Hugo Sells is not what you think of as your average builder. Smart, well spoken, educated at Manchester University and tech savvy, he may very well be the only builder named Hugo in its long and distinguished history. And yet? One of Hugo’s missions in life is to dispel once and for all the notion that all builders are unreliable, or workshy, or worse still crooks who we could easily do without, if only we had the time to stay at home and hone our DIY skills.
Reader, I make the following 2 observations. One: DIY may possibly not be your thing (sorry, someone had to tell you); plumbing, sawing, hammering and laying foundations are all things we believe we are naturally good at, but the reality is that home improvement is best left to the experts. Two, your loved ones probably wish you would stay away from the toolbox; many of my closest friends regard it as a minor miracle that I am able to dress myself in the morning, let alone put up a shelf or paint a dining room; I can vividly recall an ex-girlfriend wisely deciding to move out of our shared flat for a few days, after watching me attempt to rewire a plug. Watching Grand Designs does not make you an artisan, sadly.
Hugo knows this better than most because when he finished at University he bought a small cottage in Norfolk. Now Hugo is a smart guy who has started and run several businesses, including organising tours for comedians such as James Corden and Jack Whitehall, and a festival he set up with University friends called “Mad Ferret”. Ok, so Hugo is also something of a one off, you need to be if you want to stand out and be a leader, but when he discovered that the attic in his new cottage contained a small swimming pools worth of stagnant rain water which threatened to burst through the floorboards at any moment and destroy his kitchen and living room, even he was a little perturbed. So what did he do? He asked his local builder for help, who fixed the roof, got rid of the water, and explained to Hugo how to prevent it happening again.
Feeling inspired, Hugo steadily became proficient at dealing with one structural problem after another, until he became a more than competent builder himself, picking up clients via a local network of contacts, and growing a reputable and profitable business. But he never forgot the help he had received, and that got him thinking. Unlike many of his fellow builders, Hugo was able to leverage contacts made at University in fields such as business management, accountancy and, most importantly Tech. He soon realised that he was in a unique position not only to create a much needed support network for the building trade, but also to promote tradesmen in the online space. Partnering with Max Mallows, a Shoreditch based tech guru he had met at Manchester, Hugo created 1ROOF.
1ROOF began as a quoting mechanism, a simple way for people to create an accurate estimate for work they were planning to have done to their homes. The resource, they reasoned, would create peace of mind for clients and building contractors alike. However, this single concept developed into a multi-faceted platform, as Hugo puts it, “a free, online marketplace, which puts the public in touch with a selection of vetted, insured and recommended tradespeople, and provide services such as estimating, admin, and accountancy to builders.” Co-founder Max set about transforming a complex set of relationships into a positive and straightforward online user experience, and the results speak for themselves. In a virtual sense, he is as good a builder as Hugo.
In today’s market we always have access to consumer protection, some of it excellent, some of it quite dubious. An issue in the building trade is that we are now so fearful of the rogue trader overcharging us that we are often tempted to go with the lowest quote available to us, but Hugo argues that the principle of “you get what you pay for” is as relevant when dealing with tradespeople as in any other business sector. Besides the work itself, any decent, honest builder will be contending with the associated costs of admin, accountancy, and VAT, and all too often this is what causes the price to skyrocket. Hence 1ROOF’s decision to provide an online platform that helps builders control and manage their costs, and levels the playing field in a way which allows the most skilled craftmen to concentrate on what they do best, without having to worry what their accountant is up to. Essentially this creates a perfect compromise between client and builder; quality work for an affordable, realistic price.
1ROOF is more than just a price comparison platform providing administrative assistance for builders, however. A truly successful online business needs to have a social aspect (think Airbnb, Borrow my Doggy etc), so the team has introduced a recommendation system, whereby good tradesmen can build their reputation on the back of positive feedback, build customers via referrals, and grow their business by providing transparency of information. One attractive feature is a partnership with Facebook, so you can see who your friends have hired. The 1ROOF team plan to expand the offering by introducing a booking form, payment processing, and the chance for users to provide detailed feedback, which will be used as the basis for providing valuable market research, insight and analysis.
Hugo’s core argument is that not enough is being done to promote talented and trustworthy tradesmen and defend their reputation. He believes the public needs to know more about the intricacies andchallenges the industry faces, in order for them to make better informed buying decisions, and he’s determined to help. He plans to partner with trade associations to create a more visible public face, and hopes to encourage as many tradesmen as he can to sign up to the platform.
The target market is urban, where consumers tend to think they are spoiled for choice, but in reality word of mouth recommendations or personal testimony is harder to come by. As a result buyers often make hasty decisions that backfire when the workmanship turns out to be shoddy, and the cowboy builder simply rides into the sunset, never to be seen or heard of again. Hugo and 1ROOF are primarily about promoting quality workmanship, but see calling out poor performance as a painful but necessary part of the process.
Entrepreneurship is in Hugo’s blood, although he is dismissive of start-up and investor “jargon”, restricting himself to 3 watchwords: timing, development, implementation. So far he has raised seed funding via Stephen Page’s Funding Alpha SEIS fund, as well asangel investment from an ex Virgin Group partner, and plans to embark on a Series A funding round in the near future. I would recommend investors get in touch asap. We briefly discuss the numerous accelerators and incubators now available all over Tech City, and he believes they can be extremely useful, particularly as a source of contacts, routes to market or funding opportunities. The day to day running of his start-up, however, is best left to his team of experts; just like a building, plumbing, or electricity job, really.
The sun is shining, and Hugo’s fixing the roof. We’ve all heard about rise of Fintech; perhaps BuildTech could be the next thing?
Hugo Sells is co-founder of 1ROOF, the free online marketplace putting the public in touch with a selection of vetted, insured and recommended tradespeople. He was previously Executive Director of Jones and Sells Properties LTD, building contractors offering advice and tradesmen to those purchasing, renovating or developing property.
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