In this entrepreneurial spotlight, John Newbury, co-founder/COO of Gopher, shares his experience as a first-time tech entrepreneur and his adventures beta-testing the Gopher mobile apps.
In the Entrepreneurial Spotlight series, I uncover insights gleaned from the unique experiences of the movers and shakers in the entrepreneurial ecosystem to inspire, educate and support other entrepreneurs, disruptors, innovators and dreamers.
Hailing originally from Southern California, first-time tech entrepreneur John Newbury and partner Tom Livolsi co-founded Gopher LLC in May 2018, right here in North Carolina. The Holly Springs-based startup serves as a mobile exchange of goods and services, driven by the convenience and price set by one user and accepted by another. Through its custom mobile applications for iOS devices, Gopher gives complete control to the user, free from the limitations of pre-populated goods and services.
How Gopher works:
Using the Gopher Request app, a “Requester” sets the price for what they want, and where/when they want it. The request is then sent to a network of “Gophers.” Gophers see request details, exactly how much money they’ll make, and can choose to fulfill the request through the Gopher Go app. Once the request is complete, the funds are transferred immediately to the Gopher.
1. What was the inspiration behind Gopher?
It’s a hot day and my co-founding partner Tom and I are on the back nine of a public golf course. Food is gone, and we’re almost out of water. But we had our phones. Who could we text to be our food/drink Gopher? Even better, what if there was an app that would deliver whatever we requested, right now, right here?
We couldn’t get any food/drink delivered to us that day on the back nine. But we did see the potential. The very next day, I registered Gopher LLC with the State and got to work. We researched as many on-demand, gig economy companies as possible, looking to see if we could accomplish what we wanted, while still being unique and different. Today I’m happy to say, if you’re on the back nine and you need something, a Gopher can get it!
2. Describe the “collision” that occurred between problem and solution. How strong was that?
As we go about our daily lives, we need things quickly, often at inconvenient times. You could be at work and need something from your spouse, maybe for your child’s appointment that afternoon. Since you work on the other side of town, neither of you has time to drop everything to go pick it up. What are your options? Cancel the appointment? Not when you’ve been waiting for months to get it. Call your friend, who is also busy at work? Highly unlikely.
What you need is a Gopher. Right then. Right there.
Our mission is: whatever you need, whenever you need it, we’ll find a Gopher to get it. What I realized after testing multiple goods/service delivery apps was that the technology often got in the way.
With the food delivery apps, sometimes your favorite restaurant isn’t listed. If it is, there is still a lengthy exchange that takes place behind the scenes. You place your order within the app, it then sends the order to the restaurant, the restaurant has to accept the order, and, while they process it, the app locates a driver to complete your delivery. This back-and-forth only lengthens the time it takes for you to get your order. I am no stranger to ordering delivery via an app, and in one instance, I could have walked to In-N-Out Burger (my favorite restaurant in Southern California), waited in line, ordered, eaten, and done this several times before my order arrived via the delivery service.
It’s about speed, value, and infinite possibilities. You make the request and set the price. The request goes out to the network of Gophers, everyone sees it, and if you, as a Gopher, don’t want to take it, you don’t have to. (We’re introducing a decline/counter function soon which will help establish the value of the requests.)
3. What was your early customer acquisition process like?
Shameless use of social media. We received validation early on that this was something people would use. The vast majority of early adopters are here in the Triangle, but we now have users in 31 states organically from social media and the app referral feature.
We initially thought that we’d get a lot of traction on college campuses. That’s still percolating, but guess what the average age of our users is? Early-to-mid 30s, with lots of adoption among new parents. And there are the completely random requests. As the Chief Gopher and a frequent requester, I’ve cleaned out garages, picked up and delivered diapers, helped move a Christmas tree on Christmas Day for an elderly couple, and even requested a bag of Cheetos at an investor pitch over dinner. It arrived in 15 minutes.
Many of our users live in the same community, so it’s a great opportunity to connect with other community members. We all need a little help every now and then. For all you know, one of your neighbors is at the grocery store and is fulfilling your Gopher request for milk. It’s that simple. And next time, you’ll return the favor.
Probably the most interesting use case was a Requester from New York City. For $40, he was seeking a Gopher in Charleston, SC to drive by his fiancee’s house see if some packages had arrived on her front porch. You never know when and where you may need a Gopher!
4. Share with us the importance of fundraising and the challenges you faced while raising money in North Carolina?
Like many entrepreneurs, we started with friends and family. They saw our passion and excitement for this project. They trust us. And they wanted to participate in building a dream. I’m currently fundraising now. Even though Gopher is my full-time job, we’re still early stage in terms of identifying and pitching investors and firms both here in North Carolina and across our network. While we’re still in beta, we’re asking investors to invest in us and the potential of Gopher vs. EBITDA or the number of transactions in a given month. Fortunately, we have enough data on what it costs to acquire users and execute transactions.
The end game: Clearly we want to grow this into a sustainable business but we built the app because it’s something we love. When I was in college and running low on funds, I’d have hopped onto Gopher for the occasional gig every week, or multiple times per week — instant money without having to commit to a part-time job!
5. What are your top 3 tips for aspiring entrepreneurs?
One: If you’re not a risk-taker and need perfect weather for sailing, run. There will be rough waters. You will have to recognize challenges and solve them quickly. I’m by no means the experienced entrepreneur yet either. This is just my perspective from the last year of grinding it out.
The act of creation is challenging. It’s time, money, testing, asking people for help, making lots of decisions on the fly, getting dirty, and knowing that the ROI for all of this isn’t certain. If you can’t enjoy the journey while working maniacally on making your dream a reality, it’s probably not for you.
Two: Try to make your business fail. Come up with every scenario possible on how it won’t work. If every person you talk to loves the idea, you’re not talking to enough people. Some of our most significant app enhancements came from tough-to-hear feedback.
It’s hard to get customer feedback before you have customers. Prior to launching, we created several focus groups and ran a small market beta test to gather as much feedback as possible. It actually set us back on our original launch date but was well worth it in the end.
Three: Stay ahead of your funds. Give yourself at least a year.
Customer feedback can be overwhelming initially and provoke decisions to pivot or change direction, which gets very expensive. I would recommend not diverting from your core business model unless it’s absolutely necessary. Plan a budget that gives you a 12+ month runway.
To learn how Smashing Boxes helped bring the Gopher Go and Gopher Request apps to life, check out the Gopher case study.
Request something today! Download Gopher Request.
Interested in making a few extra bucks? Download Gopher Go.
About John Newbury
John holds a B.A. in Business from NC Wesleyan with a minor in Finance. He has held key strategic leadership positions for Titan LLC, Fitness Connection, and 24 Hour Fitness. John currently lives in Holly Springs and is a proud father to daughter Ryan. In his free time, he enjoys golfing, softball, and is a fitness enthusiast. John is also a member of the America Cancer Society Leadership Council and has personally raised over $60,000 since 2014 for Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. Connect with John on LinkedIn.