Francis Onwumere is the co-founder of Prowork – a collaborative project management solution for organisations. He has a software developer background, although being a tech product founder has led him to several roles; sometimes providing technical leadership and at other times covering grounds in business.
How did Prowork start?
“Before Prowork, we ran a digital agency called Mobnia. We mostly worked remotely because Opeyemi Obembe was serving in Calabar and Ernest Ojeh was shuttling between different cities.” Between all these the company needed to deliver on client projects and on its own products. Mobnia decided to build something that would help gather all of the team’s work and communication around projects in one place. As solving this problem progressed, it was clear other people in the technology industry faced the same challenges.
Tell us about the Journey so far
“We launched in Alpha in April 2012 at Mobile Web West Africa. The idea was to get early adopters so we targeted the alpha at tech aficionados – people who are already in the tech industry such as developers. We thought that people had the same problems we had – working with remote teams and needing to solve collaboration issues. The very first version was very crude. Osita Nwoye was really surprised at how the product looked”.
Prowork kept improving on the design with feedback from early adopters who used the product. In June that year, CCHub had an event called “Open mic Tuesday” – an event for startups to pitch ideas and products they were working on. Prowork was one of such startups. ”We did the pitch and there were a lot of developers in the room. It was a light-bulb moment for people like Chuka Ofili who liked the idea. Especially because we had an open API to hook Prowork with a couple of IDEs”. For developers who wanted to extend the product and tie it to development software, they were excited because it would mean they wouldn’t have to personally follow up on developers for timely updates. “At this time in 2012, there wasn’t a lot of integration like what Slack does. Products were built with this monolithic thinking and they wanted to do everything”
A small number of people signed up and it signalled validation for Prowork. From June, the Prowork team started talking to developer teams and software development houses up until August of 2012 and the numbers were growing steadily.
Initially, Prowork had a free plan that wasn’t prominent on its website. The site’s landing page was tweaked and so the freemium plan wasn’t listed visibly. Most people who went to the pricing page just saw the price and paid. Prowork cost $4 per month per user and the first level was $20 for 4 users in an enterprise team.
In November, Prowork thought to open the funnel and make the free plan more prominent on its landing pages. Francis figured more people would sign up and the company would figure a way to upsell them to paid plans.
Getting Word Out
Before then, the company had pitched at the first edition of DEMO Africa in Kenya and were in talks with BlackBerry Nigeria after a meeting at Mobile Web West Africa. In August, Francis reached out and asked if Prowork would be featured in the BlackBerry App World. At this time in 2012, BlackBerry was the largest smartphone platform in Nigeria.
“It was Interesting then because you could develop for BlackBerry, Android and iOS. We found some software companies had a platform targeted approach based on their type of user.” Francis says the typical BlackBerry user fit the target market. Emerging markets such as the Middle East, South America and Africa didn’t have a lot of competition for enterprise applications. Prowork immediately stood out in BlackBerry’s App World because it was only the second project management application available and eventually got featured in the Nigerian and South African versions of BlackBerry App World.
At Demo Africa, Francis caused a bit of ruckus and made a huge claim by saying Prowork would disrupt Microsoft Project. “Microsoft was a big sponsor of the event and it seemed like we were on stage attacking the company but it was true because now Microsoft has a much better product called Team”.
“We took advantage of Apps Stores, Events, our contacts and the ecosystem”.
How did you convert unpaid customers to paid customers?
“It wasn’t very straightforward because at the time you needed to have a proper sales team. It was clear that the unit economics was difficult to scale”. Prowork had the option of growing paid users or raising money from investors to keep supporting the service.
For a lot of SMEs, project management was a new concept but for larger organisations, they were already using some project management method. Prowork needed to reach these enterprise users. “Unfortunately, those larger organisations paid for Microsoft Project even though they didn’t use it – because it was cumbersome, wasn’t easy to use so they would need a Prince II project management expert in-house to collate reports from staff and feed into the system”. An early customer of Prowork had almost 40 staff pushing reports via email to the project management lead before they signed up.
Unit Economics Again
Prowork realised for larger companies they could sell between hundred to a thousand times what they were selling to small companies. “So it made sense for us to focus on these larger companies for our unit economics. By March 2013 we came out with an Enterprise version and started to push that.”
The SaaS version – the online version was very key to signing up enterprise clients. “We had a lot of people signing up with their corporate email – say a bank email. We would then contact the person and approach them to see if they could take decisions for their whole team and company”.
Francis says acquiring the first few thousand users for a freemium application is easy with guerrilla marketing tactics – the problem is getting them to pay.
“We thought about putting a Billboard up somewhere in VI to advertise Prowork to business users”.
When you wanted to grow to enterprise users did you make a specific note of the types of organisations in industries to talk to or specific people within the organisation?
“We didn’t do that until much later when we had someone to focus on sales so our approach was to segment the market and look at our user acquisition and network and try to fix meetings to understand the organisations and the key decision makers”
“Right now a majority of our large organisation approach is not handled directly by us”. One key thing Francis and his team learnt was that for large organisations it wasn’t just about the quality of the product – the brand was very important as well. “There’s a popular saying that nobody ever got fired for buying a Microsoft product.” Breaking the trust barrier was hard. What Prowork found out(they don’t sell directly to businesses anymore) was that a better option was to bundle the service with a service provider who sold software to large organisations. “Aside from the brand name, the vendor was also important. If you have a vendor who’s been selling you Microsoft and Oracle products and the vendor says there’s this other product, you’re more likely to purchase”. Prowork eventually crossed the bridge using these vendors who already provide value-added services to the potential customers.
Prowork being a privately held company can’t divulge its user statistics but Francis says the service now has a larger number of paying organisations than freemium users.
Do enterprise business then make more sense for your unit economics?
“For the short term, yes but in the long term we still need to figure out how to be in the hands of everybody regardless of structure or organisation”. Bring Your Own Device(BYOD) to work is still a trend in terms of employee behaviour. Companies previously handed employees devices like the BlackBerry even though better phones were being released. They eventually realised that employees would bring the company issued BlackBerry as well as their own iPhone or Android phone to work.
“Looking at the trend for SaaS companies, many SaaS companies start out with freemium models for users and then launch enterprise versions later if people within organisations like it”
Lessons on early stage growth
“One thing that helped us grow was the inbuilt virality when signing up”. First-time users of Prowork would invite other people via email to the platform. The application had a very smooth onboarding process and users only had to enter their email address and password to begin using the application.
Francis had a solid product and he used various innovative ideas to move it to where it needed to be. In order to maximize the profitability of Prowork i.e move from Freemium users to Enterprise, they had to understand the market and locate the strengths and weaknesses of his current user acquisition strategy. He optimized the user experience and targeted his potential customers in a way that was relevant to them so they could build trust.