Harrison Woods

Finance & Strategy; Leadership & Culture; Technology & Innovation

06.01.2021

Creating a new space in a crowded market – Interview with Harrison Woods, founder and CEO at YourParkingSpace

Aged just 30 and co-founder of YourParkingSpace, the fastest growing on-demand parking platform in the UK, Harrison Woods has had more business adventures than many seasoned entrepreneurs. He started importing golf clubs aged just 12 before landing a pitch slot on Dragon’s Den whilst at Uni, attracting investment from Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis.

We caught up with Harrison to learn more about his story and what’s next following the pandemic led digital transformation.

How has the pandemic affected you?
It’s been a strange one really. It’s brought the industry forward 5-10 years. The incumbent old school operators can’t react fast enough such as going digital and cashless so all the opportunities have been brought forward and we’ve acquired so many new clients and partners in this period. In fact more clients since March 2020 than we had in the previous 2 years. Our bookings are 5% down from the pre-covid peak with less than 50% of people driving – so on those metrics when we get back to some normality, we should see a monstrous jump!

It seems like every entrepreneur’s dream to go on Dragons Den and secure not only investment from more than one but a huge boost to awareness! What do you think got you through?
This was for a previous business, Primal Parking. I wasn’t actually expecting to go on it. I was at Manchester Uni at the time and I’d been in the newspaper selling barriers and they saw the article on me and called to ask if I wanted to go on the show. The idea of selling un-utilised driveways was at that stage just an idea to me but I decided to tell them it was a full-blown business at the time i.e. we were launched and ready and at that point they said brilliant come on the show. So from that call from the producer it made me focus on the business, develop the business model and create the plan before walking onto the show. I walked down the stairs and before I knew it they were offering to invest in the business. That was in 2010, some time ago but it feels like yesterday.

We built the platform and got everything ready but they didn’t actually invest in the end which was probably the most sensible thing. Peter Jones’ investment team called me and said this is not guaranteed to be a success and we don’t want to distract you from your university education but we will support you where you need it. They told me I could do it alongside my studies. But even the offer of investment on the show gave me opportunities – I certainly wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t had that sort of accreditation. Being able to say I’d been on Dragons Den and spoken with Peter and Theo about investment was a catalyst for all the business meetings I had for the next few months and years… mostly as people wanted to ask what it was like to go on Dragons Den!

It gave me the foundation of why I’m here today. It was a brilliant experience. The producers were brilliant and it feels a bit surreal now and a distant memory although so very real when I stood in front of them. They gave me the foundations for understanding the business and I can’t thank them enough.

Was there any specific advice they gave you other than continue your education?
There was specific advice but the notion that I didn’t want to let them down after they said yes on the show, let alone an investment, will always be my underpinning catalyst today.  I want them to be able to read about the business in the newspaper and think yes, we’re glad we gave him a break. Even now when we’ve just raised £5m, it’s a good reminder to let them know they backed the right horse back then. I haven’t seen them since the show, although I’ve dropped them a note to say thank you and I’m sure I will meet them again.

Any lessons learned?
I was very excitable at the time and I learned that you can create the best website in the world, which we did in our sector, but it doesn’t mean they will come. It was a big learning curve for me. We had a great website, got 4 million people on it the day the show aired but the day after there were just two people, probably my Mum and Auntie. There’s a lot more substance behind the website to make it work, not necessarily the tech – its SEO, the ability to drive PPC – so it was a learning curve as to how difficult online is.  We thought right I’m on Dragons Den and everyone will know about me but they actually know about you for 30 seconds and then the hard work starts.

How did you meet Charles – was he introduced to you?
No, I found his company and called the business and spoke to a lady. I found out later that it was his Mum and I’d called their house phone – he was in his bedroom on the computer! We subsequently met in London and we ended up going into business 4 years later.

You actually sold your first business Primal Parking about a year after being on the Den, what brought this about?
It wasn’t a sale that made me really rich! It was just the right time. I’d taken that business as far as I could take it and someone else wanted to take it on. It fitted in the chapter of my life at University. There were areas we made mistakes at Primal Parking that we needed to improve. The market wasn’t ready for what we were offering, for example Airbnb wasn’t around and people weren’t used to mobile services so that product was a bit early into the market and we needed to give it a bit more time before we reintroduced it. There is an overarching lifecycle business model that is the same in every sector. For example, Uber gives the same power to the individual driver that was once held by the radio controller. So I knew it was going to happen in parking, I just needed to be there when it happened.

Was it your long-term strategy, once you had the framework, that you’d revisit it when the time was right?
Exactly. I’d visited all the suppliers and heard that they were going to do it themselves so I was just waiting for them to waste millions and then we struck. Which is exactly what happened – we had a call from NCP. I’d previously had a meeting with them and told them that they wouldn’t be able to do it justice and here they were now asking for my help. So I called Charles as we didn’t have a business and said we can strike a massive deal here so I bought half Charles’ business and relaunched and so it all kicked off again.

You had time working for someone else so what learnings did you take into the business that you didn’t have the first time around?
Not needing a perfect product or website before you get going. You just need a customer and to facilitate that transaction any way possible. When we relaunched, we didn’t have a booking form we had an enquiry form which we then could process through PayPal links so at least bookings were happening.  Then when we got money in it meant we were competing with the car park operators.

You were an early adopter of utilising cloud technology, what new trends in technology has benefited your business to date?
Our business gives power to the non-corporate operators such as local authorities who don’t have big budgets or marketing teams or the old guy who’s got a piece of land that no-one knows about. Ultimately it gave us the opportunity to create a shop window with no infrastructure. Covid 19 has opened up online and we’ve seen our average age spread from 20’s up to closer to 60 and that’s because older people have had to go online for things such as food shopping and they’ve realised the possibilities and that they can do it via apps or online. No-one wants to touch cash and it’s brought that transition forward 5 years.

The Pandemic was an eye opener for us all. How were you affected by the initial lockdown and how did you adapt?
The first lockdown was pretty grim. We went from £2million gross revenue per month parking 15,000 vehicles per day to parking a fraction of this, less than single digit % wise of cars. Luckily I kind of knew what was going to happen as I was in Australia in January and heard rumours as to what was happening in China in terms of lockdowns, so we had prepared the business, such as preserving cash and adjusting terms with suppliers. Cash is king so I set out to ensure that the business didn’t go under. We have a subscription service which didn’t stop fortunately.

I’m responsible for sales and it actually gave me time. There were just 6 of us who stayed on and focused on the business model looking at wireframes, improving what we did wrong and regrouping. We also got £5m investment so that was good! Everyone’s back off furlough and we are hiring 30 people and brought 10 new people on since the start of the first lockdown so it’s been a real success for us.

As we are returning to work especially in the cities, more employees are opting to drive rather than use public transport, has this impacted your business?There is going to be a fundamental shift in public transport and with recent announcements on EV the Government wants to push everyone into cars. I think that covid has made people aware of how diseases and illnesses spread so people will be more cautious about getting into confined spaces now and going forward. I think driving will go through the roof in the next 10 years.

Your growth plans are ambitious, and you have already secured investment for them. What areas and services are you expanding into?
We’re the fastest growing parking provider in the UK and we will be the largest in the next 12 months. The big one is moving into Electric Vehicles charge points. We will have the largest pre-bookable network within the next 36 months. The rapid change is fantastic. Charging points need to be available so we have points that when not being utilised can be promoted across our network to optimise usage. An example model is providing hotels with chargers which they can provide to their guests but when not in use we can then fill them for them via a booking system. It will also let us know where people are searching for chargers and build for them. The new app will offer park, charge or drive (toll, congestion charge, MOT etc) and then link into Google Maps and Waze. Exciting times.

What advice would you give to any entrepreneurs seeking to raise money through private equity.
Firstly, don’t compare yourself to massive businesses such as Airbnb or Uber. Secondly, cash is king – you need money in to raise capital. The most powerful thing is cash in the bank and a proven business model. Look at proper business models such as Ocado and don’t go to them saying you’re the next Google. Investors are investing not gambling. Focus on the fact they want money back and growth. Keep it at the forefront of your mind and use other people’s knowledge.

Also, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. It doesn’t mean you don’t innovate – but there are plenty of other people with business models. Think about what they’re doing wrong, what’s not working. What can you improve? And don’t worry about being top, just be up there. If you’re in the top 5 of any market then you are going to do well.

Work life balance? Are you good at it and what are your tips?
It’s got better. My days of going out drinking have slowed down. I’m now living a more balanced life with exercising, eating well. But that’s why it’s good to start when you’re young! My advice is do it when you have no responsibilities as you can try and try. I didn’t realise it when I was doing it but do now. Between the age of 18 and 35 when you have that flexibility to keep failing and not have the burden of responsibility.

And finally, where’s your favourite parking space?
I have a few but my favourite is Monkbar Mews in York. It’s our first full solution site and it looks fantastic.

Well it certainly looks as though it’s just the beginning for Harrison and YourParkingSpace. We’re really looking forward to the next instalment. It’s a case of ‘watch this space’ (sorry!).

business strategy, Corporate Finance, COVID-19, Innovation & Technology, Interview, Leadership & Culture, Private Equity