You’re probably doing it the hard way

There are many occasions when I have considered things that supposedly make life easier, yet I always seem to waste more time on activating/setting up such systems that I probably lose out in the long run.

Despite Orange’s initial refusal to issue a PAC code, I managed to get one eventually and over the weekend placed an order with O2 for the 16gb white iPhone. It takes five days for the number to port over, although my Orange phone is still ‘working’ in the interim.

I won’t say too much about the iPhone at this point other than to agree with the masses: it is fantastic.

Amongst the many free applications I have found one called TruPhone and it seems like perfect timing as I need to make a number of calls to the USA over the coming days, in order to further the SmarterNights concept of dvd/videogame rentals that you never need to return. I’m hoping to get this idea rolled out early in 2009; slightly sooner than mentioned on the SmarterNights blog.

Downloading TruPhone from iTunes was easy enough and the application loaded onto my phone immediately. An account was set-up (and credited with £1 free call time – not to be sniffed at when calls are only 3p a min) within minutes although I have now hit a barrier: I can’t log-in to my TruPhone account :-/

Loading the application on my iPhone brings up a holding page which has thus far failed to load on numerous attempts. Each subsequent results in a new “Welcome to Truphone” text on my mobile and a new password. Unfortunately I can’t log-in to my account manually as my password is allegedly incorrect.

Needless to say, I’m probably doing something wrong. I’m sure I’ll have Truphone working shortly and it will be brilliant, but I can’t help but feel I should have just made the call using my mobile and stumped up the relevant obscene pence per minute charge.

Posted by Adam Arnold

9-5 is just the first part of the business day

I have been wide awake for 44 of the past 48 hours, flirting between the following duties:

– troubleshooting
– setting staff objectives
– company accounting
– customer relations
– client account management
– marketing and search engine optimisation

When I’m busy, I hardly notice the time passing and have to set alarms to remind me of meetings throughout the day. If I’m not doing anything I have to ask myself why – time spent procrastinating could be better put to other things. Although I vent my frustrations with work quite regularly, on the whole I do thoroughly enjoy the entrepreneurial life.

However, being my own boss allows for a good work-life balance. Although I often start early, finish late and regularly roll consecutive days into one, I put time aside for the things that matter to me in life – my wife and our now 1 month old baby boy for a start. I don’t get down the gym as much as I’d like (last visit 2005?) but I do play regular football, the odd game of golf and keep in tune with my social network.

Posted by Adam Arnold

A day brings many problems

Having negotiated potential disaster (i.e. significant data loss from an apparent computer failure at 6 a.m. this morning) I had hoped for a relatively smooth day. My experience tells me this will rarely be the case and, as of 1 a.m. and with my ‘day’ drawing to a close, I have endured two additional events which could have been avoided had either of the two companies responsible operated a little better.

As the SmarterGroup has expanded I have acquired additional mobile phones for staff use, with different providers for the majority of handsets. Further to rave reviews from close business associates I have decided to move back to O2 and migrate all handsets onto one account, picking up an iPhone to replace my own Nokia E61i. I had considered the Nokia to be a decent handset until playing on an iPhone and being truely blown away.

I say ‘move back’ as I had been an O2 customer for 3/4 years until they billed me by, by DD, for every call and text I had ever sent in the period. Luckily I wasn’t on my phone anywhere near as much as I am these days, but they still cleaned out my current account! O2 offered to put my account in credit to the same amount, presumably thinking I wouldn’t notice that having £3,000 O2 talk-time wasn’t the same as having the money in my bank. I departed soon after to Orange who have been very good for the past 8 years.

Before deciding O2 were the way forwards I had tried to migrate all other handsets onto my Orange account but they wanted me to jump through hoops to make the order. I will let Orange work those out – had they treated me a little better today I would be more useful in terms of customer research. Therefore, it only served to annoy me when I called today to ask for my PAC code that the lady insisted she could beat whatever deal I was being offered elsewhere. I declined and asked that I could have the PAC code and be on my way: which she refused. It then took a further three people and 30 minutes to obtain confirmation that a PAC code was on its way to me.

Computer and telecoms hassles out of the way, our bank decided to pipe up with a few problems of their own. At SmarterHousing we specialise in the provision of high quality student accommodation. Inherent within this business is the need to make timely payments to Landlods in relation to rent collected on their behalf. I am forever in turmoil over the difficulty the bank can cause although I am only just getting to the point of leaving – changing banks is a hassle when over 200 separate households, with up to ten individual tenants per property, pay rent into the existing account.

My main gripe is that our daily payment limit is constantly reset to £10,000 per payment max/max per day. This poses problems when numerous clients are paid in excess of £10,000 at the start of every month and earlier this week was no different. I attempted to pay over rent in the region of £14,000 to one of our key clients and my online banking refused. Rather than create panic I wrote a cheque and called the bank to confirm the would clear it. They advised that if there were problems they would call which, of course, they did shortly after I had spoken to Orange.

You’d assume they would call me, as the main contact, although they chose to call our Technical Director, Andrew Clarke, stating the signature was ‘dodgy’ and asking us to confirm the payment. He called me to confirm, which I did, but was then unable to get hold of the bank on the number provided.

Technology will let you down

What I like about technology is that it is reliable until such time that its failure will cause maximum frustration. It’s been a long week, but I’ve made the effort to get up at the crack of dawn to catch up on some accounting before the daily mayhem begins at 9.

Even though I have done no work thus far, I still have time to browse the web. Why? Because my computer decided not to boot up this morning and, after increasing levels of panic as ‘safe-mode’ and ‘start-normally’ would both fail, it finally started after a system roll-back.

For years I have insisted that virus protection is not required, so long as you are careful when browsing the web. However, I have recently accessed e-mails from a PC ridden with no fewer than 150 trojans and other malware, so I decided to install a free virus checker (a well known one, which I shall not disclose for fear of a law suit!) and give my system a quick scan.

As hoped, there were no virri on my system and very little in the way of other unwanted items as I regularly scan for malware. Nonetheless, for peace of mind I set the software to scan regularly each morning.

With my computer finally up and running again, Windows diagnosed the cause of failure: antivirus software!

Fortunately, everything is backed up but it seems the most recent save was exactly 5 months ago, so my system is now chugging away as it updates my records…..

Posted by Adam Arnold

Job Description: Entrepreneur

There isn’t a short answer to the question, ‘what is an entrepreneur?’, nor is there a single answer for ‘what does an entrepreneur do?’

What I’m doing changes from day to day, at the moment rotating between:

– estate agent: as the core of the SmarterGroup, SmarterHousing still consumes the majority of my time. September is a particularly busy time as tenants move into their student properties prior to the start of the academic year.

– seller of insurance: through a partnership with Karma Insurance, SmarterHousing can now provide students contents insurance, along with specialist cover for Landlords or students about to embark on a gap year abroad. Making sure we remain compliant with legislation (which is, if Gordon Brown is listening, an absolute minefield for SMEs) wasn’t a 5 minute job.

– virgin media salesman: SmarterHousing provide free wireless broadband to all student properties, subject to availability in that area. The majority of our properties are serviced by Virgin Media and as a result of this ongoing relationship, we are now able to arrange for installation of Virgin Media services, at discounted rates. We are selling into all student and residential accommodation in areas local to our business.

– blogger: this blog!

Posted by Adam Arnold

An interview with ‘YoungEntrepreneur’

What ignited the spark in you to start a new business venture or to make significant changes in an existing business?

Since my late teens I have always wanted to run my own business and I now have many a notepad full of ideas. My dilemma had always been which idea to run with first.

A number of events, which occurred during my 2nd and 3rd years at the University of Warwick, made the decision quite clear. Finding accommodation in the local area was difficult enough but the challenge of securing housing for a summer internship, in London, left me homeless at the final hour. It was blatantly obvious that students needed a better way of finding term time and summer accommodation. With a roof over my head and well paid employment offers for graduation I still needed an extra push to act.

Enter local estate agent, “X”. Through what can only be described as a piece of administrative genius, our friends and next door neighbours were refunded twice their original deposit at the end of the tenancy period. Unfortunately for us the penny presumably dropped and our deposit was retained for reasons unknown.

Smarter Housing was limited as a registered company no more than a month after this experience and soon boasted clients formerly with agent X.

What is your definition of success and has your company achieved it?

Success can only be measured against objectives set out by the particular individual trying to define that success. Smarter Housing was founded with the aim of raising the standard of student accommodation which, to some extent, has been achieved. There is still progress to be made in replicating our success at the University of Warwick throughout the UK, although the business is now taking shape in Birmingham, Bristol and Nottingham.

Raising the standard of student accommodation remains very much a primary objective, although new goals and opportunities to succeed (or fail) are constantly emerging.

To what do you attribute your company’s recent achievements?

A combination of product and people.

How important have good employees and team members been to your success?

In the early stages Smarter Housing was very much a one man band but in recent months the company has taken on brand managers and property managers. The team have been of huge importance as they have taken on day-to-day running of existing operations allowing me to focus on expanding SmarterHousing into new areas and different markets, such as high quality residential lettings and sales.

What three pieces of advice would you give to high school or college students who want to become entrepreneurs?

During my GCSE year I registered a number of domain names (back when they were free!) for a business which comprised elements of today’s Friends Reunited and Facebook. Although I thought the business could be a huge success and I was able to consider marketing plans and numerous revenue streams, I was unable to take the product to market. In recent years I have had to grit my teeth as such companies sell for hundreds of millions of pounds knowing that I missed the opportunity.

Therefore I only really have one piece of advice for young entrepreneurs – seek advice! A good entrepreneur is one who can play on their own strengths and compliment their weaknesses. I tried to do everything myself and simply didn’t have the knowledge to do so.

What have been some of your failures, and what have you learned from them?

Keen to impress my first ever client, I worked 24/7 to let his properties. Impressed by this he introduced me to a friend of his, “Y”, whom he thought to be a well established property developer. Y boasted a portfolio of over 20 properties, some of which were yet to be built or in need of refurbishment. A few recently completed examples were enough to convince me Y was the genuine article and would deliver a gleaming array of properties in time for the new student year.

To summarise a series of events sufficient to fill en encyclopedia, Y emerged to be a complete fraudster and was simply a builder covering for other landlords, who were not aware of his actions. Y failed to complete most of the properties in time for the student year leaving me in a very difficult position. From experience I know an agent would be right at this point to blame a landlord for failing to adhere to his obligations, but repeating the same argument on such a scale would have crippled the business from day one. The next three months were the busiest of my life as I manually finished properties, built furniture, found tenants alternative accommodation and spoke, for hours at a time, to disgruntled tenants and their parents.

The lesson is a very true one in life – trust no-one.

Describe/outline your typical day?

My day will vary in terms of the hours I work (between 2 and 12 depending on what needs to be done), the times I work (“normal hours” to through the night), and what I am actually doing.

It would be fair to say that prior to taking on staff I did not have any sort of routine. Since then, there has been the requirement to liaise with managers on a daily basis to set objectives and check on progress.

Where did your organizations funding/capital come from and how did you go about getting it?

I had to raise over £50,000 between August 2005 and January 2006 in order to launch www.smarterhousing.co.uk during the student letting season. Funding came from the Enterprise Fellowship Scheme (formerly www.efs.ac.uk), Business Link’s Mustard Scheme and the University of Warwick Science Park Concepts’ Fund.

What stops you from throwing in the towel and giving up when you are frustrated?

In the early days of business I would think about my experience of the student market and this would reassure me that SmarterHousing needs to exist. Now I think of this along with an obligation to provide for my wife and (as of August 2008) my family.

Do you believe there is some sort of pattern or formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur?

Yes. Entrepreneurs are those who can identify their weaknesses and build a team with sufficient skills to take an idea forward.

Who has influenced you most and been your greatest inspiration?

Sir Richard Branson

What book has inspired you the most?

A close call between Losing My Virginity (Sir Richard Branson) and Anyone Can Do It (Duncan Bannatyne).

How do you go about marketing your business? What has been your most successful form of marketing?

I use a mix of both online and offline marketing. Offline we sponsor a number of university based teams (including Golf, Rugby Union, Rugby League, American Football and Netball), distribute leaflets, engage in discussion with prospective tenants and landlords, attend trade fairs and place advertisements in a range of media published at relevant campuses. Online we use blogs, forums and social networking sites.

In one word, characterize your life as an entrepreneur.

Stressful.

Excluding yours, what company or business do you admire the most?

Innocent

How do you achieve balance in your life? Or do you?

I tend to work long hours for weeks on end until I feel tired, when I will switch off and do very little until my mind is refreshed. I have been lucky enough to take a week abroad in each of the past two years, although I’ve been glued to my e-mails throughout both!

Where you see yourself and your business in 5 years? 10 years?

Smarter Housing will be the leading provider of student accommodation throughout the UK. The high end residential and sales businesses will be increasing in size. A franchise and software package, allowing estate agents to promote their own properties, will be available.

Other concepts, including Smarter Nights and Smarter Brands will become noticed nationwide and the Smarter Group will begin to provide funding and support to young entrepreneurs, following a strategy of branded entrepreneurship (much like the Virgin Group).

What’s your exit strategy?

Develop the business to a level where I can employ a strong management team, sit back and reap the rewards of working so hard in these early years. A trade sale or floatation is possible for Smarter Housing although this conflicts with the overall strategy of the Smarter Group.

If we could introduce you to anyone, who would it be and why? (you never know who we know!)

I’ve been lucky enough to meet Sir Richard Branson, Sir Alan Sugar and Doug Richard, all of whom are great entrepreneurs. It is difficult to think of more names in the same league.

If you were conducting this interview, what question would you ask?

(To interviewer) Why don’t you run your own business? Many studies look at what encourages people to become an entrepreneur, but little work has been done to find out what prevents everyone else from taking the plunge.

(As interviewer) How would you respond if someone tried to sabotage your business?

Posted by Adam Arnold

How to form a company

Launching a business straight out of university seemed like a daunting prospect, but in hindsight it was far easier than the day-to-day management once the company was up and running.

The first port of call was to register a limited company. I took the easy route here, and paid an accountant to do this for me. My Father has always been fairly pleased with his accountant, so I went with Bache, Brown & Co, where I had done a work experience many years before. Smarter Housing Limited was registered in August 2005 and I obtained the corresponding smarterhousing.co.uk domain name at the same time.

My housemate, Nicos, had been accepted onto the Enterprise Fellowship Scheme (‘EFS’), set-up to provide guidance to student entrepreneurs and give access to funding opportunities.

It seemed like a great idea, so I drafted up a 3 page business plan, detailing What the idea was, Why it would work, Who was involved and How much it would cost. I took the plan to EFS and after an appraisal panel, I found myself on the scheme.

With a £10k loan (facilitated by EFS) in place, I instructed Atelier Studios to work on the Smarter brand – logos, stationary and a website design. Atelier transformed my initial sketches into a slick website and I gave the thumbs up for construction of a database and fully functioning front end. A few funding panels later (money was limited and would only be allocated to the best proposals) I had enough to cover the final Atelier bill and the business was ready to launch.

Along the way I was introduced to Stephen Ollerenshaw of Technology Law Alliance (‘TLawA’), who assisted with a successful trademark appication and provided the legal documentation needed to trade as a letting agent.

I launched SmarterHousing on 1st February 2006, with a modest 30 properties which were all let via www.smarterhousing.co.uk to students at the University of Warwick, for the 2006 – 2007 academic year. The bulk of the properties were in Leamington Spa although I picked up one or two in Earlsdon.

On 2nd February 2006 the fun and games commenced!

Posted by Adam Arnold