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Defining Britain’s sharing economy with Hassle’s CEO and Sharing Economy UK board member

The sharing economy is one of those industry phrases that has many different interpretations, one that will likely secure a firmer definition thanks to the 6 March launch of the Sharing Economy UK trade body. To find out more, Real Business has spoken to Alexandra Depledge, SEUK board member and CEO of Hassle.com, who opened up on what it's like to be a woman in the tech business.
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The government-backed board was officially introduced in Westminster, with founder and chairwoman Debbie Wosskow discussing the ideals the new trade body will devote itself to, with support from business, enterprise and energy minister Matthew Hancock.

While billion dollar Forbes business Airbnb has signed up as a member, British cleaning marketplace Hassle.com has too, and CEO Alexandra Depledge has been named as a board member.

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Real Business spoke to the female entrepreneur about the company, what it’s like to be a woman in business – following International Women’s Day on 8 March – and being a part of the sharing economy, securing more insight about the rapidly growing sector.

What was the original vision for Hassle?

My best friend Jules and I, along with our other friend Tom, wanted to create an eBay of local services, which did everything from gardening, hairdressing, cleaning to babysitting. We did that for about a year and it really didn’t work because it was largely unfocused and there was no funnel for the customer experience.

After about a year, we realised it wasn’t working and started looking at the data to see what people were actually purchasing and found one in four were looking for a domestic cleaner – that was really interesting, considering that we didn’t have any domestic cleaners on the website at the time. We did some market research and realised the domestic cleaning market is fundamentally broken – 85 per cent of it lives in the black market and there was no real safe and secure option for either side. So we took the website down and rebuilt it in four weeks to relaunch as Hassle.com, doing cleaning work only.

How do you run background checks on the cleaners?

We use a fantastic company called Onfido, and they do an ID check for rights to work, visa and criminal records by plugging straight into our software through an API. Also, we interview every single cleaner in person, take a headshot and three cleaning references, a record of their bank account and their address.

All of those things triangulate and give us pretty strong lever, so if something goes wrong in the home or you do something wrong to the cleaner, we have very strong instruments to then make sure the police can get to the people they need to and take the necessary precautions. That doesn’t happen in the black market and, when you consider it’s worth about £150bn in this country every year and 85 per cent of all domestic workers work in it, that’s doing social good by pulling these things into a transparent forum.

If the HMRC wants to go after people who aren’t paying their taxes, then all of our cleaners’ transactions are recorded in their bank accounts and equally if our customers aren’t declaring spent income then exactly the same thing can occur, so it makes the whole thing a lot safer and more transparent.

Do you find there are any pros or cons as a business with two female founders?

We have androgynous names: Alex and Jules could both be guys. We’ve had some serious fun with that while out fundraising. Many VCs are typical white VC guys, and these two girls walk in asking for $6m and they’re like, ‘ Jesus, we thought you were going to be men’. They also tend to look around the room for the CTO, who is Jules – a female. It’s amusing.

We’re two successful female founders that have raised a lot of money and that doesn’t happen. I think in the US, only four per cent of founders who are women have raised any venture capitalist money, so we’re really flying the flag to show we can do this just as good as the men.

We’ve raised about $6.5m to date, which is peanuts compared to the Americans, but we’re doing all we can and we grew about 4,000 per cent last year and expanded to across the UK, Ireland and Paris. We’ve gone from five employees to 45 in six months. I’ve got a load of grey hair, and it’s been a wild ride – one we don’t want to end. We’re having a great time.

What do you think it will take to change the old fashioned mentality about women in business?

I think we’re often underestimated and we use that to our advantage. I feel anyone that tells you they’re a woman in tech and they feel disadvantaged is spinning you a yarn. It’s a bit like if you’re a person of colour, you stand out and can use that to your advantage. Jules and I stand out a lot and we use that.

I think what I’d like to see more and more is more women feeling inspired to take on new challenges and do things that are different. Jules taught herself to code, not because she was a woman, but because that’s the way she saw being able to make the business succeed and I’m hugely indebted to her for that. However, many people would have balked at that task because it’s quite difficult to buy yourself a book and code a website. What you do see is a lot of appetite to get into tech but less appetite when people see the sacrifices. I’d like to see more women putting their hands up and coming forward.

There’s one other woman on the management team at Hassle and then you’ve got quite a diverse base, but when we go out to recruit software engineers, we don’t get any women applying – the same for data analyst roles. We actively encourage it, but they’re just not out there which means the pipeline’s not secure, so we need to feed the pipeline and that has to be done from an early age.

What does the term ‘sharing economy’ mean to you?

For me, it’s largely undefined and that’s the problem. It can mean everything from unpaid voluntary work to exchange of skills or space. For me, the sharing economy is largely moving things that live in an informal world, like the cash economy, and pulling them into a formalised structure, and you can see that whether it’s through Airbnb, Bla Bla Car or Uber.

All of those kinds of things can be done in some way, but offline in the informal economy, and the sharing economy, or on-demand economy, is bringing that online in a more transparent and structured fashion.

What do you hope to achieve as a Sharing Economy UK board member?

I think there’s a real mandate for the Sharing Economy UK body, and that’s defining what the sharing economy is – and isn’t. When you start to legislate these kinds of things, you can end up in a scenario where you legislate the innovation out of them or you do damage to something that’s functioning quite well on its own. Additionally, I want to raise awareness around the sharing economy and build trust into it, which can only be done through education and putting across any viewpoints.

The other thing is to raise the profile of the businesses that exist in the sharing economy now and those that live outside of it currently and bring them in. You’ll do a lot more good and become a lot more powerful if you are united – not in a megalomaniac way, but we have an alternative way of doing business here, which by it’s very definition is a source of good and growth, so we want to make sure we protect that intrinsically and do right by the consumers and providers to make sure everyone is protected and safeguarded.

How do you feel about the government’s involvement around the sharing economy?

There’s obviously got to be checks and balances in whatever the government is doing, but the economy has a very clever way of regulating itself in many of these instances, so I actually prefer minimum intervention. I think the government can keep listening and encouraging, but maybe not legislate as much.

I commend the government for looking at the sharing economy as a concept and they did it at a rapid speed. Debbie’s [Wosskow] report came out within three months of being commissioned. Usually it takes two years to get these things off of the ground, so huge props for that happening. And I think the fact they’re willing to listen to enterprise and people operating in the sharing economy is nothing but a good thing. However, everything needs to be taken with a measured view.

So what are your plans for Hassle in 2015?

The business changes day by day. We’re happy in our markets, we’ve just released an app and we want to see the success continue. There are other verticals on the horizon for us, so we really want to get into elderly care – there’s a huge social crisis in the UK at the moment. I read something that elderly people are getting cut down to five minutes with a carer per day, which is preposterous. And childcare has gone up 33 per cent in the last year, so we see our model fitting very well within those verticals as well.

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About Author

Zen Terrelonge

Zen Terrelonge is the deputy editor of Real Business, specialising in media, innovation, technology and the digital sector. A media professional with eight years worth of experience he has worked for both startup and established publications.

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