30th Jan 2013
Founder of Checkatrade Kevin Byrne talks to Lucie Mitchell about how a tornado inspired his business idea to save the nation from cowboy builders.
Right from day one, entrepreneur Kevin Byrne had one key objective – to develop a service that was the answer to the rogue trade problem in the UK. In 1998, he founded Checkatrade.com, which vets and monitors local traders, and he is now well on the way to achieving his ambition.
Byrne’s first experience of starting a business actually came 25 years ago, when he produced a local business directory.
“I approached a few of my friends who were builders, plumbers and electricians, and I said, if we all put our money together, we could do something really local and put it through people’s doors.
“Now, they are everywhere, but I wasn’t particularly entrepreneurial and I didn’t really take it forward and before I knew it, everyone was copying my idea,” he admits.
Byrne continued producing the directory but he assumed he had missed the boat on it. Until, that is, a tornado ripped through his home town of Selsey, West Sussex in January 1998 and it sparked an idea.
“People needed work doing to their houses and were vulnerable, and rogue trades flooded into Selsey from all over the UK,” he recalls.
“I had been running the local business directory for about 10 years at that point. There was no internet then, but no-one was really doing anything in my view that brought an answer to the rogue trade problem in the UK – so I thought, I can do that.”
He then set about approaching local tradespeople, asking for proof of qualifications, insurance documents, and letters of recommendation – but they weren’t as receptive as Byrne has hoped.
“You’d have thought people would jump at that, but they didn’t. It was pioneering a whole new industry of how tradesmen market themselves and how consumers find tradesmen or make a decision to use anything.”
After several months of perseverance, Byrne managed to get enough tradesmen together to put the first directory out in his local area, and Checkatrade was born.
However, the first few years proved to be very tough as Byrne had no startup money at all. “It was completely funded by my hard efforts and asking for the tradesmen to contribute.”
It was only around 10 years ago, when the internet became a regular feature in people’s homes, that the business really took off, he says.
“At that point, I made the decision to start doing reviews and I’m confident in saying, although I will be happy for someone to amend my view, I was the first person in the world to do online reviews.
“So the start of the change began when we did online reviews, but even with that, because there were so few people on the internet, it didn’t kick in for years. I didn’t really get my first online reviewing competitor until about five years ago, and by that time I had been doing it for five years.”
Byrne remarks that the company hit critical mass in 2009, when Checkatrade had just under 1,800 members.
“At the beginning of last year we had 5,495 members and today, we have just under 9,000. We now spend about £1.4m on marketing so we have ploughed a substantial amount of money back into marketing to consumers. It’s about telling the consumer, you need to be protected and we’re the people to do that.”
One such marketing campaign has been to sponsor Channel 5 programme Cowboy Builders, he says, which the company sponsored all of last year and will do so again this year.
However, one of the biggest challenges that Byrne faces is the company’s marketing message.
“When we go back even three years ago, we had a very unique USP and message, and we had the infrastructure, the service, the software, the training and the staff to back that message up,” he remarks.
“But today, every Tom, Dick and Harry is coming out of the woodwork with reviews, saying we’ll protect you from cowboys, but in essence they are all farces. And that is my biggest challenge.”
One other challenge is handling growth, he says. Turnover for 2012 was in excess of £6.8m and the company now employs almost 100 staff. “We’re growing by two [people] a month and that is escalating all the time,” he adds.
With so much entrepreneurial experience under his belt, what words of wisdom does Byrne have for people wanting to start a business today?
“Many people have got tremendous passion to start a business,” he remarks. “Without that passion you are not going to drive your business forward. But unfortunately it is not enough to make something work. You have got to be really pragmatic about some of these things.
“The first thing you have to do if you’re a startup is find the business opportunity,” he continues. “What is the level of the current customer demand for that particular product or service in that particular geographical location? If you don’t put your time and effort into looking at those things, you might end up in a position where you’re trying to sell snow to the Eskimos.”
Byrne also recommends finding a mentor. “That person will be worth their weight in gold,” he comments. “But make sure you listen to them!”
In terms of his plans for the future, Byrne is thinking big. “From what I can gather, the industry in the UK for home improvements and maintenance is £28bn. At the moment, we generate £1.2bn of revenue for our trades. So we have a sizeable cut of that cake now.”
Checkatrade is still predominantly based in the south of England but the plan is to ramp up their national marketing over the next year to build consumer and trade awareness across the whole of the UK.
“My aim is to have something in place that is so powerful that the government will have to sit up and take notice,” he remarks. “I have had conversations in the past with government ministers, including Vince Cable, and I want to move that forward and strengthen it.”
Byrne adds that he wants to get to the point where no tradesman in the UK can operate unless they are a member of Checkatrade.
“This is not about making me a fortune. This is about partnering with as many different people as I can to stop people being ripped off by rogue traders. We’ve got the vetting, the interviewing and the monitoring systems in place to absolutely fulfil that vision. It’s just about building the awareness and strength of the company over next few years until we get to that point.”