If you’re a freshly-minted entrepreneur, you must have heard how important it is to validate your business idea and regularly consult with the target audience. Getting users to share their feedback is not always easy – but what if we told you that there are situations in which, as an industry professional, you could be on both sides of the fence? Because sometimes, you actually can be your user.
Meet Alexis Wicén, who used his long e-gaming experience to launch Unibo, a powerful yet user-friendly system for increasing player engagement and retention. In our conversation, Alexis told us all about combining the perspective of both the system’s user and creator and the challenges that an early-stage startup founder has to face.
You launched Unibo in May 2018. How did you decide to bring to life your own gamification & casino management system?
Back in 2018, I had extensive experience in the e-gaming business. I've been a product manager for an iGaming platform for a couple of years. My colleagues also understood how such systems work and knew their way around them. At that point, we wanted to build something on our own.
It’s said that knowing the industry inside out is always an advantage when you’re launching a startup. Was that your impression as well?
If you're working in the industry that you've provided a service or a system to before, you're obviously better at knowing whether it is or isn't needed. I think many smaller apps go down that road that there's someone who believes their product is necessary, but in fact, it isn't the case.
Does that mean that your professional experience made it much easier for you to validate the business idea for Unibo?
It definitely helped. From my point of view, you need to think it through before you start building something. You have to make sure there's somebody who wants to buy the product you're providing and know that it's not only you who thought there's someone out there who needs it.
Having worked in the online betting industry, we knew what sells well, what’s missing, what our competition can offer, and what our target audience expects. In fact, when we started Unibo, we launched two companies simultaneously: one building the product, Unibo, and one buying it, Scatters.
That’s pretty unusual. What was your experience of being on both sides of the fence?
Having ourselves as one of the clients, we've been able to find flaws within the system faster. If you only sell a product or a service to someone and expect your end-customers to tell you what's wrong with the system all the time, you're going to have a hard time identifying all the wrong sides.
You’re right; sometimes, it’s hard to get the end users talking in the first place. From what you’re saying, I guess that customer feedback is vital for you?
Of course! I'd say user feedback is critical if you want to improve the product all the time. We're using the platform ourselves, so we have a direct line to our user feedback, but a few of our customers are very good at coming up with insights regarding the product and potential new features. This allows us to stay objective.
To stay competitive, you need to not only listen to your customers but also keep an eye on the new tech solutions. How do you ensure that the product you're building now stays functional and high-performant as time passes?
We use Merix!
Glad to hear that!
Seriously, it's something we're looking for in a development company to assist us in choosing the right tools and knowing when to move to new technology. Keeping up to date is also a matter of using the right programs to track issues with your software – and that’s something you help us do as well.
To launch Unibo, you had to assemble a tech team to build the system in the first place. This could go both ways: you could either hire in-house or outsource. Why did you choose to do the latter?
We were a completely new startup back in the day, and outsourcing allowed us to expand a team quickly. This way, we could start with a smaller team and grow if the need comes. On the other hand, if you have your own team, you have to find good people first.
What does it mean for you to “find good people”?
When we started Unibo, we did look at different teams from different areas of the world. We were talking to one in California, one in London, and one here in Poland. And then, there were also companies in Belarus and Ukraine.
We noticed that the farther East you went, the less impact on the product the tech team wanted to have. Companies there wanted you to tell them exactly what you want so they could build it accordingly. At the same time, the farther West you went, the more impact the tech partner wanted to have on your project.
My guess is, you wanted neither?
Extremes rarely work out. We managed to find a middle way in Poland. Here, we have both good technical expertise and willingness to learn about the project. American would tell us, "We'll take your idea and see you again in two years with a finished product". Ukrainians wanted us to micromanage the tech team and make sure the software is coded in the right way daily. On the other hand, the Polish team is ready to negotiate and discuss ideas.
First workshop with Unibo at Merixstudio
Would you attribute this openness to the cooperation model? We’re working in a dedicated team mode, which is basically like having a group of Merixstudio’s devs focus entirely on Unibo.
I believe so. Before launching Unibo, we talked to various outsourcing companies. We wanted to go for a dedicated team model from the start because of the closer relationship with the team working on the project from A to Z project. Unibo is a long-term endeavor for us, so we want to have people truly on board and engaged in this project.
Sounds like a dream come true. Where’s the catch?
You have the opportunity to work closely with the same people for a longer time, but it's actually a mixed blessing. Losing a person will have a more brutal impact on your dedicated team. I think it also depends on the size: if you're a smaller team losing a player, it's tougher for you than for a bigger squad. If you're working in a non-dedicated team model, it hardly ever becomes an issue.
Now that you mentioned the almost family-like bonds within the team, I started wondering how the way you work affects them. You’re based in Malta, and our team works mostly from Poznań. Doesn’t the distance make things harder?
Not really. We started before the pandemic stroke, which gave us a chance to work together in person. We had enough time to work on our communication skills, which meant we had a much easier time when Covid-19 came. We haven't been here (in Poland) for two years, and now we're visiting again to set the new path for the project moving forward.
How does this new path differ from the one you’ve been walking so far?
Right now, we're moving in an expansion stage, and we're getting many more customers on board. We're live with 13 or 14 customers now, and we're 2 - 3 more sites each month. Such growth is great, but it takes a toll on the development time as you have to focus on building the system and getting new customers live.
Right now, we can't expand the tech team, so the development speed is slightly lower. There are also the priority issues and the tech debt, which is natural. Being able to deliver a good product while taking care of its growth is generally a big challenge.
I’m sure it is, but you seem to be doing just fine! What are your plans for the near future?
We're hoping to grow and expand our team at Merixstudio. That would be the next step towards becoming a medium-large company. We also hope to have more customers and deliver more engagement to our end users.
Now that you’ve mentioned expanding Merixstudio’s team in the future and bearing in mind that we’ve been working together for a while, I can’t help but wonder: what’s the secret to a fruitful long-term relationship with a tech partner?
From my perspective, feeling secure and being able to expand the team are the key things. Then, having high-quality code and work being done is also important.
We’ve worked with Merix for a couple of years now and I think we’ve found this sweet spot between total ownership and being guided by the client’s needs. I guess that’s the recipe.
To learn more about what it takes to successfully launch your digital business, view our startup-themed content collection.