Ryan Notz

The founder on extreme bootstrapping and the dangers of scrimping on web design

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Let’s be honest, the builders’ industry doesn’t have the best reputation. Picking a tradesperson at random out of the phone book can be a gamble. Word of mouth recommendations are invaluable, but hard to come by unless one of your mates has recently had a kitchen extension put it. Ryan Notz, a self-employed stonemason, realised the solution lay online. His platform launched in 2008 providing an online marketplace which brings together builders and homeowners. Customers can post a job on the site for free and a network of registered builders offer them quotes. The site has proved incredibly successful, winning numerous business and technology awards. To date, more than 80,000 jobs have been posted by homeowners. However, starting with ‘zero tech experience’, Ryan admits he learned things the hard way.

“People have trouble trusting builders and I think that’s because so many of them are self-employed,” says Ryan. “Companies tend to have established reputations but individuals don’t. It’s also hard when you’re self employed in this sector because you have to juggle so much – managing leads, doing quotes, invoicing and actually doing the work.” Ryan’s idea was to create a website where the marketing, lead generation and quotation system could be done in one place. Tradesmen would post profiles on themselves where customers could leave reviews in a similar system to the eBay feedback model.

Extreme bootstrapping

“I told everyone I knew about the idea,” says Ryan. “I got a very positive reaction and very few people were sceptical but I used to be an artist so I know how cheap ideas are. Implementing them is the hard part.” After some initial idea development, Ryan approached his bank manager about a start-up loan and was pointed towards a local business incubator which offered general business advice as well as heavily subsidised office space. However, even the nominal £100 a month was an expense Ryan simply couldn’t afford – he’d realised he had to dedicate all his time to the project so his own stonemasonry work was put on the backburner. “I worked on the business from my garage. Money came from credit cards, personal loans and a bit of money that my dad put into the venture.”

After a disastrous experience with the first web builders he commissioned Ryan knew he would need to become more tech savvy himself. “The first site was horrible,” he admits. “The agency gave me a very competitive quote but I should have known better.” The venture’s first online prototype was called and although it’s very different from the offering live today, it gave Ryan his first major breakthrough – winning tech start-up competition Seedcamp in 2007. The competition provided Ryan with both seed funding as well as some invaluable mentoring from the organisers and investors and he says it was only at that point that work ‘began properly’.

“The …50,000 from Seedcamp was by far the most amount of money that had ever come into the business but it still wasn’t enough to hire anyone or properly build the application. But it bought me some time to get a proper funding round completed and the contacts I made there were the people who eventually invested ten times that initial amount.”

Three months after winning the competition Ryan had hired a team to build the site properly. “We just started from scratch,” he says. “It was intimidating but we had a tight timeline and everyone was expecting something great. We worked around the clock for a couple of months and when we launched there were no significant bugs and everything worked.”

Rethinking revenue

Ryan has gone through several different revenue models for the business over its lifespan. Initially it was free for builders to register and income stemmed from charging customers £30 to post a job. “Believe it or not, people paid,” says Ryan. “It was pretty exciting when you got six people posting in a single day but then there were days when nobody did and you can’t grow a business that charges people up front with no guarantee of them finding a suitable builder.”

Ryan eventually adapted the model so builders were charged a quarterly fee to register on the site as well as a percentage of every job they secured through the service. It was a tough call to make and cut the number of tradesmen registered from tens of thousands to a select 5,000. However, Ryan says it was the best move they could have made. “Putting up a pricing barrier cut out most of the tradesmen but all the best ones were staying. Suddenly our payment rate went up.”

Despite the recession, has grown by over a 1,000% in the past year. The housing market may have stalled, but Ryan believes his company has benefitted from builders needing to do more to find work, and homeowners improving their properties rather than moving. Dubbing 2009 ‘the year of the product’, Ryan is now turning his attention to heavily promoting his offering. “We didn’t want to spend a lot on it in the early days until we knew what we had was working well. Now we’ve got a profitable model, 2010 promises to be the year of marketing”.

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