access to the administrator. So maybe I have another name. Maybe I have another.

Nathalie:
An alias.

Nic:
An alias. So yeah, I think that marks the end of the podcast. Dominic, thank you very much for having talked to us. I think we said we may have a follow-up podcast in the next couple of weeks or month more geared toward agencies, because I have so many questions to ask you on how to grow an agency. That’s something I want to ask, but thank you very much for appearing here today. Nathalie, thank you.

Nathalie:
Well, thank you, and thank you Dominic for talking to us today.

Nic:
Thank you very much.

Dominic:
Thank you both.

Nic:
Have a nice day. Bye.

Nathalie:
Bye.

Dominic:
Bye.

This podcast was brought to you by CookiesHQ, a Bristol-based software agency who builds apps and websites for early stage founders and growing startups. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, you can drop us a message @thecookiesHQ on Twitter, or head to www.cookieshq.co.uk/podcast for more episodes.

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