After becoming frustrated with agencies setting him up with work that didn't quite meet his skill sets, Ryan decided to do the only possible thing - disrupt the construction industry in the UK.
From waking up in the middle of the night screaming "we are going to be rich" to his wife then running down to the kitchen to quickly write down the idea, Ryan knew he had a great opportuntiy to fill a gap in an industry that was broken.
Although things werent rosey at the start, from rejections from bank managers about loans to complications with building the business first website.
In the interview below, You learn more about Ryan's story: Growing up, how the idea of MyBuilder came about, It's early beginnings etc..
Can you give you some background information about yourself, were you the entrepreneurial type growing up?
I was born in East Lansing, Michigan, while my parents were at graduate school at Michigan State University. My dad got an engineering job at Getty oil when I was 4 or 5 and relocated the family to Texas. I moved to New York City after University and then to Europe when I was 24.
I’ve always loved art and architecture. I wanted to be an architect when I was about 10, then I decided that I’d be a professional skateboarder, then I realised that art was my true calling. I got a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Texas at Austin and was fairly successful as a painter until I moved to rural France and found it a little bit harder to sell my work.
When I was in France, helping to start an artist’s commune in the Ardeche, the only job opportunity I had was working with a German stonemason and builder. It kept me from starving, but I also really liked it. It combined my love of architecture, the outdoors, and it fit nicely with the part of me that loves working with my hands. There were times when it was just plain hard work, but it was a lot better than most jobs. I was lucky to happen upon it.
I usually did other jobs while trying to make it as an artist. I worked for a few years as a restaurant cook, I did set design on a film (which I hated), I was a substitute high school teacher, I did a few office jobs, was even a lifeguard when I was 17. When I lived in New York City, I did a lot of things to get by. I bought bicycles at police auctions and fixed them up to resell, worked on motorcycles, fixed furniture, and cooked for the hippy commune where I lived on Staten Island.
My wife is English, so when we decided to get married and have kids in 2001, it was pretty apparent that we’d be quitting France and moving to England. I carried on with Stonemasonry in Bristol, and found that I really enjoyed living in England. 11 years and 3 kids later, I’m pretty Anglicised and very happy living in London. When I go back to the states, people are surprised to find out that I’m American. Whether that’s good or bad is another question!
Tell me how the idea for MyBuilder came about?
Since I had a fairly diverse set of experiences, it wasn’t hard for me to see that the construction industry in the UK was broken. This was always a point of frustration for me, so there must have been some sort of script constantly running in the back of my head. One night in 2004 I woke up at about 3AM with an amazing business idea – fully formed. I woke up my wife and said “honey, honey, wake up… I’ve got a great idea. We’re going to be rich!” She told me to shut the hell up and go back to sleep.
Not taking her advice, I went downstairs to the kitchen table and wrote everything down. So MyBuilder was literally born in a dream. I’d never heard of anything like it before, so I felt that I completely owned the idea. I never really had any doubt as to whether I should pursue my idea.
Talk me through the first few months of running the business? What would you say was the hardest part of starting the business?
Though I was utterly and completely driven, I knew nothing at all about web businesses (or business in general, for that matter). It was a long, hard road before I was actually making any tangible progress. Most of the ‘progress’ in the first couple of years was me learning the hard way through repeated failures. I knew nothing about web technology and I’d never hired anyone in my life. I didn’t know anything about accounting. I didn’t know what a Limited Company was and I’d never heard of a VC or angel investor. I went to my bank and asked to borrow £200,000 to start a business. I was surprised when they said no.
Looking back on it now, it wasn’t actually a bad way to go about starting a business for the first time. If you’re so ignorant that you don’t know how long the odds are and how incredibly hard you have to work, you’re more likely to dive right in. And diving right in is the best way to learn - sink or swim. Plus, the stakes are very low when you’re working from your garage and you didn’t have much of a job to quit. All the mistakes you make are small when you’re only burning £200 a month. If my bank had lent me £200k, it would have been a disaster.
The hardest part in the very early days was the constant insecurity of knowing that I knew very little, but not knowing exactly what I needed to learn. I had been working on the business full time for a year and a half before I found the SETsquared startup incubator at the University of Bristol and actually started meeting people who had relevant experience and could mentor me. With people to support and challenge me, a proper working environment and the beginnings of a network, things started to happen.
What is MyBuilder?
MyBuilder is a web marketplace that connects homeowners and tradesmen. At its core is a feedback review system that holds tradesmen accountable and rewards them for excellent work. The website is free for homeowners, who post jobs describing what they need to have done. Tradesmen registered with MyBuilder apply to the jobs they’re interested in and homeowners can shortlist and hire the tradesmen they like. Homeowners can see a tradesman’s entire work history on the site upfront, and read real feedback comments from previous clients who have hired them. We actively protect our feedback system and show every review, warts and all, so that homeowners have a clear and accurate picture of who they’re hiring before they enter into a contract.
Would you say the initial idea for the company, or that your business model has changed since its launch in 2008?
MyBuilder today is fundamentally what I dreamt of back in 2004. I changed the name from Buildersite to MyBuilder in 2008, and the way in which we make money has changed many times, but those things are basically details. Our market is the same. The vision, mission and ambition are the same. I wasn’t a web entrepreneur looking for an idea or a way to make money. I really did and still do care about the construction industry and I want to help make the world a better place. I saw a problem and wanted to solve it. The problem is still there, and luckily my idea was a good one. We are making a difference and there is nothing better I could think of to do with my life.
How big is your team now?
There are 15 of us on the team and we’re currently hiring in Customer Service, Marketing and Tech. We use the Symfony framework, so we’re always looking for talented PHP developers who like or are interested in Symfony and/or PostgreSQL. We’re also doing a recruitment drive to try to convince some of our tradesmen to down tools and join the customer service team. It’s really important for us to get people on the team who understand what it’s like to be a tradesman and have to hustle every day for your bread and butter.
What would you say has been some of the most crucial [things] that you've done to build the company to this level now?
Bringing tech in house was by far the single most important thing ever for MyBuilder. As a tech company, outsourcing your tech is a disaster. When I raised a seed round, the first thing I did was hire our CTO. He’s still doing a fantastic job and I never have to worry about our technology. If I want to change something on the site, it just gets done. I’m not exaggerating when I say that prior to having tech in house, small changes could take weeks or months. Something that could have taken a month before might take less than a day now. As an entrepreneur, you get a lot of ideas – some good, some bad. You have to be able to try things out and make changes quickly, to keep up with your pace of thinking and learning. If the development process is gummed up, everything grinds to a halt and the team gets frustrated and negative. Competitors pass you by and the business fails. It’s mostly poor execution rather than poor ideas that kill startups.
If I didn’t realise this, and if I didn’t value tech and work hard to understand it and stay involved in the development process, I’m certain that MyBuilder would not exist today.
What is your business model?
Tradesmen are our customers – we don’t charge homeowners for anything. We have a small membership fee for tradesmen and we make most of our money from ‘shortlist fees’, one of our unique inventions. We charge tradesmen a small fee when they get shortlisted.
Here’s how the site works:
1. Homeowners post their job
2. Tradesmen express interest in the jobs they like
3. Homeowner compares feedback, profiles, work history, etc. and shortlists the tradesmen they like. Shortlisting exchanges contact details and incurs a small fee for the tradesman.
4. Homeowner makes the hiring decision and the work gets done
5. Homeowner leaves feedback for the tradesman when the job is done
Is the business profitable?
Yes, we’ve been profitable on and off since 2009, but now pretty strongly profitable.
How many users do you have now?
We’ve had around 400,000 users register since launch.
What was the experience being one of the winners of seedcamp in 2007 and how have things change since then?
Seedcamp definitely facilitated and represented a big step forward for me and for the company. Though I feel that I benefited more from Seedcamp than any other company in 2007 and possibly even every year since. London was in dotcom mania and Seedcamp was new and very exciting. The press seemed to latch on to my idea because Buildersite was probably the easiest Seedcamp company to understand and relate to… and they loved the fact that I was a stonemason rather than a business school graduate. Shortly after the event, someone rang and told me to buy a copy of the FT. There was a big story on Seedcamp and a half page picture of me leaning out of my office window. The article began with “Ryan Notz…”. Then there was a big story on Buildersite in the Sunday Times and traffic went through the roof. I got a call from the CEO of Travis Perkins and not only did they want a partnership, they wanted to invest in the company. It was quite weird going from zero to hero even though nothing had fundamentally changed. Three years of hard work and hardship paid off all in one go. It was pretty incredible.
You’ve been very successful in raising investments, why? what advice could you give to startups looking to raise finance for their businesses?
Well, I would challenge that statement actually. Trying to raise money for 3 years with only my Dad and brother to show for it is a pretty poor result. It’s more a case of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”. But it’s true that in the end, I was successful at raising money and that’s more than a lot of entrepreneurs can say. Clearly a bit of tenacity is important, but I also credit myself for not getting my priorities the wrong way around. I always saw raising money as a means to an end, or even a means to a means to an end – not a goal in itself. Today I would even go so far as to call raising money a ‘necessary evil’. The goal is to build a business and if you can do it without external cash, that’s fantastic. But if you do need outside cash, you can’t stop working on the business. A lot of entrepreneurs fall into the death spiral of spending so much time trying to raise money that they ignore the business. Investors take their time deliberately – in part to monitor your progress. If the business is stagnating, it gets harder and harder to raise money and they just spend more and more time pitching and then it all falls apart.
When you do finally raise money, it’s not the time to crack open the champagne. It’s time to shit your pants because you’ve now got real responsibility to look after someone else’s money and expectations to perform. But you also can’t let yourself get distracted by every little comment or request from your new shareholders. You have to double down and focus on the business. What really matters is not that you respond to your investors’ emails within 5 minutes, it’s that you deliver a return for them by successfully growing your business. The best way to do that is still to do it your way.
What could you say has been some of the key things you’ve learnt so far as an entrepreneur?
One of my revelations is that business is largely common sense. Don’t let yourself get caught up in complicated logic and business school jargon. Analytical skills are hugely important, but the fundamentals are surprisingly simple. You’ve got to focus on the big picture or you will get lost in the woods. As an artist, I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by how creative business can be. I love problem solving and I truly believe that anything is possible. Well, maybe not time travel… but most of the stuff you want to achieve in a business is definitely possible.
What’s been your most memorable moment so far on your entrepreneurial journey?
Certainly winning Seedcamp was up there. Although earlier on, I won an elevator pitch competition in Bristol, sponsored by HSBC. I remember they pulled out a shiny trophy and a giant plastic cheque for £250. Then came the photo op with the bank manager, both of us holding the big cheque. He shook my hand vigorously and said, “If there’s anything I can do for you, just ask.” I replied, “Actually, there is. Could you give me a loan for £20,000?” He did.
What pieces of advice could you give to aspiring entrepreneurs out there?
Do something that’s meaningful to you; and whatever you do, be the best you can possibly be.
What can we be expecting from you and MyBuilder in 2012?
We will continue to improve, launching new features, improved processes, a new business within our existing business, and we’ll keep gaining market share and demonstrate to even more homeowners that it can be easy to find a builder that you can trust. We’ll also enjoy converting more tradesmen to a new and better way of finding work.
Where do you want the company to be in five years?
I hope that we’ll have more of the same, just bigger and better. But who knows, there could be some big surprises over the next five years that even a time traveller would find difficult to predict. Crap, I’ll be over 40 too!