■ The SpareRoom.co.uk founder, 43, started out with an unhelpful degree, no investors and a shed with some very leggy office mates
You did a degree in pop music at Leeds University. Was that a good idea?
It was a bit of a ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree but I wanted to be a pop star. My band was called Erogenous Jones and one of our gigs was for 50 prisoners doing life sentences at Wakefield high-security prison. Luckily, in my third year, there was a module in internet and web design. In 1999 I moved to London with my band to ‘make it big’ and worked for free for an internet entrepreneur to give me web experience. I also stacked fruit in Tesco. The manager used to pull the fruit boxes to the front and say, ‘Then the customers buy, innit.’ That’s actually logical and applies to web design. If you hide something away, the customer won’t see it to use it.
So how did you get the idea for your business?
When I moved to London with my bandmates we tried to find a flat together, which was terribly frustrating. You’d rush to the newsagent to check the ads and then you’d have to meet total strangers, which was daunting. Sometimes there were long queues and there were almost fights over dingy flats. I started a London-focused website but noticed it was the flatshare noticeboard that really took off, so it became a pure flatshare website. I moved to Manchester and realised it wasn’t just a London problem, so I maxed out my credit card to pay for a web domain and, working as a freelance web designer by day, I moved into a shed at the end of my dad’s garden, among the spiders.
Your aim was to make £20,000 a year?
I thought that if I made that much I would be able to work three days a week and concentrate on my music. When I hired my first employee I showed her a graph and said, ‘I think I’ll be able to pay you at the end of the month.’ By the following month I could pay myself, too.
How tough was it in the beginning?
One of the biggest issues was servers not coping with traffic growth. I had to learn systems administration on the go and it was a nightmare because I’d be up all night sitting in the garden shed trying to keep the server alive. I worked seven days a week and it was two years before I managed to have a holiday. Even then, I spent most of the time on my laptop sorting out tech problems.
Do you regret not having investment?
I was broke but I don’t think I would have made it if we’d had investment because it would have been far too easy to spend someone else’s money. I would have blown it all on expensive advertising but because I had no money at all I had to be creative and resourceful. A lot of the time investment means you give away ownership and control of your baby. I still own 95 per cent.
Mistakes, you’ve made a few?
Most of my mistakes have been hiring ones. If a senior person isn’t the right fit they start to hire people like them but it can cause rifts in teams that become harder to unravel. Getting the right people as you grow is vital and the more successful your business, the more you will have very plausible people telling you what you should be doing or pointing out problems that don’t exist.
What’s been your lowest point?
Ironically, the toughest bit was once we’d made it. Before then, we had a sharp focus — we wanted to become the leading place to find rooms. By 2009/10 we had got there and I found myself thinking, ‘What next?’ I nearly sold the company a few times. But my lowest point came in 2013 when my marriage ended and I found myself alone in my own house in London. I was lonely. There was nobody coming in saying, ‘How was your day?’ So I decided to try out my own business and look for flatmates. It was a game-changer because it was my chance to go through the same experiences as our users do — feeling their anxieties and moments of joy. It helped me fall back in love with my business. I have shared ever since and when we launched in New York, I searched for flatmates over there. I found another two guys who were moving to the city and we explored the city together. I realised, as a customer, that the messaging system is the heart of where the experience and excitement happens, so I concentrated on making it smoother and added video content because rapport is at the heart of what we do.
What are some of the quirkier experiences?
We’ve had more than ten SpareRoom weddings. We bought a wedding cake for one couple and wrote a piece for the wedding speech for another. We’ve had a SpareRoom baby born to two flatsharers who fell in love and we’ve even matched one SpareRoom user who rented alongside four snakes, a tarantula, a chameleon, three geckos and an Amazonian milk frog. We’ve sorted out shares for castles, ships, houseboats and even a lighthouse. We have had celebrity clients, too. Recently, actress Michaela Coel told Jonathan Ross she had found her place through SpareRoom. Before we launched, the standard of rental accommodation wasn’t good at all. I’m proud that SpareRoom has legitimised the market and that people’s living conditions are generally better as a resul
Salary: From £21,000-£39,000 a year as a web designer, although you’ll work for nothing as a founder.
Regular hours? Starting up, it’s seven days a week but if it’s the right business you won’t notice the hours.
Short and sweet advice: Sheds are cheaper than a flash office (spiders are free).