If a serial entrepreneur is someone who is always coming up with new business ideas and is then in a hurry to take them to market, then Andy Lenney is a serial entrepreneur par excellence.
This former marketing director of vehicle tracking software supplier Minorplanet left the company to set up bigwardrobe.com, a website designed to help women swap clothes with each other in 2007.
It was actually an online version of a series of events he had already been running, using skills he had built up on Minorplanet roadshows, but that, he says, is the exciting thing about the internet.
“You can take your concept to a much bigger audience in a much quicker time,” he says. “I had started the events when the recession was just taking hold. I realised women still wanted to look cool even though they might not have a lot of money to spend on fashion. These parties evolved into an online community which covers over 150 countries now. The events still went on until a couple of years ago, but became more of a guerrilla marketing technique.”
The website currently has 150,000 regular users, and is ticking over nicely. But that experience, he says, has inspired him to launch at least another six online businesses, often at the same time, and using just a staff of around a dozen who are currently occupying part of PR and marketing company Brass’s offices in Headingley. He admits that multi-tasking like that can be difficult.
“A lot of people have great ideas,” he says. “But if I am involved with something I can’t quite say no, and will see it all the way through. I enjoy taking something from an idea to a reality. Some ideas succeed, some will fail. But I’d kick myself if I didn’t try them all out.”
It sounds a very worthwhile attitude, although those in a more traditional industry might point out that launching a business is easy if all you need is a monitor and a mouse. Lenney, however, says he has become “fascinated” by the way the internet can help solve “everyday real life problems that we all experience”, particularly environmental problems. Bigwardrobe.com was an example of that.
“Nearly a million tonnes of clothing every year ends up in landfill,” he says. “The BBC did a survey a while ago and worked out that the average value of items hanging unused in a woman’s wardrobe is £285. So apart from anything else there is a lot of currency there that can be used.”
In fact, he has become such a convert to all things online that he is even prepared to put his head above the parapet and defend the importance of social media, something some in the business community are beginning to regard as little better than snake oil.
The new business he started late last year, and which he says currently is his main day job, is a social media agency called Gogosocial. While he admits that the business world may have been put off by self-professed “gurus”, social media’s importance, he says, cannot be overestimated.
“Social media is definitely better than something like Google Adwords,” he says, “because eventually you will build your own audience that you can talk to as many times as you want about anything you want. You have your own media channel, and that is very powerful. There are also significant benefits in the way Google will update your business.
"The algorithms it uses prefer brands that have a lot of buzz around them. So if you are generating more of that activity than your competitors, over time you will appear higher up in the rankings. It’s incredibly viral as well. Many of the recipes that you taste when you go into Starbucks, for example, come from over 50,000 ideas that have been generated through the Starbucks Facebook page.
“Social media may not be relevant to every business, but even less “sexy” businesses can use it as a sales check. LinkedIn is a great way to do that.” He says there are three common issues his company comes across when talking to prospective clients.
“They all know about social media and feel they should be using it or are trying to use it but either it has not quite worked out, or generally they don’t have an audience. It is, I admit, very hard to build an audience you can benefit from as a business, and most of the people we speak to are talking to nobody. Thirdly they don’t have the time or expertise to develop their social media in the way they need to. You need to talk to your audience seven days a week, maybe four or five or more times a day.”
It is these kinds of issues, he says, which Gogosocial is trying to step ahead of. “We don’t try to sell you anything until we have first proved it can make a difference,” he says.
“Then we set you up so we do your pages and design them for you. Then over 28 days we try to build an audience for you that is relevant to your company, and we talk everyday to that audience for you.
"At the end of 28 days we produce reports and forecasts based on actual data collected for your company, not just some generic formula. We come back to you and hopefully you decide it’s a service you want to continue to pay for. We will build your audience and engagement levels and when the time is right we will recommend new social networks to plug in to. You might start on Twitter, and in the third month we might recommend LinkedIn.”
He says the take-up rate for companies converting from the free trial to the £199 a month fee is currently just under half – a figure he blames on too many people wanting freebies, and some still being swayed by Google Adwords which can appear to generate payback more quickly.
But still, at a little under three months from launch Gogosocial was already conducting well over 200 live trials. And happy customers include York-based estate agency Hunters , which has just sold its first house through Facebook, and the camping equipment firm Vango.
Lenney’s other projects roughly split into community based sites modelled loosely around the original bigwardrobe.com site, and more business friendly packages. An example of the former would be fashionoko.com, a sort of second generation bigwardrobe.com. Its predecessor was created before the advent of Facebook. Lenney says running the new venture through the social network reaps huge benefits.
“It’s very much about personalised content. When you join if you tell us that you are into this type of fashion, you are size 12 and you like black, then when something that matches those criteria is listed, it populates your account within Fashionoko, but also pushes a message into your Facebook newsfeed. But only if its relevant, not it its spam.
"Facebook can seem quite voyeuristic, but people do like to see what their friends are doing.
“Our target demographic share this information by the bucketload. If you want an opinion on whether something looks nice, this is the place to come.”
It has to be said, the “people” in this arrangement are entirely female. Lenney did try to do bigwardrobe.com for men when it started, but failed. “Us blokes have a staple collection of jeans and T-shirts,” he says.
“My wife, in contrast regularly buys a dress, wears it once, and never wears it again. That is the kind of person we are after.”
He has impressed one other important female as well. Xin He, the former head of fashion at mighty eBay, has agreed to join the company – as both a director and an investor. When we spoke, she was over in China on research.
Boys, however, might be more interested in another community site he has set up. Oborrow.com allows you to lend and borrow items you might not use too much. “Lots of everyday items just sit there,” he says.
“We have a throwaway culture, breeding a lot of stuff we don’t really need. So why jump in your car and waste time going to Homebase to spend £100 on a drill when in fact there is a network out there via social media that you can tap into?”
Such ideas have been tried in the past – not always successfully. But again what makes the site different, says Lenney, is the fact that it is connected to your Facebook account.
“With other companies you are borrowing stuff from strangers, so it can be very inconvenient,” he says.
“Oborrow works through Facebook and is just your mates and people you know.” Then there is groupsauce.com, another social marketplace Lenney seems particularly interested in. It’s like a more personalised version of Groupon. “Groupon just send you generic email,” he says.
“Some might want the fish pedicure they are offering, some might not. But if you are in the market for a fish pedicure and we send it to you, it is more likely that a transaction will happen. That’s how Groupsauce works.
"People sign up to join groups for things they are interested in buying. They are called groupies. The more groupies there are, the more attractive that group will be to a potential merchant. Sellers can make unlimited offers to the members of that group.
"The offers are vetted by us, and they have to be better than groupies can source individually. If they are the offer is distributed to members by email, through Facebook newsfeeds, and in their account. There is an inbuilt incentive for groupies to make the groups larger, so we let them share the groups using social networks."
He says he gets around the problem of timewasters spoiling it for the sellers by reminding groupies every week that they must leave groups that they are no longer interested in, “because if they don’t their Facebook pages will end up being spammed.”
On the more business-related side – something that might chime in easily with Gogosocial – is Hatriq, another IT business Lenney has just launched. This aims to make use of an area he thinks business people do not pay enough attention to – the space beneath their email signature.
“More often than not businesses don’t seem to take that very seriously, and there can be an inconsistent approach,” he says.
“If you think about it, a company of five employees that sends on average 15 emails a day will between them send 25,000 emails over a year. Those 25,000 emails are 25,000 opportunities to say something.
“You might promote your social media channels, or a product or service. And you don’t need design or IT skills. Once you are signed up, every time an email passes through your outgoing server, that employee’s signature will pick up the relevant information that has been allocated to them and deliver the email. If you can use advertising space that you already own you should.”
One final business Lenney has launched, possibly in a category of its own, is Mr Android App. He says this app is designed to help you overcome the “graveyard” that is Google Play by keeping an eye on what you download and, more importantly, use, and then suggesting to you other apps that people who use the app and have a similar usage pattern have also been using.
This is a much more effective way of working out what apps are actually worth your time, he says, than download figures, which can be easily manipulated.
“I read that 26% of apps that are downloaded are only opened and used once,” he says. “We have to do better than that.”
It does sound very commendable to have so many ideas on the go, but what, I wonder does he intend to make of all this? After all, he is making money.
Lenney is most certainly not one of those people who think that hey, the web should be free, man. Bigwardrobe.com and fashionoko.com both cost money to use, as does Hatriq, and, eventually, Gogosocial.
But at Groupsauce, he is currently letting interested merchants access the groups for free. He says this is only temporary, to give the site, which only launched in November, some “traction”.
But isn’t he making the classic mistake that many publishers, for example, have done in the past, of assuming that everyone will be happy to start paying for something they have come to assume was free? Lenney insists he is not.
“If you are generating lots of successful hook-ups, clearly it is working for the buyer and the seller, so I think you can say that we have proved it works, so we are going to charge you,” he says.
“My plan for Groupsauce is to speak to investors in the next two to three months. They want to see left to right growth like a hockey stick graph, and that is the bit I have to be able to demonstrate.
In fact, while many of these businesses are still developing, he says he would be “desperately disappointed” if any of them failed. “I would love to do Gogosocial in the USA,” he says. “I also sincerely hope that Groupsauce gives eBay a bit of a run for its money. I hope they all succeed, because I do care passionately about what I am doing.”