In this interview, Brett Akker shares his reasons for going at it for the second time instead of retirement, why he decided to sell Streetcar to Zipcar, going into the storage industry with LOVESPACE and advices for young entrepreneurs.
Hi Brett, thanks for doing this. How are you doing today?
Very well thanks. It’s the end of a pretty busy week so looking forward to the weekend!
Tell me how you initially got into business?
The seeds were probably planted when I was growing up and seeing the entrepreneurial routes that my parents took (both had their own fashion labels in the UK). I was always likely to launch my own business – it was just a matter of what and when.
You sold Streetcar to Zipcar in 2010, what are some of the most important lessons that you learnt from that experience?
Whether you’re raising money for the business or exiting, having a strong group of advisors around you is vital. They are both very time-consuming processes and it is important to have experts around you – in order to allow you to keep a good degree of focus on the actual running of the business.
You have countless of entrepreneurs who get acquisition offers very often, when does an entrepreneur know the right time to sell a business? How did you know the right time to sell Streetcar?
To be perfectly honest, for me, it was very much gut feel. We had had several approaches in the previous years but the Zipcar approach just felt right – both in terms of timing and also the particular partner. We felt that there was a lot that could be achieved globally by joining the businesses and it would bring our European expansion plans forward considerably.
You could have decided afterwards to buy a beach house somewhere and retire, why did you decide to start another company?
I think that once you’ve tasted the start-up world, it’s difficult to let go of it. Whilst retirement was never going to be an option, I did plan to take a little bit of time off after Streetcar but that didn’t quite materialise in the end!
How did the idea for LOVESPACE come about and why storage?
The idea for LOVESPACE came about from an initial conversation between Carl August Ameln and myself. Carl was the first external investor into Streetcar and has significant experience in the self-storage world across Europe.
With LOVESPACE, we are effectively bringing the Streetcar concept to the traditional storage world. The rationale being that, space is at a premium for many people in the UK – from both a personal and business perspective. LOVESPACE offers the UK a cost-effective, totally hassle free way of making space for the stuff that matters.
Tell me about the early days, the type of challenges you initially encountered?
The two key challenges have firstly been building a back-end system that is both first class for today’s operations but also scalable with the business.
Secondly, with LOVESPACE being relevant to many different target markets (from businesses looking for archive storage to students storing over the summer holidays to and from house movers to people who are just wanting to make space in their home), it has been important to make sure we target these markets in a structured, effective way. As with all start-ups, marketing spend is limited so it is vital to spend this in the right areas at the right times.
What is LOVESPACE? And what are you trying to solve with it?
LoveSpace provides storage by the box across the UK for businesses and consumers. We collect things from your door, look after them for as long as you want, and then return them whenever and wherever you want them - the very next day. We’re like cloud storage, but for your physical things.
How have you been able to fund it so far?
The initial funding came from myself alongside First Risk Capital and Smedvig Capital (both early investors in the Streetcar business). We have since undergone a small angel round and are likely to be doing a slightly larger round over the coming months.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs looking to raise funds for their startups?
There are numerous ways of fundraising out there for startups – there has obviously been a big increase in crowdfunding in recent years and, with the EIS and particularly SEIS schemes, angel backing is perhaps easier to find now than it was a few years ago.
About the first few months, how excited were you, tell us about how those months felt, what happened?
It was extremely exciting. To basically rewind 8 years and start all over again was obviously challenging but very enjoyable at the same time. We were very much focused on planning, building the brand and the back-end system, finding the right partners etc. It was certainly 24/7 all over again.
How did you initially get traction?
We focused on one of our core segments, the student market, to initially trial the service. We found that uptake was far greater than we had planned and it gave us confidence that there was certainly a need in this core area.
What are the most crucial things that you have done to grow your business?
The most important thing by far has been to build a great team. Much of the success to date is down to them – from Steve Folwell who is our LOVESPACE MD, to Charlea, Harriet, Ben, Hannah and the rest of the guys. We have also managed to build some great partnerships with some major UK brands such as Mothercare, Oxfam and Mainstay.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
It’s a really difficult one to answer. There have been many highlights – our first member at Streetcar and our first LOVESPACE customer were 2 big ones. The main one for me though is seeing the passion that the team has for the brand. This is true of both Streetcar and LOVESPACE.
The team at both businesses really have a sense of ownership in the brand and the business. To go for a drink in the pub and see several people passionately debate the pros and cons of various types of cardboard box, for instance, was hugely rewarding (although I did question their sanity at the time!)
What should we be expecting from yourself and the LOVESPACE team for 2014?
In short, growth! 2014 is obviously a crucial year for us and we will be looking to really grow the concept amongst all of our target segments. Once we have truly proved the concept in these areas in the UK, we will be looking to potentially launch overseas.
Lastly, what three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
Firstly, you need to be prepared to go 'all in' with any business! You need to be able to live and breathe it and embrace the all-consuming nature of starting and building your own business. The start-up life is not for everyone, but for the right person it's hugely rewarding.
Secondly, try and surround yourself with great people from the outset. This could be advisors, business partners or a great launch team.
Thirdly, always try and plan for the future. With start-ups, growth is likely to be very quick. It’s important to always try and think where the business could be in 6 months, a year etc. Making sure you have the right processes, systems, people etc. in place for the next stage of the business is vitally important and will mean that you’re not playing catch-up the whole time.