Turning a new house into a functional, comfortable home can be challenging at the best of times – never mind during a global pandemic. From signing new contracts and setting up bills to fixing appliances, it can be difficult to balance it all. But that’s where London-based startup HomeHero comes in – a native app which makes running your home easier than ever.
Think of it like a home manager – taking care of all the household tasks and admin nobody really enjoys, leaving more time for the things that really matter. But how does it work – especially during a time when social distancing is essential?
We sat down with HomeHero’s founder and CEO Kenny Alegbe to find out more about how the business has adapted to the “new normal”, as well as the challenges of scaling up, the positive impact of mentoring, and how white investors and founders can do their bit for levelling the playing field in tech.
Thanks for speaking to us. Could you tell us a little about your entrepreneurial journey?
From a young age I’ve been surrounded by entrepreneurs. My mum, dad and entire family are entrepreneurial and I’ve always believed that value could be created and that the world is full of opportunity. I come from a legal and finance background and, like a lot of young people of my generation, I studied hard and found myself in the corporate world.
This entrepreneurial journey stemmed from a personal experience of a property transaction that I found painful, time consuming and clumsy to navigate. I felt that there are so many aspects of life as a busy professional that are made easy, but the home seems to have been missed. There must be a way to make the home a better experience. The journey wasn’t a straightforward or simple one; it initially started as a property transaction service which had traction but it was clear to me that there was something more. This led me to HomeHero, a journey that has been shaped and developed as we found this very exciting opportunity within the home.
We saw a strong trend looking towards the home being enabled from a single point of integration, with users looking for more convenience and an enhanced resident experience.
Like a lot of great opportunities where you can create something new, it’s often rooted in blatant needs. Uber is a great example – you could always get a taxi before Uber, but now you don’t have to worry about waiting in the rain, having cash or who your driver is going to be. Until you were wowed by your first Uber experience you didn’t know you needed it. I think there is a similar exciting opportunity across the home, to provide the home as a service.
My entrepreneurial journey has been a tough one that’s had its highs and lows. I always try to be honest as a founder and not just disclose the exciting parts of the journey, but the difficult parts too. I’ve found that often success favours longevity; it’s about having a vision, direction and conviction to see it through to the end. I see myself as an entrepreneur for the rest of my days and I feel passionate about building something enduring, creating positive value.
How have you had to adapt your business or product in the wake of COVID?
We’ve had to adapt in so many ways. As a founder this really is a once in a generation experience that required us to act decisively and quickly. Every founder had to make an important decision. Many took the somewhat easier path of aggressive cutbacks to ensure certainty, however we took the path of taking responsibility for our people. Whilst the emotional responsibility of making redundancies isn’t easy, the commitment to keeping people in the business is harder.
At HomeHero our people and culture are so important, so emphasising job security was paramount to our business strategy. Life at a startup can always be precarious and I took time to have one-on-ones with our people to find out how we can help them. We’ve pulled together a dedicated people function to examine how COVID is affecting our people and culture and how we could make thoughtful and intentional changes.
I think that transparency from day one has been a critical part of our plan too. Communicating the changes in the business and what has and hasn’t worked in the wake of COVID has been important. Most significantly, we’ve leaned into remote working – not having a physical space has been a big shift for us and we’ve had to rethink systems of work.
Building culture and a positive place to work is a constant endeavour that we’re working on. It’s important for us to look forward to the opportunities and positives that have come from COVID that can help us to accelerate the business and see it as a forcing function to prioritise the right things.
HomeHero has expanded rapidly recently, since being founded in 2019. How have you navigated scaling up with retaining a strong company culture?
I think growing a business and retaining that early ephemeral closeness is a big challenge that every founder faces. The balancing act between expansion and retaining company culture is definitely a tricky one that’s only been exacerbated by COVID. For a long time we were a very small business with just 8 people or so in an office, we’ve grown beyond that smallness quickly, we’re now 60 people working remotely and we continue to grow every day.
Company culture is so important to us. Our dedicated people function examines how we’re hiring, the recruitment process and ensures that people feel connected to the business and each other. We’ve navigated scaling up with willingness; I think it’s easy to make the mistake of believing that culture is spontaneous. The best businesses have great people and an intentional friendly, open and inclusive culture. How we shape and build this culture is by design. I think leaning in and designing this is really important.
Back at the beginning of the pandemic, you wrote about tackling the cultural side of working from home. Almost six months later, how are you feeling about working remotely as a company? Are you considering making it a bigger part of working life at HomeHero?
Working remotely has had huge benefits for a lot of people, interestingly we’ve found that its effects have been generational. Whilst it was fantastic in the early months, we’re now finding that a lot of our younger employees are missing office life, from the buzz of a busy London office to the Friday night drinks, which is definitely such an important part of your early career. On the other hand, many of our older employees and especially parents have found working from home transformative, it’s enabled their personal lives so much.
Remote working has always been a big part of our culture, the best people really are everywhere and as an organisation it’s important for us to drive a culture that’s output driven. We’ve really invested in implementing a structure that allows people to bring the best of themselves to work and creating an environment where we can work asynchronously. There are aspects of the business, like Customer Service, where this is harder to navigate but it’s something that we’re working on constantly. Missing the human touch of office life is tricky and we’re looking to resolve this with some online tools and a shift towards balancing remote working and facetime, remote working is definitely going to remain a part of working at HomeHero.
You’ve offered your mentoring services to Black founders. In your opinion, what are the benefits of mentorship for both parties? Do you have any tips on finding a good mentor?
Mentoring is so positive. The reason I’ve offered it to black founders in particular is because black founders often don’t have the same paths to knowing what is possible, they might not know how to navigate an ecosystem or have experienced people around them doing so and that’s something I can help with. One of the best things that mentorship can offer is to simply challenge your mental model as to what is possible, having someone else challenge you can set you on a path to build something, to lean forward and aim high.
I’ve mentored a lot of young people over my career, and although of course, everyone aspires to having a highly successful mentor, I’ve found over my career the value of peer mentoring invaluable. I’m on a journey myself, constantly learning and evolving, mentorship has played a big role in this for me. I feel very privileged that people value my opinion and I find that actually tackling other people’s problems and objectives can lead me to resolve something, setting us both on a positive path, I love seeing people do well.
In your interview with the BBC as part of the episode ‘Venture capital’s diversity problem‘, you spoke about the challenges of finding an investor. What advice do you have for founders from BAME backgrounds that are going through the same thing?
The advice I gave in the interview is that building a company is hard, and as a BAME founder it has its extra challenges, but ultimately being a successful founder is having an unshakeable resilience and relentlessness. There are of course challenges and many parts of society need to change. Allies are super positive and important but ultimately we’re all responsible for ourselves.
My advice to BAME founders would be to try not to be oblivious to the fact that things can be more challenging and try to use it as something that energises and invigorates you, making you work that much harder. That can only be a positive thing. I can talk about many anecdotal stories but it doesn’t detract from the fact that entrepreneurship can be hard, really hard. Understanding, recognising and dealing with the challenges of being a BAME founder and using it to build positive momentum is the way to move forward and initiate change.
What can white investors, founders, and other members of the tech community do to be better allies in elevating founders from BAME backgrounds?
People meet me and think that guy is put together, full of energy and positive and I think it can be easy for white investors to assume that black entrepreneurs have been through the same journey as all entrepreneurs and in all honesty, that’s just not the case. The starting point for many black entrepreneurs is just not the same as white entrepreneurs. It can be difficult to navigate ecosystems like Venture Capitalism because you don’t know many people who have, doors just don’t open in the same way, you wouldn’t know where to start.
Entrepreneurs that are successful often recognise what a big part luck plays in their success. Opportunity and luck definitely don’t detract from someone’s success but recognising that it plays a big part in it is crucial. BAME entrepreneurs and in fact all underrepresented entrepreneurs, aren’t necessarily going to have the same luck and immediate advantages that often come from being in the right circle.
The way Venture Capitalists work is people investing in what they know, investing in the status quo. Detaching from that familiarity and central casting can be hard but the process needs to be more inclusive with clear signposts that the process is open to black entrepreneurs, open to all entrepreneurs. It’s important to do more than that and to ensure that those pathways are genuinely open, it needs to be more than a marketing exercise.
Black entrepreneurs need to challenge the system, the role of Venture Capitalists is to back winners and as is human nature we pattern match. It’s an easy path to take, to back what you know, but it often ignores the merits of the business where founders may not be from central casting. The person might look unfamiliar but ultimately the job is to invest in a business that can win, not to invest in appearances or personality types that you feel comfortable with.
You closed your second funding round last summer, having now raised over €3.3 million. How have you balanced the right timing for each round, and what advice would you give to any other founders wondering when to fundraise?
The thing about raising money is that as a founder it can be so alluring and glamorous that you can lose yourself, you can take the view that raising a lot of money signifies success. I have a friend and mentor who insightfully says that celebrating raising money is like being a chef who celebrates buying the ingredients. How that shapes my mindset is that whilst raising money is important it’s only a part of the journey as a whole, it facilitates the bigger picture. Detaching yourself from the glamour of raising money and suspending the vanity and gratification is really important in the early days. Ultimately money is the tool, the meal hasn’t been cooked yet.
When you’re at the stage that you’re proud of the meal, it’s manufactured and ready to share with millions of people, that’s the point at which to celebrate. That’s what the money is there for, to accelerate the journey of reaching your final destination.
Finally, what are the next steps for HomeHero in 2020?
Our focus as a business at the moment is on 3 key things: building deeper relationships with our customers, building our team and culture and, of course, our product roadmap. We’ve got real confidence in our product and the business growth and we’re excited about the product development journey, which is moving fast. As with most companies, 2020 hasn’t been the year that we’ve expected and pushing these 3 key areas feels like the right focus at the moment and will put us in a really strong position come the end of the year.