HomeFix Direct is a full-service property repairs and maintenance company that can carry out anything from changing a lightbulb to full refurbishments. I interviewed the founder and CEO of the company, Declan Curran, and here's the full transcript of our conversation.
Hi Declan, Thanks for doing this. How are you doing today?
You’re welcome, thanks for inviting me in! I’m good thanks, and busy!
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
I’m from Northern Ireland, I’ve just turned 40, and I studied law and literature before trying out a variety of careers en route to being an entrepreneur.
Tell me how you initially got into business?
I’d always wanted to be my own boss, for no other reason than I was never particularly comfortable having to answer to others, however nice they were! But it’s a big step to become truly self-sufficient, especially when you’re trying to replace a generous salary with money you’ve begun to generate yourself. So I tried and failed a couple of times with a couple of ill-fated ventures in the past - at one point I started a café which floundered because it was in Manchester and I was trying to manage it remotely from London, and before that I’d bought an antique barge with a view to renovating it for profit. The venture sank, and the boat might as well have for what it cost me!
Eventually I settled on property development, back in the glory days when everyone was watching Property Ladder on TV. I borrowed some money from my amazing dad to buy an ex-council flat in Bethnal Green, proceeded to knock several walls down - again with my dad’s help - and was able to remortgage it for so much more 9 months later that I was able to repay him and buy a second flat in Pimlico. After that I was pretty obsessed really, selling the boat I lived on to fund more developments, all of which I kept and rented out whilst at the same time working as Head of UK Sales for an internet advertising firm in Mayfair. I eventually quit that job in 2006 after I’d bought my 5th property, and never looked back really.
How did the idea for HomeFix Direct come about?
Well my original plan was to concentrate on assets, not services, so I’d intended to keep buying and developing more and more properties, renovating, leveraging etc until I became a tycoon! I had a fairly robust business plan that involved progressing from flats to hotels to ships; in fact I’d made an offer on my first hotel and had found a shipping broker who agreed to mentor me in that industry’s secrets after I realised that the cumulative value of my flats at the time was the same as a second hand cargo ship! Don’t ask me why I wanted to be a shipping magnate, I think I’d read too many biographies of Aristotle Onassis…
Anyway, things were progressing wonderfully until one day in September when Lehman Brothers failed, and from that day onwards my entire chosen industry seized up, along with the plans I’d expected to carry me to retirement. Because property, hotels and shipping are all credit-based industries, and the global supply of credit dropped to zero within about 72 hours… It really was game over for me and a lot of others.
So I decided to set up a business which could at least capitalise on my property experience and contacts; hence HomeFix Direct.
Tell me about the early days, what was the hardest part of starting the business?
The early days were actually pretty halcyon actually. In the early portion of any startup, when your biggest problem is ‘do the business cards look good?’ and ‘when’s the website going live?’ it’s all quite exciting. Hosting meetings in cafes, setting up email and Twitter accounts – every little thing seems like a giant step forward, and the costs are always pretty low and manageable. It wasn’t until we actually began to grow properly that minor issues became big problems, and the sleepless nights arrived more regularly!
What is HomeFix Direct? And what are you trying to solve with it?
HomeFix Direct is a full-service property repairs and maintenance company that can carry out anything from changing a lightbulb – and believe me, we’ve been asked to visit a property just to do that! – to full refurbishments. Basically, if your property needs anything fixing that’s related to gas, electrics, plumbing, central heating, decorating, damp, roofing, handyman repairs and pretty much anything else, then we can sort it out for you.
In terms of what we’re trying to solve, I know from bitter experience having paid numerous contractors to work in my own properties over the years - some excellent, some appalling – that it’s vital to be able to find good tradesmen. But the issue isn’t only ‘are they competent in their chosen field?’ – it’s important to also have call centre staff who are willing to go the extra mile, to have a transparent internet presence, to be punctual and presentable etc. And believe me, it’s sadly rarer than you’d think, which is where I hope we excel.
How have you been able to fund it?
The Bank of Declan unfortunately. I mean, trying to secure any kind of funding during the recession was a bit of a nightmare, never mind for a brand new venture in the building industry! But luckily I’d built up a pretty robust property portfolio in the boom years which is still working for me, so I’ve been the bank for my own business when the banks didn’t want to know.
What sorts of advice do you having for entrepreneurs looking to raise money for their startups?
Be prepared for a lot of knockbacks, and be ready to dislike banks a lot more afterwards than you ever did before. It’s such a shame that they simply don’t want to support any kind of ventures – I’ve approached them in the past with a list of blue-chip client names all stating in writing that they intended to give me their business when the company was established, and despite this I’ve still seen 20-something guys shaking their heads, guys who’ve never risked a day in their lives working for themselves. One who won’t be named even suggested that I speak to the kind of loans companies that advertise in the back pages of tabloids. So when HomeFix Direct is London’s biggest property company it really won’t be down to any benevolent funder – it will have been because of me and my amazing staff.
About the first few months, how excited were you, tell us about how those months felt, what happened?
Well the first few months were very exciting indeed. That feeling of somehow conjuring a brand new company out of thin air, of building a business armed with nothing more than self-belief, a laptop and a mobile phone, is invigorating. I basically treated my local cafe as my office and got on with it! My first ever corporate client came via Twitter in 2009, which is ironic because although I like Twitter it’s rarely generated much business since! But between cold-calling and referrals the feeling of growth was very exciting.
How did you initially get traction?
At the time my great white shark, the big prize I was intent on trying to capture, was Foxtons. They were, and are, such a giant in the London residential property world that I knew I wanted them as a kind of ‘halo’ client, one that, once secured, I could then try and build on. Other firms are very prestigious, like Savills and Knight Frank - both of whom I’m delighted to say HomeFix Direct have carried out a lot of work for - but I’d bought some flats through Foxtons and I correctly believed that if we could start a working relationship with them we could be on our way towards real growth. And that’s pretty much how it worked out really; after a year of occasional bits and pieces from them it suddenly started to take off, and they’re probably now the client we have the strongest relationship with. I know they’ve had a controversial image at times, but I can honestly say they really look after their smaller suppliers, and they’ve done us a lot of favours.
So that was our moment of traction really – once we got properly established with them, other avenues seemed to open and more and more opportunities arrived.
What are the most crucial things that you have done to grow your business?
Spent a small fortune getting it established! But seriously, we’ve done a lot of things right and we’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. I think, if I’m honest, that eventually finding the right staff was probably the most crucial thing. We’ve tried big offices, small offices, various marketing options, pretty much everything really, but I think when I convinced my colleague Geraldine to leave her powerful job managing an estate agency and join me then things really stepped up. Then her sister Alex joined us, along with a different pair of sisters, and now our core team in the office is just the most dedicated, hardworking bunch you could hope to have working for you. I think having the loyalty of my key staff, who given me a verbal battering any time I’ve become disillusioned with it all, is what’s kept me going even when I’ve occasionally wondered if it’s all worth it.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
The highlight will be when I eventually sell HomeFix Direct or attract a major investor, but that won’t be for a long time yet! In the meantime, I can think of a couple of client wins that pleased me greatly, and various wonderful testimonies that have lit our faces up, but to be honest it’s not been the kind of journey where you can pinpoint some amazing highs. It’s just a lot of solid, hard work that we all believe will pay off one day. Having said that, the day in July 2006 when I left my last advertising job vowing never to work for anyone else in my life was a pretty damn good feeling!
What should we be expecting from yourself and the HomeFix Direct team for 2013?
Growth. Honestly, just this very morning I had a fantastic meeting with a company based in Canary Wharf that manages around 2,000 properties, who said they’ll give us some test jobs with a view to working closely with us. We’re also seeking to sign up more ‘retainer’ type clients, in other words companies or landlords who won’t just use us for reactive maintenance, i.e. calling us out when something breaks, but rather firms that pay us a set retainer fee every month and then treat it like an all-you-can-eat buffet where they use us as often as they like during the month.
That should be a big area for us actually – if a landlord or company has enough properties under management, we’ve analysed the figures to the point where they could be paying us as little as around £80 or £90 per property per month for us to carry out whatever repairs are needed. So we definitely want more of those! But yes, growth is the buzzword for 2013 for us, and it’s already started off very strongly.
Lastly, what three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
In no particular order I would say: dream a lot, be prepared for knockbacks and get good people around you. If I’m honest, I don’t particularly like the word entrepreneur, but if there’s one thing an entrepreneur should be it’s a dreamer. The guy or girl who stares up at a skyscraper and thinks ‘one day…’ is the sort of person who’ll eventually have the guts to risk it all to start their own business. Because without that dream, why else would you take the chance? You might as well collect a salary until you’re old. So that’s the biggest thing…
The knockbacks will happen - of course they will - but I sometimes fear for the younger people who watch the new wave of tv shows that preach how wonderful it is to be an entrepreneur… Some of these shows make it look so easy, as though just having a decent idea and a winning smile can launch the next multi-million pound company. I mean, in theory yes a great idea is very important, but I’d rather people were given more of a balanced view of just what a daily grind it really can be, because it’s something that none of the glossy shows or ghost-written books by tv businessmen really highlight.
And finally, get good people. Whether staff or partners, the difference having people who can collaborate strongly with you is amazing.
So those are my 3 tips!