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Space to let firm's success in filling a void

IN this week's SME Focus, we hear from a young entrepreneur who found that having a spare room provided the inspiration she needed to develop her own business.

MEETING OF MINDS: Victoria Arnold said spending time with fellow entrepreneurs in shared workspaces has made all the difference. Picture: Stewart Attwood
MEETING OF MINDS: Victoria Arnold said spending time with fellow entrepreneurs in shared workspaces has made all the difference. Picture: Stewart Attwood

Name: Victoria Arnold.

Age: 29.

What is your business called?

I currently operate two businesses, Desk Union and Homestayfriend. Desk Union is my latest venture.

Where is it based?

Edinburgh, where we set up an office called Silicon Walk with a number of other growth businesses. It's a really fun, shared workspace.

What does it produce, what services does it offer?

Desk Union connects corporate clients that have excess workspace with growth businesses who need affordable and flexible workspace. We work closely with SMEs and corporates with under-utilised space as well as freelancers, start-ups and growing businesses. We act as a residential letting agent by processing rental payments and paying the corporate host at the end of every month. We also help companies to set up shared and collaborative workspaces globally. Our latest contract took us to Washington DC in February. Workspace as a service is a fascinating industry going through some major changes.

Homestayfriend enables language schools to outsource their student homestay requirements, saving them time and resources. We provide a database of approved homestay hosts, process payments and manage the student/ host relationship.

What is its turnover?

Combined business turnover of £90,000.

How many employees?

Five in total.

When was it formed?

Homestayfriend was founded March 2011 and Desk Union May 2012.

Why did you take the plunge?

I had always had a fire in my belly to be my own boss. I was opportunity-hungry and just waiting on the right idea.

Both businesses were born out of my own need. In the first instance, with Homestayfriend, I had moved into a flat with a spare room and wanted to rent it out on a short-term basis. Working at the university I realised there were a lot of visiting professors and erasmus students who needed a room for a few months. I couldn't find an effective service that offered this type of rental.

My second business was inspired from my time at the Entrepreneurial Spark (the business incubator or 'hatchery'). With six months to go, I didn't want to go back to working from home and lose the environment of like-minded people. Desk Union started as a way to provide me and my fellow chicklets with an affordable and flexible workspace alternative to home, coffee shops or sterile serviced offices.

What were you doing before you took the plunge?

Working in marketing at the University of Strathclyde. I continued to work at the university until the business got to a revenue level to support me. It was tough and exhausting but absolutely worth the early mornings and late nights.

How did you raise the start-up funding?

I was supported by the Princes Trust with a start-up loan of £5000 and later received a development loan. We were also proud in June 2013 to win £50,000 funding through the official Scottish Edge fund.

I started out by running both businesses in my spare time and building the businesses gradually. It took me 18 months in total before I got to a position where I could leave full-time employment. I am glad that it worked this way for me. It gave me a real determination, drive and something to aim for. The day after I left my job, I won the 2012 Young Businesswoman of the Year award from the Association of Scottish Businesswomen. That was the moment I realised I had absolutely made the right decision.

I'd be lying if I said the road was without any hurdles. Things always take twice as long as you imagine and the reality is that you are no-one else's priority but your own. In any new business, sales and growth are the most difficult, and the most essential. You absolutely believe in your product, but you must find the buyers who want it. This usually takes a little bit of time and some product iteration before you get it right. You just have to ensure you have enough cash flow to get you to that point.

What was your biggest break?

Joining Entrepreneurial Spark (ESpark) in 2012. Being there opened my eyes to a whole new world of possibilities. I found out about ESpark from its founder Jim Duffy who was mentoring me at the time. I remember attending the opening event and thinking 'wow - this is where I need to be'. The energy in the room was electric. After that, I joined as a part-time chicklet, until I left my job nine months later. For me, ESpark provided me with a room full of like-minded people, a feeling I was no longer alone and a mindset shift from small-time business to global potential.

What was your worst moment?

The worst moments are the little sacrifices you make on the road to success. You have to miss out on a lot of personal time with loved ones and friends, but you have to keep your focus on the end goal. Those who love you understand… and it's not forever.

I think that no matter what your goal, everybody considers giving up at some point, but it comes down to how you deal with those voices in your head. For me, when things got really tough, I'd call one of my entrepreneurial peers and talk about my issues. We have a core group that meet up regularly to discuss our highs and lows. This has been pivotal to maintaining good mental health and focus when times get hard. When you think about giving up, you only have to look back at how far you've already come before you realise you can't possibly stop now.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

The most rewarding thing for me has been creating jobs and building an amazing team. We're more like a family than colleagues. Working for a growing start-up is a roller coaster, but my colleagues truly believe in our vision and give more than 100% every day. For that, I am eternally grateful.

What do you least enjoy?

I'm not much of a numbers person, so I surround myself with people who are.

What are your ambitions for the firm?

I believe it's really important to think big. My ambitions for both businesses are to create sustainable jobs. For Desk Union especially, we have a very exciting 2014 ahead and it's going to be a year that shapes the future growth and direction of our business.

What are your five top priorities?

Cash flow; happy staff; new business; personal development; business relationships.

What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?

The support we received from the Scottish Government with EDGE funding was phenomenal. It's much more than most governments offer entrepreneurs.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?

It's absolutely essential to surround yourself with like-minded people - other entrepreneurs. Nobody, no matter how hard they try, will really understand your pains like another entrepreneur.

How do you relax?

Spending time with our "chief woof officer" Alfie, my border terrier. He comes to work with me every day and he's rewarded with long walks at the weekend.

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