Entrepreneur James Villarreal dropped out of university to launch Glide, a website which helps landlords bill students in houses of multiple occupation. With turnover at £17m but competition circling, Villarreal wants to position himself as a thought leader to stay ahead. What can our panel of experts advise?
Ditching an economics degree to concentrate on a fledgling business would have some doom-mongers prophesising failure. But, as every entrepreneur will testify, when your gut instinct tells you to make a move, it’s usually time to do just that.
And for James Villarreal, leaving Birmingham University proved to be his making – though ironically, if it wasn’t for his short-lived university education and a row over who paid for what in his student digs, he’d never have launched payment website Glide.
“It sounds really petty now but I was paying £40 a month for a telephone line and broadband and getting annoyed because my three flatmates didn’t give me the tenner each month. At the time, as a student, £30 was a big deal,” says Villarreal.
“I was ranting to a friend [Glide co-founder and chief technology officer Sandeep Krishan] in the pub and we suddenly hit on a solution – an online system that would allow the share of utility bills to be billed to each student in a shared house individually.”
Enlisting a housemate to build the site, Villarreal doorknocked local students to help get landlords and letting agents on board. By June 2006 – just one month after the initial discussion – Glide was launched.
With his higher education on permanent hiatus and Glide turning over £140,000 in the first year, Villarreal was riding high.
“The first year’s sales came relatively easily. The difficulty came from building a back-end system to scale the business.”
Aid came in May 2007 in the form of a corporate finance adviser who helped the duo raise £480,000 from private angels to take the concept nationwide. “By 2010 we were profitable and our original angels exited the business. Another round of investment saw us raise £1.2m from new backers.”
Villarreal, who founded and is chair of IoD West Midlands’ Young Directors Forum, admits that, when dealing with external shareholders, “where I have needed the most amount of support from external people is on governance”. The IoD helped considerably in the early days. “We met our auditor, lawyer, mentor and even a major customer through the IoD.”
Villarreal acknowledges that his initial ambition of surpassing £10m in two years was optimistic but with current turnover of £17.3m he sees no reason why Glide, which entered the Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100 of top-performing companies last year, can’t be turning over £50m by 2018. “Over 20,000 students are signed up to us directly as the bill-payer and we’ve over 1,000 landlords (who pay the bills directly) representing another 20,000 students.
In terms of scale we’ve only scratched the surface; we think we have about 3.4 per cent of the available market.”
Most of Villarreal’s staff are under 26 and the business employs six full-time IT developers.
“That’s high for a business our size but we’re developing our clever technology. It’s getting to the stage [with technology] where you can monitor boilers and look at who is coming in and out of buildings. There’s a lot of energy-saving stuff going on in the market and we’re keen to lead the way here in shared accommodation which traditionally has been far from energy efficient.”
Glide is also venturing out of the student market to target young professionals in the capital who have yet to get a foothold on the housing ladder.
“We see a lot of growth from focusing on the young professional house-share market in London. We were the first to spot the problem [in student accommodation billing]. With start-ups trying to copy us we are always looking at the way the market is shifting and at what we need to do to provide for it by focusing on young people.”
As part of his desire to remain one step ahead of his competitors, he is keen to be seen as a thought leader, and this is where he hopes Director’s board of experienced business leaders can offer advice.
“Our mantra is ‘bills made simple and life made simple’. We want to make our customers’ lives simple. Despite regulation in our industry it’s where we see the business heading. We’ve already teamed up with large players in student housing accommodation [those with over 500,000 students on their database] to produce a publication called What Students Seek, which educates our customer base on what students want and what they should be providing.”
It’s added value like this that Villarreal believes sets Glide apart from the competition. Being seen as a thought leader will, he trusts, help the status of the business as an aid to landlords looking to keep their properties continually let and portfolios growing.
Will our panel agree?
Expert answers: How can we position the company as a thought leader and set ourselves apart from competitors within the industry?
William Buist Founder xTEN Club
Thought leadership is a good avenue to go down. Make sure your approach is achievable, scalable and consistent with the message you are sending out. To be a thought leader you need to be ‘out there’, opinionated and have a view on the topics you know well. Be prepared to make a stand even when the traditional view is a bit different.
Successful entrepreneurs such as [Sir] Richard Branson can stand their ground because they have thought through what those views mean and they are respectful of other people’s opinions. If you’ve got a view, express it, stand on the ground, defend it and provide the evidence – but be respectful of others. Defend from the point of view of evidence, not belief.
The businesses that attract a big following are the ones that people can hang a hat on. Something that they like, respect and want to be a part of. It’s about having an idea and putting it in a context where people can see that it applies to them as well. That’s why the ‘leadership’ in thought leadership is crucial – it’s not just about the thinking, it’s about bringing people with you, creating the opportunity for them to think ‘I believe that too and I want to help you make that real’.
Leanne Tritton Managing director, ING Media
Before you start to position yourself as a thought leader you have to ask yourself: ‘Are you one?’ Genuine thought leaders develop that reputation not only because they have valuable knowledge of their sector but also, and importantly, because they are confident about sharing opinions and experiences, and do so in a way that is accessible, informative and appealing to their audience.
Based on your experiences and the impressive database of students and landlords, I am confident that you have a real insight into what is happening in your world. Research and trends are a good start and you have a statistically credible base to start from. If this is backed up with real-life case studies, then all the better. Rather than a scattergun approach, make sure you track trends over a period of time and release the information at clear intervals – that way, journalists and customers can rely on you and the information you provide.
Be prepared to be available to talk to journalists and the broader industry. I would recommend some presentation or media training so that you can articulate your thoughts clearly. Being a genuine thought leader can be powerful for your business – clients are hungry for information that will give them the edge. If you can provide that, you will be the natural starting point for a serious conversation.
Mark Goyder Founder and CEO, Tomorrow’s Company
Purpose, values and relationships are the foundation of the enduring success of any business. The stronger the awareness, positive identification with your purpose and values, and the trust of people you deal with, the greater the new business opportunities and the loyalty of current ones.
Step one is a clear stakeholder map. Which are the key relationships? Students, landlords, regulator, current and future capital providers? And whom might you partner to your and their mutual advantage? Step two is to understand the wider concerns of people in those key relationships. People know when your commitment is genuine, and its shared energy flowing that you really want.
Innovation comes from unexpected connections, so use your entrepreneurial talents. There are thousands of students on your database. Why not come up with a shortlist of issues you care about and on which you want to make a difference, and then survey students and landlords to find which resonate with them. Before or after your survey gather together six of the people you respect and trust from your key stakeholder groups. Share early thoughts and invite their response. Have a facilitated workshop followed by an informal dinner.
Thanks for all your advice, you have given me a lot to think about. Being out there, opinionated and giving my point of view definitely puts me out of my comfort zone, but I understand this is completely necessary to take the business where we want it to go. Great idea on media training, look forward to booking that in!
We have been successful in tracking student accommodation trends over the last two years and, moving into the professional shared market, it would make sense for us to build our expertise here, to enable us to share annual reports in much the same way as we do for What Students Seek.
Thanks for your ideas Mark. This could be a good time to put your template plan into action!
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