We are all familiar with the nature/ nurture debate; similarly, most of us have heard it applied to entrepreneurship. “Are entrepreneurs born or made?” scream the titles of countless press releases. In other words, are certain people just naturally inclined to become entrepreneurs? “Entrepreneurship is in their DNA,” we are told. Broadly speaking, the jury’s still out as to whether this is the case, or whether we are shaped by our environment and the influences around us as we grow and develop. But every once in a while you meet an entrepreneur who makes the argument that some people are born to start businesses all the more compelling. Simon Prockter, founder of Housebites is one such character.
Raised on the South London/Kent border (“our address was a London postcode; our next-door neighbour’s was Kent”), Prockter was a precocious child. Instead of focusing on the three Rs, he had two jobs at the age of nine, completing a paper-round and then helping a local milkman with his deliveries. It’s no surprise then, that he wasn’t particularly academically minded. “I had no interest in being taught, so it was no surprise when I was thrown out at 16,” he says matter-of-factly. But this wasn’t quite the end of his academic career: when he was 22, Prockter returned to education as a mature student at Thames Polytechnic University. He lasted two days. “I think going to uni was partly just to prove I could, because I was such a failure at school,” he admits.
What Prockter lacked in his ability to apply himself academically he made up for with his entrepreneurial flair. He flogged tuck shop wares to at school, set up a mobile disco business at 14 (“the only customers were my parents”) and then in his early 20s started a student magazine for the University of Northumbria. Why Northumbria you ask? “They were the only institution to say yes,” he replies.
Having had to shelve the magazine for financial reasons, his next venture was even more ambitious. Prockter had stumbled across a disused jazz club in Shad Thames, and embarked upon a venture to restore it as a restaurant and entertainment venue. The plan was was to franchise it out to big-name chefs for the first couple of years; they’d provide the food, and Prockter would find cabaret acts toentertain diners with magic tricks at their table, and dancers and singers performing on stage. “‘It would have been similar to the kind of thing you get now with trendy London clubs the Box and Burlesque,” he says. “But it was just too early. This was the early nineties.”
It does seem as though Prockter has a good eye for emerging trends. The next opportunity he stumbled upon in 2002 was almost by accident. He’d heard about a new concept making waves in the US, predominantly among the Jewish population: speed-dating. He began making enquiries as to where he could find a similar singles event in London, and was shocked to discover there wasn’t an equivalent here in the UK. A call to a friend later, Prockter decided to set up his own UK-based speed-dating company called SpeedDater.“It was a good example of a lean start-up,” says Prockter. “I just built a basic website. All it said was ‘Speed-dating coming to an area near you; contact us for further details’. Back then, it was very easy to manipulate Google and SEO, so within days I was getting hundreds of emails asking when we were starting, and people saying they wanted to do it,” he explains. Prockter says the idea was to see what take-up would be like, and then build from there. “We put a quick two-day business plan together, and that was it. We launched in a month.”
SpeedDater grew exponentially, and was soon turning over in excess of £1m a year. By 2008, it was Europe’s leading singles events company. Before long, the eagle-eyed entrepreneur spotted another gap in the market – holidays for single people. Not necessarily as a dating platform, but for people who enjoyed adventure breaks, and didn’t want to go alone. It became obvious that running three separate businesses – holidays, online dating and speed-dating events – was too much of a juggling act, so Prockter sold SpeedDater in March 2008, retaining just the travel arm and rebranding it as Adventura. At first it went well, but as the downturn began to bite in November 2008, everything changed. “The graphs just stopped going up,” recalls Prockter. “The euro strengthened dramatically, so the holidays were costing us, on average, £150 to run. And we weren’t passing this on to the customer.”
The business limped on until April 2010, when it was dealt the hammer blow. “The airline XL went bust, and we’d just booked a whole season of Turkey flights with them. We lost about £50k on the flights, but we lost more because we then had to rebook all of our customers’ flights – and pay for them.” It didn’t help that competitor airlines had seen an opportunity to make a quick buck, thus doubling or even tripling their prices in the wake of XL’s demise.
Prockter was forced to fold the business in April 2010; a decision that was bittersweet in hindsight. “Although seeing what people subsequently wrote was horrible, it was a relief that it was over,” he admits. “It had been 15 months of struggling through and sleepless nights. On that day, I had the best night’s sleep I’d had in as long as I could remember.” But the relief didn’t last. “I didn’t feel good about what had happened, having to lay Adventura to rest,” Prockter continues. “Hanging around the network [of tech entrepreneurs] I could feel other people looking over and feeling sorry for me. There was a definite sense that you’re only as good as your last record.” Luckily for Prockter, he had another idea brewing. He’d been thinking for the past month or two about another form of singlesevent, but this time focusing on dinners. He had previously been tied into a non-compete arrangement following the sale of SpeedDater, but that had now expired.
The new company would be called Housebites, and the premise was a bit like that of popular TV show Come Dine With Me – users of the site would be able to go to each other’s houses for dinner. There would still be an element of introduction to it, but it removed the word ‘single’ or, worse still, ‘dating’.
“You need to have evangelists when you set up a business,” says Prockter. “They will spread the word on social media. The problem with dating is that it’s gated – no one wants to share that.” He decided to put everything he had into making sure Housebites was a success. He sold his home (“a beautiful riverside apartment in Limehouse”), and set the developers to work. Instead of taking two months as planned, the design and build of the site took 10 months. And even when it was finished, it was to a lukewarm reception. So much so, that over the Royal Wedding weekend Prockter decided to throw in the towel. He walked back to the office, and was looking at the business plan when something caught his eye. He’d incorporated an element whereby the chefswould be able to start producing food for the public if they got good feedback from other users of the service. — That night, Prockter went home and ordered a takeaway. “It was late, it was delivered by a guy wearing a motorcycle helmet, who was already walking away as he handed it to me, and I suspected it had been reheated, rather than being made fresh,” he recalls. He made a list of all the problems with the current offers and wrote a plan for a new kind of takeaway business: the food would be cooked by local, professional chefs on their own premises, and then couriered to customers. “A day earlier I’d been making plans to go and grow old gracefully at a beach bar somewhere; now I was sending my new business plan to investors,” Prockter adds.
[ And the reception from investors wasrapturous; angels including long-time mentor and friend Paul Birch (of Bebo fame) clamoured to be involved with Housebites 2.0. With the help of a developer, (Mike Brittain, now CTO – “the best CTO in London,” according to Prockter) the site was built in four months. Over two rounds of seed capital, the last of which was closed four months ago, the current incarnation of Housebites has had a total of £1m investment. And investors aren’t the only ones lapping up Prockter’s latest offering: celebrities including Stephen Fry, Lily Allen and Fatboy Slim have been raving about Housebites on Twitter.
But there’s a long slog ahead. As Prockter says himself, just because they’re getting the support on the social networks, it doesn’t necessarily translate into sales. “But what it has done is increase the trust,” he says. “By the time people get home after work, they’ve forgotten about us again because we’re so new. We have to be in front of people all the time.” The workload is relentless. And Prockter, a social butterfly, is well accustomed to the notion of burning the candle at both ends. “If I’ve worked a 12 or 13-hour day and there is something going on in the evening, I’ll go to that as well,” he explains. “I hate feeling like I’m being cheated.” And what of sleep? Prockter laughs in the face of getting his eight hours a night. “I figure I’ll catch up at some point,” he says, somewhat unconvincingly…