Hanging With Jim Groves from RubberDesk

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Gen caught up with Jim Groves from RubberDesk. Rubberdesk is a marketplace for office space, so there are people who have office space (Hosts) and people who need office space (Guests).

Hosts include Coworking spaces, Serviced offices and anyone with spare desks or offices for rent. Guests might be freelancers, small teams or large businesses who want office space without the hassle.

Unlike a traditional lease, businesses licence space month by month. There's no long term lock in, big financial committment, and if your situation changes and you need to up or down size, you can.

Rubberdesk deals in desks by the month, with Guests often staying for years at a time, which makes for a solid business relationship.


Watch our interview or read the transcript below:

Gen: Thank you. Well, thank you very much for coming on. Well, who the hell are you? Let's start with that.

Jim: Okay. Good start. Good place to start. So my name's Jim. Jim Groves. I'm one of the co-founders of RubberDesk, the marketplace for office space.

Gen: Fantastic. And how did you guys get started? How did you get into this business?

Jim: So, we started out two years ago. We started because, I guess from personally, came up with the idea two or three years ago now, when my wife as looking for office space. She was actually working from home. She's a consultant, working from home and getting pretty bored of doing that. Just because you're home all day long and you kind of blur those lines a bit between being am I at work or am I at home. So it's a bit frustrating. So, I put her in touch with a friend who had some spare office space. That wasn't really the whole catalyst. The catalyst came when I saw Airbnb advertising in Sydney "Renting my Spare Room Paid for our Holiday." And that's when the penny dropped.

Jim: I thought, "Well. There's so many businesses out there. So many small businesses who have this spare office space that's just sitting there. And so many other small businesses who want to use that small business space. Let's create a market and put them together. So, that was really the Genes of the idea. That's where we kind of came up with the concepts. Create an Airbnb of office space and then it just became fine tuning. We knew we had to build a platform for that. We knew we had to get people who had office space on board to show it and make it available. And then we knew we had to go and get people who wanted office space. So those are the three pillars, I guess, we had to build. And go and do it. And it kind of evolved from there.

Gen: Awesome. And so how long have you guys been going? How many years?

Jim: So, we started in May 2016. So we're up to about two and a half years now. And since then we ... so that was really when we could've built a platform and it was one of those moments when you build it and they don't come. You're sitting there fully expecting the world to start knocking down your door. Expecting the world to go "This is fantastic. Let's start using it." But really it was just an MVP anyway. So it was pretty sort of bare bones as a product, a marketplace. We built it in house and we kind of realized that we built it and then needed to go and populate it. We had an empty shop in effect. And we needed to put some stock on the shelves so that when customers came into our shop they'd have something to look at and browse around and find and buy.

Gen: That's fantastic. And with trying to attract that first knock when it is an empty shop so to speak, how do you approach that? What's the first steps?

Jim: Yeah. That was the terrifying moment. And like the cringe worthy moment when you're talking to people and go "Trust us." Because trust is a huge place of any marketplace. Trust us with your office space when we don't have any stock on the shelv ... we don't have anyone else doing it. So really we went after low hanging fruit. And what you've gotta do is be really hyper focused when you're creating a marketplace. Hyper focused and keeping it hyper localized so you can create density of stock and then you can grow from there very quickly. So, for us, low hanging fruit was contacting co-working spaces. People who are already in the business of renting out their office space. We didn't need to convince them that sharing an office was a good idea because that was their business and they're already in it.

Jim: So we approached them. We had really good conversations with the likes of What's a workspace who are fantastic and then a few others who jumped on board and saw the opportunity and saw how this would be really worthwhile. And we quickly started to build up stock. Then it was a matter of good old fashion shoe leather. Knocking on doors, picking up the phone and going around and pleading with people and explaining what we do. And this is kind of I hawked back to what Airbnb did.

Gen: Yeah.

Jim: Airbnb, when they started just went round and picked up the phone to everybody that was on Craigslist. And so they looked around and said people might already be doing this. Where are the mediums that they are going through to do this? And so for us it was a similar thing. Look around Craigslist and look around in those sorts of venues where people might already ... you know, shop windows on high streets where people have got advert's out for space to lease. And just pick the phone and engage in and talking to customers. So, that was ... I probably spoke to a couple thousand potential hosts during the first year. Everyday picking up the phone and just talking to potential customers.

Gen: That's awesome. Sorry but there's been a fire drill at the Marketplace meet up in Sydney. And so everyone's kicked out of the building so I'm just changing the location so all the people arriving right now know where this is.

Gen: So, apologies.

Jim: That's okay. That's alright.

Gen: ... being on the other side of the world. So, then how do you scale that because obviously that first, you know, getting those first customers and literally dragging them through that process to then being up to scale so that you can be, you know, on all sides of the world, while trying to build this business? Cause it's an amazing offer that makes sense for people to manage their cash flow as a start up business or as a business that's locked themselves into leases too inflexible to see what's going on. How have you approached that?

Jim: Yeah. So I think I approached the scalability issue probably a bit too early. And my view now is that scalability is not a problem you need to solve day one. Scalability is an issue you can solve when you've got lots of money down the line. When you understand your problems a lot better and when you understand what your customer demands are, what your customer values are and what the marketplace propositions.

Gen: Yeah.

Jim: For us we tackled scalability by implementing and building out features like integrated payment processing. So, I think we're the first platform where people can book and pay online for office space and we handle all of that for our customers. So they can book and pay through us.

Gen: Yeah.

Jim: We also implemented a license agreement to make it easy for our customers to use the platform. And then we made it so that it became fully self-service platform. So we looked at Airbnb and said "Well, you know what? Airbnb invested millions of dollars in user experience analysis to understand how to create ... how best to create a listing."

Gen: Yeah.

Jim: "Let's look at how they did that."

Gen: True.

Jim: And let's offer our customers something very similar. So that they could go online and they can create listings themselves. Now when you give people the tools they're then able and they're easy and they work well, then they're able to create their own listings. And very quickly starts to take off. We don't need to be there creating listings for people. They can do it themselves. We don't need to be there taking payments because they can manage themselves online. We don't need to be there in between creating friction. We can open it up and allow people ... and reduce the amount of friction in the whole process.

Gen: Yep and because you're not having to do, I guess, the last minute star bookings does that take a lot of the, I guess, the hard part out of your business by being able to have that live [inaudible 00:07:49] feed so it's a longer stay or subscription based.

Jim: Yeah. Look that's a great question. The last minute piece is something I thought we would be encountering an awful lot. And it's actually not. We don't tend to be the last minute "Quickly. I need to grab an office for tomorrow." And I suspected we would. I thought we would be. And that's the position I ... that's where I ... we kind of targeted RubberDesk initially. Then we realized you know what? We're not like Airbnb. And we pinched ourselves and said we like Airbnb for office space because you can hang your hat on Airbnb, right?

Gen: Of course. [inaudible 00:08:26]. yeah.

Jim: Absolutely. And it gets people across the odd concept of it very quickly. But the difference is between us and that Airbnb middle that people rent office space long term, by the month, they want to look at it before they move in and they want to meet who else is there. And you don't rent an apartment in New York and go look at it the week before you're gonna go on holiday. And they tend to be long term, repeat, sticky business. So, for us we found that the important piece was getting people to get on. Creating trust and creating a meeting where people can come round and say "Listen I need an office for four people. Can I come round and look at yours? And see what kind of business you are. Talk to you. And see what the space looks like?" And create that first contact and that first meeting is vital. And then the process around repeat bookings and payment processing and license agreements we take care of. But the meeting piece is the crucial piece.

Gen: That's great. And do you think that things like the Airbnb and the shared workspaces who are very different models but are in the same space. A system of educating the market that you can, whether it's book a house for a week in a new city or book a office for two months and two desks and book a board room ad hoc as you need it for 20 people, you know. Is everybody helping each other with those educational pieces or are do you think you're having to build a category?

Jim: It felt like we had to build a category at first. No matter how much you tell people it's like Airbnb but for ... it felt like we were building a category. It's hard. But you're right that when it raises the tide and when the tide raises all the boats raise with it. And it's that conversation started as a lot more advanced. The sharing economy was a thing and has grown and it's become a more understood thing. But there are still lots of people who would say "Oh. But that wouldn't work in my situation because of ". We're finding those "because of's" becoming fewer and fewer, to be honest. And the general acceptance now is that actually you know what? Co-working as a term covers an awful lot. And it covers things like people who just share an office where you work. They walk up and they have their permanent desk but it's in an open plan office. To rework having dedicated desks. That's still kind of turn ... sorry. Dedicated offices. Which still falls under co-working. To Microsoft or Google or Amazon renting large amounts of office space and it go with the bigger co-working spaces.

Jim: And then you kind of turn it onto this small business and say co-working is generally adopted and generally understood term. Why don't you guys profit from this? You guys, you may have downsized. You may have just moved into a new office and be growing and have spare space. Why don't you profit from co-working? That extra space? You can rent that out. And there'll be a business that wants to rent it. And that's exactly what we've done here.

Gen: Fantastic. And the size of your business now and what you've been able to achieve how are you as a leader [inaudible 00:11:52] constantly, you know, ahead of the curve so to speak. How do you keep reassessing am I doing the right thing or focusing on the right thing currently?

Jim: It's difficult because when you are starting a business and you've got the term founder or co-founder in your business title it actually just means you do bloody everything.

Gen: And the best person for it.

Jim: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And so what you end up finding yourself doing is trying to extract yourself from those things that you did when you started to what you should be doing today.

Gen: [inaudible 00:12:30] from scratch. Yeah.

Jim: Yeah. Absolutely. That scalability thing is crucial and hard. Right? I think the important thing is and I've tried to do is still engage customers. Still, have those customer conversations. Still talk to them about what they need and what they want. Because our customers needs and demands are what's the only thing that matters. Everything else we build. And also our customers perception of what we do and how the industries going that's key but the ... well the technology ... we've turned ourselves into a technology platform. But really it's only there because there are customers. Right? Otherwise, it's just a philosophical argument. There's no point in doing.

Gen: Yeah. No. For sure. And then are there any sort of like books you recommend for founders especially in the marketplace space or pod casts that you listen to that really had an impact on the decisions you're making as a leader?

Jim: I'm not a great one for reading management books. I've talked to ... I rely more on talking to people.

Gen: Yes.

Jim: And I use books to unwind. That's my de stress. My decompression is in books. I struggle to get into business books when I'm decompressing. But I surround myself with people that I can learn from. So in that regard we have daily and weekly calls with some of our investors who are passionate and understand their space in the industry and the market. And that's phenomenal. We've got within the team, David, my co-founder. The CTO sitting down with him there is nothing I couldn't learn. From David just sitting down every day and listening for ten minutes and talking about plans and where we want to go. And the same is true for our CMA on the marketing side. Talking with Todd I find surrounding yourself with fantastic people is and the people who have incredible knowledge and you can learn from and inspire and be inspired by it's just the most ... that's my peace. That's what I take away.

Gen: I agree. I have the exact same process. And that's what the marketplace meet up is all about. Especially when a fire alarm goes off and they're all, I don't know if you can see this, sitting in the park.

Jim: Aww.

Gen: [inaudible 00:14:58] their in line for [inaudible 00:14:58]. Right now.

Jim: Awesome. That's great.

Gen: Thankfully everyone's okay.

Jim: Yes. Yeah.

Gen: So, you know, being a start up, it's tough. And I don't think people ... there's always the glamour stories and start a start up it's super fun, etc. but at the end of the day it's tough. I would average it takes seven years for the "overnight" success to happen. And it's never a straight path. And there's a lot of gray hairs or no hairs involved.

Jim: Yep.

Gen: You know, what do you do to manage your staff's mental health as well as yourself? Or make sure there is that open communication?

Jim: Yeah. The ... it's tougher than I ever expected.

Gen: Yeah.

Jim: I came from 20 years investment banking world where I was working in technology and in trading and I thought that was a high pressure environment. But the stakes here are so much more personal. And so much higher. I've had more sleepless nights starting my own business ... starting RubberDesk than I did in 20 years of investment banking, through some pretty tough times as well.

Jim: What I think is key is putting in perspective. And understanding that look we're all planning ... we're all working for the best and aiming for the best but you always gotta plan for the worst. But we're aiming with the best of intentions and as long as we keep doing our best efforts and we keep working collaboratively and helping things supportively, working with each other. Then we're doing the right thing.

Jim: We're not saving lives and people's lives aren't at risk with what we do. That's number one. I was in the Army as well. And I've kind of been in that position where that's an issue. Right? So I know what we're doing lives aren't at risk. However, that doesn't mean it's any less important. So, it's about putting in perspective and managing that with people and just having a frank and honest conversation. Yesterday, Mickey, on the team was having issues. You have to say "It's okay. Take the rest of the day." And understanding people's personal needs and not sacrificing those values and peoples values and putting people first.

Gen: Yeah. Definitely. That's awesome. And it's like marriage. You've gotta keep working on that because different things work with different people. And you know, depending on where you're at and what's going on it's sometimes we're in tunnel vision and it's difficult to talk about so thank you.

Jim: Yeah.

Gen: So this is the big tough question I ask everyone. If you could have a super power what would it be and why? Of course.

Jim: Super power. What would it be?

Jim: Is sleeping through the nights ah does that count?

Gen: Yeah. Yeah. That counts.

Jim: I'd love to be able to have a good night's sleep and not wake up at three in the morning or two in the morning and go "I wonder if we should ..."

Gen: Oh, my god. I didn't do that.

Jim: Yes. Or "Ah, hell. I meant to call..." ah yeah. Ah that would be one. Could I have a couple?

Gen: You can. Please.

Jim: I'd love to be able to go and visit all of our members and meet all.

Gen: That's not a super power.

Jim: Yeah. But it takes timeq and I need to add a few more hours and teleport. Because we got over 2000 listings around Australia. There's a big spread.

Gen: Awesome.

Gen: Well, thank you so much for your time. And please everyone head to RubberDesk.com?

Jim: .au.

Gen: .au. Just checking.

Jim: There will be au , com. There will be au.co.uk. There will be a .xxx for all of the countries when we ... next year when we go global.

Gen: Oh, fantastic. Very exciting. Well we look forward to reinterviewing you at that next stage then.

Jim: Excellent.

Jim: Nice one Gen.