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Name: Mercedes Martínez Villar
What made you decide to start your own business?
I started my professional career in a multinational environment specializing in online marketing and eCommerce. I launched the first B2B in the pharmaceutical industry at a time when having an eCommerce platform was something exceptional. It wasn’t easy, but I made it happen.
Despite all that a multinational environment brings to professional development, I have always been an entrepreneur, and after 23 years of being an employee, I decided to quit and start my own business. I knew it was risky; what I did not imagine is that it was going to be so difficult.
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How did you come up with the idea for your startup?
I was born 55 years ago in a small town in Castile, Spain that offered few opportunities. I always wanted to travel and explore new cultures, so I decided to study English philology—the perfect excuse to spend my summers abroad.
It is surprising that, to this day, cultural exchange is still managed as it was more than 40 years ago, a study-abroad program with several intermediaries and an excessively high cost. The result is that out of 600 million secondary school students worldwide, only 6 million (1%) go on a cultural exchange.
This is the origin of my startup dothegap, a platform that facilitates contact between people with the same interest and enables a real and safe immersion in another culture at minimum cost.
It is a community marketplace aimed at both schools and families, allowing them to create their own community and network of contacts and organize all kinds of cross-cultural activities without intermediaries, at no extra cost.
This is our B2C explained in one minute:
Our B2B offer is aimed at multinationals interested in taking advantage of their global environment by facilitating contact between all their employees and opening access to cultural exchange. This innovative social benefit is being very well received.
Check out our video:
Solving a Need
Who is your startup most useful for?
For students and for schools. We are a community marketplace that offers users the opportunity to connect and enjoy all kinds of cross-cultural activities without intermediaries or extra costs. Our objectives are to normalize the cultural exchange and build a better world, respectful and tolerant of diversity.
What problem does your startup solve, and how would you say it relieves “pain” for your customers?
If only 1% of 600 million high school students have access to international experiences, I would say we definitely have a problem. Cultural exchange is much more than learning a language or studying abroad. It helps us to grow and gain better knowledge of the world; develop respect, tolerance, and empathy; and improve our creative and problem-solving skills thus becoming more resolute. Everybody should have the opportunity to enjoy cultural exchange, which is why we connect people with the same interests to promote a real immersion in another culture at minimum cost.
Have you tried to raise funding? Why or why not?
No, not yet. We launched one year before COVID, so it was not the moment for us to look for investment when traveling was forbidden for two years.
If you’ve tried to raise funding but haven’t yet, why do you think that is? How much are you looking for?
Now we are just focused on getting users in our B2C and clients in our B2B.
Cash Flow and Exits
When is the company expecting to be cash flow-positive?
In one year.
What does a successful exit look like for your business?
I am not thinking about an exit right now. I am focused on getting my business going.
What’s your best financial management or cash flow-related tip for entrepreneurs who are just getting started?
To start any type of business you need money. At least in Spain, nobody invests in “ideas,” so you need money to start your project, develop your product, launch it to market, attract customers (this can take time), and survive. Investments come when you already have customers and want to achieve fast growth. This is quite a lonely journey and requires perseverance and resistance.
What are some marketing strategies that have worked for you?
For marketing on social media, you need a lot of money as well as influencers to help you spread the message. We have not done it as we can’t afford it. We are looking for ambassadors and/or a brand that wants to join us on our mission to democratize cultural exchange.
Was there any strategy that worked well early in the business but isn’t as useful now?
No, everything is useful; the problem is that it takes time to get the expected results.
What are some marketing strategies that didn’t work for you at all?
There aren’t any really. As I said, it is a question of sowing the seeds.
Who do you believe to be your biggest competitors? How do you differ from them?
Our biggest competitors are the indirects, the organizations and agencies that set up programs abroad, because that is what we are used to. Exchange has been this way for more than 40 years.
Therefore, we have to do a lot of educational work to make people understand that cultural exchange can be organized one-on-one, without the need for an intermediary. Thanks to dothegap, you can connect with people from all over the world with the same interests as you and establish a relationship of trust that will enable you to have a successful experience at minimum cost.
Hiring and Employment
How exactly does the company develop talent?
The team is autonomous and, thanks to this management model, very much in line with how a startup is run. We have been able to move the project forward despite the two years of COVID, during which time we have not been able to travel. We are driven by enthusiasm and the willingness to make things happen. We are a multidisciplinary and diverse team that complements each other perfectly, which is why we provide a quality service to our customers.
What criteria do you consider when hiring employees?
We want people who are professional, motivated, enthusiastic, self-sufficient, and eager to contribute to introducing improvements that will make lives better. We want them to be aware of everything they contribute to our project.
What was the toughest problem you didn’t expect when you started? What did you learn from it?
Maybe that I no longer had a team or people who could help me solve issues that I didn’t know how to handle. I have learned that I have more resources than I thought and that I can go as far as I choose because I am not a job description anymore; I am a professional.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your business, and what did you learn from it?
The difficulty of disconnecting and its impact on my personal life. I have learned that success is not measured by business results but by the courage to make things happen, by not being left with only the desire to do something that excites and motivates you.
What does the company’s trajectory look like over the next five years?
I don’t like to give figures, but I can tell you that we will have many young people at an international level enjoying a diversity of cultural exchanges. With regard to our B2B, we will get multinationals to go from seeing our application as “a good idea” to “a must”.
What are the biggest challenges your industry will face in the next five years?
The most important challenge we face at dothegap is convincing families that cultural exchange organized directly, without an intermediary, is safer than delegating it to a third party.
How do you define success for a startup?
Launching a market-relevant project that will attract enough customers to move forward.
What metrics do you consider the most important when monitoring the health of your startup?
Number of customers and satisfaction with the service.
What pieces of technology does your startup swear by?
We used Cocorico to develop the front and backend. We are a marketplace.
What’s the single best piece of business advice that has helped shape who you are as an entrepreneur today, and why?
The most important thing is to believe in your product/service. If you really believe in what you are offering, you can be persuasive and capture the attention of your potential customers.
What’s ONE thing you recommend ALL aspiring or current entrepreneurs do right now to take their business to the next level?
Do not lose the essence of who you are and what you offer.
What’s one thing all entrepreneurs should avoid?
Fear of failure because only those who don’t try fail.
Is there an exclusive TopTierStartups.com coupon code you’d like to provide to readers interested in your product?
Of course, registering and launching an exchange proposal at https://www.dothegap.com/en is free, but to connect with other users, you have to subscribe. If you introduce this promotional code, you will get 20% off. Select the word PROMO and enter DOTHEGAPPROMO.
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