Building a business from the ground up: customer trust and scaling

School Lettings
iStock/GordonBellPhotography
Paul Andrews
Director
School Lettings Solutions
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Anyone with any experience starting a business from scratch will know it’s no easy feat and having the ability to tackle challenges head on and quickly move on from setbacks is a must.

As one of the founders of School Lettings Solutions (SLS), I’ve come across my fair share of hurdles since taking the plunge to launch our business five years ago. Here I’ll explore a few of the things I’ve learnt along the way, particularly when it comes to establishing strong partnerships, building a great team and staying laser focused on our mission.

Idea to reality

All businesses start with the seed of an idea, but it takes more than an idea to create a sustainable venture. My business partner, Scott Warrington, and I had fifteen years’ experience managing community development in schools when we first started exploring the idea of setting up our own business.

The idea came as a direct result of our on the ground experience managing school facilities. We understood the unique way in which academic organisations work and how to provide a service which would meet their needs. We quickly realised that the vast majority of school halls, pitches, classrooms and theatres were lying empty and unused on evenings and weekends, while at the same time grassroots sports and community groups were crying out for affordable, accessible venues to host their activities. SLS was the obvious way to answer both these issues head on.

We now work with 120 schools, academies and colleges to fully manage their facilities at zero cost to them. Our service covers everything from locking and unlocking rooms, cleaning, booking and finances. We also offer support to all of our hirers, whether that be sports teams, theatre groups or dance troupes, helping them with marketing to ensure their groups grow and stay in local communities.

Starting at square one

Whilst Scott and I were confident we’d hit on a business idea with excellent potential for success and growth, our big challenge was to gain the trust of schools and get them signed up. Why would schools hand over their keys and their reputations to an unknown entity?

To address this, we started by approaching our existing networks and secured a 12-week pilot scheme with a school in Chorley through the head teacher, a former colleague of ours. The pilot was such a success that the school signed a long-term contract immediately afterwards and are still working with us today.

One success story is the school’s pitches are now used every weekend by hundreds of people aged seven and upwards playing for a local football team. Previously players were having to travel several miles to grounds outside the area and the pitches were lying dormant out of school hours.

The strength of this partnership led to SLS getting several more schools on board in quick succession. It just goes to show how powerful your existing networks can be and the importance of never burning your bridges in business.

Strength in numbers

We were very fortunate that SLS grew quickly following the first pilot, but this presented its own new challenges, particularly as the volume of customers and workload overtook what we could manage ourselves.

Why would schools hand over their keys and their reputations to an unknown entity?

Finding and nurturing great talent and trusting people to take our vision forward have been essential to the success of the business. We now employ 60 full-time staff and have 400 team members across the country. As employers, we recognise that there is one thing that makes the organisation different – our people. Each member of the team cares about the organisation’s social purpose, to ensure that all members of local communities have access to activities that enable them to reach their potential in life. Our staff are also rewarded with great training, attractive rewards, flexible working and career progression opportunities.

We recognise our own strengths and when it is time to hand over to someone with more knowledge or expertise than us in a certain area of the business. Handing over control doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but this has been key to our success.

Fire in your belly  

Ultimately, setting up your own business is not going to be a nine to five job, especially in the early stages. That’s why I believe it’s so important to have the passion, as well as the skills, the knowledge and the great team around you.

Scott and I have always been ambitious in our careers, but we also have a genuine passion for sport and community development. We see first-hand the benefits such activities bring to communities and individuals and that gives us just as much satisfaction as our business growing financially.

We are relentlessly focused on our mission to open the doors of all the great facilities which are currently sitting empty and unused on evenings and weekends for the benefit of local communities. School Lettings Solutions has the potential to be the biggest leisure provider in the UK and that is the goal we’re aiming for. Whatever your business is, it’s so important to maintain that passion and belief in what you’re doing.

Don’t be satisfied with OK

It’s important to take a step back and reflect regularly, which can be a big challenge when managing a rapidly growing business day to day. Whilst it’s important to celebrate successes, there will always be things to build upon – processes which could be more efficient or areas of the market which require a different approach.

At SLS we are constantly taking learnings from what has gone well and working with our teams to tackle challenges as they arise. Our people are our biggest asset, so we absolutely rely on their expertise and ideas to improve ways of working.

Looking to the future

These are a few of the lessons I’ve learnt in business so far but I still consider myself to be at the start of the journey. One thing is for sure, running a business is a constant learning curve and luckily for me that’s something I continue to thrive on.

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