Jules Coleman: Hassle Are Cleaning Up

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The Big Read, sponsored by Vodafone: Leixlip native Jules Coleman is the Co-Founder and CEO of London-based home cleaning service Hassle.

Coleman co-founded Hassle, described as ‘Hailo for cleaners’, with Alex Depledge and Tom Nimmo in 2012. The company currently operates in 14 countries, and had raised $6 million from Accel Partners before it was bought in July by Berlin-based competitor Helpling, in a cash and shares deal which valued the business at a reported €32 million.

She currently holds the position of Global Chief Product Officer at Hassle.

You were working in a management consultancy in London when you first had the concept for Hassle…
I knew what I wanted to do, I just didn’t know how to turn it into a business. Luckily for me, a friend of mine is a computer science lecturer in London, and said ‘Why don’t you try to make a simple prototype? Something that expresses what you are trying to do.’ In the summer of 2011 I bought a book, a Ruby on Rails tutorial, and read it cover to cover. Through the tutorial they taught you to code, so I did that and I built this clone of Twitter, as the book encouraged you to do. Once I had this clone I started amending it, changing what the buttons said until it looked like something that you might book a piano teacher or a driving instructor on. Then, in a fit of madness, I handed in my notice at work and decided I was going to do this full-time and that I had a business, which I did not really. I kept plugging away for a few months, just me in my bedroom working on this kind of code-based prototype.

I love the fact that the first thing that you did was buy a Ruby on Rails book.
It was out of necessity, in the sense that we didn’t have any savings. We weren’t going to be able to bankroll this startup out of our personal finances and hire a development team or an agency. I had that realization that unless we could make something, however crude or basic it may be, there wasn’t going to be a next stage of the business.

When did you start to gain momentum?
In the January of 2012, we had our first stroke of luck. We heard about a startup accelerator program in London. It was called Springboard (NB: They later became TechStars London). I got together with Alex and Tom, my co-founders, and we put together an incredibly cringe-worthy video application, submitted it, and they decided to take us on to the program. It was that kind of external validation, that maybe we weren’t completely mad, that enabled Alex and Tom to leave their jobs and all three of us went full time. That was March of 2012.

I had that realization that unless we could make something, however crude or basic it may be, there wasn’t going to be a next stage of the business.

All three of you left your jobs really early on in the life of the company.
When I look back, I don’t know what I was thinking. I definitely live by the motto: you regret the things you don’t do rather than the things you do. The idea for us was that we weren’t here to just play at having a business. We really wanted to prove relatively quickly if this idea had legs. If it did, then great. If not, we’d go back to our jobs and be very thankful that we had a salary coming in each month.

You had a belief that all this effort was going to be worth it.
We were too stubborn to quit. We’d find a way past each challenge, and learn from our mistakes. For that first year, we were proceeding with the initial idea of this marketplace for 27 different services: driving instructors, personal trainers, and the odd cleaner. By Christmas of 2012 we had no recognizable traction. We’d completed the Accelerator program, we’d got some of our initial investment in, but we were really not making any progress, not in the truest sense of revenue increasing each month. We had to ask ‘What are we trying to do here?’

In the data we could at least see glimmers of hope; the vast majority of users were looking for cleaners. We took a step a back and we rebuilt over the Christmas, and launched the cleaner only product in London. In some ways that felt like almost another startup. It came from what we’d built before but we’d kind of started again from scratch. I think it was just that hope and endless optimism that this time it’s going to be better, it’s going to work. You kind of need, as a founder, I think, to persevere through the hard bits.

Did you ever think about your competitors in the field?
One of the things that kind of spurred us on to raising our first institutional round of funding was the emergence of some competitors in the US. There was a company that looked a lot like us called Homejoy, who in October 2013 raised $40 million. We’d only raised £250,000 (STG) in London and thought we were doing pretty well. In October 2013, we get the news that they’re coming to London. We were like ‘Uh-oh, this doesn’t sound good…’ Then hot on the heels of that there was Handy, run by a fellow Irish entrepreneur, Oisin Hanrahan, in Boston. They also raised a very large amount of funding. It wasn’t a keeping up with the Joneses idea, but we looked at our own metrics and we thought ‘We have a very solid business here. If these guys can raise $40 million in the States, I’m pretty sure the European investors will at least listen to us and have a look’.

That was what drove us to go out and prep for a Series A round of funding, which we did in January of 2014. We ended up securing 6 million dollars from Accel Partners here in London. Which really kind of enabled us to really go for that next stage of growth and internationalization.

Tell me about the importance of mentors…
We had some fantastic advisors; our Chairman Ron Zeghibe is also the Chairman of Hailo, so he’s in a marketplace that is experiencing high growth and knew the kinds of challenges that a business like ours faces. Having advisors that are just telling you you’re great all the time isn’t useful. You want people who hold you accountable, they have both knowledge of your business but more objectivity than you do. Maybe they’ll spell out the things that you’re just not seeing because you’re lost in the detail every single day.

Is simplicity the key to a great business?
Absolutely. It’s not like we didn’t hear repeatedly to focus on a simple idea, we did. Countless people told us that and we ignored it for 18 months, as we proceeded with our 27 services. I can’t dispute the fact that from the moment we decided to focus on one thing and have a simple solution for one thing, that’s the moment we started to gain traction.

How important is marketing? Should people spend money on marketing when they don’t have any?
Yeah. For us, it was AdWords. We were able to get a return on investment using AdWords as a means to generate new customers in our business, but our biggest marketing channel then and now is word of mouth. I would love to say that we’ve never spent a penny on marketing, of course we have. But I feel every penny or every minute we spend improving our product is better spent. That’s how we’ve seen it evolve.

When I look back, I don’t know what I was thinking. I definitely live by the motto: you regret the things you don’t do rather than the things you do.

What about the tug-of-war between satisfying investors and getting on with the business?
I think raising investment is an incredibly time-consuming, distracting process. It can just suck a lot of time and energy out of the business. We always tried to be very careful about the investors we brought on board. We never wanted somebody just because they were money; they have to be the right people, people that we could work with, in good times and in bad. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s very important. If you don’t have that, you’ll wish that you’d never taken on the money at all.

What advice do you have for companies looking for early stage investment?
I think it’s very easy as a founder to constantly look for the blockers or the reasons why you can’t be successful. If I’d been in Dublin looking to start a business, I think it would have been very easy for me to say ‘I can’t raise money because I’m not in London and that’s where the investors are, and it’s not as big a city…’ and all this stuff, but actually having launched our business in Dublin last year, it’s our fastest growing market anywhere. It’s taken off like wildfire. I realize now that I would have been creating excuses for myself in that environment.

In a startup there’s a hundred different things going on simultaneously and it’s very easy to go ‘We can’t possibly grow because…’ And then there are companies that just go ‘Yeah, but we’re going to try anyway’. We try to make the best out of what we have and it’s never perfect. Something is always going to be wrong. Persevering in the face of that is what typically separates the people that stick around and succeed from those that don’t.

The hundred different things going on simultaneously… That’s a perfect description of running a startup.
You’re lucky if it’s only a hundred.

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