How three UK tech start-ups are achieving success 

Here, Ian Butterworth interviews three tech founders and reveals their source of motivation, the challenges they faced and their recruiting strategies.

In an entrepreneurial world, setting up a business offers up a lot of opportunity for growth. Although there might be a lot of competition surrounding you, this gives you all the more reasons to push your business to its peak. If you don’t branch out and strive, you will never truly take actions for real growth. We interviewed three businesses to discover how they made their success from a small start-up company to a successful business.

The interviewees are Ben Lloyd of crowdfunding platform Property Moose (BL), Tim Perry, founder of training company Build Focus (TP), and Gautam Lulla, president of Travel Tripper, a hotel web technology provider (GL).

What made you decide to start the business?

BL: Several factors led to the creation and evolution of Property Moose: the need for an alternative type of finance company, the prohibitive barriers to entry in the UK property market, the number of empty homes across the country, and a desire to empower individuals to start investing and to take control of their own financial destiny.

Primarily, we wanted to provide a secure and hassle-free alternative to traditional property investing. Now you can invest in buy-to-let property with as little as £10 and there is no need to raise a deposit or obtain a mortgage. By creating this new asset class, millions of individuals finally have the opportunity to get their foot on the property ladder. Investors now have the opportunity to diversify their portfolio and invest all over the UK at the click of a button.

TP: Build Focus started as a solution to scratch my own itch. I was finding that I spent more time than I’d like getting distracted by the many wonders of the internet (especially Facebook and Twitter), and I needed a tool to help fight back and help me concentrate. I tried some others, but didn’t find anything that quite worked; everything was missing polish and quality, nothing really invested you in the results, or they didn’t provide enough concrete feedback on how you were doing. I was pretty confident I could do better, so I built one for myself. It worked fantastically, and once I realised it was genuinely effective and powerful I started extending it and transforming it from a personal project into a fully-fledged start-up.

GL: Travel Tripper is a hotel web technology platform and we decided to start our business because we saw a need in the hospitality market. Hotels have had a huge portion of their business shift to the OTA channel and we wanted to help combat the reliance by helping hotels become more self-reliant. In order to do that, we needed to build a better booking engine and CRS (Central Reservation System) to help hotels generate demand and overall increase their bottom line.

What difficulties did you face and how did you overcome them?

BL: The hardest part about building an innovative business is that there is no road map; we have taken a few wrong turns, hit the occasional dead end, but we’ve also spent time accelerating on the motorway. Some decisions that we have made have helped to shape the property crowdfunding industry, from technology, to team structures; there was no tried and tested methodology. Would we want it any other way? Nope! High-tech start-ups are here to innovate and to build, and that’s what we like to do.

We have overcome difficulties by remaining lean and dynamic. We are responsive to market factors and regulatory changes in a way that larger firms may not be. Our internal technology team ensure that our web platform is constantly evolving and remaining competitive. Building proprietary technology has also reduced our dependence on other services, a factor that we believe has built trust with our members.

TP: The key difficulty so far has been actually prioritising marketing and initial user acquisition. I’m a software developer by trade, so the actual development was easy and fun, whereas marketing is much further from my wheelhouse, so harder to do, and thereby less easy to encourage myself to invest time in. I’ve been actively pushing back against this instinct throughout our development, and encourage others to really chase this too: if there’s an important area of the business you find harder, force yourself to spend a disproportionate about of time working on it. You’ll quickly find you get better, making it more enjoyable and easier, and the problem neatly starts to solve itself (eventually).

GL: Building the technology from the ground up is the most time-intensive part, but we’ve got a very skilled and talent team behind us which has propelled us to where we are now. Our platform is an extremely complex system and a lot of blood, sweat and tears were put into making it perfect. There are long-time standing players that have had time to build and experiment with their technology; as a start-up we felt behind – which was a big huddle we had to overcome.

The other challenge we faced, technology wise, was connecting all the other types of tech systems that hotels use (PMS/RMS, for example), so we had to build our technology with overarching compatibility to accommodate. Luckily for us we have an excellent team of engineers, product managers and hospitality experts. We’ve not only been able to build a system that is functional, but also adaptable as it we continue to innovate with designs and structure. Since we’re a relatively small team, we’ve been able to be agile and experimental with new ideas. This has led to innovations such as BRG and our dynamic pricing module.

How important is your team to the success of your business?

BL: Twelve talented individuals work for Property Moose, and each one brings something different to the business. What unifies the wide range of skills is a commitment and passion to deliver a world-class service to each of our members. It feels as though we are building a business together, rather than working together: this is testament to the shared vision of the team, which we feel is critical to the businesses’ success.

TP: My full-time team is just me as the solo founder right now, so extremely important! Build Focus is still in the pretty early phases, and while I’ve outsourced and worked with others for a range of parts of the product (particularly the city imagery, which I never would have got looking so good myself), the core of the business is me alone. This is definitely one of the downsides of the steadier bootstrapped approach, but it’s also very freeing, and makes it much easier to quickly focus on whatever needs doing next, while keeping overheads low too in the early business development stages.

GL: Our engineers, product managers and hospitality experts have been the veins of our company. We put extreme value and importance on our team and the success of our company relies on them. We hire incredible people to build incredible products. 

How do you attract new talent to your business?

BL: We have an open door recruitment policy, so rather than specifying the position we’re hiring for, anyone can apply on our website at any time and pitch their value to us. This approach has landed us experienced hires, and also passionate and entrepreneurial recent graduates. Each week we receive applications from individuals that want to join our ambitious team and create value from day one. As well as being able to let their own talents develop and flourish, from an employee’s first day they are involved in key business-wide decisions: the dialogue is always open. We feel this culture will continue to attract the best talent and build a powerful team of professionals.

TP: In terms of full-time employees, I haven’t really been investing in this so far. For contractors and support on smaller tasks though, I’ve had remarkable success with Fiverr for quick standalone tasks, and just directly emailing small design companies and freelance designers that have portfolios pretty close to what I’m looking for for larger ongoing work.

I’m expecting to start looking towards expanding in the not too distant future though, and from previous experience I’m going to be particularly focusing on StackOverflow Careers (which has its limitations, but is great at finding reliably high-quality candidates), potentially talking my proven freelancer design contractors into full-time work, and mining the many other connections I’ve made in the development and startup communities from working with them and speaking at conferences over the last few years. I’ve always found finding truly highly skilled people is the really hard part of recruitment, and that’s especially true when you’re building a small start-up team.

GL: There is a shortage in developers and those talented ones we find seem to gravitate towards the giant tech companies. The best way to find good tech talent is by networking and highlighting the true attributes at your company and what makes it special. With smaller tech companies you tend to get more opportunities, a quicker route to career growth and more hands-on projects. This is how we’ve been searching and obtain our talent.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs looking to start a new tech venture?

BL: Think about where you want to be in 12 months and 24 months and take your head out of the sand. Never lose sight of your main vision. It is very easy to become consumed with daily tasks and to forget what you are building. We constantly remind ourselves of how much our small team has achieved in a short period of time – something you easily forget when replying to emails at 3am!

TP: Cut overhead ruthlessly. The number one fundamental biggest challenge is always getting profitable before you run out of money, and anything you can do to give yourself more runway is worth looking at. Aim for small expert teams, minimum costs, and ‘ramen profitability’ as fast as possible.

To stay small, remember that lots of start-up teams (development teams especially) have diseconomies of scale. A small focused team of motivated expert developers can run rings around many larger teams, a lot of the time. The smaller the team the easier it is for everybody to understand the whole product, the easier it is for changes to be made, and the lower the communication overheads. Even longer term this can be worthwhile: Whatsapp for example reached 900 million users and became significantly larger than all of global SMS messaging, with only 50 developers running the whole thing.

Setting up somewhere cheaper for the initial phases is also a very powerful option for keeping costs to a minimum while you’re searching for early profitability. Moving to Barcelona has given us an order of magnitude increase in runway, and that space to breathe is a powerful force to let you focus on good product design and decision making, without the stress of immediately upcoming disaster. Up until you need to be focusing on UK-based face-to-face meetings (often not for quite a while for tech start-ups, particularly during early product development and testing) you can save huge amounts of money this way.

GL: Identify your revenue opportunities first (what problem are you trying to solve and what will people pay you to solve it?) and take it step by step and goal by goal. As the saying goes, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ and neither will your start-up be. Too many companies are based on ideas where you have to achieve user volume before you can think about revenue streams (a la Twitter, Instagram, etc). For us, we took this approach and were able to see profits relatively quickly, so it has helped us to grow sustainably and successfully over the years.

Ian Butterworth is the director and senior consultant at recruitment firm Lucas Blake.

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