Accommodation for Students, Vincent Bond, and P6.com: William Berry

Serial entrepreneur, Young Gun, and new Growing Business columnist William Berry on running businesses in three locations at once


‘Have a nice day!’ If said with the right, cloying American accent it’s a phrase dripping with insincerity. Or so many of us Brits would have every other Brit believe.

William Berry doesn’t share the nation’s collective angst about being nice to other people. The successful entrepreneur now splits his life and businesses between three cities – and three worlds apart.

Each one is distinct and says something about the city in which it is housed. The online portal for students seeking accommodation, appropriately named Accommodation for Students, is in Manchester, home to the largest single site university in the UK. It’s also the region where many of Berry’s family reside. He and his co-founder Simon Thompson started the business together in 2000 after graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University, where Berry was apparently voted peer most likely to make a million.

In London, the UK’s financial centre, Berry owns 75% of debt management business Vincent Bond & Co. Previously, Berry made his money when he and another business partner James Falla sold similar business Thomas Charles Ltd in a £12.5m deal back in 2006.

And then in San Francisco, his automated video production venture, P6.com, is yet to launch, but promises to be as disruptive as almost any Silicon Valley start-up if he gets it right. Berry clearly has the ability to morph chameleon-like to his environment and his time in the US is beginning to rub off.

He bought into Vincent Bond earlier this year and is desperate to see customer service become the key differentiator in a market associated with hard-nosed debt chasers. “It absolutely ties in with what I’ve been learning in the US,” says Berry. “The US is significantly ahead in terms of cutting edge thought processes and technology and the biggest focus is on customer service, which is core to businesses there.” In fact, he describes it as key to the survival of a business.

Customer is King

He cites Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, the delivery company bought by Amazon for an eventual $1.2bn in 2009, as a major influence. Hsieh shared his ethos in his book Delivering Happiness: A path to profits, passion, and purpose, a title that became the number one bestseller in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

“I went to talk by Tony Hsieh and did a tour of the company in Las Vegas. They spend no money on marketing; it’s all on customer service. Everything they do for customers needs to have the ‘wow’ effect and they pull out all the stops to solve the problem in a specific case, like the time they had shoes delivered to a person for a wedding while they were on a ferry.”

“I find that really amazing – as it leads to referring and recommending other people. Zappos was also strong on the cultural side. We [in Britain] all pay lip service to that.” Hsieh actually created 10 core cultural values, number one of which was to ‘Deliver WOW Through Service’, but others focused on embracing and driving change, creating fun and a little weirdness, being adventurous, creative and open-minded. Pursuing growth and learning, building a positive family spirit, as well as being open and honest, positive, passionate, determined and humble, completed the 10.

Berry points to how the company recruited staff. Zappos would send a car to pick prospective employees up, with the drivers teed up to assess how friendly and humble they were; the final part of the selection process was to offer candidates $2,000 to walk away.

Bringing something like that culture into a British company would be likely to arouse a degree of scepticism, but Berry’s committed. As part of the consultation process with staff at Vincent Bond he impressed upon them how important he feels it is. He has instituted five core values there: excellent customer service; honest transparent advice; clear and up-to-date communication; a non-judgemental supportive approach; and a willingness to embrace best practice and technical innovation.

The results are starting to tell for the business too, with Berry claiming that client referrals and positive feedback in focus groups are both up. “It’s not good enough to just be ok. Clients have out of hours contact numbers for debt consultants – any time, day or night. Nobody else in the industry is offering that. Our consultants will know the client’s case intimately. Clients are getting harassed by creditors and often stick their heads in the sand with the bailiffs sent around. We work with the client and if creditors get too aggressive we’ll threaten them with legal action and report them to the OFT [Office of Fair Trading].”

Illustrating another aspect of Vincent Bond & Co’s devotion to customer service is to help clients explore the variety of solutions to their debt crisis, such as DMP (debt management plan), IVA (individual voluntary arrangement), and bankruptcy. “A DMP is one of the least impactful. We have a negotiation team to agree interest rates and provide our team with a bonus if they get interest rates frozen. A Gold case is when interest rates are frozen to zero and the charges are stopped.”

Silicon Valley dreams

Back in the US, Berry’s beta mode start-up was inspired by what he would view as a business failure in his career. “Film121 wasn’t that successful, but was a good learning curve. Video was a growing thing.” He sold the London-based production company for a negligible sum in 2008. The problem was that in delivering for the client it proved far too easy to get into a series of re-edits of the video content. As you’d expect, Berry wondered why there wasn’t an easy solution for the kind of people and businesses that wanted something quite basic.

The solution was to build an automated video production platform where the server would do the video editing once the client had prescribed what they wanted to appear in terms of video footage and on-screen text. The final step involves dealing with feedback and a re-edit, with the process dramatically reducing the time and cost required to produce a basic video. “The ability to do server-based editing has only been around for a year using high-end Java software,” he says. “In the past I’ve had the mentality of keeping it secret, but everyone’s got their own thing going on out here. I only have to be slightly cagey in terms of patent application.”

In fact, the service will be free for users prepared to have an ad for the company at the end of – or $5 to $10 for videos with no end credit. “Users will also be able to upload pictures and video clips from iPhones and add their own narrative,” he says. “And you can auto-publish on YouTube.” Providing it to Facebook users should also offer huge viral benefits.

It’s a venture Berry has already put $50,000 of his cash into, with the expectation that the sum will soon double. He feels the technology would be perfect for all sorts of industries where video content could add real value to an online experience, citing the property market with simple pan and zoom features to tease the eye on properties for sale, as a good example. When he launches officially Berry plans to pitch to Silicon Valley’s technology journalists and venture capitalists at the SV New Tech event where “all the start-ups movers and shakers go”, with the hope of P6.com trending on Twitter in the aftermath. The fact that he also lives with two Google engineers should help the company build profile on the search engine quickly too.

It all seems a little reminiscent of something the more youthful Berry did way back in 2005 when he pitched Accommodation for Students on Dragons’ Den, an appearance that launched his media profile. He was offered a deal on the show, but didn’t take the money, instead using the publicity as a vehicle for his venture. Today, the company remains a small business with only a handful of employees, but nicely profitable. He has growth plans for it too though and talks loosely of becoming the equivalent of a letting agent by handling tenant viewings, rent collection and handling deposits, to remove the headache for landlords. “We’ll undercut the letting agent and make more money per property,” he says.

Despite his somewhat peripatetic existence Berry seems to be making it all work – and in many ways it suits his personality to a tee. “I’m not very good at detail and when it comes to man-management,” he admits. “I don’t have the patience. I absolutely have to partner up with somebody who is good on the day-to-day business side. The dream has been to have an investment company that does start-ups. I come up with an idea or do that jointly and bring my skills to bear to make it happen.” With three companies on the go he couldn’t have it any other way.

William Berry is a Growing Business columnist. He’ll be writing about life in the Valley, sharing anecdotes and the benefit of his experience of setting up and growing a series of companies, and shooting from the hip about doing business right.

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