Jo Goodson and Neal McCleave
Any Friend of Ours
Private house rental network
Tell us what your business does:
Anyfriendofours.com is an online, private membership club where second homeowners can rent their property to recommended, trusted individuals.
Membership is limited to homeowners and their invited friends and family – plus special guests of Any Friend of Ours.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
I have a beautiful holiday home, but found that we didn’t get to stay there as often as we thought we would. It costs a lot of money to keep it – and that is difficult to justify in the current economic climate.
However, there is no way I’d want a stranger staying there – it’s very much our home. The solution I came up with is a trusted network of individuals that gives second homeowners a way to unlock income potential, while feeling confident that the people staying in their home will respect it.
It overcomes the concerns that make so many second homeowners reluctant to rent out their property, for fear of it being damaged, or the hassle of having to chase payment.
How did you know there was a market for it?
According to 2010 figures, over 1.7 million Brits owned a second home; with approximately one million of these located in the UK, and a further 700,000 overseas. If we were to assume that only 10% of homeowners leave their second property empty 45 weeks per year, that alone equates to 7.65 million weeks of potential rental income.
I founded Any Friend of Ours to serve the many people I have spoken to who share my experience. We could rent via other lettings sites, but there is always an element of risk and hassle, which we are trying to remove. Each of our members has a close link to a second homeowner or Any Friend of Ours, so there is a high level of confidence in who is renting your property.
What were you doing before starting up?
I studied German at university and did various things afterwards – including a stint working on a Broadway musical in New York!
However, my most relevant experience is setting up and selling a previous business and working as a non-exec for other start-up businesses.
Have you always wanted to run your own business?
I worked in the software industry for many years and saw a wide variety of people setting up on their own. I decided, if they can do it, so can I.
I was very lucky to meet an amazing business partner in Germany, which gave me the impetus I needed – and the rest is history! Once you get the bug it’s hard to stop.
What planning did you do before you started up?
We did a lot of research, wrote a business plan and a financial plan. We worked closely with Ariadne Capital to perfect these.
How did you raise the money?
I used the money from the sale of my first business to develop the website and pay for initial marketing, but am now at the point where I would like to raise more funds.
I am hoping the new EIS and SEIS regulations will encourage more angel investors to consider investing in start-ups such as mine.
What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
Our current challenge is to find more homeowners who don’t necessarily make money from their properties at the moment, but would like to make some return on their investment.
Reaching a very specific audience can be challenging and we are working closely with a number of agencies to define the best strategy to take us forward.
Where is your business based?
I have worked at home for many years and am very self-motivated so don’t find it too challenging.
I am also a mum so I try to be very strict about allowing myself a few hours off in the late afternoon to spend with my son – although it does mean that I inevitably have to work in the evening and at weekends. I don’t try to hide this fact and have found in recent years that people are very understanding.
How much do you charge?
We do not charge a fee to put a property on the site, but we take a commission on any rentals.
We incentivise homeowners to invite their friends and family to sign up and build the community, asking them to pay as little as 7.5% commission.
What about staff – how many do you have? Is it burdensome?
We are currently in start-up phase so this hasn’t become an issue as yet.
I had 20 staff at my previous business and found it challenging to find the right people, but very rewarding once you do. It’s great to work with talented people and see them grow in ability and confidence.
What has your growth been like?
We are currently in our beta phase and our plan has always been to use this period to focus on improving the site and building our portfolio of properties.
To this end there are no listing fees and we are not charging any commission on rentals until January 2013. We will start to generate revenues in 2013 and expect to be profitable in 2014.
What’s the impact on your home life been like?
I have an amazingly supportive husband, but it is always challenging to build something new and put in the hours required to help a business fulfil its potential. Fortunately, he worked with me in my last business so understands the challenges.
My son is incredibly proud that he can Google my name and find me on the internet. I haven’t told him that’s the case for many people – I don’t want to disillusion him!
What would you say the greatest difficulty has been in starting up?
The greatest difficulty has been balancing the desire to build a business with the desire to have a home life,and enjoy my son growing up.
What was your first big breakthrough?
Realising that I wasn’t alone with my property problem and finding people to join Any Friend of Ours, and support its growth.
What would you do differently?
If I were to start any business again, I wouldn’t change the fact that I surrounded myself with people who are more experienced in certain areas of the business than myself.
However, I am currently looking for an advisor, non-exec or investor who shares my vision and would like to come on board to help grow the business. In hindsight, perhaps I would have sought this person earlier.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
The most important tip I would give to an entrepreneur is to get help with their finances from the outset, if they are not financially savvy. Sound financial management is vital at all times, not just when cash is tight.
Believe in yourself, be confident and don’t be your own greatest critic. Women often feel they need to be perfect and underestimate their own abilities.
Where do you want to be in five years’ time?
Five years is a long time. I think right now I need to be focussed on growing the business and finding the right partners to help maintain that growth.
We will know when the time is right to exit and will always have that in mind, as we do now – but not let it detract us from the business of the business.