As Co-founder of Hassle.com, Alex Depledge outlined Hassle.com’s focus on building a people oriented startup company. Alex talks about her journey as founder of Hassle, an online cleaning service and a pioneer in the on-demand economy.
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Alex Depledge, Hassle.com: Hi! My name is Alex Depledge and I’m the CEO and co-founder of hassle.com. So hassle’s dead sexy, we do cleaning – so we’re basically the world’s largest marketplace for independent domestic cleaning. So about 60 seconds you can come to our website, unfortunately not in Cambridge, pop in your postcode and we’ll show you a range of cleaners that are available in your area that we’ve pre-vetted and you can read their reviews, book them online. You know the drill.
There’s lots of people doing this now, there wasn’t a lot of people doing this three years ago when we started. Actually we didn’t start 3 years ago, we started 10 years ago with this clown, my best friend and co-founder Jules Coleman. I’m not gonna start 10 years ago, because I stand up and talk about our story a lot, so you can see all over the internet making an ass of myself generally on film, but what I wanted to do or what Mark has asked me to do, is take you through what building a people oriented style of company looks like.
So if we fast forward from 10 years to about 3 years ago. It’s very fitting that I’m here doing this talk, because Mark has had an instrumental part in my life, even if he doesn’t know it because basically – you know when you look back in time and you think through the major things that if it hadn’t happened, where would you be? Our first cornerstone was one day Jules said to me, oh there’s this guy called Eric Ries and he’s written this book called the lean start-up and he’s speaking at the Mermaid centre for the for something called the BLN and I was like well let’s get tickets and go along.
So off we went and it was pivotal because we learned a few things. We learned we didn’t fit in cause we didn’t look like anyone else. I had a suit on and a backpack because I’d just come from my corporate job and Jules looked the same and there was just all these people in hoodies and trainers being all cool and we were like, ok, sat in the corner. So we’re not very cool. We didn’t dress appropriately.
We learned that we know nothing about business which was kind of sad because we had been kicking around this business idea for about a year but listened to what everyone was doing. We were like we’re kind out of our depth here. And we also learned that we didn’t know what an accelerator was, which we never even heard of Y Combinator at this time. So three years ago we were greener than green can be and Facebook hadn’t arrived and tech city wasn’t there and it wasn’t as hyped as being in a start-up and I’m really glad actually because I think if they had been, we probably would have given up and gone home. But we had naivity in abundance so we carried on.
And coming from a corporate background, we also realised like how fundamental culture was and when I say that, like if any of you had worked for Accenture, there’s a lot wrong with it but there’s also a lot right with it. One of the best things I found about them is that I could go on a plane and arrive in 24 hours in Australia or Philippino – the office in the Philippines or Malaysia and everyone would behave in the same way and everything was recognisable and I didn’t see it like I was in the middle of Jakarta. I felt like I was in the middle of London. And it wasn’t just where the office was structure but the way that people spoke and operated. And that was a product of a universal culture and it’s incredibly hard to build, but Accenture did it very well.
So Jules and I we started out on this journey and we were very much conscious of culture and making people want to be a part of what you’re doing, but – some of these things were deliberate and then others were completely random, how we got from A to B. So fast forward from the BLN and learning that we didn’t know all of this stuff to the things that we learned in the last 2 ½ years. I think the first thing and cornerstone – there’s only 2 in our entire company on how to build people and you attract them at very low wages – god it sounds like I’m exploiting people. I kind of am.
So the first one is that our culture is all about learning
So Jules and I have never asked anyone in our company to do a job that we haven’t done before ourselves so the way we got started was very much by like this abundance of naivity, believing that we could build a product and build a business. And an example of that is neither of us were technical or engineers, but Jules taught herself to code and she did this inspired by Eric Ries’ Book. She went out and bought a book called Ruby on Rails and it’s basically like a tutorial that helps you build twitter. Most of you are software engineers, I’m guessing, cause most of you are men. So you’ve probably seen this book and she basically bought a paper copy of the book and she spent evenings and weekends for a month in her bedroom, basically building Twitter. And she did that because she thought if she tried online use in like get her stack overflow – am I talking the right language here? Thanks, I did learn! She would be copying and pasting the answers – so she bought this book and she worked through it page by page. And then she called me up and said are you sitting down? I’m in oblivion here, I have no idea what she’s doing. I’m like no, I’m driving back from Exeter and leaving the project. And she was like well don’t get alarmed but I just quit my job. And I was like why would you do that? Well I bought this book and I taught myself to code and I was like oh you’re mental! So anyway, fast forward she taught herself to code, we managed to somehow get into Spring Board which was an accelerator. And I say somehow because just imagine the scene, there’s 5 investors behind a table and then Tom and Jules – if you see Tom, he’s like a BBC reporter and Jules is like this small nerdy girl and then there’s me on Skype, sitting in Barcelona, shouting, feeling that people wouldn’t hear me and for some reason these investors, I think Neil Davidson may have been in the room, decided that they take a punt on us and we got into Spring Board. And so I did everything from working as a cleaner to trying to figure out ad words, Jules taught herself to code. So we’ve done all of these things and so the idea about learning, that runs throughout the whole way we built our business. And I’ll elaborate a little bit on that in the future, as we go.
But the second thing we realised is we’re not cool
And this was a decision that we just took. So we were hanging out in Shoreditch and we had an office and living for free in Us Two offices, which is in the tea building. I don’t know if you guys know the tea building, but it’s kind of like very cool and Jules came to me one day and she was like I’m wearing jeans from Marks & Spencer’s, I just don’t belong here. And I was like me neither! Literally within 2 weeks we moved our office down to Vauxhall and I’m so much more at home there.
So why did these two things matter? Well they mattered because even though those decisions were taken in isolations, this idea that we’re just gonna get on and do it and also this realisation that we’re not cool enough to do this and run with the cool things in the background, but that would build the culture that we have now at hassle.com. And what that means is we actually hire odd balls. So – and they – we affectionately refer to them as odd balls. I’m quite odd as you probably get from this presentation, but this is why I think we’re slightly different in the way we build a company because we never hired people for the skills that they’d got or the experience that they had or the universities that they went to. We basically for cultural fit. So if you walk into our offices, everybody looks very different. If you see – people of all kind of walks of life, different backgrounds and origins, but we all mesh together very well.
So to give you flavour of like how we built the company, on the left hand of the screen is Kay Thompson. I found her working cash in hand in a restaurant for £5 an hour and I just loved how spunky she was. She had this real get up and go – and so I basically sold her on £1 pound an hour more to come and work for us in the beginning and she came to work with us and she is hassle.com personified. Like she sells this business better than I sell it and she’s now a head of operations. She runs all of our customer service and recruitment and she’s managed to scale over the last 2 ½ years but if you would have looked to her CV, you wouldn’t have hired her because she didn’t have anything on it. So that’s what I mean basically about hiring odd balls. And Helen worked in my local pub and was a real live wire. And she came to and she’s like you’ve got a company, haven’t you? And I was like kind of, a bit of a company. There’s like 3 of us boshing away at a few ideas. She was like do you have any admin tasks because all I’ve got on my CV is this pub job and I really want to work in an office and I figured that if I get some work experience with you, 2 ½ years later, she’s now works in the marketing team. So this whole idea of us not being cool and learning means that we’ve hired like a bunch of basically people who are willing to hack their way to success. And that’s really kind of run through the entire business.
So what I know now and this was the kind of random and not thought through, is that actually millennials, they’re not looking for job security and be paid the most. What they’re actually looking for is flexible working. They want to be inspired at work, they want meaning in their work and most importantly, they know that work is a part of life and the two are not separate. You don’t go to work 9 to 5 anymore. So we do lots of things to accommodate that.
So we run flexible working as any normal business would do, we have a 2-month paternity policy and 6-month maternity policy. People can take a leave of absence any point if they want to, to go and do whatever it is they need to do. We operate a pay it forward culture when any employee at anytime can come and say look, there’s another business that I know and like and I want to go and help them do x for a few days or there’s this person and they want to come and do y. And they get time off and it’s paid and they go off and do that, because we wouldn’t be here right now if I hadn’t hired a bunch of people that kind of paid it forward to us and that is the stuff that allows me to offer 20% below market standards for engineers, designers and marketers because what we’re really looking for is people that believe in what we’re trying to do. Because cleaning is not sexy, who’s getting excited about that? You have to find a way to engage your workforce in a vision that’s bigger than that, in something that makes them want to get out of bed in the morning and that’s what we do at hassle.com. We ask them to put some skin and we give them some shares and a year down the line, if they knock it down the ballpark, we re-numerate them accordingly. But if someone comes in for an interview and I’m the last person they generally see and money is a topic of conversation for us, then they’re not the right person for my company because I certainly have not earned a lot of money doing this job. In fact, I earned nothing for the first 2 years. I did it because I believed in the business I was building and I need a workforce that does that too.
So excuse me if I rabbiting slightly, but just to go back to that people thing around the whole learning and not being cool, what we realised about a year into the business was that we were doing – it was much more than just a culture of the immediate people that worked for us. It was really about the people that worked across the platforms. Everyone always thinks about customers when you think this. We started thinking more about the suppliers and a lot more about the cleaners and how can we take the culture that we’d built and pass that out to those guys too? And so the cleaners became very much a cornerstone of our entire culture and we really put them at the heart of everything that we did.
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And so what we’ve been able to do with these guys is build ambassadors in the community that do the recruitment for us and they talk like they are part of the hassle.com family. And we’ve done that through things like – obviously we paid the most in the market, they get £9 an hour in London and most agencies pay about £6.50, but we also allow them to pick and choose when they want to work so they have their own calendar that they can turn on and off, they can say they say they want more customers, they can say they want less, they get to accept and reject jobs as they want. So we give them full flexibility to be able to do whatever else in their life that they’re trying to do, whether it’s raising kids or doing higher education.
We then introduced an NVQ program in partnership with the local universities so that they can go – I know it’s not very glamorous but they can go and get an NVQ in cleaning because everyone starts somewhere. And really, we develop the tools to allow them to manage their own business so we see these guys more like micro-entrepreneurs as opposed as just cleaners working across the platform. And that’s paid dividends for us because we’ve once had a survey sent to 1,500 of them about 6 months ago and we asked them what do they love the most about working through our platform? The one thing that came back that knocked my socks off was the word empowerment, that they all felt empowered. So we’ve been able to transpose that culture internally to the wider network of people.
And when I talk about the vision and get the staff that I don’t pay market rates for at the moment, the thing that gets them out of bed are guys like these and what we’re trying to do for these people. I mean I’ve got a countless number of case studies as any business would, but Ahmed I love because he’s a guy and no one wants a guy to clean at all. Like we only have about 15% of the people on the platform as guys because for some weird reason, men and women feel really uncomfortable with a guy cleaning the house. Anyway, we kept ringing up Ahmed – we’re really sorry we can’t get you any work but we’ll keep trying. And he was like don’t worry about it, it’s fine. I understand, they feel weird. Anyway, this guy is the busiest cleaner we have, he does 65 hours a week. I told him he’s breaking some weird EU convention, but because he works himself, I can’t do anything about it. He has a wait list of people waiting to get him as a cleaner cause he’s that good. And what I love about Ahmed is when I asked him why do this? Surely like cleaning is not your life’s ambition and he was like no it’s not, but I used to work as a porter in a kitchen for £6.50 an hour and I hated it and you guys gave me work and I was able to go to the Arsenal on the weekend – cause he’s a massive Arsenal fan – and I was able to pick and choose my hours and earn as much money as my potential would allow and that money – and I’m not trying to get a halo or a round of applause for this, but that money helped his mother rebuild her house in Sierra Leone and that’s what he wanted to do.
And we have other people where we’ve had people come after Christmas with cake to say thank you for all the work that we’ve given over Christmas because we have a new born baby. I was like hang on, you’ve got a new born baby and you’re thanking us for the work we gave you over Christmas? Like how did that work? She’s like well my husband lost his job and we have no way to make money and I had to work and no one would employ a pregnant woman. And I was like there’s a reason for that, but thanks very much! So, bear in mind at this point in time I was also 9 months pregnant and waddled in like a whale thinking oh my god, how did you clean a house?
I guess a lot of this has been non-deliberate but it’s been a learned process for us and it’s one way we’re not bothered if we’re the coolest kids on the block and we’re not bothered that cleaning is not sexy. We believe in the people that we – what we’re trying to empower and that’s – I believe that’s what gets our engineers out of bed. So we’ve gone from 5 people and that was – this is actually at the moo party. Helen’s missing but as you can see, we’re having a great old time. Most of the hours after, our activities do revolve around booze. And then this is us in July. But we’re now 57 people and I guess l what I conclude from my kind of foreing into building a business that revolves around people is that everyone says to me that culture is the hardest thing to build, but it’s even harder to scale. And I guess we’d argue that actually culture is the secret of scaling. In fact, we just acquired a company in Germany called and part of the most important piece on that decision to acquire them was not whether their metrics are good and they’re growing quickly and did they have the right idea. It was “do they fit with us?” And when we realised overwhelmingly that they did fit, then the rest just became easy. They were the perfect fit for the culture that we built at hassle.com.
So there’s 3 real facets of what this culture that I keep going on about, how amazing it is and this is what it looks like. And it’s the brand, the family and it’s thought leadership.
So taking each one in turn, I think obviously a brand is something that people externally look out and it means something to them. We were a lot less focused on customers at hassle.com which sounds a bit weird, but customers are not right at hassle. What I’ve realised is we’ve bred a culture of discounting in the UK or even worldwide where we don’t think anything of throwing something away and buying something to replace it cause it’s cheap. And the same thing goes for cleaning, nobody recognises how hard it is to clean and so we put that at the heart of the company was this kind of like – we want to be a little bit controversial and bold and we use that internally, with the brand internally, to make the people at work think less about the end product, which is the cleaning and much more about the way that the work is changing. And the way that that it’s really about empowerment to make people’s lives a little easier cause they have to come out every night and clean.
Really like taking something by – I said we’re inspired by moo – we’re inspired by moo because I’ve said to Jules look, if anyone can make business cards fun, basically printing bits of paper, fun and sexy, we just need to do that for cleaning, it can’t be that difficult. And so – thanks. You’re a tough crowd. So I guess like I said, we wanted to move it away from cleaning and if you look at what hassle.com is, yes to the outside world it’s for pages that you click through and you get a cleaner, but actually the depth of the product behind it is a massively complex, cause if you think about it, every single interaction that we’re trying to accommodate within the product is the edge case. Getting 2 people to have a transaction without – and think of every possible scenario that can go wrong, it’s mind blowing! So the guys at the work for us get off on that kind of thing. Engineers, you love complicated problems and that’s what I mean about moving and using the brand to be bold and to try and do things that have not been done before.
And then when I talk about family, we do think we’re a family and I know lots of companies claim to be, but we do things to promote that. So we have an all hands meetings once a week when we dial in Germany, France, England, Ireland and we all talk about the things that we’re doing well at and the things that have not gone so well and everyone gets to see and speak to each other through video conferencing and then once in a quarter, we fly everyone in so they can be together and kind of get recharged. We always promote and train internally, we never use recruiters. We really rely on word of mouth and you have to pass the odd ball tag to get through the door.
And the other way that we make ourselves a little bit sexy – this is a dreadful photograph of me – what we’ve tried to do is connect the dots between the platform and the cleans and what that means in a wider sense. So I’m on the board of share and economy UK, a newly created trade body that’s trying to create transparency in these platforms. I think I’m not gonna speak ill of Uber, but Uber has fuelled a lot of the fear in the market around platforms monopolising and not being fair to workers and being dangerous for consumers and things like that. So our job is to really bring transparency and trust to the market.
And then I think one of my biggest lessons probably is that you should match your investors culture to your culture and make sure there’s a match there before you start taking on investment because they become by extension a part of your company.
I think I’ve exhausted myself now, so I will – and it was only half an hour and I haven’t made it too painful for you to listen. I’ll end now and I’m happy to answer any questions that you’ve got and Mark can tell me whether I met the brief or not. Thanks!
Audience Question: Hi there! Thanks a lot! That was very enjoyable and inspiring speech. I’m not sure I followed your kind of chronology, but were you 5 people last July and now you’re 57 people and you’ve made acquisitions and it sounds like 3 or 4 countries. Can you talk me through that kind of scale?
Alex Depledge, Hassle.com: Yes. Sorry for the chronology being all over the place, sometimes it’s quite difficult to talk about the things you’ve done when you’re talking about a learning experience without explaining the journey in itself. So I guess the journey for us was – chronology wise – accepted in spring board in 2012 was three founders. We exited that in July – I spent about 9 months trying to get some money, failed miserably. And then in January of 2013, we relaunched the platform to be cleaning only. And then we ran for a year as 5 people and we had about £250,000 we’d raised and then in January of 2014 we raised a $6 million round from Accel Partners – whatever they’re called. Sorry! I get it wrong every time. It’s just money. And then in March, was when the money hit the bank, so that’s when I started recruiting. So it was in March last year it was still 5 people and so now it’s June – it’s about a year, 15 or 16 months. So in that time, we’ve gone from 5 to 57, we’ve expanded to Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham. Obviously we’re in London, Dublin, Paris, Hamburg and Berlin. Berlin and Hamburg were through acquisition.
Audience Question: Are you tracking metrics on feedback on the cleaners? A bit like the drivers on Uber and how has that been received by the cleaners?
Alex Depledge, Hassle.com: Yeah, that’s a great question! In fact, I have an amazing Facebook – like attack around this recently. So we’ve always tracked the rating so basically for the cleaners to get to the platforms, they have to jump through a lot of hoops but one of them is to pass free trial cleanings where we get reviews from their customers and once they pass that, they’re free to accept and reject at will. We capture every single review and if they get 3 negative reviews, which is reviews below 4 stars, we say to them so they keep their existing customers, but we can’t give them any more until we see a dramatic improvement. So the controversial piece was – and I’d love to hear your feedback on this, but we don’t show the negative reviews because we basically get rid and kind of move them off after like 3 bad reviews and the reason I’m told is because we also review the customers. And the reviews on the customers are way worse than the reviews on the cleaners. And I actually don’t think I would have any customers if they came on and read this is what this cleaner has said about this customer. We’ve had instances like sexual harassment, rat droppings, vermin, just people following people around. Just not nice! And honestly, I don’t think I would want someone putting in an appraisal of my house online. So we thought the compromise was to not show the customer reviews and to not show the negative reviews about the cleaner and just to kind of quietly move them to one side. Anyway, maybe that’s wrong, but we also have a don’t serve button. So if we had an incident where you’ve been abusive to staff or your house is horrendous, we just click don’t serve. The user customer don’t see it, because the booking will go through but you’ll get an email that says there’s not any cleaners in your area to serve you. So if that has ever happened to you, now you know. Does that answer your question?
Audience Question: Hi Alex, great story. What was the thought process behind going into other countries in Europe where there’s plenty of other cities in the UK that you haven’t even touched?
Alex Depledge, Hassle.com: I think – you’re gonna get me on my rant about Europe here. So this kind of business works best in densely urban areas. So London is perfect for it, Paris and Berlin brilliant. Once you get outside London in the UK, the number of cities that have the right density and the right ingredients or even begin to warrant the cost to go in, diminishes really quickly. And it’s one of the biggest problems I’ve had as an entrepreneur because if I was living in the states right now, I’d get 30 massive cities to run at and they’re all the same regulations, currency and language whereas in Europe, where we are now, for me to get that adjustable market at the same size, with the same potential, I’d have to be in like 8 or 9 European countries. So just with a business like mine, it works on local network effects. You know, because I’m basically getting 10% on a clean, that’s it. And you can argue that’s too much but believe me, it’s difficult to make any money in this business. I think it’s too little. Taking a run like Ipswich it’s not worth it, frankly. Sorry!
Audience Question: Yeah, I had a great idea. I was actually gonna ask when you’re gonna cover Cambridge cause I really need help with my cleaning. The question I wanted to ask is you showed a picture of yourself giving a TV interview. Was that American TV?
Alex Depledge, Hassle.com: I’ve done quite a bit of TV, I think that was CNBC.
Audience Question: Right and I’ve noticed on your website you’ve got The Guardian, Evening Standard, Metro, technocrunch. So what was your media strategy? Cause obviously that’s given you a lot of exposure.
Alex Depledge, Hassle.com: We didn’t really have one. That’s what I mean about this whole learning process. So I guess I get asked to do a lot of this type of thing and I get asked to comment on a lot of things by like Bloomberg and CMBT. Quite frankly, because I’m a woman in tech and I’m also northern and opinionated and those three things go together and people quite like that. But we’ve only recently got – 8 months ago we probably sat down and said right, how are we actually going to do this logistically? But it got built and the momentum got behind it and also I’ve been really well supported by the tech community and people really kind of get behind us and doing the talking for us, but we were also – I know it seems like a really obvious concept as I stand here three years later but at the time it really wasn’t like – there was us and then there was the whispering of task rabbit which you’ve all heard of in the US and then there was cleaning agencies and that was it. So actually even if cleaning is not that sexy, people get it straight away and I think that really helped, so yeah.
Audience Question: Thanks! You talked very eloquently about hiring for fit and not skills. Skills can be learned and fit not. But you took some venture money from the biggest venture firms in the world whose traditional approach is to rapidly hire as quickly as possible the most talented and prudent people as possible. How have you navigated their background of doing that kind of thing and your desire to make your venture?
Alex Depledge, Hassle.com: I made a very cryptic comment about getting your investor to fit in your culture and that’s probably one of the things that we will do better next time. You cannot put this on the internet, by the way!
Audience Question: So a question about your investors. Presumably they want their money back at some point. Is your plan – I mean this is a growth plan here or is it just geography or you’re looking to go horizontal into other services without cleaning?
Alex Depledge, Hassle.com: Great question! I mean I think there will be a bit more geographic expansion, but I basically wanted to create a marketplace so I feel really passionately about the crisis in elderly care at the moment in UK and I just had a baby and finding a babysitter is hard. So what we’ve really wanted to do was basically start and the kind of lowest – if you call it like a trust tree, that’s at the bottom. To get into someone’s house, the easiest way is in a trusted capacity it’s a cleaner. They go in every week, you trust them, they have your keys, you build a relationship. And then you move up that. So babysitting, tutoring and the verticals that we want to go after. Because it’s quite an innovative business model. I know that if you look at the technology you might be like why is it complex? But trust me, 95% of our code base is in the kind of self-serve functionality and if you reskin this, it would be easy to see how you could book a a carer to go in and do the shopping for your elderly mother that lives in Bolton and you’re here kind of thing. And the reason we do this is we actually have quite a lot – especially in London, that people use cleaners as pseudo carers and maybe their daughter is slightly disabled and they can’t get around much and we’re not trying to do medical stuff, cause I’m definitely not qualified for that, but more of the home help and looking after the kids and that sort of thing, because it’s already taking place and what we’ve really trying to do is move what goes on in the black market, trying to make that more transparent and safe and move it into an environment that protects the consumer and supplier.
Audience Question: Hello! Given that you’re hire on the odd ball status does that – how does that – does that mean that your hiring process is quite challenging or harder than you think it would otherwise be and you find that it also impacts the ability to retain people? People realise that it’s not a culture fit.
Alex Depledge, Hassle.com: So I guess – I think it’s two-fold. I think we’ve got better at hiring and I think in the beginning, particularly when you’re taking that amount of money and you’re under pressure to deploy efficiently, you have knee jerk reactions and you’re like shit! And you hire all this people and then 50% of them are rubbish. So I think we got better at doing that. We have multiple interview processes and it always ends with a founder interview at the end. We’ve actually had very little attrition and very few people have not finished their probation period with us and I think that out of a group of 60 people, that’s actually quite a good record, I think. I don’t think the interviews are challenging, you’d have to ask somebody who interviewed with us. I think people find me quite challenging. Especially if you’re not – maybe as aggressive as I am. I can be quite in your face, so I think that’s the final hurdle, but then again Tom, the co-founder, is like the most detailed man in the word and can follow a circular reference so if you get with him, you get a real sort of – go really, really deep into stuff particularly around engineering. So yeah.
Audience Question: Picking up on what you were saying before about hiring the odd ball people and training up internally and then on what you were saying a minute ago around moving into markets like a medical or not medical but getting into other markets. One of the things we found, we’ve always tried to do that as well. We’re 17 people and we try to train people internally, but we’re kind of finding ourselves at a point where we need people who’ve been there before and have done it and we can’t get that internally or just right. We need the skills.
Alex Depledge, Hassle.com: I totally understand.
Audience Question: Did you ever find yourself in that position?
Alex Depledge, Hassle.com: Well we’re in it right now. I think when we talk about the challenges that face European start-ups that are trying to scale and build businesses, because if you look at our record, it’s abysmal if you compare it to the US. And I know everybody is banding around 17 unicorns created last year in London. Yeah, well done. I love Transfer-wise, it’s like that’s a very new thing and it’s a very – for me, something that has yet to prove itself. What I do know is that in the last 35 to 40 years, we’re not creating the big start-ups that the US is and we’re also not acquiring them. So all the acquisitions are generally done from American companies coming into Europe. Why is that? Well the truth of the matter is we don’t have depth in the equity markets, but more importantly, we don’t have people that have been there and have done that before. And that makes it really hard for you to know if you’re doing the right things, so we take the position of look, we can go out and spend a long time to try to find those key individuals that are not probably gonna wanna come and start for a cleaning start or we can’t even afford to hire anyway or we can hire people for they fit us culturally really well. With engineers, it’s slightly different although we take on quite junior guys and then bring them up in the company. But what we’ve been really lucky with and what I would advise you to do is we’ve actually gone out and found those few key people that have done it before, they tend to not go and work fulltime in a business again. They tend to do more mentoring type things so we have a great guy called – called Guy – which is really annoying. But Guy Hutchinson was the CFO at Service Magic and One Fine Stay a bunch of really successful businesses. And he spent 2 to 5 days working with my CFO, training him up. And it’s a mix of night and day difference and we’ve done the same thing in marketing so I think if you could get a few key gems in some places and I also like – I’m not ashamed to say that I went and got myself an executive coach because after I got that money in March, I was like what is a CEO, what do they do, how the hell am I gonna get myself out of this? It wasn’t an elation but a complete mental breakdown so I figured I should probably go out and find someone that can help me traverse the new landscape.
Mark Littlewood: Well done! If you’re CEO and you have an executive coach, put your hand out. One. Have a round of applause too! I think the biggest lie about this whole thing is the CEO knows everything and people, they don’t. And actually it’s the loneliest place in the world because you’ve got all the pressures of investors and stakeholders from one level and you’ve got to be the person that’s smiling and keeping on top of it at the other end. And the only way you can deal with that is to find some places to vent, like BoS. But more questions!
Alex Depledge, Hassle.com: Oh my god! I thought was done. Sorry! That was the laptop. Does anyone have any other questions? I am actually a walking disaster. Did someone have a –
Audience Question: Hello! Have you got any advice for anyone setting up now?
Alex Depledge, Hassle.com: God, don’t do it! Like the thing is with hindsight, if I had known just how difficult the last 3 years would have been I probably would never have done it, but I’ve grown so much as an individual and I’m the happiest that I’ve been in my life. Just like on all fronts because I do think that work is such a big part of what we do. You can’t draw this – this work – life balance is bullshit. So if you’re gonna spend most of your working life working with people doing something, you’ve got to enjoy it and that’s the best thing about hassle.com is. I don’t ever wake up and go oh my god! I have to go to the office. They have to try to keep me out. I had a baby 18 weeks ago, and I was in the office on day two and Jules was like what are you doing? And I was like well I thought I would come on my laptop and she was like get off! The thing is I wanted my company to share in the fact that I got this little crinkly baby and they all got very excited about it. So I think the best advice I’ve got to anyone starting out and I wish I would listen to it when I was beginning is a couple things. Firstly, your customers or suppliers, whichever the people using the product, they are the people that matter and people that tell me that they talked to their customers are lying because it’s very scary. It’s a bit like knocking on someone’s door and go hello, I’m from SEC and I’m here to sell you electricity. You’re gonna get the door slammed into your face like people don’t like being door stopped because they think that you’re gonna try to sell them something so trying to gather intelligence around are you fixing the right solution and problem? Does this solution work is really hard so people don’t do it and that’s the worst thing that you can do because then you build something that no one wants. And we did that in abundance in our first product.
Audience Question: How have you promoted your service? Have you got the customers to find out about you? What worked and what hasn’t?
Alex Depledge, Hassle.com: Facebook does not work, not for us anyway. Facebook and Twitter, don’t work for us at all. Basically people find cleaners through 2 roots. They look online, so typically like gumtree of google AdWords or SEO. Or they ask people – so our best – 35% of our customers come through word of mouth. Obviously you need to get that word of mouth going and so you do that through AdWords. And then we have a lot of stuff built into the product that encourages them to share and refer people through. So that’s pretty much our two marketing channels. Unfortunately, I hate this, but flyers work. And I hate that because I hate those flyers and I see them around London like these purple flyers, but that actually does work but it’s such a waste.
Audience Question: Some of the big thing you’ve been saying is that cleaning is not cool. So I work at Red Gate and we do database comparison which is also not cool. So do you think it’s an important distinction for you to make about yourselves? Just cause you mentioned it a few times there.
Alex Depledge, Hassle.com: I just think that we’re quite different. Does that make sense? It’s not really about being cool or not being cool. I said that for a laugh, cause it always gets people laughing and there’s the anti-hipster movement and I’m certainly not a part of that but I just think we wanted to dance to our own tune and actually I think that’s been a part of our success is we ignored what everyone was doing and I felt right to us, whether that was the in thing to do or not. So you know, like I said, what that’s done is attracted like-minded people and those like-minded people buy into this thing that we’re trying to do, which basically means that I don’t have to pay over the odds to get talent, because they do believe in what they’re doing and I think that’s true. For me, I could earn so much more back in the private sector than I am right now, but it’s not fulfilling and it has no meaning for me in any way so I do think that the new generation and I’m 34 – full disclosure. They want to feel like they’re doing something that means and is worth something and it’s less about the money.
Audience Question: You talked about not being at home in Shoreditch and we’re told that’s where everyone has to go to create a world beating company in Europe or London. So your decision to move out, you went to Vauxhall which is not that far away and you still can go to the moo parties and that kind of thing. And you’re not from London. Do you think in order to build a company with the aspirations that you have, for a UK company it has to be based in London? What do you think are the options outside?
Alex Depledge, Hassle.com: So I think you only have to look at Fandual which is one of the unicorn companies at the moment that Leslie Ackles and her husband run, which is – you boys love it. Fantasy gaming, right? And that’s a massive company, huge presence in the US. I think it’s up in Edinburgh or something and I think it’s completely possible for you to build a company wherever you want to build a company. Unfortunately, the money is in London so you will find yourself on a train to London if you choose to go that path. But I also think that if you look at Birmingham and Bristol and Manchester, they’re only 18 months behind London and so eventually I think the clusters will offer other opportunities, meaning that you don’t have to relocate to London. Cause let’s be honest housing prices and office prices are just going through the roof, like we’re in Vauxhall now and we can’t afford to renew our lease when it comes around next year and we can’t afford to move anywhere else so I’m not quite sure what we’re gonna do. But it’s just getting to the point where there will be a redress in the market – there always is. And it will be more cost effective and there will be grants and opportunities in Bristol and it’s quite a cool place to go and you see a percolation of one start-up and it gets some traction now or people who move then and the clusters they spin out and I think those guys in the kind of – especially now with tech uk, whatever those people do, driving that agenda forward, that will really help. So yeah, I don’t know, if we start another business, I’m not sure it’d be in London. I’ve got the contacts I need there now and maybe we’ll do it somewhere else. Cheaper! Cause I’m tight and I’m Northern! You’ve been – you warmed up in the end. I was a bit worried in the beginning and I was like oh shit! Also because I’m in the middle of a big deal at the minute and so I literally wrote that presentation on the train. It’s all true, but it would have been a lot slicker if I would have given myself a bit longer so I apologise for not giving it my all.
Mark Littlewood: You gave more than your all, Alex! I know you got a lot on. I met Alex through the springboard program and it’s really obvious when you meet people that might not know where they are going, but you know that they’ve got something really special and sparkly about them. And it’s that whole things how VC’s don’t invest in dots, but invest in lines. They want to see where people go over time and every time we’ve interacted; I’ve been hugely impressed by what you’ve done. I know you have got a ton on so let’s just say thank you very much and we’ll catch you later.
Alex Depledge, Hassle.com: Thanks, guys!
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Alexandra Depledge is a British technology entrepreneur, known best for being the founder and CEO of Resi, and as the founder and former CEO of Helpling, formerly known as Hassle.com.
In 2016 she was awarded an MBE for services to the sharing economy.
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