Clustermarket + Forward Studio: navigating an early-stage pivot and building foundations for scale.

November 9, 2021

We welcomed Clustermarket into the Forward portfolio earlier this year. It’s an exciting new investment with clear potential to have disruptive impact on an industry that has been at the forefront of conversation through the COVID-19 pandemic - life sciences research.

Clustermarket is building the world’s leading operating system for life-sciences laboratories. Their goal is to bring the management of research into the digital age, democratise access to expensive equipment and services and ultimately to enable life sciences innovators to get ideas to market faster than ever before. Their award-winning lab management software and resource marketplace help labs to manage, connect and share resources - no matter where they are.

The company was founded in 2015 by a team of three business school colleagues all with personal experience of the limitations and frustrations of ‘modern’ laboratories.The three realised that the cost of equipment and services was a huge barrier to the speed and commercialisation of research. And that expensive equipment would often lie under-utilised. The team initially set out to create a marketplace that would allow researchers to share and monetise expensive equipment and services. However through their early years discovered barriers to adoption - and ultimately to achieving the scale they had hoped for.

In the last two years Clustermarket have shifted the direction of the business - leading them into the successful £3.5M fundraise that brought us together. By the time we met, the team had successfully pivoted and validated the huge potential for scale they always knew existed. We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to work together with them, following their raise, as they took a step back to tackle some big challenges and get ready to realise this potential.

We caught up with the team recently, a few months on, to discuss reflections on their journey to date and our first project together. We’ve pulled together our 6 key takeaways and reflections - as well as an overview of how we put our thinking to work.

“It has been extremely valuable to take a step back. In a startup you hustle every day and rarely find time to really discuss things.” - Tobias, Clustermarket.

We’d love to hear your thoughts - please tweet us with your insight, your stories, or any questions for our studio team.

Key takeaway 1: Listen to your early adopters - you might just find a more fundamental pain-point (and bigger opportunity).

A pivot in the early stages of a high-growth business is common, because as we engage more closely with a growing audience we learn more about their pains and problems - about what they care about, what they think and how they behave.

The Clustermarket team discovered that legacy lab management processes were slowing down research teams - and creating a barrier to innovation. In order to thrive as part of a resource sharing community, labs needed to feel in control of internal lab management - particularly equipment/resource efficiency, utilisation and scheduling.

The team created a simple, yet effective piece of software that would support teams to manage utilisation of and access to equipment and resources in one place. They decided to offer it for free, seeing opportunities both to embed the marketplace into the tool as well as to partner with equipment manufacturers interested in utilisation data coming from the laboratories using their kit.

Bookkit, Clustermarket’s lab management software, was a huge success. In the 18 months before we began working together they saw 20% user growth month on month. Their software was now being used by more than 60,000 scientists across research laboratories in life science companies and universities around the world, including Illumina, Artios Pharma, Tessa Therapeutics, Evonetix, and universities: MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Imperial College London and Cambridge and Oxford.

Key takeaway 2: a successful pivot isn’t your win - it’s the scale that follows (if you’re ready for it).

Many of the businesses we rely on today wouldn’t be in our lives without a pivot early on in their journey. Youtube started out as a dating site and Shopify debuted as an ecommerce site for snowboarding enthusiasts.

Since Eric Ries and Steve Blanc coined the term as part of their exploration of lean startup thinking, the internet has exploded with ‘fail-fast’ pivot success stories. But for every success story there are hundreds that have tried and failed - or perhaps that have succeeded in finding product market fit, only to discover it’s the next bit that trips you up.

The word suggests an effortless glide around a central point of focus into a new space. On the contrary, making such a big change requires completely re-calibrating and re-aligning an internal team around a new vision - often building new products/services from scratch. It also requires serious heavy-lifting from a brand perspective, in order to avoid killing the traction a business has worked so hard to build with early adopters.

In Clustermarket’s case a bold pivot saw the business grow faster in a matter of months than it had done in the 4 years it had been operating. This made the move a success. But this fast rate of growth presented new challenges.

Key takeaway 3: watch out for unnecessary complexity - it creeps up on you.

Clustermarket created a new brand for their lab management software. ‘Bookkit’ had a website of its own and was communicated as one of two products from Clutermarket - distinct from the original marketplace. The approach created a fast route to pushing a clear message and driving acquisition, without needing to explain anything to Clustermarket’s existing audience. After all, a ‘new product’ is easier to explain to your early adopters than a change in direction, which might come across as flighty. The strategy was extremely effective - Bookkit was completely new to the market, and it was easier and cheaper to use than anything else out there.

However, as the user-base grew, this distinction started to create confusion.

Sub-brands can be an effective tool, either when you need to differentiate distinct products sold to the same audience, or when a brand needs to engage a new audience. But blur the lines and users get confused. Clarity and consistency in branding are key to building trust with customers, especially for startup companies in the early stages. So anything that creates confusion can become a real problem. In practice, for Clustermarket, the marketplace and management software have always been features of the same platform - with the same target audience. So although initially creating a separate identity for ‘Bookkit’ reduced friction, it was not easily sustainable long-term.

The team found an increasing number of calls coming in from customers wanting to clarify the relationship between the two products and how to access one or the other. Many customers that had been targeted by Bookkit campaigns were not aware that Bookkit was part of Clustermarket. This complexity in the brand was also causing internal challenges - with the team now operating separate websites, marketing campaigns and social media accounts for each of the products (yet targeting the same audience).

Key takeaway 4: a brand review should give you more than a good-looking set of guidelines - it’s a powerful re-alignment tool.

Your brand is your shared identity. It defines not just how your audience perceives you and connects with you, but how you connect internally and how effectively you work together as a team. When things are moving at breakneck speed it’s easy to fall out of alignment, as each of you is getting on with getting on.

Allowing your team to step outside the day-to-day hustle to reset and re-align is really important. The process and output should empower your team to move forward fast with consistency across all areas of the business. Decisions made through workshops can form the basis of future marketing, SEO, product strategy and development, sales conversations, supplier relations and more.

We worked together with the Clustermarket team over one month to both develop strategic thinking and align key stakeholders, but importantly to put these ideas straight to work.

  • We brought the group together through a series of workshops to align around a shared vision, goals and objectives.
  • We worked to streamline and simplify the Clustermarket brand architecture and narrative.
  • We developed a confident new visual identity and voice.
  • And we applied all of this immediately to, quickly designing and building a new website that consolidated Clustermarket and Bookkit.

Going forward, a consistent narrative will build stronger brand affinity, strengthen positioning in the competitive landscape and also enable the team to work towards ambitious growth targets with greater confidence.

Learn more from our case study, about how we worked with Clustermarket to build a brand set for scale.

“Working with the studio team has been like having a therapist bring us together and guide us in the right direction. We needed an external view of how we think and how we express ourselves - it just wouldn’t work if one of us were to facilitate these conversations.” - Francisco, Clustermarket

Key takeaway 5: It’s easy to become blinkered by short-term growth targets when things are moving fast.

In a competitive marketplace thinking ahead is essential - because you must always be exceeding expectations to survive. A free lab management tool with a great user experience is genuinely revolutionary for many life-sciences labs - right now. But it’s likely not to be for long, and when the market shifts Clustermarket needs to be adding value beyond competition. Your brand narrative plays a key role in enabling the flexibility required to achieve this. Your brand needs allow for change and progress, without it ever feeling jarring or in-authentic.

It’s often short-term growth metrics and targets that are our everyday focus, because they enable us to track progress in real time, make quick decisions and agile moves. This isn’t wrong, but it should be grounded in well-defined long-term objectives that keep actions aligned and everyone thinking ahead to lofty future heights.

Key takeaway 6: timing is important when it comes to making big changes.

Fail fast. Work agile. Test lean. As entrepreneurs, almost anything we read tells us that speed is key. And it is - but there is a caveat. For many businesses there are easier and harder times to make changes. Consider seasonality or major events that might affect demand.

For Clustermarket, late spring was a great time to confront a big challenge, as the industry slows down towards the summer. This gave the team time both to develop and implement new ideas, communicate these to existing customers and start to rebuild traction/SEO at a quieter moment.

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November 9, 2021