Interviews

"How convenient is it being tied to a time-slot?" Dragons' Den entrepreneur takes on tech giants

16 min read

27 March 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

How many entrepreneurs can say with conviction that their business helps SMEs survive and prosper? Serial entrepreneur John Buni can. His business, CleanCloud, provides software for independent laundry businesses that helps them stay ahead of their larger counterparts. But that's not Buni's whole story, there's a pioneering digital suit designing business and a spell on the eternally popular Dragons' Den series to talk about too. Let's find out more about the entrepreneur and high-street defender.

John Buni is an entrepreneur on a mission. The quest in question? He’s making sure that independent businesses hold out against the global domination of big corporates, and against tech giants in particular.

Through his business, CleanCloud, an efficient and easy-to-use piece of software that allows independent laundry businesses to keep up with emails and process receipts, he’s ensuring that SMEs up-and-down the country preserve their livelihoods in the tough high-street climate.

But that’s not where Buni’s entrepreneurial story begins and ends, there’s also an ahead-of-the-game digital tailoring business and a Dragons’ Den stint to talk about too. Let’s find out more about what makes this entrepreneur tick.

Where did your interest in the tech industry come from?

John Buni believes in the British high-street.

It stemmed from an early age. My brother was, and still is, quite an enthusiastic computer programmer, and I would sit around and watch him coding and playing with computers. My Dad was a satellite engineer, so technology has always been there. I’ve always wanted the latest phone, the latest console, so I think it’s a part of me. I’ve always been fascinated by what tech can be used for. Especially in today’s world, when technology is so low cost, you can build something quite big really fast.

Tell me about the CleanCloud founding story?

Soon after I started my first business, Tailor Made London, we needed a way to manage garments going to and from alteration. When suits are made there are often adjustments required, so we needed a way to track where garments were at any one time.

At the time my CleanCloud co-founder David was renting a desk from me in the office, and he was working on a couple of online businesses. I was telling him about my problems and he said, ‘I could probably build something quite easily to fix that’. So we went away for a few days and built a system that allowed us to do what we wanted to.

It just so happened that I was in my local dry cleaner a few days after this, and I couldn’t find my suit that had been taken in. I didn’t have my ticket, and it wasn’t very efficient. So I said, ‘I’ve actually got a system that could help you manage this, help you keep your customers updated, and I think could really benefit you’.

We then gave him this technology and his started using it, giving us regular feedback, and over the next few months we built out the system. We realised that this was perfect for the dry cleaning and laundry industry.

Why did you focus on independent dry cleaning businesses?

I’ve always been passionate about championing smaller businesses. It’s not easy when you’re trying to manage every part of your business day-to-day, and I felt that tech could help businesses like that just as it had helped me in the past. So whereas the larger dry cleaning chains have the resources to do all these things, independent dry cleaners who have great stories – their own heritage and brands – don’t necessarily have the technology to manage their business day-to-day. That impacts their sales and the quality of the service that they can offer their customers. So I thought by using technology, we could help businesses like this. It’s a $9 billion industry, and independent dry cleaners make up 80% of that.

Why was it important for you to devise a business that helped support small businesses and facilitate their growth and survival?

There was an obvious need from small businesses to use technology to help them sell, manage, report and grow. That’s why we focused on small rather than enterprise businesses.

What would the global economic landscape look like without the contributions of SMEs?

SMEs are the powerhouse of the global economy, plain and simple. That’s why it’s so important to protect and defend their market share where possible. If it were not for SMEs, the laundry and dry cleaning sector would be dominated by people offering a homogenised product and offering. Smaller businesses also allow customers greater access to these services. Without them, you’d have larger chains in higher density areas, but outside of that you potentially wouldn’t get these smaller businesses, because it’s not worthwhile for the big chains to operate in them. So it increases the reach of the sector, and that goes for any given industry.

Can you break down for me just how a SaaS solution works and why independent dry cleaners should use it?

Rather than buying an on-premises solution that you pay a one-off fee for, which is the old model, a software-as-a-service provider like CleanCloud is guaranteed to give you the most up-to-date tech solution. We’re always rolling out new features, every week. By paying a relatively small monthly instalment, our customers are guaranteeing that they’re always benefitting from the best system, and the best service, which you wouldn’t get from a traditional solution.

Would you describe CleanCloud as a B2B2C business?

Yes, our customers are the independent dry cleaners around the world and we help them to help manage their customer base. We give them the technology to provide a better customer service, order updates and order management.

Is there a risk that global businesses could one day wipe out SMEs? (Look at the way Amazon and Apple dictate the market). If so, how can we stop it? Do we need more government regulation?

That’s definitely a risk. You could see someone like Amazon investing in huge laundry plants and using their logistics network to run direct services to customers. The way to stop that from happening could partly be down to regulation. It’s not fair that a local dry cleaner has to pay business rates, sky-high rent and so on whereas an Amazon is able to avoid those costs, undercutting smaller rivals.

The benefit of SMEs, especially physical stores, is that they can operate in more convenient locations. A huge tech company might offer to come to your home or your work, but how convenient is it to be tied to a particular time-slot? If you’re walking past a store on your way to work, that fits more neatly into your day. So technology will allow smaller independents to challenge the likes of Amazon, because they’ll have the same technology, but to add to that you’ll have a more personalised and convenient service.

Would you consider CleanCloud an impact business as it’s trying to preserve the livelihoods of independent businesses? – And more than that, help them grow?

Absolutely, at CleanCloud we have a massive impact on our customers. We allow them to keep going. A lot of these businesses are third or fourth generation businesses, and we want to help sustain that – it allows them to pass the businesses down to their children, and then to their children. We’re allowing them to increase the longevity of their businesses, which has an impact on their daily lives. On average by switching to CleanCloud, our customers will increase their revenue by 30%, which is a huge uptick. That means that for the small price they pay for CleanCloud, it’s actually generating you money.

Tell me about the Tailor Made story? How did you come up with the idea?

After university, I went into investment banking. I needed a suit for work, and I was a bit of an odd shape so I couldn’t find anything off the peg. The only options available at the time were to go down to Savile Row and spend two or three thousand pounds on a suit, which was completely unattainable, or go to one of these travelling tailors where you go to a hotel room, someone quickly measures you up, you’re presented with four different types of fabric, and then they take your credit card details, write them on a piece of paper and shove it in a suitcase with hundreds of other people’s details.

Two months later the suit came back, it didn’t fit, the quality was terrible and I felt like there needed to be a better offering to the market. Tailoring is actually in my family, so I knew quite a bit about it already. But I did my research and I came across some scanning tech which was being used by the German army to measure troops and their kit at the time. I worked out a way to combine that with a traditional, bespoke tailoring process. So we started selling suits in London, we moved from a low-cost offering to a more premium one, by investing in better manufacturing and fabrics, but we always wanted to be able to offer it at an affordable price.

Why did you decide to go to Dragons’ Den to gain funding?

It was partly the PR opportunity that you get from being on a show watched by 8-10 million people, but I’d always wanted a mentor to support me. I thought all the Dragons could offer something to the business, but Deborah Meaden was my number one choice. A year before I went on the show she had bought quite a famous Savile Row cloth mill, so she knew a lot about the textile side of the business. Ideally, I would have combined that expertise with Peter Jones, because of his reach and also the technology side of the business. Being a very tall guy, I knew there was a need for people like him to have custom suits made available at a high quality.

Are there enough realistic and attainable funding options for budding entrepreneurs in the UK today? Or is it really just angel investment or bust?

It’s a good question because I didn’t raise any money for ten years, and not for the want of trying. The traditional route when I started was bank loans, but it was hard enough opening a bank account let alone trying to convince someone to give you a loan. Quite often they have to be secured against some sort of asset and if you’re a startup, what assets do you have?

With angels, how do you go out and meet them? It’s not easy. If I was starting a B2C business today I would definitely go down the crowdfunding route because you have a wide reach in terms of people who will fund you, and buy your product. But I’d also look to meet angels just by going out and networking at events.

Is CleanCloud expensive? How do you balance its unique B2B2C USP with pricing and sales expectations?

Our system starts at £35 per month, so it’s extremely affordable for any dry cleaner. They can start using that straight away and because it’s a web-based tool it will work on any device, anywhere in the world. So they literally just need a CleanCloud subscription and the Internet, and they can get started. The barriers to entry are extremely low.

Can you give me some growth statistics (from your two businesses), that you’re especially proud of?

CleanCloud has grown 200% year on year. We have 5,000 customers in 62 countries – everywhere from Kiribati to Burkina Faso, Chad, Haiti and Iraq! And Tailor Made has grown 50% year on year, which is extremely high for a retail business.

Would you consider yourself a serial entrepreneur? If so, do you ever worry that you’ll get distracted by the next project and take your eye off the ball when it comes to your existing businesses?

I’ve definitely calmed down! I always have ideas, that’s part and parcel of my entrepreneurial nature, but as you get older you become good at dismissing them. In my younger days, you definitely lose focus and think, I can do this, this and this. But for me, I tackle one business at a time and give it my all, up to the point where I don’t need to be so hands on.