While most people realise nowadays that London, Birmingham and Manchester aren’t the only places in the UK where you can start a business, certainly the challenges can be different for people based outside of the big city. One entrepreneur, Louise Stevenson, talks about how she and her husband have set up their national business - Osha Clean, a platform linking window-cleaners with customers - from rural Herefordshire.
Apples. Cider. Beef. Rolling green hills dotted with black and white cottages. Land of hope and glory. These are the things that Herefordshire is most famous for. Digital disruption? Startup business? Not so much. But that’s what we’re building from our home base in Hereford - a beautiful city, home to Elgar and Bulmer’s, and a minimum of 45 minutes drive from the next closest city or motorway (and that’s if you don’t meet any tractors along the way).
We’re still in those early, heady and exciting days of starting up. In January 2016 we had a problem. We couldn’t find a window cleaner, not for love nor money. We asked around our friends and acquaintances in the city, and we even flagged down a few window cleaner’s vans, but all to no avail. Most interestingly, we found that many of the people we spoke to were struggling. We heard from people who had moved into new houses only to find window cleaners turning up at their door asking for payment for a clean they hadn’t booked. We spoke to people who waited in for several evenings in a row to pay their window cleaner in cash from down the back of the sofa. And then there were the people who like us just couldn’t find one at all.
With increasingly filthy windows, we saw there was a problem here ready to be solved. And so in May of this year we launched Osha. Osha helps people get their dirty windows cleaned by connecting them to a reliable, local window cleaner. Customers can book online and pay online. Osha is already cleaning windows in most of Eastern England, the North East, some areas of the South West and the Isle of Wight, and we’re quickly expanding to other parts of the UK.
The digital world we live in means that you can set up a business from your living room and serve customers in Australia or Dubai. But it’s not without its challenges. Here are some of the things we’ve learnt:
Just because you’re 45 minutes from the nearest motorway, it doesn’t mean you can’t network on a national scale. OK, so you can’t attend events and conferences in London easily, but most things are being live-streamed now so you can watch and take part in the conversation by having your twitter feed open at the same time. Virgin Startup offers some brilliant live-streaming events and podcasts and a lively community on social media.
Have a broadband contingency plan. Setting up a digital business in rural areas means you are heavily reliant on your broadband connection. And when it goes down, it goes down! We have a contingency plan if we can’t get onto our office broadband. First go home, then round the in-laws, then the local coffee shop. Worst case scenario, head for Gloucester! Know how you’re going to deal with a technology crisis, and make friends with someone on your local rural broadband team so you can make your voice heard about getting faster connection speeds.
Find support locally, it is out there! Many rural areas have Council-supported business enterprise projects running. Ours has a University of Wolverhampton-sponsored Business Solutions Centre where we rent incubator space at very low cost, which helped us to move our business the next step up from the kitchen table. There’s a local enterprise project that offers mentoring support to new businesses, and whilst the local business network you build might not be able to get you working with customers in Leeds, the peer support is critical when you’re starting out.
There’s no doubt it can occasionally be a lonely and frustrating business setting up as a digital startup outside of the buzz of the big cities; but with passion, drive and commitment there’s no reason why you can’t still make a big impact nationwide.
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