ACCORDING to Raj Singh, founder of online marketplace Sooqini, we are now living in a “gig economy”. His theory, albeit paraphrased from Michael Lewis’s The New New Thing, goes that people no longer want a stable job. Instead, we want to take individual responsibility for our own, diversified careers. Intensified by the most recent recession, this notion is fostering a climate for entrepreneurship.
But while the startup climate may be fertile, Singh never wanted to be an entrepreneur. It wasn’t until he worked for Investcorp’s venture capital arm in the US, and interacted with entrepreneurs on a daily basis, that he began to feel inspired. “These individuals were so full of energy and passionate, albeit blinkered at times. They gave me the impetus to build my own company.”
Sooqini enables anyone to outsource tasks or errands to “trusted” others. Using a reverse-marketplace model, buyers post tasks on the website or app, and receive offers from interested sellers. They then choose the best offer, and Sooqini takes a 15 per cent transaction fee once the job is completed.
It was Singh’s co-founder Tiago Mateus who came up with the idea for Sooqini, when he was working from home one sunny afternoon and fancied a knock-up on the tennis court. His local club didn’t have any instructors available, his friends were all office-bound, and Gumtree couldn’t help. He realised that having a time-sensitive and location-based request was not an uncommon problem.
But convincing investors that this was a issue that needed to be fixed was a big obstacle. Singh drew up a list of 300 possible investors, all of whom turned them down. So they decided to bootstrap the business, and launched in June last year. They have subsequently raised £300,000 from seed and angel investment rounds.
Singh thinks this was largely possible because, today, it costs very little for a company like Sooqini to get to proof of concept stage. “We understood that, in a world of apps and websites, you have to just get the idea out there.” Nonetheless, he recalls the tough early days, when there was no steady income, and he and Mateus were working out of the local Regis hotel. “It isn’t easy,” he says. “But a lot of people do it.”
I ask why, in light of his experiences at Investcorp, he didn’t switch that Regis for a Silicon Valley motel. Singh agrees that the Valley has a more established ecosystem, with a mass of people and ideas in constant flow. And he acknowledges that raising funds is often easier in the US than in the UK. But he is convinced London has the edge.
First, he says the London tech-startup scene is smaller, so he felt Sooqini could have far more impact. Secondly, he thinks London has everything a startup needs in one concentrated area. “London is the world’s leading financial centre. It has talent in abundance – in design, in technology, and in finance. Entrepreneurship has become a buzzword here now – everyone wants to be one.”
And while Sooqini is a pioneer in its market in Britain, similar companies already exist in the US. One is TaskRabbit, whose difficulties earlier this year led to staff layoffs. Sooqini can sympathise with its struggles, having encountered several of its own. It has been difficult, for example, to engage the target audience – who are unfamiliar with the notion of a buyer’s marketplace, and could be deterred by the effort required on their part to pay for a service.
Small wonder, therefore, that Singh, who began his career at IBM, admits he often longs for the support system – and assistant – that came with working for a large company. The technology behind Sooqini, for example, is a constant challenge. “Our tech team are very competent, but their resources are limited. So often we have ideas for the website, only to be told it would take six months to build the technology to realise them,” he says.
Despite his obvious passion and optimism for Sooqini, Singh says he worries every other day that his business could fail. But it is starting to gain traction. Although getting the public to understand what Sooqini is doing has been a challenge, it is an attractive notion for sellers – often stay-at-home mums, students, and businesspeople moonlighting to get some extra pocket money.
Advertising is a big cost for a small business. But Sooqini allows sellers to use the site free of charge – they register for categories, and a location, and receive alerts as soon as a job comes up. It took the founders over a year to get 15,000 users to sign up, and it now has around 50 approved requests each week. Sooqini’s target is 100,000 users over the next six to 12 months. Once the company has expanded as much as it can in London, it will look to spread to Europe and raise more investment.
I ask Singh what advice he would give to future entrepreneurs. “The main reason startups fail is because they give up. Sometimes with good reason, but you should try as long as you possibly can to make it work.” He adds that too many entrepreneurs create businesses to get rich. “First of all, most of us won’t. Secondly, if you’re only in it for the money, you will give up at the first obstacle because it won’t feel worth the hassle.”
CV RAJ SINGH
Company name: Sooqini
Company turnover: N/A (15,000 users)
Number of staff: 7
Job title: Chief executive
Studied: Computer science at Imperial College, MBA at INSEAD
Drinking: Talisker Distiller’s Edition
Eating: Uni (sea urchin sushi) when it is in season
Reading: The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard Morais
Favourite business book: Repeatability, by Chris Zook and Jimmy Allen
Talents: Puzzle solving
Motto: Do well by doing good
First ambition: To be an astronaut
Heroes: Gandhi, Michael Bloomberg, The Unknown Entrepreneur, Mr Incredible
Awards: Fen Brainage competition, 1985