Robert Barney is experiencing the kind of dilemma that only a successful business person could imagine having. Robert has worked for himself ever since he set up a small property maintenance company in Clapham back in 2007. His business grew fast and after 1 year he was managing more than 50 contractors; sending them out to jobs in people’s homes, paying them, and handling the accountancy and regulatory side of affairs.
Robert quickly realised that to continue to run his business he needed to stop doing so much administrative work. He could see that the mountains of paperwork he had to complete every time he sent somebody on a job would eventually kill his business. It was unsustainable. He needed to find a way to co-ordinate all of the small tasks he was legally obliged to carry out, to create a centralised system capable of understanding that every job needed scheduling, invoicing, recording, and reporting upon.
His solution, at the time, was fairly radical. He decided he would try and go paperless. He also decided that what he really wanted was a system in place that could do the work of a secretary, and accountant, all day, every day, but for no salary! He wasn’t keen to hire any more staff for the office. He didn’t have the space for a start.
So he called his brother Simon, who built web applications for British telecoms. After a bit of persuasion, Simon joined the Company and together they began to build the answer to Robert’s business problems. An end to end, customer relationship management tool that could also handle order processing, invoicing and accounting.
In Robert’s opinion, it was the holy-grail that could help his business stand out in a crowded marketplace, the kind of competitive edge any business would welcome. And it worked! Datanet, as the system was christened, could do all of the things mentioned above and more. The brothers decided to hire some developers and really test the limits of the products usability, and soon Datanet was running the entire administrative side of the business on its own.
It wasn’t long before the contractors and businesses Robert worked with began to take note. How come Robert’s business was so well run? Why was he never losing invoice sheets, sending the wrong people to the wrong jobs, or failing to take customers payments for weeks and weeks? They wanted in on the software too. At first, the brothers said “No”.
But they soon concluded that Datanet could work as a stand-alone business. The demand was there, and it was a market leading piece of software that traders, notoriously technophobic people in general, trusted. So they took Datanet, gave it the more tech savvy name of Flobot, they pivoted their business, shut down the property maintenance arm, and became, after seven years of “blood, sweat and tears”, remarks Robert, a fully-fledged disruptive Tech start-up!
Now for the dilemma: Flobot is essentially a Software as a Service platform (SAAS) with a target market of field service providers such as plumbers, electricians and gas men. Anyone who has experienced trying to pay a plumber using an old chip and pin station with a dodgy battery, before having to wait weeks for a proper invoice, or taken a day off work only to find the gas man won’t be coming because he had the wrong date in his diary, will testify to the gap in the market for a product that combines workflow management software with a working payments system where the public can even store their details in case of repeat business. Flobot, Robert is sure, has always done well for its clients. The difference a prompt payment system can have on your cash-flow management alone is massive.
Robert has looked at the competition and identified 2 companies he sees as offering a similar service to him. Geoop, a Canadian brand that has recently completed a round of funding, and Workflow max, which was recently bought out by a much larger firm. There is also a third, Powered Now, beginning to make waves. Flobot is too early stage, and too small, to compete for contracts such as British Gas, despite their workflow system, Cyclops, being very much in need of replacing, but Robert has noticed the competition getting fiercer to make deals with smaller firms also. “It was when I started to hear adverts for accountancy software on Talksport radio that the penny dropped”, says Robert, “I began to think, has the message finally got through, that paper trails are bad for business?”
The demand is there, but how to get noticed? To date the business has been entirely self-funded, but might Flobot benefit from an accelerator program, say, which would provide access to mentors, marketing specialists and fresh investment? “My first thought was that I was too old and had too much experience”, Robert reflects, “We’ve been in this business for a long time. I don’t rule it out, but I’m running a business here, we have 25 clients and more than 100 contractors to support, where would I find the time?”
A social media or digital advertising campaign, perhaps, or more presence at industry events or tradefairs? Robert reveals he used to build websites himself, so is fairly au fait with the way that, for example, Google Adwords works. He is sceptical that there is an agency out there that can deliver him the number of leads he requires purely through online marketing. “Organic search is still 70% more effective than paid for ads”, he notes, “people still don’t trust sponsored links”.
SEO is another area Robert knows well; he reminisces about Google’s famous PANDA update, which decimated the page rankings of huge firms such as Amazon and EBay, effectively forcing them to pay for sponsored links to get themselves back to the top of the rankings. He knows it’s important to stay on the right side of Google’s dreaded algorithm, “the Borg” he calls it.
The frustration is that such a well-developed product may not get the market it deserves, but that’s business, it’s not always about who has the best tools. We discuss guerrilla marketing, and Robert references the Dollar shave club ads, which, as well as being comedy gold, turned around Dollar Shave Club’s fortunes. We discuss writing a blog, like Charlie Mullins, the Tory leaning boss of Pimlico Plumbers. Robert seems keen. He is an ideas guy, after all.
I ask, would he consider selling the business? After all, he has achieved what he set out to do. He mulls it over. Maybe, he says with a shrug, he figures he would listen to offers. It’s a classic case of a founder who has finally realised his dream, built his dream product, and delivered it to market. But entrepreneurs are never satisfied; what’s next? They constantly ask. So what’s next for Robert, his brother Simon, and Flobot? “After the initial shock of the new, the digital workflow market for tradespeople is starting to consolidate, it’s about partnering with someone passionate who can inject even more of the funds and enthusiasm that is the lifeblood of any Company.”
One thing is for sure, when the team move offices from Vauxhall, to just down the road in Mayfair, Robert’s journey is only just beginning.