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When Alex Depledge sold her first business, Hassle.com, in 2017, she and her then business partner, Jules Coleman, vowed: “Never again.”
Finding the process of selling the business “really emotional”, Depledge decided to take some time off.
But the sabbatical she took after selling Hassle, and the pledge not to enter into another business venture, didn’t last long – Depledge is now the co-founder and CEO of the pair’s second business, Resi.
During her time out, Depledge began building a side return on her Victorian-era home, which she explains is a type of building project specific to Edwardian and Victorian-style houses, involving building an extension in a narrow windowed side passage.
“I started to realise just how painful the experience is for a consumer because it’s highly complex,” she says.
In her quest to begin the building work, Depledge realised two things – the first was that there had been “no innovation in the residential property sector since the 1950s”, and the second was how little trust the general public has in builders and architects.
As Depledge puts it: “Everybody’s got a cowboy builder story.”
“Not only is it low trust, but it’s incredibly complicated,” she says. “There are lots of moving parts, lots of different players, it’s a long drawn-out process, and that is quite an off-putting thing for a consumer coming into it with very limited knowledge because it’s not the sort of thing you do repeatedly.”
With a growing modern trend of people choosing to extend their houses rather than move, and the British mindset of a person’s home being their castle, many people are looking to create homes that utilise as much space as possible while catering to intergenerational living, says Depledge.
Seeing the residential property sector as one of the last to be affected by the adoption of technology, Depledge and Coleman launched Resi to help people who want to do work on their home to understand what is possible, create architectural designs for projects, and connect customers with suppliers who can complete the project.
“Our customers are everybody, and the way we do it is, we enable the entire workflow to be more efficient”
Alex Depledge, Resi
Having just celebrated its second birthday, the growing firm sees itself as the “democratisation of architecture”, making something usually viewed as inaccessible available to everyone.
Depledge explains: “Our customers are everybody, and the way we do it is, we enable the entire workflow to be more efficient.”
She points out that, in many cases, projects will have many participants, including designers, builders, structural engineers, contractors, interior designers and glazers, to name but a few.
There can then be conflict between design and build, because builders usually choose the cheapest way of doing something to increase their margins, sometimes losing sight of the design that the customer wanted.
Whereas the average architect may complete about 15 projects a year, the architects at Resi average about 15 a month, which Depledge says is down to using technology such as screen shares, as well as using open data to determine details such as what other projects have been undertaken in a particular postcode, or the guidelines issued by a particular council.
To get the lie of the land on a project, Resi doesn’t need to visit the site of a build, because enough data can be pulled from government datasets online to determine what can and cannot be done in a build in a specific area, or on a particular style of property.
Depledge says using open data can also help to determine whether or not planning permission can be obtained and why. She gives this example: “Bob and Carol managed to get their double-storey rear extension past [the council], but Jim and Betty didn’t – why? You can start to see that sort of thing, and that [data] is really easy for us to pull.”
Resi’s app then acts as a hand-holding tool throughout the complex process of the building project, providing designs, applying for planning permission, developing technical drawings and connecting the customer with professionals in the area to carry out the build.
Depledge says: “There’s no AI [artificial intelligence] here yet, there’s no deep tech or driverless cars or whatever buzzword you want to throw in there. It’s just basically applying existing technologies to quite an opaque and disaggregated market and pulling it together in a smart fashion. So you drive out efficiencies, so then that speeds it all up and you can pass on that cost to the consumer.”
Does this use of technology make Resi a tech startup? Depledge argues that it doesn’t.
Not a tech company
In fact, many would argue that Resi is a technology startup, and Depledge has been called a “woman in tech” in the past, but she thinks the lines have been blurred when it comes to what is tech and what isn’t.
“There’s just a lot of people I feel claim to speak for tech but don’t actually really do any tech.” she says, pointing out that Resi is not a proptech (property technology) business, but rather a business that uses technology.
Traditionally, says Depledge, a technology company is one that provides software or hardware – “SaaS [software-as-a-service] products, deep tech, infrastructure tech, B2B tech” – but now the definition of a technology startup has expanded to include digitally available marketplaces.
She says Resi sits on the “periphery” of businesses offering digitally enabled marketplaces, and points out the fine line between tech businesses and non-tech businesses in the current digital age.
“Predominantly, everything we do is based on the technology platform that enables us to do things in architecture more quickly, so I call it a tech-enabled business,” says Depledge.
“But tech runs through everything – there is no such thing as a technology company. Every single business out there has an element of tech in it.”
When growing Resi, as well as looking back on her experience with Hassle, Depledge now questions the style of funding most tech startups are pushed towards seeking.
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She says the tech startup scene is heavily geared towards raising venture capital, with a view to spend as much as possible to expand as quickly as possible.
But this “treadmill” is not for everyone, she says, and in some cases it can even be detrimental. Although she has a “new-found respect” for undergoing funding rounds, that path isn’t right for Resi, says Depledge.
The more businesses are focused on a human element, such as delivering a good service, rather than being solely technology-based, the less likely they are to benefit from funding rounds, because rapid growth may compromise the quality of the service they offer, she says.
“Service marketplaces require a lot more hand-holding of the customer and a level of concierge that’s not baked into the margins. I think for us, we learnt that the hard way by not having a great experience with venture capital.”
Resi has not, and will not, be grown with funding rounds, and Depledge says her previous business, Hassle.com, was also probably not right for this method of growth.
“What we realised is that the number of businesses that could benefit from venture capital is actually quite small,” she says. “I think it’s great for some businesses, but actually for a much smaller percentage of businesses than are actually raising venture funding. We just believe in right-sizing financing.”
Building Lambeth’s future
Resi is located in an office building in Brixton run by a company called 3Space, which gives entrepreneurs and unemployed people free office space with the twin aims of filling vacant office spaces and helping to regenerate local communities.
The 3Space building is part of Lambeth Council’s plan to bring more workplaces into the Brixton area. Depledge says the area is trying to hark back to the times when people’s lives were centred within a mile of where they lived. Everyone would live, work, shop and socialise in the same area, often walking to work.
Depledge herself walks to work, claiming she has become much happier since this became an option for her, and when her then 25-strong team moved into the 3Space office, 65% of them lived in the Lambeth area and could also walk to work.
Having people living, working and shopping all in one area not only “creates a real sense of community”, but also leads to a thriving high street, she says.
Alex Depledge, Resi
But this is also partially dependent on people being happy in their homes. In many cases, housing in London is expensive, and Depledge says that where affordable housing has been built, it is often poorly designed.
“If a developer does manage to meet the 30% affordable threshold, everyone rejoices, but I don’t – 85% of market value is not affordable housing, not in London,” she says. “And the affordable portion – that 30% – is always built last, it’s always built at the back, and it’s always shit design. Why is it when you live in social housing, you have to live in bad, cramped, poor-lighting conditions? I just don’t believe in that.”
To try to stop this being the case, Depledge and business partner Coleman launched the Resi Foundation, pledging to give councils, charities or housing associations aiming to build social housing pro-bono design work to ensure houses are “homes”, rather than just a roof over people’s heads.
“That’s part of what we’re trying to do with Resi,” she says. “Every startup founder has some grand vision about how they’re going to save the world. I get it. With Resi, part of the appeal for us was to believe people deserve a home, not just a house, but also there are people who actually deserve a house, so this year we’re launching the Resi Foundation.”
Having found selling her first company so difficult, Depledge now claims to have “knocked all of the emotion” out of herself when it comes to business.
Likening starting your first business to finding your first love, and admitting she is quite an “emotional character”, Depledge says it was hard to see the sale of Hassle.com through the same lens as everyone else – part of her heart will always be with her first company.
“I poured every ounce of everything I was into that company and then it felt a very premature sale,” she says. “Once it had gone, it was like I had been stripped of my identity, and I didn’t know what to do.
“Hassle ended quite quickly, or quicker than we had ever imagined, and everyone heralds that, don’t they? They say: ‘They sold their company in two and a half years’ and they think it’s a great thing. For us, we were like ‘Oh my God’.”
Resi has offered Depledge and Coleman the opportunity to prove to themselves that Hassle “wasn’t a fluke”, as well as to apply many of the learnings from their first company to their second.
“What we love about Resi is that we’ve been able to take all the stuff we did well, like the culture, the brand, the ways of working,” says Depledge. “The tech is amazing here – Jules and Tom built amazing tech at Hassle, I think Jules has built amazing tech here.
“All those good elements we’ve replicated again, and everything we didn’t like, like the funding environment or the controls placed around the business, or internationalising too soon, or stopping core innovation in the product, all that stuff we got wrong, we’re not doing again.”
But will Resi be the last company for this serial entrepreneur? Although Depledge says “I haven’t got another one in me”, she concedes that this is what she and her business partner said before starting on their second company. She concludes: “Never say never.”