After working on the idea for two years, Jack Telford and his two co-founders launched Total Freelance, an online platform for independent professionals, in November 2015. He spoke to Business Advice about the challenges of creating an online business without having a technical background, and why he loves being based in Birmingham.
Though none of the founders of his company are originally from the West Midlands, Telford thinks the city is a “great environment for startups”. He explained: “London is too fast paced – you’re a small fish in a big pond, and it’s really hard to get noticed. It’s slower here, in a good way, and much easier to meet people, because networks overlap. That’s already been really helpful for us, but I think it will be even more important when we need more funding.”
Highlighting the importance of informal ties, Telford met one of his co-founders through a house share in the area. Basing his company in the city’s technology campus, Innovation Birmingham, has also allowed him to tap into more formal networks and benefit from “brilliant” mentoring at the e4f incubator there.
In spite of the support they’ve received, the co-founders have faced their fair share of difficulties. He was concerned about the freelancing landscape when Total Freelance first launched in the run-up to the Autumn Statement. “It seemed like the government were trying to make it harder for people to be self-employed,” Telford explained. “But I think the backlash has made politicians move elsewhere – there’s a growing sentiment that targeting contractors isn’t a sensible move.”
Before starting Total Freelance, Telford worked in mergers and acquisitions, and one of his partners was a railway engineer – so they have also faced challenges as non-technical owners of a technology-driven business. “When our first developer dropped out after six months, we had to start completely from scratch, which was frustrating. After the same thing happened a second time, it made us realise we needed to outsource development, so it spurred us to write a business plan and apply for a bank loan, which we did successfully.”
This allowed them to finally bring their idea to life, and the site was met with enthusiasm by customers as soon as it went live. “Some 70 people signed up in the first week, which was a really pleasant surprise. We had a pre-launch blog going for about a year, and so we’d built up an email list of over 1000 people which definitely helped us achieve this.”
Since then, Total Freelance has attracted the support of the he Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed (IPSE), and Telford and his co-founders agreed on a partnership with the organisation before Christmas. “We’re working together to promote freelancing because it’s the way forward for millennials,” he explained.
“A lot of the people we’re attracting have five years of great experience, but don’t want to work for a business their whole life, they want to bounce around using agencies and direct clients, and IPSE has been incredibly supportive of what we’re doing to help them,” Telford added.
The platform’s success also means the founders are thinking about taking on their first member of staff, a prospect which Telford was excited about. “If you want to be able to run a business, you need someone to be able to deal with the day-to-day stuff. All three of us are entrepreneurial people, so we’re constantly having ideas we want to be able to work on without having to focus all our time on operations,” he said.
Of course, there have been drawbacks to their strategy of getting the platform developed externally. “Managing the tech side since we outsourced it has been tough. We don’t have control, and sometimes there are things which we really want changed tomorrow but they take weeks,” explained Telford, who is constantly developing his product as he learns more about his customers’ needs, following a year of market research the launch. “Part of our long-term strategy is definitely to bring it back in-house.”
But despite this, he was enthusiastic in his encouragement of other aspiring entrepreneurs with tech-driven ideas but no expertise in the area. “Just do it, don’t overthink it,” He said. “As someone with no understanding of tech working on a tech startup, my advice is to surround yourself with people that can do it, who have a skillset which is completely different from yours.”
For Telford, hard work is key when it comes to overcoming these obstacles. “Working in corporate finance was incredibly useful preparation for becoming an entrepreneur. It taught me that if you really want to succeed at anything you have to be willing to put in 12-hour days.”
For more inspiration on locations outside London for your new business, check out this guide by our working spaces expert.
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