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Developing a business model

'Be very open to what people tell you and what the market tells you'
Nigel Fellowes-Freeman, Expense Check

Top tips

  • Don't expect to know everything, share knowledge
  • Be flexible with your business plan as you learn more about the market
  • Have something to offer on social media, don't just push your business
  • Build resilience, a tough day keeps you on your toes to make you wiser for the next

The idea

For Nigel Fellowes-Freeman, necessity really was the mother of invention. Working in a small business and tasked with keeping overheads down, he discovered how time-consuming it was to find and compare the different deals from suppliers of electricity, insurance, telecommunications and from the countless other companies that provide services essential to running a business.

'I wanted somebody to be able to do it all for me, I researched the market and there was no-one out there doing it for the SME' says Nigel. Over a few bottles of red wine with savvy friends and colleagues, the idea for Expense Check was born.

Creating the model

The first step was conducting market research and speaking to a myriad of business owners, accounts departments and bookkeepers to determine if the idea was viable and what kind of arrangement would best suit, from subscription to zero cost.

The end result was a service that reviews the key costs of a business, delivering an analysis of the most cost-effective suppliers. Expense Check will then handle the account transfers to new suppliers or potentially negotiate a better rate with current ones.

The business doesn't pay anything for the service, Expense Check charges the supplier for the new lead. And Expense Check's agreements with suppliers in each category are quite uniform, to keep the model simple and neutral.

Making the model work

Before Nigel could attract clients, he needed to sign up suppliers. Researching the potential supplier markets, Nigel looked for market leaders, those who were more price competitive and who had strong reputations.

After a supplier short list was drawn up, Nigel drilled down further and spent time on business-networking site LinkedIn to find the key staff in each company. He practised different versions of his elevator pitch--the 60 second pitch, and three minute and 10 minute pitches- and then hustled, cold calling, turning up at offices and emailing these people to try to line up meetings.

Once a minimum of three suppliers in each category were signed up, Nigel was ready to pitch to potential clients. Now, after launching at the beginning of the year, the business is growing at about 150% month on month.

Be prepared

In the early stages of the business, Nigel learned the hard way that preparation is key after pitching prematurely to a potential supplier.

'I had a great looking PowerPoint presentation put together that I thought was fantastic, but after the pitch I got torn to pieces,' he says 'It's a good lesson, to know who you're pitching to, what they want from the pitch, what they're looking for--not what you're trying to sell them.'

Nigel dissected the painful encounter and eventually secured that supplier a few months later.

Business plan as a work-in-progress 

'I think a business plan is important but it also has to be a very fluid document,' says Nigel. Expense Check's initial business plan was less than two pages long. While the core idea didn't change, the key objectives and aims were continually adapting as the team got to better understand the market.

'Be very open to what people tell you and what the market tells you,' he says.

You don't have to know everything

'The biggest hole for me setting the business up was that I didn't have a huge amount of contractual knowledge,' says Nigel, who has a background in sports physiotherapy.

Nigel identified that it's better to build a team with complementary core strengths rather than try to have all of the answers himself. As a result, there are four directors, including Nigel. 'They had a greater depth of business experience than I did, which has been invaluable.' Expense Check also has three staff members.

In addition, Nigel calls on mentors in areas like social media and copywriting. 'If you have somebody you can call on or a staff member who's an expert, that makes everything a lot easier.'

Be strategic with social media

One of the big surprises for Nigel was the importance of the company's digital path. At first, clients were directly approached but Expense Check has since expanded into other channels as well, including Twitter. 'An online presence is very important and social media generates a huge amount of leads,' he says.

Nigel picked up some strategic tips from 'Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook,' by author Gary Vaynerchuk, which outlines how to connect with customers through social media marketing strategies.

After getting involved in a Twitter conversation with the CEO of a major real estate agency, an opportunity eventually arose to meet up and discuss what Expense Check could offer the business. That led to many other referrals within the industry.

The key with social media, Nigel learned, is to refrain from being too pushy. 'You wouldn't ask someone out on a date when you first meet them,' he explains. 'You get to know them a bit first before asking for something.'

Find out more about Expense Check

The result

To wrap up in Nigel's words, Expense Check's success has come from '...having the desire to solve a problem, listening to the market for our product fit and continually iterating to improve when we were starting to get traction, and being able to communicate our "why", giving our business some personality - people buy from people they like'.