Cargo Bike Handyman: Graeme Semple

The odd-job man on his green vehicle of choice and on quitting corporate life to set up on his own

Company name: Cargo Bike Handyman
Founders: Graeme Semple
Age: 36
Based: Herne Hill, south London
Date started: July 2010

Tell us what your business does:
It provides handyman services: painting and decorating, basic plumbing and electrics, odd jobs, carpentry and garden maintenance.

Where did the idea for your business come from?
I had come to the natural end of my corporate life and was fighting against the confinement of an office. And, from my desk, I became increasingly inspired by the sheer talent my Dad has for all things practical: building, renovation, carpentry; he’s also been working for himself as an electrician since 1980. I never pursued a trade as he did, but I started to consider starting a business based on the maintenance skills I already possessed.

How did you know there was a market for it? What’s your USP (unique selling point)? How will you differentiate yourself from the competition?
The market for home maintenance is one which will always exist to some extent, regardless of the prevailing economic conditions. People may cut back on having unessential, decorative work done, but plenty of maintenance work is necessary for homeowners and landlords.
My USP is undoubtedly the 7-foot long, orange, cargo bike which I use to get to my clients. The bikes, made by a California-based company, Yuba, are remarkable – a bit like the bicycle equivalent of a pick-up or a Land Rover. The bike makes it easy to carry tools, ladders and a fair amount of materials.
I can differentiate my service by being greener, but a more tangible benefit is that it’s more efficient and reliable to use a bicycle instead of a van or car. Then there’s the matter of parking a vehicle in London – sadly, the media portrayal of the city's parking wardens as laughably predatory is all too true.

What were you doing before starting up?
My last job was with an internet company, where I was involved in the sales and marketing of advertising services. It was a good company but I always felt drawn to starting another business of my own, having previously set up a paintball and outdoor events company in Glasgow, before I moved to London.

Have you always wanted to run your own business? What appealed most about being your own boss?
It can be quite secure and comfortable to work as an employee in an established business, and I have certainly benefited from that over the past few years, but all of the usual, oft-quoted truisms relating to self-employment still applied to me: I wanted the freedom to be in charge of something I’d created and to reclaim what Hugh MacLeod calls “personal sovereignty”. Everyone needs an “evil plan”, I think.

What planning did you do before you started up? What advice did you seek?
Planning the business was fairly simple: I wrote a relatively brief business plan, and didn’t need to seek any advice. The simplicity of my business – what it does, how it works – is not accidental.

How did you raise the money?
I’ve been a fairly dedicated saver over the past few years, and the business was set up with a modest amount. There’s certainly been an appealing lack of stressful pitches or debt financing meetings.

How did you find suppliers?
A good friend of mine, who is a tradesman, recommended reliable local suppliers he has used for many years.

What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
The biggest challenge was gaining the initial few customers. I’ve carefully avoided many of the usual early-stage challenges – such as paying for staff or rent with little or no revenue – by choosing a simpler business model.

Where is your business based?
My business is partly home-based; and partly based in a railway arch workshop owned by a friend who is a cabinet-maker.

How have you promoted your business? What has proved successful and what won’t you do again?
Good, old-fashioned word of mouth has proven very effective – and the social web is just an online form of this. I’m also maintaining a blog to give my customers an insight into my recent work.

How much do you charge? How did you decide this?
I charge £20 for the first half hour, then £15 per half hour. I decided to make the service cheaper than my vehicle-based rivals.

What about staff – how many do you have?
So far, I’m on my own. I have a couple of people who I can draw on casually for bigger jobs, and I may choose to create full time jobs in the next year or so.

What has your growth been like?
Growth has been steady – of course, first year growth is easy; sustaining it in the long term is harder.

What’s the impact on your home life been like?
It doesn’t feel as if my home life has been affected much more than if I was still commuting to an office for 40 hours a week.

What would you say the greatest difficulty has been in starting up?
Letting the world know that my business exists.

What was your first big breakthrough?
I landed a big job after a couple of months, through an acquaintance. It gave me the confidence to chase that kind of work.

What would you do differently? ie what have you learnt?
There are still people out there who don’t use Twitter, Facebook and email – I have potential customers who aren’t even online, and I need to remember that – despite the value the online channels bring me.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
Read the articles and watch the videos on the website of Doug Richard’s excellent social enterprise School for Startups. He communicates about the fundamentals of business with enviable style and clarity: “A great marketing campaign is defined by the irrelevance of the sales people who follow.”

Where do you want to be in five years’ time? Do you have an exit plan?
I don’t have an exit plan. But I’d like the business to grow sustainably over the next five years.


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