Showing results for 
Search instead for 
Did you mean: 

My first year as an entrepreneur: Carl Thomas of MiPic

New and Networking

My first year as an entrepreneur: Carl Thomas of MiPic

Carl Thomas was the winner of Pitch to Rich 2014, winning over the public and the judges with his innovative platform for monetising mobile images, MiPic - allowing professional and amateur artists to turn their art into a variety of formats and objects. Here he talks about his first year as an entrepreneur, and how winning Pitch To Rich changed his life.

"What started for me as a hobby during uni became a bedroom startup project; now it has become everything!

I thought it would be easy to make a website to showcase my mobile imagery, only my idea was to go a bit further and build a social platform for all of us. As I met the only local web developer in the tiniest Surrey village and held Gumtree interviews in Starbucks with freelance app developers, I had no idea what the outcome of this all would be.

Through my print contacts, I was given the name of a technical director at one of the UK’s largest print companies. One evening after work in a crowded coffee shop in Clapham Junction, I met him, pitching on an iPad with an audience of one old lady and a couple either side. “This sounds great! I’ll start this week on integrating miPic onto our system," he told me. I was elated! We had a social website, app and a product that could now be purchased from any user on our system and manufactured automatically.

After almost 2 years since my original idea and commencing development, juggling a full time job and countless evenings and weekends spent on Skype, came the penny drop moment. I was randomly asked to take part in a Nokia Lumia 1520 phone launch commercial, after a friend of mine rather sneakily put my name forward. They required a 30-year-old architect to feature how we utilize our smart phone cameras in daily life under the tag “what’s your story”. How could I say no! A week later we were filming at Glen Coe in the Scottish Highlands. Despite the unorthodox filming debut, the result was pretty cool and no better way to promote our project than to be named in the latest big mobile device launch.

Out of all the lanky, over-worked, spectacle-wearing 30’something architects in London, why me? This opportunity was the catalyst I needed to give up the security of my salary and believe anything was possible.

The launch

12 months ago I took the plunge, quit my full-time job, and put a ten year education on hold to try my hand at a startup. Way out of my architectural comfort zone, I dived headfirst into the London startup scene armed with my iPhone, and launched an app called miPic.

miPic is a social platform, app and marketplace monetising mobile art and photography as printed art and fashion products, earning miPic users commission for free with every sale.

Despite having no budget for marketing and a survival fund of 5 months in London, thanks to some savvy hashtagging on Instagram and Twitter, the miPic website saw usage in 49 countries in 4 weeks - 64 in month 3, 108 in month 5, and 115 in month 7. This was pretty cool, even with only one print product and UK shipping. It confirmed to us that the idea had global appeal.

The competition

We launched the app with the ability to buy art prints in a tube from other miPic users around the world, but the aim was to expand much further, with dozens of products from multiple manufacturers and digital services. This needed way more development time to expand the app, which meant cash.

Browsing through Eventbrite one miserable morning in March, I happened across a business plan advice meeting at Virgin HQ. Like any other keen new business owner needing valuable advice, I jumped up and headed over for a 9am start… Somewhat disappointingly, the business plan meeting was cancelled and rescheduled for the following week, but I wasn’t in any mood to go straight back home. Staring at the revolving door in reception and somewhat frustrated, I requested to speak with anyone who could give me some advice.

Support staff were locked in meetings, but the receptionist's curiosity stopped me from heading back to Battersea. “What is your business?”

“I’ve just launched an iPhone app and social platform for people to earn from their mobile art and photography via physical and digital products..." I told her.

After a pause and a glance at the logo on my business card, her response was "Follow me, they are gonna love it!”

The two-hour conversation that followed with a superb guy called Andy was the break I jumped out of bed for that morning. He asked if I’d heard of Virgin’s Pitch to Rich competition, giving startups the opportunity to pitch their business to the ultimate entrepreneur, Richard Branson. To enter, I must complete an application form before the closing deadline that same afternoon. Spontaneity and intrigue meant I didn’t think too much about it - I just did it. The two months that followed this snap decision were probably the most nervous and ecstatic experiences I have ever encountered.

miPic were one of 450 UK startups to enter Pitch to Rich, progressing through a video pitch round (watch) and then a semi-final public vote. 21k votes later, miPic made it to the final 3 at Richard Branson’s house in Oxford! Unbelievable…

I faced the daunting task of a 90 second live pitch to Sir Richard and a panel of the UK’s top entrepreneurs; including Not On The High Street Founder, Holly Tucker, Jack Wills Founder Peter Williams, Moonpig founder Nick Jenkins and Instagram influencer @DinaTokio. Despite presenting ideas to audiences as an architect both in uni and later in practice, this was different. I could afford no slip-ups. I had to be clear, concise and pray they all understood my Liverpool accent!

For the first time since entering, what started as fun became a desire to win. I wanted to push myself further out of my comfort zone. The night before, I went to bed in an Oxford hotel at midnight and must have fallen asleep after 2am, with the pitch reverberating around my head. I was up before the alarm and felt like I was heading into the ring for a title fight! I was nervous, continually repeating the pitch in my head during breakfast.

The 4 hours that followed were possibly the most fulfilling moments of my life so far, more than any university degree. Heart in mouth, the pitch seemed to go well and the 90 seconds felt like 10. Questions from the judges were tough because you don’t really know what to expect, so my top piece of advice would be to plan questions in advance.

The immediate adrenaline crash was exhausting, as I’d thought about those five minutes for a month and now we had to wait for the judges decision. It was a privilege to be there amongst other amazing startups; it felt like I was back at uni, seeing similar nerves to my own and wishing everyone well to nail their pitch.

Ushered into a smaller marquee, a tight squeeze for the few hundred audience, the judges arrived. Richard held a picture that I gave to him during the pitch and my mind went into overdrive, wondering why he was holding it. When the result was announced that miPic won the  Innovation and People's Choice awards, I was speechless and humbled. It was validation. The risks and sacrifices made to launch miPic app with a small team and no financial backing had paid off, and it was without doubt - The proudest day of my life. 

We won £5.5k in prize money, but the experience and exposure for me was priceless. Our website was overloaded and our app downloads doubled in one day. The prize money enabled me to continue development on miPic for a few more months in London before embarking on the next challenge of finding investment for the business.

Through the help of Virgin StartUp we secured a Startup Loan to enable further development, and through their endorsements and Pitch to Rich, manufacturers began contacting us to work with them. In December we launched an updated version of miPic BETA with 3 manufacturers on board and a lineup of 8 new products.

We also wanted to give our users and the public the opportunity to invest in the business and become miPic shareholders via a Crowdfunding round. Through Crowdcube, we successfully overfunded and are now completing a £175k seed round to build the brand. Our aim is to grow miPic into the leading platform for the monetization of mobile imagery through a range of services. We aim to propel forward in 2015 with a happy and growing team, and more global users profiting from the platform.

Pitch to Rich 2015

For people thinking of entering this year, the Pitch to Rich UK tour is a fantastic chance to meet like-minded people and learn from successful entrepreneurs that have done it before. Put yourself out there! Check out the free tools that Virgin Media Business are offering; The Big Digital Skills hub is a great free platform for tips and tutorials on digital marketing for your business.

Lastly, for those that make it to the final – practice! For almost a month, I pitched to housemates, random people on trains, sung the pitch in the shower and listened to it on my headphones everywhere. I went over that 90 seconds a thousand times. I’m no expert at pitching, it actually scares the life out of me, but my pitch focused on seven key points:

1. The Strapline

2. The Hook

3. My Story

4. The industry

5. Our traction

6. If we were to win

7. Closing line

I would never have dreamt of taking a sabbatical from my career last year and pitching a business to Richard Branson. Winning Pitch to Rich was the catalyst to move miPic forward, and a life-changing experience.

Dreams do come true; with relentless hard work, determination and belief in yourself, you can make your own luck.

Good luck!"

Fear is an energy: enter Pitch To Rich 2015 today.