Wednesday 25 April 2007

Identical handymen

Reviewed an application from a pair of identical twins today. Fascinating. They were applying as a unit. Everything on their (one) application form applied to both of them (except, obviously, their first names; plus one small element of their employment history).

Unfortunately, they were applying for central London and didn't have bike licences. Plus nearly all our work is solo work and I did get the distinct impression they were at their best when working together.

But they'd do well if they set up on their own. Assuming they are good, everyone who used them would talk about it to their friends.

Tuesday 24 April 2007

New office

I almost forgot - we finally moved into our very swanky new office at Battersea Reach last week, I'll post some pics shortly. Seamus has now converted all of us to using gym balls instead of chairs, so we do look a little, ah, eccentric.

Real Business Hot 100

Real Business this month has their annual list of 100 fastest growing profitable companies, the Hot 100. I find this list reassuring for two reasons:

(1) we could nearly be on the list and (2) we aren't on the list.

Entry-level growth rate to get a spot on the list is just shy of 60% per annum (spot 100 is occupied by Eynsham Group, at 57.6% annual growth). Our 37% annual growth over the same period (last three years) is pretty respectable (very respectable if you take all revenue under the 0800handyman brand, i.e. include franchisee revenue, then you are looking at 63% growth per year).

But I definitely wouldn't want to be growing at the 100-300% growth rates exhibited by the top 30 companies. That sounds like a recipe for disaster. Why is fast growth per se so sought after? Will it really make much difference to how big that company is in ten years time? Surely they are just going to grow super fast for a few years and then spend a few more years recovering. Better to grow steadily for ten years than race along for three only to be overtaken later by someone who has everything much more under control.

Hare or tortoise? Tortoise gets my vote every time.

Pricing insurance

Every year our accountants, who are otherwise very good, try and flog us insurance to protect against the risk of paying them to represent us if HMRC decide to investigate our tax return. (I presume, by the way, that our accountants try and flog this insurance to all their clients, and it's not just that they think we are especially likely to suffer an HMRC investigation).

This year, because I couldn't be bothered to try again to explain to our accountant why the insurance is such poor value for money, I just wrote them a cheque.

But it is poor value for money. It costs about £300. Not enough to really spend too much time fussing about, but it still irritates me that our accountants can't assess correctly whether it is good value or not.

Likely professional fees we'd incur if we needed our accountant to represent us in an HMRC enquiry would be max £5k. So I'd need to expect the probability of a tax enquiry to be around 0.06 (300/5000) for this £300 insurance to be good value. I can't find any good numbers on the proportion of corporation tax returns that get investigated, but it can't possibly be 6%, it must be far less. And most investigations are, as I understand it, risk-based not random, so chances of a well-run company like ours getting investigated have got to be pretty slim.

Anyway, I put all this to our accountant last year. His response was pretty astonishing. He thought the insurance was very good value "because, Bruce, two of our clients have had investigations this year, and they were really glad they had the insurance, they thought it was very good value."

That's like saying that lottery tickets are good value, because someone who won the lottery said so.

As I say, our accountants are really very good. But I do get annoyed about little things like this.

Thursday 19 April 2007

Apprentice cowboy gardeners

I watched last week's episode of the Apprentice earlier this week. I'm talking about the episode where Sugar gives the teams £200 to use to build a "business" in a day and bring back a profit.

The winning team spent the day basically conning residents of Richmond into getting some gardening done ("Hello, I am from a gardening company, I have a team of five gardeners ready to ..."). There followed chaotic scenes of mowing wet grass, hacking away at hedges, mistaking roses for brambles, etc. Appalling, to suggest that good "business" involves offering a service you are quite unqualified to provide and charging for it nonetheless.

And they only made £190 in the whole day, between 6 of them. About £30 each. Less than the minimum wage! (The losing team was even worse, making I think £60. £10 each.) And Sugar in the debrief made out they had been really successful, and that their performance showed that you still could, in this day and age, set up and run a "business" with very little start-up capital. Surely they would have been better off just each going to a temporary employment agency and working as labourers / kitchen hands / warehousemen for the day? Or (as James in our office suggested) buying cold drinks and coolbox and selling them in the park (something you see often in American public parks, I've never seen this in a British park).

Trouble is, these are not "12 of the best entrepreneurial brains in Britain" (or whatever the intro voiceover says). They are just 12 people who the producers think will make good TV.

I am a big fan of Sugar, but I don't think this programme does anything for the image of "business" in the UK.

User review websites (again)

Bumped into a university friend on the train into London this morning, who mentioned that he had met the previous evening with a university friend of his who happened to be an investor in, so we chatted a bit about why these sorts of sites don't seem to work, when really they should.

His view (just to be clear: my friend's view, not the investor in was very clear: people want a personal recommendation, and no website is really going to be able to credibly provide that. A single person saying "here, look at my kitchen, it was installed by so-and-so, you should get him to install your kitchen" is just always going to be a gazillion times more powerful than a hundred ratings on a website which you kind of trust but can't be completely sure that their information is accurate.

Take this site for example: Look carefully at the star ratings. Few listings have any reviews, but some listed companies have 5 stars and some have 3, but there is apparently no user data behind this. They tell me they are looking at "the stars issue", but in the meantime they lose credibility. If the stars are not meaningful now (maybe they are meaningful, but it is not obvious what drives 3 vs 5 stars) can a user be sure they will be meaningful "later"?

OR, he (friend on train) said, you need a strong brand. A brand is a reputation. And, really, I think that is the crux of this. Insurance-backed guarantees, OFT-approved codes of practice, user review websites, cowboy-busting directories, etc. etc. are all barking up the wrong tree. Companies (like ours) just need to focus on building a strong reputation and the cowboys will fall by the wayside.

By chance, Jonathan Schwartz (whose blog I try to read because he is probably the most senior business person in the world with a regular blog, but I confess I usually have no idea what he is talking about, all too technical), has this to say today about brands.

Tuesday 17 April 2007

Importance of human interaction

I like this post on Seth Godin's blog about importance of human interaction. Maybe that's why user review sites just don't work in this sector.

Name change - please vote!

Not many votes on name change poll. Lots of people have viewed that post, but not many have voted. Maybe that means you just aren't that bothered what we call ourselves (fair enough). Also if you reading with a RSS reader I imagine the poll won't work, you'd have to actually come to the site to post your vote.

I might pop the poll up on the home page of 0800handyman, that'd get a more statistically significant sample ...

Tuesday 10 April 2007

Should we change our name?

OK, this is the big question.

We've been toying for a while with the idea of changing our name back to RedJacks. I am guessing that most readers of this blog are fairly familiar with our business and know that when I founded the company back in 2001 it was called RedJacks. We changed our name to 0800handyman in 2003, believing that the concept of alphanumeric phone numbers would really take off in the UK.

In the US, it is very common and widely understood concept. Most companies over there seem to have what they call a vanity number. Want to book a meeting room at Holiday Inn? Call 1-800-MEETING. Need some flowers? Call 1-800-FLOWERS. And, yes, if you need a handyman in America you can call 1-800-HANDYMAN.

But it hasn't really taken off here in the UK. How many of you even understand what I am talking about? Many of you probably don't. Recently our web designer was running late for a meeting and he got his girlfriend to call me because he didn't have our number with him. He didn't know that our name is our number, that he could call us by dialling 0800 and then spelling out h-a-n-d-y-m-a-n on his phone. If our web designer, who is worked with our name and logo for years, didn't understand that point, then I am guessing that a lot of our customers don't either.

So, given that we think many (most?) people don't understand why we are called 0800handyman, does that matter? Maybe people just think we have a slightly odd name, but the important thing is that we fix their shelves, or fit a new tap for them, or whatever, and it doesn't matter much what we are called?

Well, maybe, but we have been running a test ad for RedJacks on Google Adwords recently and, without divulging too much sensitive information, I can say that it has received significantly higher click-through-rate than the exact same ad using the 0800handyman brand.

Why would that be? I suppose because there are now quite a few handyman-type businesses around, all called handy-this and handy-that. RedJacks stands out from the crowd. 0800handyman doesn't?

But we have been called 0800handyman for several years now, would it be wise to discard all the brand awareness we have built up and have to convince everyone we are now called RedJacks?

Big decision.

Thoughts, anyone?

Autoglass - maybe not so amazing

Clearly I was tempting fate by blogging about how amazing Autoglass is before they had actually fixed my windscreen. Because they didn't show up. And then there followed predicatable call centre fun and games ('we don't have any record of your booking, sir'; 'ah, yes we do, I don't know what happened, the local branch will call you back'; 'the branch didn't call you back? They will definitely call you back between 0800 and 1000 on Monday').

They never called back.

So I called them just now, and got pretty similar story: the local branch will call you back.

Just shows that good service is all about processes, if the process is well thought out and works, then customer gets great service. If something goes wrong, whole process can go awry. I think what's gone wrong here is that we changed the original booking, and that was done with the local branch, and local branch just somehow lost/deleted/cancelled the booking (instead of changing it).

Although why the main call centre can't just force a new booking into the system and figure out the detail later I don't know.

Wednesday 4 April 2007

Safecontractor renewal latest

Well, still haven't heard anything from National Britannia, except for repeated boilerplate letters saying "we are still awaiting additional information from you." Nothing from James Ostler (senior bod at SafeContractor), even though both our SafeContractor auditor and our contact at Workplace Health Connect said they would ask him to call me.

So I have written to him directly, copy here.

Tuesday 3 April 2007

Is there any company in the world better than Autoglass?

Autoglass is such an amazing business. Just imagine if we could dominate our market in the way Autoglass does.

Over the weekend, I noticed a chip in our windscreeen. Seven minutes later, (I timed it, because I'm like that), while still driving, I had the problem solved. If Autoglass didn't exist, what would it take to solve this problem? Something like this:

1. Hunt in yellow pages / online / ask friends for who the best person/company is to fix the chip or replace the windscreen. Would need to wait till I got home to do that.

2. Call first choice of company.

3. Explain problem. Dig out exact model / trim of car (because non-Autoglass company probably can't get that just from the reg number), establish type of windscreen needed.

4. Clarify insurance process. This would take probably a good half-hour. Would need to find insurance docs, probably need to call insurance company to check if have windscreen cover and what impact this has on no-claims bonus. And what actual process is. Do I need a quote? Multiple quotes? Do they need to inspect the damage? Etc. Etc.

5. Agree price and appointment time (and if appointment requires taking the car somewhere, whole other step of liaising with wife to establish who can take the car to the repair place when)

6. Call a couple of other companies and repeat steps 1 -4, because can't be certain first company is really the best one to use.

That's got to be the best part of an hour of faffing around, really.

With Autoglass you have none of this. They know what type of car you have, they know what insurance cover you have, they bill the insurance company, they come to you.

The whole process is so incredibly, unbelievably simple for the consumer, it would be nigh on impossible for anyone to challenge their market dominance. Why would I ever use another company? I am not price sensitive because the insurance company is paying, so it is all about service. And their service just couldn't get any better, really (short of having some automated damage-detection system embedded in your windscreen which alerted Autoglass to come and fix it without you having to do anything at all. But really, seven minutes from observing problem to having solution in hand is pretty damn good).

This is really what service is about, making the customer experience completely painless. Lots of companies fail to understand this, a topic I will return to shortly.