For Jules Coleman, who last year sold her business for €32m, a kitchen table is a far more solid platform to start a business than any shiny office.
One of Ireland’s most successful start-up founders didn’t start-up in Ireland or San Francisco. And neither is she a he.
Jules Coleman, at the young age of 25, had just gotten a promotion at her cushy job at PwC in London and could have taken the easy road. Instead, along with Alex Depledge and Tom Nimmo she decided to start a business.
That business Hassle.com, which enabled people to find a cleaner quickly and easily, stumbled in its early days but once the founders had fixed on the right idea it enjoyed explosive growth, expanding into Ireland and Europe.
Last year the company was acquired by Berlin-based home-cleaning services player Helpling for an estimated €32m.
‘When you start a business from a kitchen table you realise the last thing you need is a shiny glass office. Being a real entrepreneur is about convincing yourself of the things you don’t need’
– JULES COLEMAN
Coleman will be on a panel next Friday at Inspirefest 2016 to talk about the sharing economy. The night before she will be at the Bank of Ireland-supported Startup Grind at the NDRC in Dublin where she will attend a fireside interview with David Scanlon.
Today Coleman is back in start-up mode, but she is doing it slowly and methodically and despite her success, insists on taking a lean approach.
Both she and Alex Depledge spend two days a week as entrepreneurs in residence at Index Ventures in London while they plot their next venture. Plus she has acquired a Cockapoo puppy – a cross between a cocker spaniel and a poodle – which she walks the rest of the time as she figures out ideas.
A game of risk
Remembering her decision to leave a safe job in consulting, first with Accenture and then with PwC, she said: “My notions of starting a business when I did were vague. The idea came from the hassle in finding a piano teacher and being frustrated.”
She said she had no idea what she was getting into. “With your first business you are bessed with incredible naivety – knowing what I know now and how slim the chances of success can be, I never would have left.”
She had gotten to know Alex and Tom when they were all intake graduates at Accenture. “We were part of a big circle of friends and it was a big group of people tossing ideas around but the three of us were a tightknit group. It was a personal risk because on one hand people do fall out in the course of business but on the other its your friends you fall back on in hard times.”
For the first year and a half the three founders paid themselves no salaries and lived off their savings – a perilous risk in expensive London – and struggled to get the business off the ground.
“It took us about 18 months to focus on what it was we were trying to achieve and the original idea behind Hassle was to help people book 25 different things. It wasn’t working and Alex had all but decided to go back to the day job when one day we just threw away 24 categories and focused on one category: cleaning.
“That was the turnaround and not long after that we got our first seed round and began paying ourselves a nominal salary. We rebuilt the website over the Christmas of 2012 and suddenly we started getting traction. Something had changed, we weren’t pushing it, the business had taken on a life of its own.”
By March 2014 Hassle had raised a Series A round worth $6m from Silicon Valley firm Accel Partners and began its international expansion by adding Dublin.
A year later in July 2015 Hassle itself was acquired by Berlin-based Helpling for €32m, enabling Hassle to expand across 14 cities in Europe.
Core lessons from start-up life
Coleman left Hassle earlier this year and is slowly and carefully plotting her next start-up.
“We meet serial entrepreneurs all the time who go again and again and if I have one bit of advice that I wished someone had given me when we first did Hassle it’s this: always get external validation. It is so easy to plough into a hair-brained scheme.”
‘Just don’t die. If you haven’t died then you are still alive, which means there are always possibilities’
– JULES COLEMAN
Despite the success of selling Hassle for €32m, both Coleman and Depledge intend to ensure their next start-up is a lean affair.
“One of the things you learn from running a business is that it is incredibly easy to spend money, but getting a return on that spend is harder.
“Our first 18 months at Hassle were formative. When you start a business from a kitchen table you realise the last thing you need is a shiny glass office. Being a real entrepreneur is about convincing yourself of the things you don’t need.”
Coleman should know. She left behind a pretty good salary at PwC but luckily didn’t have children, a house or other commitments and was free to take the plunge. “But still it gave me a new-found appreciation for a salary and an appreciation of just how tough it can be to be an entrepreneur. It also made me realize that there has never been a better time than ‘now’ to get started.”
She went into the entrepreneurship journey with her eyes open and learned fundamental lessons.
“It’s about starting small and staying focused. It’s so easy to spend money by being a business and doing things that aren’t unique, you need discipline to get rid of the unnecessary.
“Also just don’t die. If you haven’t died then you are still alive, which means there are always possibilities.
“The businesses that die do so by spending all of their money and don’t get to their objectives. If you spread yourself too thinly you just make the task harder for yourself. It’s hard to build a business and stay focused, but it’s harder if you are not focused in the first place.
“And I prefer to stay lean and hungry.”
The sharing economy
At next week’s Inspirefest, Coleman will on a panel about the “sharing economy” with Robin Chase of Zipcar, the largest car sharing company in the world and Nilofer Merchant, the author of Onlyness and a person who has personally launched 100 products netting $18bn in sales.
“On the one hand we predated the sharing economy. But our tagline ‘the Amazon for local services’ was a bit off because it was before Hailo, Airbnb or Uber were big. But when it happened we were lucky in our timing and rode on the crest of a wave.”
‘We were hopeful Hassle would do well in Dublin, but I had reservations because we didn’t have a cleaner when I was growing up and neither did any of my friends’ families’
– JULES COLEMAN
However, Coleman thinks the “sharing economy” tagline is misleading. “It’s a terrible title, a complete misnomer. No one shares, the idea of renting your lawnmower to your neighbor never took off, what is left is services. Services!”
But what she is certain about is the role of the smartphone in the rise of services like Hassle, Uber and Airbnb. “A driving instructor can now manage his entire business with the device in his hand. In 2008 I went travelling around Asia with a paperback copy of Lonely Planet. Things have changed a lot since that time.
“When we started Hassle in 2011 we assumed no one would have smartphones and it would all have to be done by SMS. But we learned that the vast majority of cleaners had smartphones and it was their ultimate business connection.”
She also said moving into new markets was a gamble. “We were hopeful Hassle would do well in Dublin, but I had reservations because we didn’t have a cleaner when I was growing up and neither did any of my friends’ families. But it turned out that Dublin became our best market on a per capita basis because there was an explosion in the number of young graduates and professionals who lived in the city and required the service.”
Her view on Dublin is that alongside Amsterdam it is the perfect city for starting up in terms of testing products, getting word of mouth out there and scaling up. “You could spend £1m on a Tube campaign in London and there is still no guarantee anyone will see it. But Dublin and Amsterdam are ideally sized for organically growing and testing products by word of mouth.
“There’s lots of good stuff happening in Dublin. The NDRC is there, Dogpatch Labs is there and there are new investors like Frontline Ventures. The growth of Intercom in the city also gives it great credibility.”
So does she plan to return to start-up in Dublin?
“I’ve been in the UK for 10 years and despite the property prices it is home for the foreseeable future.”
Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book your tickets now to join us from 30 June to 2 July 2016 for fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.