Harriet Green talks vans, contractors and disastrous renovations with aspect.co.uk co-founder Will Davies
WITH the supply crunch starting to bite in the London office space sector, according to CBRE, and with average London house prices now at £485,000, the old adage that 1 per cent of a property’s value should be spent on upkeep annually is good news for any property maintenance company.
But back in 2004, when aspect.co.uk founders Will Davies and Nick Bizley started up in a shed in a Battersea business park, with two rented computers, they knew they would have to do something different to secure their place in a market bristling with competition.
aspect.co.uk is now the biggest firm of its kind in the UK, although it currently only operates in and around the capital. While others in the sector might offer a single service like plumbing, Davies’s company takes an umbrella approach, hiring specialists in all trades that both commercial and private customers might need. The company networks contractors, with flexible terms of employment keeping overheads low, and aspect.co.uk acting as an intermediary to realise economies of scale. Its clients now include the likes of Gucci and the Natural History Museum.
From the start, Davies and Bizley, who are old friends, wanted to professionalise an age-old industry. “There are plenty of good ‘man and a van’ tradesmen”, says Davies, “but no-one had tried building it as a business”. He doesn’t think of himself as an entrepreneur, however, and his business model is shaped by incremental innovation rather than invention.
It was aspect.co.uk, for example, that cooked up the concept of van sitters, to help its employees overcome London parking. These vehicle minders drop tradesmen off at a client, and then head back to base, collecting material and equipment needed later in the day. And Davies tells me the company even measures the impact of weather, to forecast who it will need on call when. January and February, for instance, are prime months for roof fixing demand.
KNOCKING DOWN WALLS
But Davies wasn’t always interested in bricks and mortar. He spent several years working in M&A at SG Hambros: “I ran my life forward five years and decided it wasn’t for me. I wanted to build something myself.”
Yet despite this background, he is keen to impress that banks and investors aren’t the only way to raise capital when you’re starting up. Innovatively, the pair initially took on part of an insolvent company, bought its debt from liquidators at a discount, and secured a crucial £15,000-£20,000 boost. “Entrepreneurs often think the idea is the largest part of the business, but it’s only a fabulous idea if you can fund it”, says Davies.
And ideas have got the better of him in the past. Three years in, he and Bizley thought they could compete with local builders, taking on full renovations. It didn’t work. The problem job invariably came along, and they took a £200,000 hit – almost too much for the business to bear. Davies now stresses the importance of knowing where your expertise is. “We could have gone bust”, he says. Since then, they’ve steered clear of knocking down walls.
Davies and Bizley are looking to hit £20-30m turnover in the next three years, putting their trust in a franchise model to expand nationally. Having worked to get aspect.co.uk right in London, Davies believes the only way to achieve his goal is to return some ownership at a local level. His company, however, can add value by centralising processes local tradesmen can struggle with – billing, marketing and customer feedback.
But it is Davies’s latest foray which is his most interesting yet. “We’re taking on estate agents”, he says. Irked by the substantial kickback letting agents can get from the property maintenance side of the rental market, this latest venture is another example of the firm’s practical response to topical problems.
He describes the move as “disruptive” – “we’re carving out a new market”. His aim is to offer property management to landlords for less. Over six months, aspect.co.uk has got 30 to 40 customers on board, and is banking on a new marketing campaign, aimed at its 50,000 London clients, to boost that.
Davies doesn’t feel threatened by new entrants to the market. Even companies capitalising on voguish crowdsourcing, like DIY (but for someone else) marketplace Sooqini, fail to wobble Davies, who remains a firm believer that a middleman approach is the best way of securing customer trust and loyalty.
Is aspect.co.uk something he’ll be doing forever? “You can’t say forever”, smiles Davies. Although neither he nor Bizley have any intention of selling, they know that what’s best for them might not be what’s best for the business: “If it’d be better off in someone else’s hands, we’d sell”. Right now, they are looking to bring a business heavyweight onto the board, aware that growth means recruiting further expertise.
And does Davies have any advice for any budding potential entrepreneurs? “Be honest with yourself and your weaknesses”, he says.
CV WILL DAVIES
Company name: aspect.co.uk
Number of staff: 200
Job title: Founder and managing director
Studied: Economics, Bristol University
Eating: Meat, fish and veg when the kids are watching!
Favourite business book: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell
Talents: I do a very good Donald Duck impression
First ambition: To give up Latin
Motto: “Work hard and be honest with yourself”
Awards: National Business Awards, Service Business of the Year, Best Customer Focus, Creme de la Creme, Smarta 100, Accelerate 250