Back in 2012 whilst studying at the University of Southampton, I was freelancing with a local property company helping them with their marketing strategy & online presence. After several weeks with the small team, I engaged with the owner Robert Newman and vented about the archaic rental market. It was through this connection Cherry Bird was born.
Cherry Bird was a #PropTech startup, before the term was even coined. The initial mission was to connect students & landlords, without the need for an agency – completely online. Of course, so many websites enabled you to list property or contact landlords but we wanted to bring the complete process online. Quite literally everything; search, booking the viewing, signing the contract, paying the deposit, paying the rent, completing the check in/out, reporting maintenance issues and more.
Although I had started businesses before, this was my first technology startup – one which had high growth potential. Robert was already in the property business, but in a traditional sense – he rented commercial space and had some private lets.
Initially with limited resources, we managed to create a brand – one which I’m still proud of. We built an MVP & got support from various organisations including the University of Southampton Science Park (Catalyst Centre), Rackspace, Microsoft & more. Through an intense interview process we then got selected to join the Oxygen Accelerator based out of Google Campus. We managed to onboard a local CTO to lead the development and outsource some of the work. We then secured seed funding & follow on funding from some angel investors.
Unfortunately, our greatest challenge was lack of property knowledge – the processes, the detail, the tricks of the trade.
First lesson: if you’re going into a market which you’re not familiar with – there will always be surprises. Make sure you have a team around you who know the market inside out.
Then, as we were going for high growth – we launched nationally almost from day 1. This was a mistake. We should of launched in an isolated city and spent our marketing budget on a small geographic area.
Next lesson: plan your timeline out carefully and don’t expect to grow overnight. No startup scales that fast, it takes time to validate and grow.
Another challenge we encountered was seasonality of the student lettings market and we really hadn’t nailed this. It was clear investors did not like the seasonality of the business, but we had no real solution for this.
Next lesson: if you’re operating a seasonal business, have a strategy to create revenue during the expected ‘off-peak’ period. Constant cash flow is essential for growth.
Finally, we were operating in a low margin, high volume business. Like with many technology startups – we needed 1000’s of houses rented on the platform to create any tangible returns.
Although like most startups, we failed. Failure doesn’t have to be a negative – in our case, we all learnt so much and it opened our futures up to opportunities which we could have never imagined before. On our journey, we had many successes and through them the next chapter of your life is formed.
Many other startup founders have asked me since – what is it like to fail? Well, it’s just like anything else in life – you must embrace it. There are so many positives from running a startup, you can never see it as a failure. If you’re ship is sinking – don’t be too sad. The universe has a funny way of steering you in different directions and if you look at history (from all of the successes in the market – right now), you’ll learn what fell apart so things could fall together.
Although – I can see why ‘Fail Fast’ is a term so well used in the valley. There is no need to cling onto one idea – there are so many ideas to create, build, grow… if things need to stop. Fail now – don’t waste years on something, when the next ship is just a short swim away.
(Pitch Day @ Google Campus)
(The Cherry Bird Founding Team)
Zack Young, Robert Newman, Katie Bell