This week’s small business superstar is Oliver Southern, a London-based entrepreneur who started his career at one of the world’s biggest technology companies. We discuss the differences between a multinational and an SME, his love for technology and why UK startups are being priced out of Silicon Roundabout.
Tell me more about your life as a tech entrepreneur
After graduating with a Law degree from Leicester University, I started my career at Yahoo, beginning as an intern and made my way up to commercial director. I then went on to work for Telefonica, where my experience in digital and mobile technology gave me the inspiration and knowledge to create my own mobile app, Chored.
Starting my own business has always been a dream of mine. One of my favourite aspects about running a business like Chored is the autonomy of it.
I know exactly what I’m doing and am across all the detail. Working in a large company, you can feel like you are a small part in a massive machine. Running a start-up is the complete opposite – everything that happens is because of something you did, or didn’t do. Suddenly you’re the machine.
And now you’re working for yourself. Tell me more about Chored and your experience with building it.
Chored is an app for house shares. It lets users split and pay bills (including rent and utilities) directly to the company via the app. As the name suggests, Chored also allows housemates to assign and track household chores.
The app includes group chat and a “who’s home” feature which uses geolocation so you can see who’s in and who’s not. It’s helpful if you forget to push the button on your load of washing – just simply access the app, see who’s home and ask them to push the button for you!
When it came to building Chored, I’ve always loved app design but didn’t have the budget to hire a designer at first. So I started teaching myself, creating some mock-ups in the initial stages of the business. Fast forward two years and I’m wholly responsible for our app design on both iOS and Android. I’m still learning, and I hope that never ends.
There are so many entrepreneurs within the UK tech space these days – what can they do to stand out from the crowd?
We know that lots of start-ups fail within their first year. A lot of people may think that failure is because of the strength, or lack of strength in the idea. It’s essential to have faith in your business.
Be passionate, and believe in yourself. I’ve seen a lot of pitches in the last couple of years – the passionate ones are the ones that stick with you, the idea simply becomes background noise.
But of course, to really stand out from your competition it’s key to create an original concept with stunning, differentiated product development and innovation. For us, it’s essential to build a great user experience, whether it’s chore rotation or bill payments – and offer something unique to our competitors.
What do you do to relax
We’re a London start-up and while we work hard, we try and enjoy ourselves at the same time. So it’s a pint or two in the pub and some peanuts if we’ve been really hard at it.
Luckily for me I live in Hackney, which if you can get over all the sailor tattoos and skinny jeans is an amazing corner of London. There’s always something going on, something different or quirky to poke your nose into.
Over the past year, you secured around £150,000 in alternative finance. How did you go about doing this?
The £150,000 funding to launch the product was achieved by crowd funding, angel investors and the Startup Funding Club. We have a wealth of advisory talent which has been built up through networking in the right places. Surrounding ourselves with good generals has enabled us to find solutions to challenges quickly and prepared us for what lies ahead.
And what advice can you give to SME owners who are searching for funds – should they go down the alternative market or approach their bank?
Firstly, do not underestimate how challenging raising money is. This is especially true of the first investment – no one likes to be the first to make that leap of faith. That said, aim low to begin with. Smaller investments attract larger investments, so as long as you have the energy to keep the round open for a while, it could even be worth starting your journey with a small crowd funding target.
This is exactly what we did; we raised 20,000 with Crowd2Fund, then four months later we closed the round with £150,000. Also, never give up! Belief is an incredibly powerful commodity, and essentially one you alone control.
Thankfully, entrepreneurship is one area in which our government is doing a fantastic job in helping SME owners searching for funds. Without the SEIS tax relief offered to investors in our first round, we could not have managed to raise our initial £150,000, and without EIS, our second round would look very different. Together with offering R&D tax credits for new tech ventures, along with various possible government funding schemes, I think start-ups in the UK are well catered for.
SME Insider recently discovered that tech start-ups are avoiding Silicon Roundabout as a place to set up their firm due to high rent prices. Do you agree with these high rates and what other areas can you recommend for technology entrepreneurs?
At the moment, our CTO is based in Switzerland, our Database Architect is in Romania, engineers in the Ukraine and we have a small team in London. We think that as long as the job is done well, it doesn’t matter who did it, or where they were working from.
In addition to Silicon Roundabout, tech entrepreneurs could explore other London areas such as Level 39 at Canary Wharf as well as any of the six WeWork spaces, popping up in areas like South Bank and Soho.
More and more children in the UK are learning how to code. How do you think this will impact the UK tech scene in say, 10-15 years’ time?
The UK tech sector has seen tremendous growth. With this success, come endless career opportunities for young people wanting to enter the world of tech. Over the last few years, the UK has woken up to the importance of coding with organisations like Young Rewired State, Code Club and Code Academy helping young people to learn these key skills.
We are already living in a world dominated by software and the next generation’s world will be even more digitally focused. This doesn’t mean that in 10 or 15 years every job will involve programming or require you to be a professional software engineer. Computational thinking teaches vital skills, and will help future generations understand and master technology of all sorts and solve problems in almost any discipline.
For the UK tech scene to continue to grow and flourish, it’s essential for the government and businesses to work together to ensure young people are digitally savvy, and equipped with the skills and knowledge to continue to drive innovation.
What is your favourite buzzword?
Coming from a telco I love a TLA (three letter acronym). “Send that over by EOP” (end of play) was a particular bug bear at the time. But as for buzzwords I think ‘viral’ is over used. I especially love it when people use virality to describe a desirable app attribute, which isn’t a word.
When people say ‘viral’ what they really mean is ‘product market fit’. Get your product right for your target audience and it will spread organically, end of story.
Creating an app is seen by many as a way to ‘get rich quick’, especially from young entrepreneurs. But in reality, what comes with the territory of creating an app from scratch?
Late nights, and fewer meals out. That’s kind of a joke, but then again many a true word is often said in jest.
I took a significant pay cut to go it alone, which in the case of the slightly older entrepreneur is often the case. Of course, there is always the allure of the quick sale, but I’d rather have less, and be the master of my own destiny than take a six figure salary forecasting semi-conductor sales for GE. That’s purgatory for the creative.