Growing businesses is tough work. We know, because we’re still at it. And we’re curious about what it means to start your own thing and make it grow. The Founders Files series talks to founders, entrepreneurs, doers, and makers about scaling up & pressing on.
Funny is money - how a joke became a lightbulb moment for two co-founders
Oh, to be the person in the friend group that lives next to a major Tube station.
Understandably tired of carrying this mantle, when a buddy asked Stasher founder Anthony Collias to store their stuff at his home near King’s Cross, he joked ‘Sure, but I’m charging you for it.’
The lightbulb came on and shortly after in 2015, he and co-founder Jacob Wedderburn-Day incorporated CityStasher Ltd (now Stasher.)
You don’t just have to take Jacob Wedderburn-Day at his word when he says he’s a problem solver. His company, now valued at over $12 million, took off by tackling a problem everybody had, but nobody had done anything about. Since then, they’ve made news everywhere from TechCrunch to The Lonely Planet and the BBC.
As if all that hadn’t kept him busy enough, he also launched a podcast and an eco-startup last year. Tackling climate change is a tall order for any problem-solver, but I feel a little more hopeful hearing he’s put his mind to it.
Jacob chatted with us about the early days of Stasher, what he feels made them successful and what he’s been up to during lockdown (warning - get ready to feel convicted about your pandemic productivity 🙋♀️🙈 )
Tell me a bit about your business. Why did you start it and what do you do?
We’ve all been there - trying to enjoy the last day of your holiday, but weighed down by your luggage. My travel start-up, Stasher, connects travellers with hotels and local businesses where they can safely store their bags, allowing them to freely explore the city.
The service is ideal for those who find themselves early for a vacation rental check-in and have a few hours to wait until their flight, or event-goers subjected to the latest bag policy limitations. (At least, this used to be a problem in the pre-covid world!)
What did your daily work routine look like in those initial days of your business? What do your days look like now?
Remarkably similar, although nowadays there are more people involved and (at least pre-covid) there's more going on. I always blitz emails and we have morning stand-ups to establish priorities. Then it's a case of getting things done and working on new deals.
What surprised you about working in your industry?
Travel has been a great industry to be in, the last 12 months aside. Because timing matters a lot to travel businesses, people are very keen to work on referral partnerships and help each other out, which makes it a friendly industry to be a part of. I don't have another benchmark for comparison, but the conferences have been great fun.
Where do you see your industry in the next 5 years?
Hopefully well and truly recovered and bouncing ahead of 2019 levels. Also close to my heart, travel will need to factor more sustainability initiatives into its operations.
What was getting your first customer like?
As a marketplace, we had to get both hosts and customers onto our platform. Those first sales are challenging, but so rewarding. Our first host signed up because "I reminded her of her grandson" and she wanted to be supportive - an unexpected perk of starting a business aged 22.
Editor's Note: Can confirm the power of the grandchild phenomenon. As a person who lives in the former USSR, I get my cheek pinched weekly by my local market’s resident babushka who gives me an extra bunch of parsley for free because, like her granddaughter, I'm “30 and still single.”
In your business’ initial years, what was the biggest thing hindering your growth and how did you fix it?
I think in our case our tech was very basic. We'd built it lean and simple, but we found the lack of some custom features were hindering conversions and causing us some operational hassle.
Once we'd raised some money, we did a slick new redesign, which wasn't without its own problems, but at least made everything look and feel more trustworthy. Since then, we've fully in-housed our product team and things work so smoothly.
At what point did you realize your business was ‘taking off’ and that you could really make money from it? What did you decide to do at that point?
In the summer of 2016, we'd been running it for maybe 6 months on the side, I was wrapping up my masters and Ant was working a full time job. But we hit a point where we were getting several bookings a day and it started to look really promising. One day we made £100 in a single day and Ant was like "I'm gonna quit my job!"
What we decided to do was raise an angel round at that point. We calculated £100k would give us enough runway to go full-time and really test and market Stasher. We felt raising money was practical for two reasons - one, getting an independent investor would be a great validation of us and our model, and two we didn't want to starve and risk our personal finances trying to make this work. That's the kind of pressure that can lead to bad decision making!
A lot of founders face fears with hiring people they trust to run their business like they would. Was that an issue for you? How did you overcome it and where did you find the right people to help you grow your business?
I think we've always been quite good at hiring and delegating. We've tended to hire in our own mould, with a preference for young, hungry grads over industry veterans. But because we were new to business when we started Stasher, we knew we weren't experts at lots of things, so it was better to hire someone and turn them into our domain expert for sales, operations etc. than to try and juggle all of it ourselves.
Talk to me about when you were seven or eight. Who did you want to be?
I would probably have said an entrepreneur (if I'd known what that meant aged 7) or a writer. My interest in business probably came at a later age, but I always loved maths and problem solving.
Do you feel like you’ve reached the point where you’re living the life you wanted to when you set out to do your own thing? What moment or thing made you realize it?
Yes in a sense, because it's important to enjoy the journey not the destination. Getting on the Forbes 30u30 list was an unexpected but rewarding milestone to reflect on our achievements.
Strangely, another moment that made me reflect was, at the height of the pandemic, when business was extremely quiet, I realised I'd still much rather be working on this, with the freedom to set my own agenda! With Stasher being quiet, we launched Treepoints, a social enterprise, which is going through the same early growth phase I was just talking about. That freedom to create new things every day is what drives me.
Why do you think so many people fail to grow their business and what advice would you give to keep pushing despite all the setbacks?
I think luck and timing play big roles. I wouldn't pretend our "success" is down to skill. We hit a good niche at the right time and we've seen tens of other businesses copy the Stasher model. With Treepoints, we figure that when the pandemic subsides, climate change will resume focus as the world's biggest crisis, and it will likewise be a good industry to be in at the right time.
I wouldn't presume to know why other people are unlucky in business. In practice, it's a question of finance or grit - running out of cash, or deciding to quit, are really the only two ways a business can end. That being said, sometimes, the wise move is to call it quits and respect the opportunity cost of your own time.
What do you attribute your success to?
Grit and not running out of cash. Haha I'm just joking - those things obviously matter, but honestly, being in the right place at the right time with the right people.
What’s one piece of commonly accepted professional ‘wisdom’ you think should be thrown out?
There's a famous quote "Do things that don't scale.” I don't think this should be thrown out, but it's missing a key addendum! "In the pursuit of things that could scale, it's OK to do things that don't scale to prove the point." You don't want to continue to run your business doing things manually - scale and automation are critical to growth.
What’s a ‘hack’ you have for success that most people don’t know about?
Never be afraid to email company c-suites. Most people think they don't have time to look at your proposals, but if anything, these are the people with vision who are exactly interested in new ideas! If it catches their interest, they'll pass it to the right team (and remember that when emails come from ceos, people look at it!) We've had great success over the years.
What do you do when you’re feeling intimidated or overwhelmed by your work?
Return to my to-do list, figure out what is urgent and what can be delayed. If there's too much urgent stuff to handle, find a way to delegate it. Take frequent breaks for exercise and fresh air.
How do you think running your businesses has improved the other parts of your life outside of the professional sphere?
It's been amazing for my overall confidence. Sales work in particular has been great. There's nothing like being rejected over a thousand times to reduce the nerves of other aspects of life, like public speaking or first dates!
Are there any positive changes brought about by Covid, either in your industry or among your own team, that you think should stick around post-Covid?
I've always worked quite a flexible schedule, since I like working evenings, so I think that's a small positive. The world being more hygiene conscious - and hand sanitiser being widely available on public transport, are huge positives too!
What’s the book (or books) you’d give to everyone you know if you had enough copies?
Man's Search For Meaning - a hard-hitting account of Victor Frankl's experiences in the holocaust that underpinned his philosophy on life.
What’s the best thing you’ve spent $100 or less on in the last year?
Seeding Treepoints! We put in slightly less money than that into starting the social enterprise.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see how __________ answers these same questions
Jacob Wedderburn-Day is the founder of Stasher — a travel tech startup that connects travellers looking to store luggage with shops and hotels providing storage space.
Jacob and Anthony, friends from their time studying economics at Oxford together, co founded the business in 2015. They have grown it from the initial idea back when they were students to being a venture-backed company, valued at over $12 million present in 250 cities worldwide. They were both recognised this year on Europe’s Forbes 30 under 30 list.
You can keep up with Treepoints, Jacob’s newest venture on LinkedIn.