What ignited the spark in you to start a new business venture or to make significant changes in an existing business?
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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.
Excluding yours, what company or business do you admire the most?
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