This is an interview originally published as part of The Investibles series in Sift Media’s Business Zone: http://buff.ly/28mT6rC
Habu’s founders want to help build environments close to many startups’ hearts. Their new software is being used to run the kind of co-working spaces and hubs that have exploded in popularity over the last few years.
We caught up with co-founder Robert Ollett, about seed funding, beta customers and the need for “sheer bloody-minded persistence”.
We’ve raised £150,000 seed funding and are running a larger round in September.
We’re all about creating software for hubs and spaces that are at the forefront of the changing workscape around the world.
Flexible workspaces have existed since the Renaissance, but they’ve been pretty peripheral up until very recently. Shifts in technology, generational change and economic crisis have led to a massive rise of freelancers, startups, and creative and tech companies, all of which need great and affordable spaces to work. But there’s been a lack of awesomeness in the tools to support these vital spaces, which has led to the majority of hubs relying on spreadsheets and shared calendars to manage a lot of different moving parts. Often, this leads to a less than perfect use of space, inefficiencies across the team and reduced revenue.
Back in 2008, we were heavily involved in setting up a co-working hub in a massive, derelict building in the heart of Bristol’s Creative Quarter.
We’d just arrived into Bristol from London to set up a design studio and were completely inspired by hub’s founder’s vision of creating affordable spaces that fostered collaboration. Over the next few years, we worked alongside them to deal with the many challenges and practicalities a project of this size faces.
Running a hub with so many different kinds of space, used by hundreds of people every day is pretty tough and it didn’t help that there just wasn’t the software out there to manage these new kinds of evolving workspace. After lots of prototyping with the hub we’re based in, we founded Habu in 2014 with the mission of making the right software to support the growing number flexible workspaces around the world.
Habu is software for flexible workspaces of any kind — buildings that typically have a mix of meeting rooms, hot desks, event spaces as well as offices. We’re primarily talking co-working hubs, business centres, creative studios and startup incubators.
We’re in a market undergoing rapid growth. Back in 2005, there were just three co-working hubs globally. Today there are more than 12,000 with that number projected to grow by 50% over the next few years.
Our team is built on great relationships. Jak and I are brothers and founders. On top of that, we’ve also worked together for more than seven years, having established an urban design practice previously. So, it almost goes without saying that we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, which is an invaluable thing when it comes to growing a business.
We’re also very much a team unit too — we met Sam [Barnes], lead tech, on the football field and we all still play regularly.
Building a startup is a tough business. One of the things we realised early on as a startup is the importance of having a strong network of advisors. We’ve got a few wise, experienced heads that we bounce ideas off regularly such as Mike Jackson, who established the WebStart incubator, and Richard Mojel and Tom Stokes who knows just about everything there is to know about flexible workspaces!
The biggest challenge we’ve faced to date has been in securing seed investment. When we set out on our journey with Habu, coworking was fairly nascent — there were only a few thousand spaces globally at that point. Although we could see the trend, it was certainly a challenge to convince investors that we were building something that wasn’t just going to be a niche product. We explored various investment channels for quite some time, which without a doubt tested our mettle.
We overcame this challenge through sheer bloody-minded persistence, and holding true to our vision and values. We pretty much thought to ourselves that the word ‘coworking’ won’t be a word in the future, it’ll just be the way people work generally! This, coupled with the fact that coworking has grown massively and gets lots of exposure in the media, enabled us to get over the hurdle of securing early investment.
Habu has been funded in a few different ways. Bootstrapping allowed us to develop the platform in the earliest stages. We then received seed investment and a place on the WebStart incubator.
The remainder of our seed funding has been with Downing Ventures, who we chose because they felt like the right fit for us — they came in at the right time, really understood our proposition and share our long-term vision for where we want to take Habu.
Our marketing up until this point has been fairly low-key as we’ve been in beta. It’s mainly been centred on establishing relationships with co-working hubs and building our profile via social media channels such as Twitter.
This approach has led to us having a great, engaged beta group of customers and we have a stack of hubs from around the world on our waiting list.
At the moment, we’re focussed on adding the last bits of core functionality and expanding our team to make the move from the free beta into a fully-fledged, paid for product. We’re building a product that sits at the heart of the day-to-day operations for a hub, so there’s a lot to get right in terms of both functionality and user experience!
Habu is already being used on three continents, so the next step for us is building on the number of hubs using it with an emphasis on international expansion.
The main thing we’d do differently would be to reign in our urge to do too much too soon. Having an absolute and unrelenting focus on simplicity — do fewer things with your product, but do them sooner and do them better!
Make sure your idea is a good one, solving real problems. Good research, including lots of interviews, goes a long way. And, always try to keep it as simple as possible, so you get your product out there and used by people!