When Jessica Ruhfus launched Collabosaurus in 2015, she was juggling other jobs in consulting, hospitality and tutoring while getting her start-up business off the ground.
Five years later, and the picture looks quite different.
Ruhfus has since won several awards, including the B&T 30Under30 2019, and is working on collaborations with leading international brands across Australia, USA, Canada, New Zealand and the UK.
To many, it may seem like Ruhfus experienced overnight success, but the journey to where she is today involved truckloads of persistence and putting in the hard yards.
“I remember my boyfriend sitting me down one day and saying ‘you’re earning $25 an hour in a hospitality job, while you’re missing out on clients for Collabosaurus’,” she said.
That’s when Ruhfus knew she had to make the leap. Over the course of two years she slowly left the “safety net” of other jobs so she could focus on her business.
“I don’t think I ever felt super confident about making the leap until after I made the leap, and got the validation of the sales that came through and saw that the time I spent working on the business really paid off,” Ruhfus said.
“But I think it was the right timing because the juggle just became too much. I was the only employee in Collabosaurus at the time. So, it was a nerve-racking decision but when I made it, it was like: if I don’t make this work, I can’t pay rent, so Collabosaurus has to be able to pay me. That was a really great motivation for me.”
Despite the turbulent start to her business, Ruhfus has enjoyed some big wins in recent years.
In 2018, she took on a three-month incubator residency at the AusTrade Landing Pad in San Francisco, and later expanded into the US market after meeting with Estee Lauder Group companies in New York, as well as brands like Walmart.
Filling a gap in the market
Ruhfus started Collabosaurus, a matchmaking platform for brands to collaborate, when she was working in public relations and noticed a gap in the market.
While brand to influencer partnerships were on the rise, Ruhfus couldn’t find anything that facilitated business to business collaborations.
“I could see so many opportunities were getting missed. And if partnerships are done well, they can be so impactful for businesses,” she said.
“Brand to brand collaborations allow you to leverage currencies other than cash – multiple different channels, your services, your products, your email list, whatever you have available to you – to do really clever cross-promotions and brand alignments.”
Collabosaurus ensures that brand to brand collaborations are mutually beneficial and can be leveraged from both sides of the partnership.
One example of a brand collaboration facilitated by Collabosaurus was an event partnership between Topshop and The Dessert Parlour in Melbourne.
Topshop offered event exposure to 500 local students, an email blast to 30,000 subscribers, and social media posts to more than 300,000 fans. The Dessert Parlour offered catering for the event which included beautiful, Instagram-worthy donuts. Both brands benefitted from the collaboration and The Dessert Parlour said that it helped their business “grow like crazy”.
Business challenges and lessons
Like many other business owners, Ruhfus has experienced her fair share of challenges and learning curves.
One of the biggest lessons she learned in her first year of business was that she was targeting the wrong market of potential customers.
“We started out targeting publicists, but no publicists signed up in the first year. All of our early adopters were start-ups and small businesses. And I think publicists didn’t want to sign up with us because we didn’t yet have the big brand case studies and credibility,” Ruhfus said.
“That was totally not what I was expecting. And I initially overspent on the first version of Collabosaurus because I was so convinced that it was going to be a platform for publicists.
“That was a really big learning curve.”
Ruhfus had to reinvest time and money tweaking the platform to cater to start-ups and small businesses, but in hindsight realises it was the best thing for Collabosaurus.
“Because it is a matchmaking platform for brands, it relies on volume. To have matches, there needs to be lots of brands on there so that every business can be matchmade with other brands. So, we couldn’t afford to only work with publicists. We had to focus on growing our database, so in the beginning we were very much a platform for small businesses,” she said.
Once Ruhfus secured deals with larger brands like ASOS and Topshop, Collabosaurus was able to expand to other target markets.
Another valuable lesson that Ruhfus has learned over the years is this: don’t give up too early.
“Everything always takes longer than you expect it to,” she said.
“The most successful businesses have iterated and iterated, and tweaked bit by bit over a fair amount of time, to test and measure whether something is going to work.
“I seriously thought about giving up the business about a year in, when it absolutely wasn’t what I was expecting, and I was working multiple other jobs to keep Collabosaurus going. I almost closed the doors and then that day I got a call from Apple. I felt like that was a sign to keep pushing on. And I’m so glad I did.
“It took a good two and half years to get Collabosaurus properly off the ground and prove that it was absolutely a working product that was adding value. So many businesses give up right before they crack their market fit.”
Ruhfus also had to teach herself to trust the right metrics.
“I think when you start out, it’s really easy to get sucked into vanity metrics, like Instagram following numbers or a big press article, when really you need to be looking at things like your customer acquisition cost, your lifetime value, your churn rate. Once I started focusing on those metrics, I knew how to improve them,” she said.
So, where to from here for Ruhfus? She has her sights set on big growth for Collabosaurus in the near future, and hopes to expand further in international markets.
Now that the wheels are turning and she’s on the right track, it seems there is no stopping Ruhfus from achieving the business goals she has dreamed of.