Valentin Hinov

Founder of Thankbox

Valentin is the founder of Thankbox – a really simple to use online group card and cash collection service. It’s a digital way for lots of lovely people to celebrate one lucky person’s occasion. It’s used for birthdays, weddings, farewells and a lot of other special moments.

Valentin moved from Bulgaria to Scotland in 2010 to study computer games programming. After a stint in the games industry he transitioned to a consultant role – working for various organisations within the Scottish tech ecosystem. He’s always had the startup-bug and has wanted to found his own business.

Valentin has been making his own products ever since leaving university. Following a couple of other startup attempts, Thankbox has become his most successful project yet. Bootstrapping it himself ever since it launched in May 2020, Thankbox has grown into a profitable business which sustains a small team – all while helping bring joy to others.

Where did the idea for Thankbox come from?

As a consultant I’ve worked in many different organisations. Every one of those teams would celebrate things like someone leaving, someone’s birthday or work anniversary by getting a paper card and everyone signing it. There might also be an envelope to collection cash in. I received a few of these myself and I always enjoyed them – they are an important part of a team’s culture.

As an organiser, though, the whole process was always a hassle – buying the card last minute and chasing people to sign it is frustrating. After yet another one of these occasions I thought to myself “there must be a better way to do this, online”. I did some research and found that there was really nothing that covered both aspects of this – both the card and cash collection. That’s when a lightbulb turned on – this is something I can do!

The lockdowns that started happening across the world in March 2020 really forced me to kick my efforts into high gear – it was the perfect opportunity for Thankbox. Everyone was going remote. By May that year the first version was out. It immediately found a receptive market and I’ve been growing and improving it ever since.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My morning starts with getting my daughter ready for school. While she’s having breakfast my wife and I do 15-20 minutes of yoga – just to get the blood flowing as we start our day. After school drop off I do my daily meditation – I’ve been using the Sam Harris Waking Up app and find it really key to kicking off my day right. I then journal for 10 minutes on how the previous day went and what I want from this one.

I’ve got two time-blocks of 30 minutes for email, project management and customer support – one in the morning and one if the afternoon. I try to dedicate as much of the rest of the day as possible for focused work. This might involve coding a new feature, interviewing customers or doubling down on marketing efforts. I always have my daily task list on a post-it visible on my desk to keep me honest and on track for what needs done.

I also try to steal 30 minutes at lunch for a jog – doesn’t always happen but it’s a great mental reset for the middle of the day that leaves me feeling refreshed for the afternoon.

How do you bring ideas to life?

With Thankbox being a consumer product I am obsessed with making my customer’s lives easier. A lot of my ideas come from talking to customers or seeing common frustrations they might have. I often joke with my team that my new features are driven by a need to reduce my daily support emails.

I try to leave space for serendipity. Often I’ve had ideas during a jog as I am listening to a podcast – I then have to stop, jot them down quickly on my phone, and continue my run. Podcasts and books are a continuous source of inspiration for me – I love mixing and matching ideas from different sectors I learn about.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I love how consumers are increasingly expecting and demanding that business be more environmentally conscious. Gone will be the days when businesses will be allowed to not care about the impact of their trade on the environment – people will just not accept that.

We are also seeing the start of “carbon negative” businesses – those that aim beyond net zero emissions. They actively help reverse global warming.

There are big players who are driving this positive change in the market. My favourite one is Stripe, who recently announced their Stripe climate initiative – where they are actively investing in carbon capture technologies.

I am trying to do the same with Thankbox in my own way. We plant a tree for every 10 sale and have planted nearly 2000 by this point. We also have no office, no physical production and all of our servers are 100% renewable powered so we are truly trying to be a carbon negative company.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Having a handle on my schedule. I get distracted very easily so I have been trying to get into the habit of planning my day and sticking with it. When I feel myself getting distracted, I have little desk pomodoro timer that I set for 25 minutes – a way to force myself to focus during that time.

Another great habit is keeping my phone on do not disturb for most of the day – only looking at it during my breaks. Phone notifications destroy your focus time.

What advice would you give your younger self?

“You have more than one shot. You have more time and opportunities than you think you do.”

I just turned 30 this year and this is advice that I would still give myself – because I sometimes forget it. I often feel like my current venture is “the only, most important thing” when the reality is that it’ll be one of several things I do in my life. It’s very helpful to step out of that train of thought for a while and reflect on your life as a whole. It brings perspective and helps reduce anxiety.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

You shouldn’t work on weekends. Startup hustle culture has made it an expectation that any founder worth his salt should be pushing hard on the weekends. I have never agreed with that. The mind needs rest in order to function properly and for that reason I am very protective of my weekends. For me it’s also dedicated family time – it’s when we have long breakfasts, walks and mid-day board games. When I have a nice, restful weekend I feel a lot more motivated to get back to work on Monday and I believe that’s the way it should be.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Talking to customers – in a genuine and curious way. Remember that your business exists to help them and make them happy. I didn’t do it at all at my last startup but I forced myself to do it with this one. And guess what? It’s never stopped paying dividends.

A lot of my early users were people I knew since they found out about Thankbox from me posting on Twitter or LinkedIn. I got as much feedback from them as I could. They really helped me polish and craft Thankbox into the experience it is now.

Ever since then I am constantly talking to my customers – finding out where they came from, how their experience was and how it can be improved. It’s the one thing I think every founder should do consistently to maintain a clear idea how their product is perceived and how well it performs.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Lowering the barrier of entry so people can get started with the product as fast as possible. With Thankbox you don’t even need an account to get started – you just create your card, leave your email and you’re ready to start collecting messages. I don’t even require users pay for the card when they make it – only when they are ready to send it.

These things combined result in Thankbox having a very high purchase rate. Nearly 80% of users who create a card (which is free to create) end up buying it. It’s one of the most liked features of the product and one that I believe helped us secure a strong foothold in this market.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

My last startup was a social media app called Curated. I spent two years on it and learned all the hard lessons one needs to learn when doing their first startup. The main ones being building before validating and not having a clear monetisation or user acquisition strategy. My cofounder and I spent almost a year building it before releasing it – and after we did we struggled to find users.

It was an expensive lesson that made me realize there was a lot more to learn about startups.

When I decided to work on Thankbox I tried to apply all the lessons I’d learned from that venture – I quickly built and MVP, I had a clear monetisation strategy, and I gave myself a clear set of requirements it needed to achieve for me to classify it as a “success”.

I think this is the most any entrepreneur can hope for – each year make less of the mistakes you made the year before – eventually you will achieve success.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I’ve been trying to learn more about cryptocurrencies and Web3 tech in general. The developments in that space are fascinating but it’s still very much only understood by people in tech. I think the best new companies in the next decade will be the ones that successfully democratize and simplify this space to the point where the average person can get involved. I am actively watching progress in this area and it’s where I would point any new tech entrepreneur to.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I bought a pair of high quality in-ear bluetooth headphones – the Cambridge Melomania Earbuds. I love listening to music while I work and podcasts when I run. I hate big bulky headphones so I needed something small that still delivers good sound quality and I have been very happy with these.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I recently started using Helpscout as my customer support management tool and it has been a gamechanger. I used to manage all of my customer support via my inbox and would always feel like I’m not on top of it.

With Helpscout I feel like I am always working my way efficiently through the list and their saved replies feature is a total timesaver. I also appreciate the little motivation messages they have whenever the customer support queue is empty – it really makes me feel like I’ve blasted through them successfully.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Building a Story Brand by Donald Miller. I have used it as a playbook for building out Thankbox as a brand – from its voice, to its design and positioning. The most important lesson from the book is that you should treat your customer as a hero on a journey and your brand as the wise adviser who helps them get to their happy ending. Many brands often make the mistake of positioning themselves as the hero (“look how awesome we are”) and lose sight of the fact that the customer should be at the center.

It’s a book I often come back to and one I would highly recommend to every entrepreneur.

What is your favorite quote?

“You are the average of the 5 people you most associate it”. Whether you consciously know it or not but the people you surround yourself with have a big impact on the way you think and on the decisions you make.

Try to surround yourself with people who are motivated, curious and supportive. The ones with a positive outlook on life, who will charge instead of drain your energy.

Key Learnings:

  • Talk to your customers with a genuine curiosity.
  • Have downtime – be it the weekend or any other time but make sure you have at least a day a week for rest and relaxation.
  • You have more shots than you think you do – you can always try again.