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Meet Jess Ruhfus - Founder of Collabosaurus

August 31, 2022 8 min read

Founder of Collabosaurus - Jess Ruhfus

Did you know that brand collaborations are up to 25x less expensive than digital advertising? Collabosaurus was founded in 2015 by Jessica Ruhfus to allow brands to tap into exactly this marketing opportunity.

She believes business collaborations are necessary to build a modern business, gain exposure in new locations, and authentically reach audiences.

We loved chatting with Jess about her secrets to business success and plans for the future.

Tell us about yourself and how you ended up starting Collabosaurus.

I started my career wanting to work in film, so it's funny that I fell into public relations and immensely enjoyed that.

My first job was as a showroom manager for a boutique fashion and lifestyle PR firm. We were constantly pulling together media launch events for fashion clients. Trying to find venue partners, goody bag inclusions and beauty brands to do activations at the event and food and beverage partners, but there was a horrible vibe around attaining free stuff back then.

It was like, “where can we get free stuff from?” It wasn't about the mutual benefit of strategic partnerships that could benefit both brands. My whole PR experience was like the film “Devil Wears Prada" in real life.

It was a bit of a culture shock coming from studying into that new world. I moved into a small business marketing education company job where we took small businesses through a 12-month course on “DIY your marketing”, and partnerships were a massive part of their strategic direction.

So many small businesses weren't doing partnerships because they'd been taken advantage of in the past by a large corporate; that was a common theme back then. They didn't know where to start or were sending terrible pitch emails and not getting any response (unsurprisingly).

Funnily enough, the dating app Tinder was becoming popular at the time. I imagined a tool that would allow you to swipe right or swipe left on exciting brands that you could create a win-win collaboration around and leverage currencies other than cash. I wanted to benefit everyone. That was back in 2014.

How did you pull all of the tech pieces of a software as a service (SaaS) business together?

I had zero background in tech when I started. I probably made some significant mistakes!

I'm glad I didn't make the absolute rookie move of building a mobile app without research. Back then, that would've cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. For example, I met my business partner (at the time) Nick through the like-minded bitches drinking wine Facebook group, which had maybe 50 members at the time. He was running an agency in development. He said to me, “do not build an app”.

I had started with a WordPress platform and overspent on graphic design initially. I had that mentality of building it, and they will come, which is wrong.

I started Collabosaurus initially as a platform for publicists because that's where I'd come from and where I'd experienced the problem first-hand. For the first three and a half years, no publicist used the platform, and the product wasn't serving the customers we were attracting.

We had to build the plane on the way off the ground!

How did you build the startup plane on the fly like that?

For the first two years, it was still working itself out. We redeveloped the website and brand several times.

I think what was beneficial for me is I interviewed a LOT of people:

  • 30% of them were existing clients
  • 30% were clients I wanted to work with
  • The rest were ex-clients. People who'd been on the platform and cancelled

I wanted to figure out why and what the common themes were. Even though that was a very time-consuming exercise, it was worthwhile because it ultimately dictated our next steps and helped define a way forward. Everyone I interviewed was unanimous that the “Tinder for brands” notion was well understood, which was a massive realisation that some of our gut instincts were bang on from the start.

When did you start the popular podcast? Stop, collaborate and listen.

Jess Ruhfus - Stop Collaborate and Listen Podcast

In 2018. I was just binge-listening to a bunch of podcasts, and I loved that on my commute to work. I realised there was no podcast for quick, bite-sized, small business advice, especially anything collaboration-focused.

A lot of education is needed on what brand collaborations are and how they work. Brands must get their head around the opportunities and ways to use collaboration marketing for their businesses.

Did you scale Collabosaurus through collaborations too?

We have attracted over 9,000 brands to the platform. From huge brands like Estee Lauder and Marks and Spencer, it almost looks like an overnight success.

Success really was so inch by inch.

I worked other jobs for the first two and a half, maybe three years. The company wasn't paying my rent, and I honestly did have to chip away at it and evolve.

I tried many different strategies to see what would work. For example, Facebook ads at my previous job were their primary strategy. So when I started Collabosaurus, I was like, “great, we'll do Facebook ads!” They ABSOLUTELY tanked for us; they didn't work at all.

It came down to ensuring our presence at powerful networking events and building fantastic friendships in the industry. Partnerships were significant to our strategy.

We'd run webinars, events, giveaways, and all kinds of social media content series collaborations in partnership with brands that were similar to us at the time, which was super small. And now, looking around, they're all friends in the business that are

Partnerships are core to the strategy of how we could build bit by bit and intentionally access new customer bases.

How has the pandemic and the various lockdowns affected your business?

I think I'm still recovering from burnout. In October last year, I hit a burnout point, which was super stressful. I was like hanging onto the “Christmas is coming, I can have a week off” mentality.

Then, of course, I got COVID during that week. I was super sick, and I hadn't had a break, which was a stressful two years. Sadly, I know so many friends who had to close their businesses through all of this. I know we're fortunate, and we were able to hold on to stay alive and survive the pandemic from a business perspective.

It has taken a huge emotional toll, and I'm still recovering.

When did you move the business to an international market?

In 2018 I wrapped up my hospitality job and headed to San Francisco as part of an Ostra program with nine other cohort members. We did three months in San Francisco, and that time prior, I was like, “right, I need to raise capital for Collabosaurus.

I thought that “you can't possibly grow a software platform without like millions of dollars in capital”, which now I know is not right. But I spent so much time and energy that my ego was ripped to pieces at the end of it. I do love it over there because there's more seed stage investment that goes on. So the conversations you're having are very different.

I still wasn't successful in raising capital.

BUT Walmart signed up to our platform after we continued the relationship building, and that was so exciting validation-wise!

I came home from San Francisco, so tired of money out of hope that I'll ever be able to raise capital, and I almost closed the business.

What was the tipping point?

I had an idea for “the pitch portal”. A feature like a public landing page version of someone's listing that brands can directly pitch to collaborate with other brands.

I did that in 2019, the best year we ever had.

Olay signed up. It was just like a domino effect of great things happening again and again. There was no massive overnight spike; it was just consistent validation that we were onto something and iterating through the research.

Were there any major lessons that the pandemic revealed to you?

One of the major things is to take time to go back (regularly) and look at your role within the business. One of the reasons I burnt out in 2020 was I realised that I spent 90% of my time managing other people.

I couldn't do any of the innovation stuff, any of the product design stuff, any of the stuff that like really lights me up that I love and that I'm good at! It wasn't what I wanted to be doing every day of the week. So I sat down and took the time to reassess the structure, reassess what I'm working on, and track what I was on to get a bird's eye view of, combined with what I like and enjoy.

Every time I work on things I genuinely enjoy, the business grows.

If you ever feel like this isn't what you set out to do, or you're not working on the tasks that make you thrive, take the time and rework it.

At what point did you go from being a one-woman show to having a team of people?

It's such an evolution.

We've gone from two people to six people, to eight people, to 12 people, and now we're back down to six. I think you learn by doing, and you've got to trust your gut and make mistakes along the way.

You've got to give yourself space to try, and don't be too hard on yourself. If you think you need a Marketing Manager, speak with your mentors and networks and hire someone rather than continually delay it, or do the job yourself with limited capacity. Though, I needed to take that advice for Software Developers.

Every couple of months, I'll sit down and look at what I'm spending time on, and I can be like, “oh wow. 60% of my time is on Marketing and 30% of my time's on finance. Maybe I can outsource some of that!” Toggle is a perfect tool because it shows you the analytics of what you are and what you're working on.

Which integral pieces of advice would carry with you every day that you regularly draw upon?

  • Please don't wait for an opportunity; create it.
    • Stuff doesn't just come and fall in your lap if you're not going to do the work.
  • Don't take it too seriously.
    • Don't be too hard on yourself, and remember to enjoy it. Take those opportunities to enjoy it because you go into business to have the freedom and flexibility to do what you love or care about.
  • Don't be too hard on yourself.
    • Rome wasn't built in a day, and no major company you ever look at was ever made in a day. Allow yourself some time and space.
  • Ask yourself: Is it competition or collaboration?
    • Some of my favourite people in business started as collaborators and partnerships in marketing. Shopify just came out with a report this year that Facebook ads have increased by 51% to achieve the same results; it's getting unfeasible. Partnership marketing is where it's at!
Jess Ruhfus - Founder of Collabosaurus

What else is happening for Collabosaurus?

We are building a Shopify app, so anyone with a Shopify store can integrate with Collabosaurus easily and find great partners. We also have a mobile app that we released in March last year, just for paid subscribers, and we're about to remove it so ANYONE can use it. It's going to be a big year!

You can connect with Jess on Linkedin.

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