Sunday 20 August 2017

Hassle.com: The high-flier who left office job for online cleaning firm

What makes someone leave a secure, well-paid job to form a startup? Gavin McLoughlin gets the answer from Jules Coleman, who left PwC to set up online cleaner-booking service Hassle.com

Hassle.com co-founder Jules Coleman
Hassle.com co-founder Jules Coleman
Gavin McLoughlin

Gavin McLoughlin

Would you be brave enough to do what Jules Coleman did? Three years ago the 29-year-old Leixlip native took a leave of absence from a senior manager's job at PwC in London to set up her own business.

She hasn't gone back.

Coleman's business is Hassle.com, a website allowing customers to book a cleaner online for €12 an hour.

Revenue has increased fivefold in the last six months, and the company recently secured a $6m (€4.8m) investment from venture capital group Accel Partners.

But let's begin at the beginning, when Coleman joined Accenture's Dublin office after leaving UCD.

"It was no great desire in life, I went to a careers fair, and thought 'Oh this sounds interesting, they send me to America for a few weeks'.

"Coming out of UCD with a mathsy kind of background, getting in to something like consulting was probably a relatively natural fit." She joined the Accenture graduate scheme and went into the Dublin office. Later she would transfer to the company's UK office, then to PricewaterhouseCooper.

"It was a fantastic introduction to the world of work. I got to travel around the world doing projects with really big companies, and I had a really good time.

"But at the same time I kind of had this burning desire that I wanted to start something of my own, and as you kind of go into your career and your salary starts getting better and better it gets harder and harder to make that leap.

"So I thought I better pull off the Band Aid and get to it before it got too late."

Though she had enjoyed some of the projects she had worked on, the nature of the consulting business had left Coleman unfulfilled.

"You never really get to see something through, it's not your thing. You're consulting - as in the name - so it's always working for someone else.

"The projects that I really liked and enjoyed were the ones where there was a tangible output at the end of it, but just the nature of the beast is that that won't be every project.

"My something new at that point was: 'Right, I'll try a new consultancy,' so I moved to PricewaterhouseCoopers in London, again had a good 18 months with those guys, but that was right around the time that this idea of starting something on my own kept coming at me and I just couldn't get it out of my head."

A friend who lectured in computer science encouraged her to try and make a simple version of the idea. Even if it went nowhere, she would have been able to clear it out of her system at least.

She had been meeting friends from her Accenture days on Sunday afternoons, where they would brainstorm ideas.

"We were very consultant-y about it though. We kind of made up like Powerpoint slides and business plans and stuff, I look back on it and it's a bit cringey, and the idea I threw into it at the time, where Hassle.com originally came from, was this idea of a website where you could find and book lots of different local services.

"The initial idea wasn't just cleaning, it was actually something a lot wider...personal trainers, driving instructors, dog walkers." The problem was she had no idea about computer programming.

"I bought a book called 'Ruby on Rails Tutorial', it's like a kind of introduction to programming. I bought in hardback so I couldn't copy and paste anything, I had to do it page by page. It's a 400-page book that basically took you from assuming no knowledge of programming at all through to building a clone of Twitter.

"I did that over my evenings and weekends while still working at PwC - took me probably about two or three months to get through the book and have this version of Twitter. At the end of it, I started hacking around with that to make it look a bit more like a website where you might book a personal trainer or a dog walker. It looked terrible, awful, but it got the job done."

But she had just been promoted at PwC, so the time had come either to put up or shut up.

"I literally have to try this. If I don't put my money where my mouth is and try it I'll live to regret it," Ms Coleman thought.

"So I asked them for a leave of absence, and they thankfully obliged, I think again they probably thought it was just: 'Get it out of your system, come back again in three months time with your tail between your legs.' But that was just the start I needed."

Ms Coleman and her co-founders managed to get accepted into a startup accelerator programme called Springboard, run out of Google's campus in London.

The idea was that they would get 12 weeks of intensive mentoring, and it was a rather brutal experience in parts.

"It was formative, I guess you'd say. You'd spend the first four weeks meeting ten people every day, whether they be investors, or other entrepreneurs, or investors in the industry. They basically just tear your idea to shreds.

"They were like: 'This is terrible, it'll never work' for all of these very good reasons."

The programme finished with a demo day for potential investors in June 2012, and Coleman and her friends had managed to do enough to get the funding they needed to get started. But by Christmas, they felt they hadn't made the progress they should have made, and decided to simplify the business.

"Even though we weren't doing a lot of sales at that time, the customers were looking for cleaning, and we basically had no cleaners, which was a bad place to be.

"So we kind of took a step back, rebuilt the website over that Christmas of 2012, and relaunched in January 2013 as cleaning only. And 2013 was the year that it really kind of took off for us, and I'm pretty sure that without us having kind of focused down to the one category, we never would have got the money that we did early this year (from Accel).

"We were afraid that we'd be seen as a Mom and Pop shop thing if we only did one service, but in fact what the investors want to see is that focus.

"Whilst we wouldn't rule out going bigger in the future, focusing down is what's enabled us to be successful to date, so it'd be slowly and cautiously if we did.

"But to be honest with you we were a bit worried…certainly when I was growing up we never had a cleaner, and I was like 'I'm not sure if my friends have cleaners in Dublin.' I wasn't sure if there was going to be a market there for us…but it has really taken off."

Indo Business

Also in Business