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In our new series we’re taking a look behind the business – at the inside stories of the entrepreneurs who are the true driving force of the British Economy. First up, we talk to Entrepreneur of the Year 2009, and founder of BookingLive, Vinnie Morgan…
BookingLive provides the facility for businesses to seamlessly manage bookings, schedules and appointments. We currently work with large enterprise clients such as Greene King, Arla, Transport for London and many councils. However the dream has always been to provide a free service to SMEs. In 3-4 months a freemium version – in partnership with Stripe – will launch which will allow SMEs to take payments without a merchant bank account within minutes of signing up.Launching the service has a huge overhead cost but we’re passionate about being able to provide a free product.
I first set up a digital agency in 2007. We had some high profile clients, including The BBC and Vodafone. However it was frantic, with constant deadlines and it wasn’t really a sustainable business model. BookingLive launched in 2009 and was instantly a better option for producing a recurring revenue stream. It wasn’t a hard decision to close the agency a few years later.
I have – I’ve always worked and had an income stream. I set my digital agency business while a student at the University of Teeside. I was having a huge amount of success as a freelancer so it was a natural evolution to take those clients and reputation to launch an agency.
Back in the agency days it was all about reputation and customer referrals. Booking Live is a different ball game – it’s all been online – SEO, PPC and social sales such as Linkedin and Facebook. Social sales are trial and error and some platforms are pricey but the enquiries that come in tend to be quick converting and high net worth. We don’t spend much else on marketing over and above online. One thing that works for us is allowing customers to contact other customers in their industry which tends to make it an easy sell.
We wanted to move to a tech hub – we felt it was important to locate in a place where we could recruit the best people for the job. After doing a fair amount of research we decided that Bristol was the place to be and it has certainly increased our recognition and reputation.
To begin with I worked all hours. I lost a relationship because of the workload and wasn’t always happy. However after six months I’d saved enough to buy kit and hire my first member of staff – but it was still high outgoings without much coming in. After 18 months I was burnt out, and went to Africa for six weeks where I realigned my priorities and came back with a better work-life attitude.
Those first years were difficult, but without that experience, work rate and knowledge the business wouldn’t be where it is now. The business is now self-sustainable and would keep growing without me – but I want it to grow bigger, and at a faster rate, so the long hours are still needed. A lot of people think you can make the next Facebook without putting in the time but there is a reason why 80% of companies fail within 3 years. I could have kept the business as a slow growing lifestyle company but I didn’t want that.
Saying that, as you scale up you can step back more. Bottlenecks disappear and become less frequent as better processes are introduced. You’re forced to introduce better processes and procedures when you work with high profile clients.
I’ve thought about giving up many times, especially in the early days – I wasn’t seeing friends and thought ‘this isn’t the life I want, this isn’t making me happy’. As a business owner a strong support network is vital. I didn’t have a formal business mentor, but I did have a sort of personal mentor – David Dixon, who is now our non-executive director. David was a great cheerleader – he didn’t give me business advice but he was there to assure me that I was doing the right thing.
I’ve built up a number of automated KPI reports which allow me to keep tabs on all areas of the business and step in if necessary. Every account is labelled with a risk rating and also a red, green, or amber based on the amount we are spending to service this account versus the revenue it generates. Once an account turns ‘amber,’ I’m alerted and I’m able to step in. This and the use of real-time reports has given me a strong handle on the data and has also given me the opportunity to step back – I go backpacking for up to 6 weeks once a year where I check in on the office using real time reporting on my smart phone.. Analytical data has been really important in helping me make quick and accurate business decisions, but now we want to take it to the next level and maximise the opportunities afforded by big data. This will be both in understanding users and personalising content.
It took six months to get to the point of feeling comfortable pitching – I needed to up my game and fix gaps in the business model and financial forecasts. There were ups and downs in the process – my first event was in Dublin and wasn’t entirely successful. There was a lot of networking, going to events and pitching before I found the right funding. With Venture Capitalists it’s really important to get the right match for your business – some are incredibly demanding and can be brutal. You need a good rapport – VCs invest in people as much as businesses. In the end there were three or four funding opportunities for funding, including crowd funding, but VC was right for us as I wanted to appoint new board members and strategic partners who would bring a wealth of knowledge to the business.
We found a great VC firm in the end – they’re at the end of a phone if I need them, but they trust me to run the business.
We also secured funding from Creative England. In a generic newsletter I spotted a piece about a pot of funds and entered on a whim. 3 months later I was invited to pitch. I was away in Australia at the time so they gave me the latest slot possible. I got straight off the plane and went to pitch – it obviously went well because we secured an unusually high amount of funding!
There is an existing digital skills shortage. We currently have three positions that we’re struggling to hire for. At the moment it’s relatively easy and cost effective to hire committed workers from Europe – we hired 3 of our current developers via Skype interviews. Of course, we are worried that Brexit may make it more difficult to hire skilled workers, or they may not want to come here anymore, but we’re confident we can adapt.
We’re currently in managed office space, which is great for small businesses as everything is taken care of. However, we’ll be expanding to 30+ people this year and it’s starting to make sense to lease our own premises. Alongside releasing Freemium, we are launching new products – watch this space!
This year I’m Zimbabwe for three weeks to work on Rhino conservation – and of course I’ll be checking up on my realt-time KPI dashboard through my smartphone!
Find out more about BookingLive here.
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