Interview with Darren Lester, Founder of SpecifiedBy

We were happy to sit down with Darren Lester this week and talk startups, technology and the Edinburgh scene. Read on below to see what he said or watch the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Pb16PQXSsY


Hello, I’m John Gallagher and this is Darren Lester, founder and director of Edinburgh based start up Specified By your watching a livestream hosted by Product Forge. I was first introduced to Darren at the fourth hackathon Product Forge where he was a mentor to not only myself but to other teams at the hackathon. It’s great to see you again Darren and have a chance to learn more about you and Specified By. So, I’ll just roll into my first question.

Q. Why launch/manage a startup? Why not take the status quo of job in the industry? Why SpecifiedBy? Why that idea in particular?

SpecifiedBy is a market base for architects and people in construction to find building products and materials. The idea came from my own experience, I studied architectural technology at the university and worked in the industry a bit so it was really tackling a problem that I experienced at University and in the industry. The decision to actually take that forward and develop a company wasn’t something that was planned. I guess it came due to circumstance, I graduated at a time where there wasn’t a pile of work within the industry.

So what time was that?

That was 2009-2010, I was working, doing internships and things and always had this idea in the background, and it was by chance I got exposed to the possibility of applying for some funding in the UK, to test out new ideas and markets. I managed to get a little bit of funding which built the first version of SpecifiedBy which was a bit different back then, which got the ball rolling as such. I don’t have a story of being entrepreneurial as a kid or anything like that.

So you weren’t selling sweets at the playground No nothing like that! Starting a business was not something I ever planned or something I ever thought about doing.

I take it you are glad you started the business? Yes I think now it’s the complete opposite I can’t see myself doing anything other than running a business or being involved in startups and tech. I think I’ve found something that I’m genuinely passionate and interested in. So yes, it was definitely a good decision.

__Being an entrepreneur a sort of odd career, how do your friends and family perceive it when you say you are one and run SpecifiedBy? __

I tend not to say that! It’s difficult like people who aren’t doing what I do, it’s hard to completely understand what or why you would do it. I think a lot of my friends and family probably don’t really understand what I do, maybe they understand the business but don’t know what I do, but they are supportive.

Q. With any startup you hear about the ups and downs, what unexpected challenges has SpecifiedBy suffered since the start?

I think probably a couple of things in general as a business. It surprised me just how long it takes to actually feel like you are making some progress. We launched coming up 3 years this summer, and we are still at the stage where we feel very early stage. We still feel like we are making our way in the industry. I guess just how long it takes to get to a point where we have got a decent amount of traction and things are going well, but it’s taking that long to get to that point and we still have so much to do so it’s going to take at least that if not more again to kick things on. From a more personal side, in terms of running a business and then managing people and their roles within a small business. We are at 7 full time and even at that level it’s difficult, so thats a big challenge and a new challenge. I didn’t have any experience with it before in terms of managing people. That’s probably the hardest thing at the minute, recruiting and managing people.

Q. How is your team divided at the minute is it mainly tech focused or sales focused? I think we have got a pretty even split, so we have two guys in tech. I guess for our market, whilst we are a tech company and the stuff that we do and the industry that we are in is quite old fashioned so it’s relatively easy for us to be better on the tech side then what already exists. A big thing for us is content, it’s actually the information of products and materials on the side. We invest a lot of time in that and a couple of guys on our team solely work on that and we have built internal tools to work on that aswell. We have a pretty even split, sales is kind of a new thing that we’ve only really started, maybe actually in the last 6 months or so trying to build on that and hire a salesperson, so again that’s quite new and the process is very much a work in progress. Just trying to get that right and trying to make that work with the people you have and the industry that you are in.

Q. You spoke about a lot of your time is managing people and it is a big challenge? What would you look for in an ideal candidate for SpecifiedBy?

I think that what we’ve learned that if you can find people who have an entrepreneurial mindset themselves or maybe done their own thing in the past helps massively because you know in a startup or early stage of a company there is limited resources and you are kind of quite reliant on people to take responsibility of things themselves and work things, you can’t really do everything for them. So like sales for example, there isn’t a process there because we haven’t done it before so you kind of need someone to take ownership of that and someone who you can give them that end goal. So this is like what we are trying to achieve and working towards and they will find a way to do that. We as a company and myself will try to guide them and show them what we’ve maybe done before and what we think will work for our industry. A lot of things people need to find out themselves.

It’s almost like you are looking for self starters within themselves Yeah, that is it so people who have started their own business before or have been interested in that type of thing tend to kind of have that mentality that they quite like the challenge and freedom of this what we want you to achieve and to go and do it and find a way to make it work. I think that’s what we’ve learned that when we find people like that it makes my job a lot easier and I can trust them that they’ll just find a way to get that particular job done.

Q. Now, I’ve been told that you are actually recruiting at the moment, what are those positions and if they do join the specified team, what can they expect from the rest of you guys?

We are currently recruiting for a software engineer and to a business development manager. I think we offer an interesting opportunity in an industry that is very old fashioned and really right disruption and tech. We’ve got a smart team and we’re starting to make a lot of progress in the industry and becoming relatively well known in our industry. For the right person I think it’s an exciting opportunity in what still is a very early stage.

Q. Day to day, as the founder and director of SpecifiedBy, what would you be your prominent role and goals year on year from a startup perspective?

My role is we have overall goals and targets that over the case of each month/week whatever that’s broken down by, I guess my role is just making sure different people of the team that we are all working towards that and the different elements are coming together to help us get to that. As I said, a lot of my time recently has been managing other people and what their doing and that is partly down to a lot of the roles in the business are new and a process that we’ve not done before so just trying to figure those out with people and trying to guide them of that. I guess for me, it’s more of an overall picture, working towards those goals but still as a small company with limited resources still hands on in certain areas. So like sales, I’m generally involved in all of that, parts of the process anyway. So product development, in terms of speaking with our customers and feeding them information and back to the development team, I’m still pretty involved in that so kept busy anyway.

You obviously come across as a confident individual, you obviously know your business very well, how does that translate then in investment pitches?

I think I’m naturally a quiet shy or introverted person, I think in a one on one situation, I’m fine but when it comes to pitching to an audience, to big groups of people or if I’m put in a scenario with large groups of people, that is outside of my comfort zone. Probably one of the best things that I’ve done, as a company, we went through an accelerator called Ignite 100 based in Newcastle and part of the process there at the end of a 3 month programme we had to give demo presentations, pitches to two separate groups of investors in the industry. So one in Newcastle and one in London and that was a cinema filled with people, it was a lot of people with a cinema screen as your backdrop for your slides. So like through Ignite, we went through a lot of work about pitches and we worked with like an actor, who helps you on like your delivery and different techniques with dealing with nerves. It’s definitely something that doesn’t come naturally to me, the thought of getting up in front of a big crowd, even after doing that would make me nervous.

So you are doing ok with the livestream.

Ah we’ll see!

But yes, it’s something that is important and depending on the situation, you do need to be able to explain your business, your ideas and the value behind it to a group of people and unfortunately nobody’s really comfortable and there is no better way than to stand up at the top of the room with a presentation behind you, talking to a lot of people and for a lot of people it’s pretty taunting, but it’s one of these things that can be learned. There were a couple of people in the programme that I went through that were particularly introverted or shy and terrified of it but it was just uncomfortable for me but I was like I’ll get through it. There was a couple of people that it was a real challenge but by the end of the programme and the work that they went through, us all working together and with our pitches, they were fantastic and two of the best pitches there. To see that transformation from someone that’s like terrified to standing in front of 100 people that they don’t know and you don’t even have to be confident, you just have to come across as confident. So yeah, it’s one of these things, it’s important but it can be learned and if it’s something you are not too confident with, it’s not too much to stress about.

Q. It’s fantastic these accelerators and they run up and down the country, you partook in one in newcastle, there’s one in London and Edinburgh. How would you describe edinburgh’s own tech startup scene as opposed to the rest of the country?

I think Edinburgh’s interesting as there’s so much talent, tech talent here and there is a really vibrant tech startup scene and we now do have a couple of huge success stories in the likes of Skyscanner, fan jewel and there is other kinds coming through. Generally in a ecosystem you get those big success and then that filters back into the rest of the community. I think Edinburgh can be a little fragmented at times with different kind of groups looking to look after the tech community and for such a small place it could be a little bit more tight knit. But I guess in comparison to somewhere like London which is so vast and huge, there’s advantages to that and being a smaller network and obviously I said i’ve spent a lot of time in Newcastle and it is very similar to edinburgh in terms of size and tech. It’s definitely a good place to start a business.

Q. For young entrepreneurs in Edinburgh and in University, what advice would you give to them, if they wanted to get involved in the startup scene?

There’s lots of meetups and stuff going on either through the universities or externally. It’s just getting out and speaking to people in the community, who are working, who have businesses and try find potential opportunities to work with other companies and learn. To get involved in hackathons like Product Forge where you meet lots of interesting people. We’ve hired people off the back of the last hackathon, we met yourself, we took on a developer off the back of that so there’s opportunities there. But, I guess I think, like for me there’s a little bit of a thread at the minute where people want to do a startup for the sake of doing a startup.

They have read the lean startup handbook Don’t force it, if there’s not a particular area that you are passionate about or a problem that you’ve seen and can empathize with and that you want to solve. It’s a fast road to being unhappy and not making progress to picking something because you want to do something and it’s just the first idea you came up with and saying this is what I’m going to do. So, I guess there is no rush to get into the tech startups.

There’s enough on offer without having to launch right in

Yes there’s so many things that are unsolved and can be improved in various sectors and industries that we can kind of wait for.

Question from viewer - Lisa : Were you born a leader or was it learned? I guess I don’t know I guess if you spoke to the guys that i work with, whether I’m good at leading them would be up for debate. It’s probably doesn’t come naturally to me, I think I’m naturally kind of outspoken in terms of when it comes to things I think should be done a certain way or problem should be tackled in a certain way. I’m quite strong at fighting my case there and trying to convince people that’s the way to do it. That probably comes a bit naturally, I think again yeah that is something that is learned and I am still learning, managing people and how to be better at being that sort of leadership figure for people is still in progress.

Q. Rumour has it as an entrepreneur, your life is totally dedicated to your business and that’s not necessarily true, do you have any hobbies outside of work?

I play football and try to do sports and that’s very different from running a business and takes your mind out of that. But I think it is one of these things that if you’re committed to running a business, it depends where you want to take it to but if you really want to build a big successful business, you have to be willing to make that sacrifice. I think it’s similar to if you want to be an professional athlete or a musician or something that the amount of time you have to dedicate to that, to reach that level. I think it’s a similar kind of thing, you have to make sacrifices. There’s always that chat about work life balances, warning about you don’t want to burn yourself out and that is important to have things. It doesn’t necessarily have to be one little thing it can just be to hang out with your friends or family or something that gets you away from it. I guess that is the most important thing, remaining social. It’s very easy to close yourself off, if things aren’t going well or whatever, actually just getting out and seeing your friends. One of the things we kind of covered at the start, like a lot of my friends and family, people from home and that are not really interested in tech, so it’s actually good to go spend time with them because it’s never going to come up and we talk about other things. It goes back to what I said about doing what you like, so for me, I don’t really see what I do as work, it’s what I chose to do whereas if you were putting in ridiculously long hours, that you are really only doing a s a means to an end, very quickly you are going to get burnt out and fed up of that I think.

Q. I just want to talk about the industry specifiedBy operates in. You talk about being in a very age old, ancient sort of industry and SpecifiedBy is very much a disruptor in the market, what kind of technology are you guys using, how is it disrupting this market? How is it making that trail blazing path?

I guess for us it’s not necessarily about the technology that we use, it’s probably more around how we help people do what they do and something they have been doing for a long time in a digital environment. In this case searching for building products and materials. So a lot of it is more around making the information really accessible, really easy to use, to reduce the amount of time, the amount of friction that there is to find the information that you need. So we’re a web app, like we are not mobile necessarily what we are providing for is a desktop community. We use a lot of modern technology but I think it’s more about, a lot of it for us is about the data and information that we have and goes into our side and then actually how you interpret the data and make it accessible. A lot of it’s about the user experience I guess and how you see to use it rather than the actual technology behind it. Although saying that, we do a lot of really smart stuff like recommendations and stuff like that, that a lot of people won’t see, but they see the end result.

Q. So would you say there is a lot of customer satisfaction from the service you provide and bring to the market place?_

Yeah like if you compare what we provide for an architect in terms of finding a builder product compared to the old process. It’s night and day really like we reduce it massively and there’s still lots of improvements to make and things that we want to do but we are kind of on the right path anyway.

Question from viewer - Simon: Which entrepreneurs inspire you and why?

I guess for me instead of quite famous startups, which I find hard to relate to, I don’t know them and I only read the like glossy version of their stories so I guess, for me it’s more other guys, other companies at a similar stage to us or just ahead. So again during Ignite, we met loads of founders who had maybe taken their business to much bigger than what we are and sold it and been successful or failed, all those people are so valuable. So I guess surrounding yourself with people who are also doing the same as you, maybe at the same level or a little bit ahead, or behind, even going back to the likes of ignite and doing hackathons, mentoring, helping people who are earlier in their journey then we are, even that’s really helpful. You can still learn lots from people and even chatting about their problems kind of makes you think about your own stuff. I probably don’t have any company that I look at, it’s just about people I know, I know more about what they are doing and they’re doing really well.

So would you be able to name anyone locally? Not just who inspire but who you have respect for? So one of my good friend is the founder of a company called Mallzee, Cally Russell, doing some really cool stuff in the fashion tech space and raising a lot of money and building a really strong team. Me and Cally kind of started around the same time, so we can hopefully learn from each other a little bit along the journey or at least have somebody to kind of moan about when things aren’t going right.

Q. So would you say it’s important to keep social like you described earlier, with other entrepreneurs to throw things back and forward?

Yeah definitely and a link to that even something that we do, 10 -15 of us once a month meet and go for dinner and drinks, founders of start up tech companies in Edinburgh. So that’s massively helpful to go and sit down with people who are at the same kind of stage and having the same kind of problems or have maybe just solved a problem that you have and learn from those people is really valuable. And I think whilst people who have been really successful with their business you can always learn loads from them again one of the slight issues there is that if they are far enough along they may forget what it was like being at the start, whereas people who are still in that, completely understand the challenges that you’ve got.

Q. Moving away but still related to tech, what personal apps do you use to keep you going, for fun etc.

It’s probably a little bit boring, most of the apps I use are work related. I guess I use pretty common ones, I use Trello for managing my own tasks and stuff I’ve to get done and we use Slack as a team internally to manage our communications. Apart from that, there’s nothing particularly exciting that I use, BBC Sport probably the other main one I use.

Q. Would there be anyone you would want to work with in the future or any industry partners you would like to work with?

We’ve worked on a few and partnered with different organisations within our industry and we’re always kind of looking at ways that we can improve what we do to get us out to a bigger audience or whatever but yes the doors always open to have a chat with different people.

Q. Finally where do you see SpecifiedBy going, what are the next steps and the vision for the business in the future? For us as a company, it’s to have a sort of legacy in the industry, to change the industry and the way people do a certain thing and making something easier. We are building a company for the long time and ultimately become the go to source for products or materials. We talk a lot about something like trip advisor so if you are going somewhere, restaraunt, bar you check trip advisor. For us that is what we are trying to achieve you need building materials you go to SpecifiedBy, so that’s the goal.