Nobody would expect to see a Boeing 747 when visiting a West London university, least of all Ed Poland. The co-founder of Hire Space assumed he’d be checking out a typical classroom space that could be used for evening functions and events. A mocked-up passenger plane interior for training cabin crew was the last thing on his mind.
“The lady showing us round took us down a typical school corridor, opened a door and then there was this Boeing 747 interior,” Poland says incredulously. “It’s just one of many unusual spaces that you would never know about. We’ve also found these amazing rooftops, basements and vaults that were anonymous before we came along.”
Such discoveries have been made through Hire Space, a venue booking website with more than 5,000 spaces across the UK for meetings, conferences, Christmas parties, private dining and corporate entertainment. The website has venues ranging from swanky, plush rooms or rooftop bars to unique settings, including a masonic vault and a disused Victoria Line tube train.
The idea for the company came in 2011 when Poland and his old school friend Will Swannell were chatting down the pub about how recession-hit communities could make money from renting out their schools, community centres and church halls.
“We decided in the pub that if we could raise angel funding, we’d quit our jobs and focus on Hire Space”
Swannell, who was a teacher at the time, mentioned that the London-based academy school he worked for couldn’t afford to pay for more teaching staff or textbooks. He realised that the school, which had a state-of-the-art sports hall and swimming pools, could be rented out for private functions. The conversation struck a chord with Poland, who had seen the devastating effect of the recession on local communities while he was working for an MP in London.
“We thought we could build a platform to drive people to these underutilised, primarily public-sector spaces, creating new revenues for local communities that hired out their venues to private clients on a short-term basis,” Poland says.
“Will and I realised there was no way for these organisations to market themselves,” he adds. “They didn’t have the resources or expertise in house to do it and were in a vicious cycle with no way to generate extra income.
“Launching a website where we listed those venues just made sense and it seemed like an obvious idea that no one had thought of. We decided in that pub that if we could raise angel funding, we’d quit our jobs and focus on Hire Space.”
Hunting for new venues
The duo spent a few months calling every school, community centre, church hall and local authority in London to build a roster of venues. Poland and Swannell also contacted businesses that they thought would be interested in using an events website, and handled enquiries from people looking for venues – including a team of Olympians.
“This was all happening in the run up to the 2012 Olympics,” Poland says. “The Russian gymnastics team got in touch as they needed a sports hall to train in, which was almost impossible to track down, but we did it. They were willing to spend around £30,000, which was way more than we envisaged for a typical enquiry. It confirmed that we had a viable business which we could take to angel investors.”
Most of the investors that the duo approached in 2013 for funding said no. However, some of them were willing to put Poland and Swannell in touch with other possible backers that saw Hire Space’s potential. The founders secured the capital needed to open an office, hire staff and develop their website.
“We became known for being the place to source venues that you would never normally find through a Google search or events agency”
Hire Space launched in mid-2013 with around 450 community spaces on its books. “We became known for being the place to source venues that you would never normally find through a Google search or events agency,” Poland says. “That brought in a whole new audience – corporates, brands and professional event organisers – which we hadn’t envisaged.”
Poland says the company went from handling enquiries from yoga instructors and sports coaches to dealing with big organisations looking for unusual places to host conferences, product launches and away days. This led to a flurry of interest from hotel operators, exhibition centres and event spaces that wanted to be listed on Hire Space to tap into the website’s growing roster of corporate clients.
“The momentum was building and we were getting hundreds of venues signing up to the website every week, Poland says. “Now, we’re the most widely used platform for sourcing venues in the UK and on track to do £200 million worth of enquiries in 2018.”
How the business has changed
Since its inception, Hire Space has secured £2.5 million of investment through fundraisings, grown to 40 staff, increased the number of venues on the website from 450 to 5,000 and won the Alexander Fleming Serendipity Award at the 2017 Real Innovation Awards. Developing a company culture where staff feel inspired and committed to their work has been one of the biggest challenges in that period, according to Poland.
“People generally want to enjoy coming to work every day and feel their careers are progressing,” he says. “When starting a business, you’re focused on getting the website up and running, sales and operations – the company culture is something you have to think about. It took us some time to realise how important it is.
“One of our three strategic pillars that guide everything we do and how we behave as a company is to foster an incredible working culture. If you don’t have that front and centre of what you’re doing, you’ll struggle. Creating an environment that people love, which we have now, was the biggest challenge. We’ve done it by providing learning and development opportunities and hosting social events such as themed lunches in the office.”
Rivals looking to replicate Hire Space’s winning formula have also posed a challenge, although Poland sees them as a blessing rather than a curse. “There are copycats but we’re many years ahead of them in terms of customer base and brand loyalty. Copycats are great for Hire Space because without them, you’re inevitably going to get complacent.
“You need people trying to do something similar and actually doing some things better than you to highlight your shortcomings as a business so you can address them. We’re a far better operation now than when we first started doing this.”
Poland and Swannell plan to make the website customisable so someone can find exactly what they’re looking for without “spending hours sourcing, searching and filtering”. Investing in sales and marketing to grow further in the UK and roll out to major cities around the globe is also on agenda.
If all goes to plan, the duo will be running an international company soon enough – not bad for a business idea that was conceived over a few drinks in a London pub.
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