The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles a different business leader from around the world. This week we speak to Rupert Hunt, founder of flat-sharing website SpareRoom.
When Rupert Hunt set up a flat-sharing website he never guessed that he’d one day need to use the service himself.
Rupert launched London-based SpareRoom back in 2004, aged 29, to try to offer people an easier way of finding or filling a room in a shared house.
He very much expected that most of the users would be students, or people in their 20s.
Then in 2013, aged 38, he separated from his wife, and found that he didn’t like living on his own. So for the first time he signed up as a user of his own business.
“I was divorced and missed having company in the house,” he says.
Now 43, Rupert still has flatmates, and says he is far from alone in being a 40-something that lives in shared accommodation, as recent surveys have shown.
“The biggest growth area for co-living space is people in their 40s,” he says.
“They are maybe coming out of relationships or marriages, and financially can’t afford a place on their own. Or like me, they’re bored of living on their own and want some company.”
Today SpareRoom is available in both the UK and the US, and claims that 11.5 million people view its website every month.
Not bad for a business that Rupert launched from a shed on his father’s farm in the north of England.
Whizz back in time to the mid-1990s and Rupert had no intention of setting up any business.
He was instead the bassist in a band all set for fame and fortune.
Unfortunately this never arrived for the London-based group, which was called Erogenous Jones. So stacking shelves in his local supermarket, Rupert taught himself how to design websites in his spare time.
Realising that finding rooms to rent in the capital was a miserable business of looking through free newspapers, or scouring notes put up in shop windows, in 1999 he came up with the idea for the earliest iteration of SpareRoom, a rentals listing website called IntoLondon.
This started to earn him a few hundred pounds a month, which supplemented his new career as a website designer.
Moving to Manchester in 2002, he realised that finding a room to rent was equally as difficult there, so he started to give the website more love and attention.
Renaming it SpareRoom, it officially launched in 2004. Its business model is such that while it is free to use, people can choose to pay for advanced features, such as having their advert listed more prominently, or early bird messaging.
With little or no money for advertising, Rupert needed a big idea to secure some publicity. Thankfully his first and at the time only employee Gemma Allen-Muncey had a cunning plan.
Her idea was to hold a “speed flatmating” evening in a London pub. Using the same format as speed dating, people looking to rent a room would each have a few minutes to chat to someone who was looking for a new flatmate.
“We managed to convince the Wandsworth Guardian (local newspaper) to come down and cover it,” says Rupert. “Then all of a sudden we had the Times newspaper on the phone asking us about it.
“It ended up being a big international story, with TV crews and radio stations covering it.”
Today SpareRoom still holds regular speed flatmating evenings both across the UK and in the US.
But back in 2004, little did the world’s media know that Rupert and Gemma were operating out of a farm shed on the rural edge of Greater Manchester to keep costs down.
“Gemma and I shared it with multiple spiders. Trying to avoid them all day wasn’t much fun,” he says.
As the business grew, Rupert and Gemma were thankfully able to swap the shed for an office in Manchester, with a London office following a few years later.
Rupert says that it was in 2007 that the site really started to boom, and he had to hire additional developers to make sure that the website could cope.
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In early 2016 he came up with the idea to publicise SpareRoom after buying a six-bedroom £3m townhouse in the fashionable Spitalfields area of east London.
Announcing that he was looking for flatmates who only need pay what they could afford, he got thousands of applicants, and lots of newspaper coverage.
He then repeated the trick later that year in New York when he hired a vast loft apartment in Manhattan as SpareRoom expanded to the US.
Mark Homer, co-founder of UK property management advocacy group Progressive Property, says that SpareRoom has helped to improve the reputation and quality of shared renting.
“Modern shared accommodation has moved on significantly from the days of the rundown rent-a-room type affair of yesteryear,” he says.
With 80 employees, Rupert says that SpareRoom has an annual turnover of more than £8.5m, and he is proud that the business has never needed any external investment. Gemma is still with the business too, running its Manchester office, while Rupert is based in London.
Rupert, who has the chief executive title, is also continuing to enjoy having flatmates.
“Sharing with people adds randomness to your day: someone may have cooked, or someone may want to go for a pint,” he says. “It’s nice to have that company, it feels like a surrogate family.”