Huddle MD Alastair Mitchell isn’t having the best of days. He’s about to exchange on a house and the electronic money transfer system of his bank – a well-known online only service – has gone down. Luckily, given the current economic climate, it’s only a temporary blip. But Ali is having to jump every time his Blackberry bleeps, and he’s constantly apologising.
Alastair – or Ali to everyone who knows him – is bit of a champion of all things digital, so the fact that his internet bank should be shafting him in this manner is ironic.
Two years ago, Ali and his partner, Andy McLoughlin, launched Huddle from a renovated warehouse in South London. The idea behind Huddle is simple: a network of online workspaces where people can chat, share files, organise a project, etc all in a safe, protected environment, but with anyone they care to invite, anywhere in the world.
“From the start, we wanted to bring Web 2.0 concepts into enterprise working methods,” says Ali, when the Blackberry’s been silent for long enough to let him speak. “Everyone hates using enterprise tools. We wanted all the ‘hygiene’ aspects – security, control, back-ups – but to make it social as well – easy to use, friendly and organic.”
Not only have Andy and Ali created Huddle online, they’ve also replicated a mini-version of the concept offline. Their Bermondsey warehouse space is shared with a number of other technology start-ups, and they run a regular event, DrinkTank, specifically for tech entrepreneurs and investors.
“We’re really passionate about entrepreneurship, so we really wanted to do something to support the start-up community here; we wanted to come back and circle in. If you’re an entrepreneur in the UK you tend to retire and go to live in the Cotswolds. But Silicon Valley is like a big business park. We wanted to find a way of getting entrepreneurs together over here, helping them to talk to each other – that’s what DrinkTank is all about.”
Helping people communicate more easily was the impetus for Huddle – the idea to create an online collaborative space came out of Ali’s own frustrations at his previous employer:
“I was running the product team at dunhumby [the marketing company], which was made up of 300 people working in five different countries. Everyone was working via email or social networks because the existing enterprise technology simply wasn’t good enough. So, when I began to think about doing my own thing, I knew exactly what I wanted to create.”
A mutual friend introduced Ali to technology specialist Andy, funds were raised from Eden Ventures – and Huddle was born.
Take up has been enthusiastic, with the company’s user-base growing steadily by around 40 per cent each month (“Because we’re a low cost technology with a relatively small base, the impact of the credit crunch, so far, has been hard to see”).
And, despite, the current gloomy economic outlook, Ali’s for the future are bright: he admits to having “Google-esque ambitions” for the company.
“On the one hand, we’d like Huddle to become a verb: ‘let’s huddle it’. And we’d like to be as ubiquitous as Facebook. On the other, we’d like to become an enabler for social change. We set up the Huddle Foundation to give Huddle away free to charities. In fact, our customer service manager spends about 50 per cent of his time working – for free – with the charities that use us.”
That social element is key in a company where the majority of the workforce are under 30 and keen to feel that they are involved in something that’s about more than just making money: “Our culture is not just about business. It’s very much built around being nice to each other.”
And Ali believes they can keep hold of that dynamic, start-up mentality, citing Virgin and Google as two companies that have grown dramatically yet continue to prioritise innovation:
“The perceived wisdom is that as companies grow they become bigger and more boring; inertia creeps in. It’ll be interesting if we can stay with the culture we’ve built so far. That will be the real test. We believe in what we call ‘loose’ leadership. You hire the very best people and let them get on with it. Give them more than enough rope to hang themselves. I’m constantly surprised and amazed at what these people can do.”
And on that positive note, Ali rushes off to take a call from his mortgage broker. I keep my fingers crossed for him.