Me And My Partner

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The Independent Online

Jonathan Attwood: My first taste for business came when I bought a 1968 Triumph Vitesse. It was a rustbucket and I had to repair it. I was going to sell it for almost nothing but thought it was worth more after I had tinkered with it. That was how my business in importing and restoring classic cars took off.

Jonathan Attwood: My first taste for business came when I bought a 1968 Triumph Vitesse. It was a rustbucket and I had to repair it. I was going to sell it for almost nothing but thought it was worth more after I had tinkered with it. That was how my business in importing and restoring classic cars took off.

I found there were certain things people liked, such as the idea of a convertible, but the car had to be within a certain price bracket. If you find the right niche, people are willing to buy. You've got to take a chance. As I was only 17, I stored the cars at home. It turned into a mini-car park and I guess the neighbours were never that happy about it. But that funded me through university although I gave it up when I came to London because there wasn't space.

I met Emily in 1996, when she had just come back from travelling around Asia. She's determined, not afraid to explore. We met through mutual friends and we were friends ourselves for a year or two before going out with each other.

I had left Bath University with a business degree and went as a consultant to Andersen Consulting for three years, then Pricewaterhouse-Coopers for five years. After a while, I found consulting wasn't the dynamic environment that's portrayed. It tended to be a "safe" process-driven environment. There wasn't the scope for real dynamism. I found the bureaucracy restrictive.

Emily and I started researching e-commerce opportunities and had the realisation that everybody wants to find something they want, not just something they are given. The idea for Webswappers came one day when I was in the lift leaving the office. I thought to myself, someone must be doing swapping on the internet, there are all these auction and shopping sites. When I checked, nobody appeared to be doing anything. Within a week, we had registered the domain name Webswappers.com, our first choice for the site.

Then we really started to think about the real detail of how it was going to operate. Emily thought it was a great idea, it wasn't a question of, "Oh, I'm not sure". She has her feet firmly on the ground, and as a marketing professional, I've found she is very focused on what people want, and is exceedingly sharp. One of the most difficult things for Emily has been working in another full-time job at London Business School for most of this year, although she is joining Webswappers full-time.

After we'd registered the name, we began to identify site developers. We were recommended a company called Gallio - they really understood the technical aspects but also came across as business-oriented. They came back to us with an estimate of how much it would cost to build a site. It was more than Emily and I could afford, so we went around to colleagues in the City with a diagram showing what we proposed to do, and asked for money. Some said no, because at that point I hadn't given up my job and still believed I could run the company part-time. Others gave us thousands, enough to get started on the first phase of development. As the business began to take shape we put the share price up. At that point, our other friends invested, from the fear that they couldn't afford not to.

When we were working on designing the site late last year, we were terrified someone else would beat us to it. We used to get up early every morning to read the papers and see whether someone had launched a swapping site.

The tension worsened after Christmas, traditionally the ideal time for swapping unwanted presents. Finally we launched on 21 January. We built the site up over the following months, developing a strong user base of people swapping items from books and CDs to cars and houses. Webswappers is now the largest swapping site in Europe.

In July I met Nicholas Negroponte at a conference. Lots of people were lining up to ask questions about his latest theories, but when I got there I told him I ran a swapping company and was looking for funding. Did he have any advice? We got into a conversation and I gave him our summary business plan. He got back to us quickly and said: "The more I read about your idea, the more I like your business." He invested personally and also brought in a seed-stage investment fund called Protos, which is helping us to find our next round of funding.

Our business model for Webswappers mirrored Nicholas's ideas. At present, we are purposely not making any money. It's about getting scale to start with, and we have about 20,000 swaps on the site. Revenues are important but many dot.coms are sacrificing their long-term business simply to say they have got revenues in the short term.

Psychologically, it's tougher to follow, but we have established a tight cost-base and do all our PR in-house. Emily is the glue that holds the operation together from a branding perspective.

Swapping is such a great idea and focused on the community trading spirit of the internet, which is what the Net was intended for. One issue is logistics, the physical transfer of goods, but we plan to add value by providing services such as picking up your swap and delivering it. We are also providing customised and managed swapping for other sites such as Classic FM and Future Network and that's mutually beneficial because it gives us increased exposure and raises the stickiness of the other sites.

We see ourselves as a European site but we need to maintain our local effectiveness too. People might want to swap houses across the Continent but people are unlikely to travel more than 30 miles to pick up a pram.

Emily and I have had no money this year, and we've had some blazing rows but I think we can look back and say we work well together.

The biggest satisfaction comes from knowing we have taken an idea and built it on almost zero money, and other dot.coms might have spent £5m or £6m-plus to get there. We also did it when the market was at its toughest. Now we've got money, we're looking for more, and we're about to fly.

 

Emily Elton: At the time I met Jonathan I was working for a start-up consultancy, broking art for clients. Setting something up with only four people was a challenge and made me realise how hard you have to work when you have your own business, although I didn't have the worry of being a founder.

What attracted me to Jonathan was that he's got an extremely busy mind. Where most of us have Saturday jobs, he'd had this classic car company. When I met him he had just bought a flat and was in the process of converting it himself.

Jonathan and I have always had some project or another on the go together. When one suggests an idea, if the other likes it we will say: "Let's do it", not "Let's think about it". In April last year we decided to buy a house together the following year, but ended up doing it immediately. After we moved in last October, we needed another project and we started talking about an internet company. We have firm ideas about how to make money, but our original plan was to grow the business and make it large enough to sustain our revenue model. Jonathan is driven and I had no glamorous ideas about running a business. He's amazing at ideas, and I sometimes think he has about 20 million thoughts running in his head at any time, which makes him interesting to work with. Sometimes I bring a sense of practicality and reality to challenge what he's thinking.

When we were designing our website, we sat huddled over this one laptop and spent every weekend doing it. We're opinionated and had strong views on the look and feel so there would constantly be cries of: "What are you talking about?"

It can be hard as a couple to work together. It means our evenings and weekends are spent talking about Webswappers, but that's our choice. There are times we wishwe could talk about something else.

We did a lot of research, surfing the Web, and realised some sites were difficult to use. The successful sites, such as Amazon and E-bay, are simple and you can quickly get into what they are offering. That's what we wanted, a friendly site which didn't put people off by making them go through lots of stages before they could get to what they wanted. We got busy designing and after a few weeks it became apparent that one of us needed to be full-time, so Jonathan left PwC.

The mentality of Webswappers is that everyone has things they probably won't use at home but which they're reluctant to give away. We've had lots of people come to the site to look for items which have become rare, like Walt Disney videos. We thought we would attract lower-value items but the high-value items are proving the most popular. People put something up as a "have" or a "want". They can also add a photo and barter online.

We have a "weird and wonderful" category and we've had silly things on there. We've also had a few husbands trying to swap their wives but our content managers remove anything untoward.

The funding we've got is enough to add developments and keep us going, but what we want now is to get a lot more in and grow the business much more quickly. We want Webswappers to become a brand that's recognised, and we'd like everybody talking about swapping.

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