Starting a business during lockdown

June 28, 2023

And the need to put smart people around you

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Starting a business during lockdown

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In this episode, Charles interviews Felix Atkin, the founder and CEO of Sharesy. Sharesy is a venue-hiring platform that allows users to hire spaces for their communities. Felix shares his background in the tech industry, including working at big corporations like BT and smaller startups. He also talks about the challenges of starting a business during lockdown and the need to put smart people around you. Felix discusses his favourite moments and the learning he has gained from running his own business.

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00:00 Felix Atkin Welcome to the Tech Story podcast, a podcast where we interview interesting founders and people in tech growing successful businesses. Today, I'm very excited to welcome Felix Atkin on the show. Felix is the founder and CEO of Sharezee, a venue high platform which allows you to hire spaces for your communities. Thank you very much, Felix, for taking the time to be on the show. Would you like to introduce yourself and share a bit of background?

00:27 Charles Brecque Sure. So thank you for having me. I'm Felix. I'm the founder of Sharezee. I started this business in 2020 at the height of lockdown. Seems like a crazy time to be starting a venue high business. But my background has been in tech, starting in really big corporates like BT, working for steadily smaller businesses. I worked at Sony PlayStation for some time, spent some time in startups. And this is the first business that I founded myself.

01:00 Felix Atkin Congrats. And I also started to legislate during lockdown. But now we're out of it. I also find that it was a lot more quieter and more peaceful in 2020. And now it feels like everything's happening. And sometimes I do look back and wish we could go back in lockdown.

01:20 Charles Brecque It feels like a very long time ago. And it's right. Life was very different. But then starting a business in those early days, it was defining the proposition, taking our first investment. We soft launched at the end of lockdown one with a very early product just to see if people would start booking a local space. And we worked with a local school, started taking booking straight away. And of course, lockdown two kicked in straight away. We went out and raised more money. Having had some early success, raised some money really quickly, ended up raising £750,000 in about six weeks. So we had really nice feedback. But lockdown two lasted until the summer of 2021. So we didn't really soft launch until August 2021. And then, of course, lockdown three came along. So we properly launched ShareZ around February 2022. And so we're really just over a year through now, which it feels like a lot's happened in that time. I imagine those lockdowns must have been pretty stressful. Lockdown was difficult, partly from my own personal circumstances, that my son became a bit unwell during that period. We'd just taken our second round of investment. We ended up spending six weeks in Great Ormond Street. So that kind of threw our lives upside down. But things have really settled down since then.

02:57 Felix Atkin But yes, it feels like a while away now. That's great to hear. And sorry about your son, but all is better. And I guess throughout this process then, or journey, what's been your favourite moment so far?

03:12 Charles Brecque It's a really interesting one. So I would say I'm not very good at celebrating wins. We have had some really exciting moments. Having moments with the team, we've got a lovely team. Getting people together has always been amazing. We have had some great offsite moments where we've been together. We hired a manor house for a couple of days and spent some time together doing some strategy thinking. That was a real highlight. But actually, it's just when you have a really great month and everybody can fall part of that, that's really exciting as well. So just those moments, we don't always stop to really think about those and to celebrate them.

03:55 Felix Atkin But we should do more of that. Yeah, I definitely am responsible for not celebrating wins enough. And I think it is important to get that momentum because ultimately, startups are tough. You need to celebrate wins to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Absolutely. And what do you wish you had known before starting Sharesy?

04:24 Charles Brecque So I started Sharesy as a sole founder. It can be quite lonely having to have my name on the bottom of every document. And the responsibility ultimately stops with me. But I think the learning from that has been to put smart people around me. And that has been incredibly valuable for me. But I think probably the relentless pressure. If you achieve a goal, you might stop and think about that goal and feel really good about that. But in fact, you just look up to the next goal. And in a startup, things are growing so fast and the expectations just increase and increase that you never really get a chance to stop and take a breath. So I might take some time off from work, but I'm never switching off really. And that's been an interesting learning. No regrets, but it's been challenging.

05:27 Felix Atkin Yeah, I guess from a mental health perspective, it's quite difficult to balance. When you're a founder, you never switch off.

05:33 Charles Brecque And no, you have to try and find times for yourself. You have to try and find those moments for yourself. For me, that's exercising. When I'm having a workout, I can't be thinking about work. I just have to think about that. And actually, I find that very meditative. It sort of clears my mind. But every other time, I've got things on my mind and sometimes it can be hard to

06:00 Felix Atkin you know, to find that balance. I saw you've got a black belt in kickboxing.

06:07 Charles Brecque Yeah, I studied kickboxing for about 10 years. I had quite a few injuries from that, but learned a lot as well. It's probably the most challenging thing I've ever done personally. Absolutely loved it. And yeah, I'd love to be able to keep that up into my older age.

06:30 Felix Atkin Are there any sort of skills that you've learned and acquired that apply to start-ups?

06:35 Charles Brecque From kickboxing? Well, I am not a very aggressive person. So, you know, going into a ring and having to fight against someone that wants to knock your head off, you know, it takes a bit of composure. And, you know, being able to be in jeopardy and feel the danger. Actually is very challenging. And that, I think, was a real learning experience, being able to just slow things down. And I combated that by really trying to focus on the technical side. And I learned to really enjoy it. You know, the kickboxing that I was doing was technical. I was doing, you know, competitions, but not like really high level competitions. But I enjoyed it a lot. And it was a big part of my life for a long time.

07:28 Felix Atkin I mean, I briefly tried a commercialized version of kickboxing workouts. And it was my first introduction to high intensity workouts. And I did find that it was so intense or that if you actually stopped, you might injure yourself, that you had to really focus, which meant that you did switch off, which is what I really enjoyed. But fortunately, the kickboxing, which is just I don't know if you saw it coming in, it's just opposite the building. They closed down.

07:55 Charles Brecque Okay. Well, my gym was called Spring Health. So shout out to them in Camden and Abby Kinger, who's the head coach there. And yeah, being part of that family was fantastic.

08:08 Felix Atkin Great. Well, I guess, yeah, key insight is as a founder, you need to switch off. And whether that's sport or something else, absolutely. You need to. Great. And you've been growing Sharesy now three years. What's the vision for the next five years?

08:25 Charles Brecque Well, we are a very high platform for community space. It's a really underserved group. So we work with primary schools and secondary schools, but, you know, state funded and really struggling for income. We work with places of worship like churches and other community centers. You know, there are a huge number of those across the UK and beyond that really struggle to generate an income and to connect with their local community. They don't always have the time and maybe the skill set to be able to manage lettings and to do the marketing and so on. So ultimately, we would like to become the go to platform for hiring out any of those local spaces. And, you know, the feedback so far has been fantastic. So we just want to continue to grow.

09:20 Felix Atkin I guess what type of space is your most popular space on the platform?

09:24 Charles Brecque Probably the most popular space is a hall space, a church hall, a school hall. They're used for all sorts of things from taekwondo classes to language courses to choir practice and business meetings. Really, it's about bringing people together in their local community. Go and use a local space. You don't necessarily need to go and use a big commercial space when you could be putting your money back into your local area. And that's really resonated with people. The feedback from that has been fantastic.

09:57 Felix Atkin That's great. And are you right now across the UK, London? Where are you?

10:03 Charles Brecque We continue to be very focused. So we started out in North London, in the Barnet area. We're now across 22 local authorities. And the vision is to become, you know, to be across the whole of the UK in the coming years. Right now, we are more focused on the southeast, but actually, we're getting requests to come onto the platform from across the country. So that's really fantastic that people are discovering us and they're coming to us now.

10:30 Felix Atkin That's really exciting. And as a busy founder, and I guess also if you're managing these venues and clients, you must come across quite a few contracts. What are the key contracts or legal documents that you interact with the most?

10:50 Charles Brecque So I'm responsible for all of the contracts at Sharesy. So there's been a huge amount of learning there for me. From a business point of view, the terms and conditions, you know, so we have three-way terms between Sharesy and our bookers who are transacting on our platform, between Sharesy and our host venues. But we also provide the venue terms between the venue, the higher term, sorry, between the venue and the booker. So making sure that those are really relevant, easily understandable is very important. From an employment point of view, having employment contracts, thinking about EMI schemes and things like that are, of course, very important as well. And all the way down to having NDAs in place. You know, as a founder, when I first set out, I really thought there was huge value in having an NDA. In fact, what I've learned is that perhaps it's less important and it's more important just to get out there and go fast. But we do quite often work with organizations that would require an NDA. There are circumstances where we might want to put an NDA in place. So it's about being flexible with those and accommodating to that.

12:09 Felix Atkin And with, for example, NDAs, do you find that there's pushback on certain clauses or terms?

12:18 Charles Brecque Generally not. Sometimes working with a larger organization, they would insist on using their documentation, in which case it's always useful to have an experienced eye look over it. But for the most part, no. We have templated documents which we use when we're providing NDAs to a third party.

12:40 Felix Atkin So, no, we tend to find that that's pretty smooth. Great. And you were saying earlier that you made the conscious decision very early on to invest in legal, for example, through a law firm. What was sort of the reasoning behind that and what tips or recommendations would you give to prospective founders about investing in legal? Was it worth it?

13:06 Charles Brecque So my experience has been that investing in the foundations early on really pays off, partly because it gives you confidence in your own documents to really understand your contracts, which is incredibly important. But also, if you can get into the detail on a contract, you can then make it simple for everybody to understand. And that's really important for me, is that there's nothing that's hidden or covert in any way. It should all be really transparent and easy to understand. And of course, investing in a document, making sure that you've got the foundations there preempts any problems that you might have. So it's quite often the case that you might discover a problem and then you go and ask for advice from a lawyer. But in fact, if you can go before the problem, then you can be preventative as well. So getting that right, I think, is really important. And of course, not every document, not every standard document is right for every business. So being able to really understand your own needs as a business and setting out your own template documents. And for me, that's been important because then I can, you know, my own ethos around the business can then be written into the documents.

14:31 Felix Atkin Yeah, great. Well, I mean, that's definitely something at Legislate. We've been fortunate to have a legal adviser from the beginning to provide all the templates, but you can't just get an off-the-shelf template or download it or borrow it from a founder friend because every business is unique and there might be some nuances to the business that aren't reflected in the template.

14:57 Charles Brecque And that's why it's really important just to have documents which are customized to your needs. And also just to be able to be flexible. So, you know, in any agreement between two parties, then there may be different needs, things may come up, the ability to be flexible and accommodating. There may be one particular clause that's particularly important to one side or the other. And to be able to be flexible on those things, I think is really helpful. It supports the relationship. It shows willingness on both sides. So, but to be able to resolve those issues without having to spend a huge amount of time and cost to be able to get those right is for an early stage business really important.

15:41 Felix Atkin Yeah. And I think one thing we've noticed is if you don't invest in legal early on, you're effectively acquiring legal debt which will need to be fixed one day.

15:54 Charles Brecque That's my attitude is that if there's something I don't fully understand or if there's something I think could potentially become a problem, I could just kick it down the road and then address it when I need to address it or I could say, actually, I'm going to address it now. And so coming from a background of business development and partnerships, coming to an agreement with a third party, I've always seen the value in having really clear heads of terms, make sure that everybody's completely agreed on those things. Then when you actually put it into an agreement, there shouldn't be any surprises. If there are surprises, then both sides haven't communicated well. So the idea is that, you know, for me, it has always been get to the point where you can have an agreement, then it's just the formality of getting the agreement put in place. Of course, that's simplifying.

16:45 Felix Atkin And there are always circumstances where that may change. And I agree. If you can sort of agree on the heads of terms, then it really simplifies the negotiation.

16:55 Charles Brecque And I would say that I've made mistakes as well in my journey at Sharesy and in previous roles. I might have overlooked a particular point or maybe didn't have heads of terms locked down clearly enough. And then it's opened up questions later on. And I think rather than digging deeper or digging your heels in and saying, this is my position, actually trying to be accommodating at that point, trying to understand the challenges on both sides and where the worries are, and then trying to overcome them together helps the relationship. It builds the relationship. And then, you know, when you actually have all the documents signed, you're ready to then move forward in a really positive way.

17:39 Felix Atkin Well, I think that's lots of great advice and tips for, well, I guess current and prospective founders listening to the show. And if, for example, you were to receive a contract to sign today, what would impress you?

17:57 Charles Brecque I would say, well, there are a few things. First of all, no surprises. If we've had a conversation before, I would want to make sure that it just accurately reflects the conversation that we've had. Simple language, you know, if it's lawyer talking to lawyer, then maybe that can be a more technical conversation. But for a founder like me, if I'm talking to a third party, I want to try and keep things very simple and, you know, the language should be easily understandable. But also, I think just an understanding on both sides that you've taken some time to understand the other party's business and they've taken time to understand yours. So there's a willingness to sort of, you know, to maybe adapt a little bit there. And that's when I found that time has been taken on both sides. Those are the easy contracts.

18:53 Felix Atkin Things go very smoothly. Yeah, I agree. I mean, we've definitely, when we've provided templates, tried to simplify the language so that it's easy to understand for non-lawyers. But also, we've tried to present the information in the contracts through questions and

19:11 Charles Brecque answers as a way of also educating users around what's in the contract and what it means. Absolutely. So we've had something similar or I've used cheat sheets where you could have a really simple summary of the terms that are in that document. Everybody knows what it contains. If you want to go deeper into that, you can. But at least you have something very easy that you can access that can guide you on it.

19:36 Felix Atkin Yeah, that's great. Great piece of advice. And I'm conscious, Felix, I've already taken a lot of your time. So I'm going to ask you the closing question we ask all our guests. So you're on the Tech Story podcast. What's your favourite tech product?

19:53 Charles Brecque Is this a device or is this a software? It can be anything. Do you know, it's probably a really boring answer, but the device that I carry everywhere is my MacBook. I actually have a MacBook Air now. I've tried all sorts of different devices and I just keep finding my way back to it. I find that I'm just fastest on it. I've tried working on iPads or, you know, desktops and all sorts, but it's the device that's always with me. So probably that. But if I was to say a software, interestingly, what I try and encourage my team to do is to become power users in every software that you use, because in fact, if you invest a bit of extra time to become a really good user of a software, there's so much that you can get from that. And I need to be better at that myself. But the latest one actually is Slack. There's so much you can do in Slack. It's easy to have a superficial relationship with Slack and just use it for direct messaging. But it goes a lot deeper than that. So I've been following that right now.

20:56 Felix Atkin Yeah, I've been playing with various Slack bots or using Zapier to connect our various platforms with Slack. Yeah, because I agree, I think because I mean, I love software and we use probably too many software platforms in the company. But you can't necessarily log into all of them, but you can make them communicate via Slack to bring all the information you need to know. Yeah, we use Slack for all of our quick wins.

21:25 Charles Brecque Whenever a new venue signs up or we have some progress in a particular part of the business, we have alerts that everybody can celebrate. Lots of small ways that we can keep close together. Yeah, it's a great platform.

21:38 Felix Atkin And I guess to use it also for software. We actually use Zendesk for support.

21:44 Charles Brecque We tend to use that for support, but actually, yeah, the same. We use a number of different softwares. But that's just one that came to mind. Yeah, no, it's a great platform. And I also love the Macbook Airs.

21:56 Felix Atkin Great. Well, thank you very much for being on the show. Thank you for having me. Best of luck growing Shazzy. Yeah, and the same to you.

22:06 Charles Brecque Is it easy to discuss legal agreements with the company? Legal agreements with the community venues? So, interestingly, a lot of community venues will have higher terms and other legal agreements that they've agreed with their governing boards or, you know, in a church, they have a PCC, which is the governing board of the church. They'll quite often have those agreements in place, but very often they're very updated. And they don't have members of the team that know how to look at those from a legal perspective. So the fact that we're able to provide those terms to those venues is really helpful. And we're not providing them with legal advice, but we are providing them with documents to protect them. And that's proven to be really popular.

22:55 Felix Atkin And we've had great feedback from that. And do you find that those documents are sort of adopted easily? Or is there some pushback around the structure of the document or things that might be missing?

23:09 Charles Brecque So when we first started out, yes, we found that there were lots of questions. And also there could be something really specific about the higher terms that a venue might care about a lot. So, for example, in a church, they may say, we have a clause that says you can't wear high heels on our parquet flooring, or you can't have a yoga class in a church. Because they consider it to be a spiritual activity. So what we then did is we introduced important terms into our listing page, where we can add in specific terms relevant to the venue. So they're able to then amend it. We have standard terms, but they can still add in anything that's specific to that venue. And that has proven really valuable.

23:53 Felix Atkin Great. And that amending, is that something that they do themselves without your supervision?

23:59 Charles Brecque Or is it all through the platform? We do it all through the platform. We build those listing pages for them, and we can accommodate any of the changes that they need there. So all very easy.

24:09 Felix Atkin Well, that's a great way of providing good legal coverage. Because ultimately, I feel that by providing the documents, you're protecting them and therefore empowering them to sort of have a good experience with Sharesie. Absolutely. Happy with that? Yeah. Anything else?

24:30 Charles Brecque That's it. Thank you. Cool. Just gives me something to… Yeah, no, I was just seeing what you mean.

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