Coffee with Entrepreneurs | Ben Prouty, Co-Founder and CEO of Shepper
I got the chance to interview Ben Prouty, Co-Founder and CEO of Shepper. Ben had previously been at Lovespace and StreetCar (now ZipCar) prior to starting Shepper. As becomes clear in this interview, these experiences have helped shaped Shepper from the steps they took starting out to his thinking around various topics such as how he looks at competition or how and when to grow the Shepper team.
Shepper is a service that allows you to book on-demand inspections by their trusted Shepherds (local inspectors). Shepherds can perform inspections on almost anything ranging from traditional checks on your home or bike to a drone-powered service soon to be launched for potential hard-to-reach locations. Shepherds will send you photos of the asset you’d like inspected, giving you the ability to check up on assets or possessions hundreds or thousands of miles away.
On the idea and starting out
RB: How did you go from having the initial idea to the first working version of Shepper?
BP: Shepper was founded by Carl August Ameln, a high-net worth individual who made his money in traditional storage and had been involved in both StreetCar and Lovespace. He wanted to develop a centralised service where he could get aspects of his properties inspected, for instance after a storm had hit his property in the Bahamas. It’s an idea he had been sitting on for a while.
The alternative is paying companies, such as G4S, a fortune to inspect properties using an inefficient system based on very old tech that wouldn’t give you an immediate answer to the condition of your property or asset. He thought, why not use someone local to check up on a property who could quickly let him know if the property was OK? He wanted to replace these out-dated security services. That’s where it started and he brought me on to run it.
So, the opportunity was to disrupt the security industry and to do it by connecting local people with local shepherds. The next step for me was to sit down with Jan, my Co-Founder, and flesh out the idea as much as we could. We started by just building out what the user journey would look like and then building the other side for the local shepherds who would be doing the inspections. We didn’t do any fancy wireframes, it was just mapping out what it would look like from start to finish. As we went along, we would identify gaps in the service that you need to fill and you start adding extra feature sets as well.
RB: Do you do any background checks on the Shepherds?
BP: Yes, we use a service for on-boarding that includes background checks. We also ask what their skillsets are so we can group them together. For instance, we might have non-active security guards and we can send them on tasks suited to those skills.
RB: As the company and product has developed have you changed your customer focus at all?
BP: We started out with a consumer focus. At the same time as we were doing consumer marketing we started having conversations with businesses. We thought there must be enough businesses who have a security solution already but would be prepared to swap it out for something else that was more cost-effective and more rich in tech. Those conversations with businesses took off very quickly. If you get a business on-board you can get thousands of assets on board rather than a single asset from a consumer acquisition.
We have now completely shifted our focus to B2B with about 15 partners across the UK. There’s no marketing and there’s no need for a sales team. Partnering with these businesses also allows us to expand internationally.
RB: How did you get those initial conversations with businesses going? Cold-email or did you use existing contacts?
BP: I used my initial network. I contacted those in the shared economy space because they’re quite innovative themselves and more likely to try a new service. For instance, we partner an AirBnB management company where we help to inspect their properties for damage in-between tenants. But we also help them to meet their requirements, so we might go and buy a mattress protector from a local store and put it on a bed in the property. We’re keeping it broad and trying to not rule anything out.
RB: Initially, did you have some milestones to measure your growth?
We may be a tad different. We kind of follow our gut. We wanted to just get it off the ground. We wanted to be able to answer the question: Is there someone who wants to use your service?
In all three businesses (ZipCar, Lovespave and now Shepper), the business plans weren’t incredibly detailed at the start. I think a lot of that is because of our investors who are ambitious and not risk-averse and therefore willing to take a bit of a gamble to get things of the ground. If you’ve got demand and you can fill it, that’s the first key milestone.
RB: With the tech side, how did you start it and how did you think about it tying it in with the vision you had?
BP: We thought what do we need at the start? We needed someone in a location who could go and take some photos. From the demand side, we need to know the tasks and then we can get the Shepherds in the nearest location to go and take some photos and make the purest form of MVP.
Why spend another 6 months developing it out to then try it out and find no one wants to use it? Chances are you’re going to rip up the MVP in any case. Are Shepherds and customers really going to use this in the way we thought they would? Now we can add layers on top of the MVP instead of starting from scratch. Having seen something similar at Lovespace and Zipcar, I knew we could start small and then develop it out.
At Lovespace I remember having post-it notes all over the wall telling us how many boxes were coming in to us and then moving them across the wall depending on whether the boxes were in a warehouse or in transit.
At ZipCar, I remember using Microsoft Paint to update invoices and it being a huge project. If you’re struggling to do invoices at the end of the month manually, awesome, what a great problem to have! That means you have a lot of invoices and customers. You deal with it and figure it out.
Just get going on the small of scales. Prove that someone wants to use your service. Go have conversations by knocking on doors and using your network until something sticks.
RB: How do you look at competition? I think one of the scariest things for startups pre-launch is seeing someone with the same idea
BP: I’ve seen it happen a lot of times. People don’t even get off the ground because they Google their potential idea and discover someone’s there already.
You need to think you can do it better. Having some competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re all alone in a space a year after starting, that’s probably not a great sign. Marketing by others can elevate what you’re doing and then you just need to do it better than them and people will choose you instead.
We had competition from ZipCar at StreetCar. About 18 months to 2 years after starting out, ZipCar came over but it just didn’t work for them. They couldn’t compete and had to acquire StreetCar.
At Lovespace we had competition early on but they didn’t want to roll their sleeves up as much as we did and probably underestimated the magnitude of operational challenges that would accompany a business such as Lovespace. It wasn’t just about making a nice site there’s was a whole operational and logistical side to the business as well.
Just make sure you’re the best and don’t worry what the competition are doing.
On the team
RB: How did you decide about the split of the equity between Carl, Jan and yourself?
BP: In the beginning, Carl was putting the lion’s share of the money into the business so it was perfectly reasonable that he got the lion’s share of the equity. Jan and I have options that vest over time which makes sense to me to incentive people to stick around. We’re happy to work in a pretty informal environment where this is written down on a piece of paper signed by us all, especially for that initial period
RB: How did you expand the team outside of the Co-Founders?
BP: Jan came on board first as a co-founder. I kind of do a little bit of everything but I knew immediately that we would have to build a product and I’m not a product guy. Jan is, he’s great at branding and can do the wireframing. I also thought as Co-Founders you want to have different skillsets and you want to have a very identifiable role in the business so you’re not peppering each other as a result. We’re both making the final decisions on everything.
We felt even if customers started flooding in, we could handle it. Then we started thinking about building the volume which required new resources so we brought in someone for business development in November, having started at the beginning of October. Then we had a core team that could do everything we needed to keep this thing running. As orders started coming in, our operations started to feel the strain so we had to fill that up as well. We started to have more success in B2B side so if someone reaches capacity we then add more to that side of the team.
You start thinking about people before you need them. We had to rush hiring in the past businesses I’ve worked in, particularly at Lovespace because of the seasonality of the business. At Shepper, we’ve brought people in before we actually needed them. We just brought someone on-board in the US who is doing 2 days a week as we think it’s important to have a presence over there.
RB: When was the right time to get office space?
BP: We got an office space pretty much immediately but it’s not massive. We thought it was important from the beginning that we have somewhere that we go to that’s not a coffee shop.
Would I do it if I was running a business by myself at that stage? Probably not, but I would do it as soon I was able to. Squeeze as much as many people and as much stuff as you can initially. You see a lot of startups in flashy offices which is unnecessary at that stage.
I think I had good discipline from my time at Lovespace. When we started, we were in an industrial estate in Wimbledon but when we did get the money and moved into a nice office, it felt like a really nice reward and I think the rest of the team felt that as well. You don’t need to be in the trendiest of offices straight off the bat, that’s something you can work towards.
RB: When you were starting out, you had funding from Carl and First Risk Capital, did you consider going to an accelerator or an incubator or were you focused on the home-grown story?
BP: We felt we knew what we were doing so didn’t feel that we needed that extra step. It’s amazing how much you can copy over from previous experiences but if I hadn’t had experience in a startup I wouldn’t know where to begin.
You’ve got to create your own deadlines and stick to them. Getting a co-founder can be helpful. When I’m working with Jan, we say we’re going to meet at a certain time at a given location. There’s no flexibility. Having someone else drives you that much more.
RB: How have you gone about getting funding?
BP: We just closed another round so we’re good for a little while. You learn that you’re constantly fundraising so we’re immediately going out now at the VC-level to allow us to scale up.
Having a track record helps us. VCs see the track record across the two previous businesses (StreetCar and Lovespace) and see a third opportunity with Shepper so they get in touch for informal discussions.
Even if you’ve got an expression an interest, there’s a lot of steps you need to take legally before you bring the money on board. For our recent round, we began discussions in April and the money only just came through. There’s a lot of paperwork you need to file with Companies House and do everything to the letter.
RB: How did you get the legal advice needed for the funding rounds?
BP: Simon, who’s FD of Lovespace and works for us as well helps a lot with it. He also has someone he can call on to help out. It helps to have this network that you can tap into. Otherwise, I wouldn’t know how to begin and what a reasonable cost for it would be.
On general advice
RB: Do you use any resources (what do you read or what do you look at)?
BP: Not hugely, I don’t want to be too guided by what other people are saying. I see what my network are sharing on LinkedIn but I like to make my own views. I keep an eye on what’s happening in the startup world. One simple thing I do and I recommend everyone to do is to sign up to crunchbase daily and see who’s doing what every day.