Why building a startup is like building a shed. And how to “stay sane” as an Entrepreneur

Jake Fox is the Founder of Paperound - a marketplace for busy small business owners to access student resource, on-demand.

What does your startup - Paperound - do?

Paperound is a digital marketplace that connects startup founders and students to work on ad hoc digital projects. The idea being that there's a lot of entrepreneurs out there that are trying to save their time and money and trying to do the best they can with the resources that they've got. They might not have the team to get everything done that they want to get done. 

We’re a marketplace that connects them with a sort of ready and vetted supply of capable students that can jump on digital tasks for them. These students come across all creative tasks, things like graphic design and content writing all the way through to more analytical things like market research and data analysis. 

The benefit for entrepreneurs is that they get to access the resources when they need it. But the key benefit is for the students to pick up relevant experience with those startups, so they can build towards a graduate job.

What gave you the idea to start Paperound?

It’s something I wish I had at uni. As an undergrad I wanted to get involved with startups. The current way students go about that is incredibly inefficient. 

Lots of students email businesses with the hope they can land some kind of internship. Mostly they’re wasting their own time and it’s often a waste of the businesses’ time too. 

It's really about giving students the opportunity to let them shine and the way to do that with small businesses is by doing it in a flexible way. Rather than setting rules around year long placements, it's more about bringing them together for a quick project. 

If they do well, maybe the business will book them again for more work. On Paperound, most businesses come back and reuse their Tasker numerous times. 

When did you launch?

We started in January 2021. We’re still on the first version of the platform. So far we’ve completed 100 projects for lots of different businesses. And we have students on the platform from about 25 universities across the UK. 

How many do you have on the team?

It's mainly me. I have a part time developer and a part time marketer. But I also use Paperound Taskers to get stuff done. I'm a customer of my own product! I've used them for things like web design, market research and outreach to founders.

What is your biggest “win” to date?

A particular win was the first time someone I've never met before booked a student Tasker through the Paperound platform!. 

It's gone beyond something I've put out to friends and my network and has become a living breathing product people actually use. It was a nice moment. 

Also, we recently hit the benchmark of 10,000 hours worked through Paperound. 10,000 hours of time saved for a business. That’s great to see!

That’s fantastic! What was the key to those wins?

We’re focused on building a product people can use and getting the message out to people who definitely want to use it.

One group is people without a lot of money and who don’t have a team but are trying to get something done. 

The other group is traditional small businesses, such as marketing agencies with ongoing client work who could do with cheaper, but still capable, labour who can jump on projects. 

Finding the “right” customer and speaking to them, rather than trying to be too broad has helped us. Also, trying to get in front of clients on LinkedIn and be my own personal salesman. 

At the moment, we don't have a giant marketing function but we do have relationships. I can get in front of people in a manual way which, to be honest, at the start is what it's all about.

It’s all about the hustle.

So how did you engineer your way to the “right” customer?

You can come up with a hypothesis. But the quicker you can launch and just see how people use your product the better. 

Market research helps. You can Google it, there's so much information out there for you to build a case.

But nine times out of 10, when an entrepreneur builds a product, customers will find a way of using it in a slightly different way than you’d expected. 

The faster you can put something out there and let people play with it, the quicker you get feedback and think, for instance: “Oh, that's interesting, these types of people keep coming back, but these types don't, I wonder why?” 

Then you can start chatting to customers, letting them give you really honest feedback. 

Everyone wants to think that they're building something that's made out of gold, but often it's not that first version. 

There's no point spending a year and a tonne of money to get something out there only to see that people don't use it. The cheapest thing you can do is put it out there and then get your data from real interactions.

It helps not doing it for the first time. I've started a business before and it failed miserably. But you take those lessons and this is something I learned in particular. 

We spent the best part of the year building a brand new product that's never been out there before. It had all these lovely features and everything. When we launched we realised our target audience wasn't even bothered about half of the features we'd built and spent money on. 

Your dream might be to build a house but you can often start with a shed as long as you get a nice lick of paint on it. 

If you’re wondering “how do I launch?”, start looking at no code solutions and knitting something together. Even if it is only half of the flow. You can get it in front of people and say “what do you think of this?” You can work off that kind of feedback. 

What you can knit together quickly is going to be helpful in those early stages. You don't have to build the whole house. 

What has been the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome?

One of ours is the instant benefit of choosing to build a product which knitted together already existing platforms. But now we're at a stage where we want to build past that, we keep hitting various ceilings. 

There's a constant debate: “do we build from scratch again? Or do we keep packing on top of what we've already got?” 

Let’s say we've built three storeys on our shed now. Is it time for a house? Or do we just keep working with the shed? That can be a bit of a hurdle. 

Jake, what you’ve been talking about involves lots of failure before you get a small success. How do you keep yourself “sane” and deal with that?

I struggle. I don’t sleep well. 

In my first startup, I got to a point of almost having a breakdown because I was so stressed out. I promised myself at the start of this company that I wouldn't bring myself to that point. 

“Head space” is a really big thing for me, meeting up with friends, hobbies like climbing and skateboarding and stuff like that, where I'm just not thinking. 

The next thing is staying organised. I put everything down on a Trello board. I put due dates on everything. Not because I enjoy being organised, purely because the less I have running around in my head, the more I know what's next and I set priorities. 

A constant thing that keeps me focused is deciding, “what is the highest priority thing I should be working on right now?” That way, I'm doing one thing, I get that done before I move onto the next. 

Thanks for being so honest and open about that!

I think people need to be honest with that stuff. I genuinely don't think people are living this Rock Star lifestyle as much as people think they are. 

There are people just starting out who are looking to the people claiming to live the Startup Rock Star Life and they're making it their aim to grow an amazing company, then maybe sell it and buy a yacht. 

You can sell the entrepreneur lifestyle and be like “Oh yeah, like, this is me, this is my story” but we should all be careful about how we sell particular lifestyles. 

Being an entrepreneur has a huge amount of reward in terms of personal purpose and vision. But it has a lot of downsides too. 

I'd encourage everyone to give it a go. You'll be amazed at how much you can cope with and the challenge is amazing because you realise your limits. But you also realise your strengths.

You’ve mentioned scheduling time for “head space”. Do you literally block time out?  

I try to, as much as possible. I will sometimes put lunch in my diary because sometimes I just let calls get booked in and I'll only get five minutes to chow-down a sandwich. 

It's quite important for me to be able to block out chunks in my diary. 

Also opening your laptop back up in the evening is quite tempting. If you can, it's nice to have a set of hours without doing that. Just eat your dinner, chat and clock off. 

You have to purposely clock off now rather than subconsciously do it. 

What advice have you been given which you want to pass on to other founders and entrepreneurs?

If it was about staying sane, it'd be: “don't take it too seriously, you started with nothing and if you end with nothing, you've not actually lost a lot. You've just gone on a big exploration and you can still value that”.

Another is the idea you don't have to build the whole house, you can build a really cr*p shed and just put some paint on it and you can get some of the way there. 

It doesn't have to be perfect, you can hustle more than you think. It doesn't have to be as official with big tiles and putting everything across in a particular way.

So not letting perfect get in the way of done?

Yeah, 100%. Out of every single kind of workflow I’ve worked on, rarely is the workflow perfect. That first 60% will get you much further than the remaining 40%. 

So to me, if it's 80% good enough, I think: “Cool. Let's move on”. 

Keep thinking constantly about priority. “Is the priority right now to convince a customer? If so, “this thing” needs to be important”. 

People can spend weeks on the slight refinement of a logo, for example. To me, it doesn't really matter. The logo you see on Paperound is something I made on a free logo tool in about five minutes. We'll change it one day. It’s just not a priority right now. 

Thanks for speaking to us Jake, where can people go to find out more about Paperound?

If you want to know more, you can do so here.

NB: Interview edited for brevity

James Parris

Managing Director

James was recently poached from the world of elite sport bringing his wealth of experience developing high performing teams to Rbbl