I had the pleasure of interviewing Upile Chasowa of WorkClub HQ.
Upile is a business and software development entrepreneur with ten years experience in Retail, Insurance, Finance and Real Estate.
Originally from Malawi, he founded three successful property startups before joining the team at WorkClub. In just nine months he transformed the product, rebuilding it from scratch to a business valued at over £1.8m.
He maintains a hands-on approach leveraging his development experience spanning software, design, R&D and product strategies for big data and online marketplace applications.
When he’s not at work, Upile can be found in the kitchen or planning his next big trip abroad.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Since obtaining my Degree in Computer Science back in 2012, I worked with a well established charity helping the homeless and was featured on ITV to help raise awareness.
Along the way, I ran a startup called propertyGroup that managed over 200 properties, whilst working with a number of private homeowners looking for residents across the UK. propertyGroup partnered with Zoopla, which allowed me to have access to a pool of residents across the UK looking for rental properties.
propertyGroup’s success enabled me to gain support from Virgin Startup, which opened further opportunities to enhancing the initial business model. Following the success of propertyGroup, I was able to identify an enormous opportunity with AuctionShelter and was able to raise some funds to help build the initial product.
AuctionShelter was the Primark of the Property market selling quirky, unusual character style properties that had the scope and potential to change use. The little and large, good quality at deflated prices for first time buyers, cash restricted — target audience that had a budget but desperate to buy and those sellers desperate to sell from the comfort of their own home.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I worked on a side project called — LetMeView — an on-demand property viewings service — imagine a Deliveroo for Estate Agents and private landlords. For the first viewing I had a local agent contact me to use the service. At that point I was working in Wimbledon, beaming full of excitement as the property was on the market for £700,000.
I had no idea what I’d let myself in for. Before I could even carry out the viewing I had to travel from work in South West London to North London — an hour on a good day, then collect the keys and the buyer’s pack before traveling to East London to carry out the viewing. I could probably have gone to Birmingham and back in less time.
To save 30 minutes, I had to lie that my “Mother” was my PA and would be collecting the buyer’s pack and keys — and she met me halfway.
I finally arrived at the property in East London, 5 mins before the potential buyer arrived, struggling to get into the property, covered in sweat and frankly to be honest and very clearly winging it!
After sneaking out of work, travelling almost four hours and sweating through my first viewing I was still hoping the strength of the London property market might bear out. Sadly, despite my best efforts, I didn’t sell the property.
Key lesson — never give up, have confidence, only you are your own worst enemy.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Growing up in a single parent household and witnessing the amount my mother had to sacrifice for years, juggling three jobs at one point — in order to keep me on the straight and narrow and ensure I had the best upbringing as possible- triggered my ambition to do something great. My father was influential on the technology front — as every time I had a chance to visit him — all we talked about was technology, something I was always inspired by — building technology for the greater good — helping communities.
And finally my grandfather — full of drive and always pushing the boundaries. My true source of inspiration.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
WorkClub’s vision was always to support those that seeked for a better work-life balance. A harmonious equilibrium between career and family, business and health, where we can embrace societal trends towards the prioritisation of a happy, full life.
My hunger for innovation, knowledge and determination to turn ideas into consumer driven products, has contributed to my most recent success at WorkClubHQ. Productivity is very important for me, I enjoy implementing strategic project management methods and ensuring a work-life balance.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
WorkClubHQ reimagines the idea of how we use space in an urban environment by transforming unused space into productive working areas for people to work, network and share ideas.
For space partners, we work with traditional hospitality businesses like restaurants, pubs and hotels. These types of spaces make for the perfect client as bars become standing desks, booths become team meeting spaces and private dining rooms become meeting rooms.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
The baby-boomers are defined as being born post World War Two, these people’s ages are currently around 60–70 years. They want to walk into an office and talk to someone. There is also some appeal to Generation ‘X’ who are 40 years’ whose technology use would have started in work before they introduced it into the home.
The most interesting shift is on the brink of happening where the combined population of Generation ‘Y’ and the Millennials will surpass the baby boomers. This means for the first time the majority of the population will be aged between 18 and 40 years. This is when the commercial workspace industry will feel the biggest change, with covid as the catalyst.
This is the generation that expects everything to be done online and available instantly. This is the generation that will never own a video cassette and probably will not have any CD’s either. This is the generation for which the Internet is always here, our world has always been a connected one. We need technology to support our lifestyle. And if it doesn’t, we’ll just code a solution that works for us.
To drive innovation in the flexible office space market, operators need to experience increased profit from using technology and take advantage of the next generation who will only engage through this technology.
We are creating the world’s largest workspace outside of the workplace.
Our product is designed to simplify and boost venues daily business by inviting a community of mobile professionals into their space during quiet hours.
Employees want more out of their workplace. The choice between a city office and work from home is increasingly out of touch with what employers and professionals value.
The partnership arrangement is mutually beneficial: our members get a great working space, while space partners get a healthy flow of low-fuss customers.
The rise of the gig economy, coupled with more flexible working arrangements and the rise of the population of Generation ‘Y’ and Millennials, has created this vast demand for unconventional working spaces. WorkClub will be the preferred partner to accelerate this economic transformation.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
Essential to the scale and success of WorkClub was to on-board space operators and be seen as a low risk, easy to use, revenue generating platform.
As a result, my co-founder Nick Donnelly and I were able to identify an enormous opportunity with WorkClub and were able to raise funds to help us build our initial product.
Then a more formal, structured and targeted marketing plan was written to execute on.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
A common sight when walking past a coffee shop was a crowded and chaotic environment. These coffee shops were fueled by distracted professionals plugging away on their laptops with high expectations of it being a productive working environment.
However, nearby there existed plenty of restaurants, pubs and hotels sitting empty throughout the day that were better suited for these mobile professionals.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
WorkClub offers flexible access to a network of productive space in stunning coworking offices, hotels, and more — both in the city and near home.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
We work with well established brands such as Fiverr, Dropbox and more. We have over 11k social followers, over 1.3k app downloads of active users and partnering up with well established enterprises such as GSK, PwC and more.
Further, we have a network of over 350 productive spaces in stunning co- working offices, hotels, and more.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
Leadership boils down to the ability to change the hearts and minds of people. The success of any team depends on the key stakeholders e.g. CEO, CTO, Project Managers, Business owners etc. to fully be involved and engaged. It’s not about micromanagement, but being able to foster and build an open environment. Creating clear project guidelines for productivity, teamwork, and accountability is very important.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Set clear tasks and give detailed answers. Review the project requirements document attentively to make sure all business functionalities have been clearly defined.
The success of any disruptive product or service depends on the key stakeholders to fully be involved and engaged, as previously stated.
My secret ingredient to building a highly engaged team is get to know your team, learn about them, figure out what makes them laugh, what makes them tick and pay attention to every concern they have.
Before diving into work — a simple “how are you doing today?” gesture or an icebreaker offers an opportunity for everyone to speak at the start of the meeting, which greatly increases the chances of engagement and a highly productive team.
Overtime, icebreakers can help you get to know people and add a layer of fun that helps the team bond in a very unique way. Suddenly, “Jay, the react native app developer” is now “Jay, the react native guru, who loves to play chess every Friday and enjoys eating lots of oranges [which happens to be one of my favorite fruits too].”
It really is that simple!
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Multiple voices, perspectives, and personalities — bouncing off one another can give rise to out-of-the-box thinking. A company in our today’s world — needs to have a global mindset and understand competing challenges, cultural norms and ways of working. Having that represented in your senior team can be a powerful accelerator for competing in a global context. A variety of viewpoints along with the wide-ranging personal and professional experience of a multicultural team can offer new perspectives that inspire colleagues to see the workplace and the world differently. Based upon experience, diversity drives creativity and innovation, helping to solve problems and meet customer needs in new and exciting ways.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Being the (authentic) change — Increasingly, people are looking for brands and companies that have purpose and want to align themselves with companies that are vibrant, diverse and trying to drive a change in behaviour or outlook. Diversity is a key indicator for many customers and they want to see businesses that walk the walk. Having a representative senior team shows that your business isn’t just paying lip service to diversity but it comes from the top down to permeate the company culture and mission.
Focusing too much on external threats and competitors can destroy product growth and diminish innovation. In many cases, first mover advantage is always lost but there is always the opportunity to deliver quicker and scale exponentially.
To drive innovation in any disruptive market, your target clients need to experience increased profits from using technology and take advantage of the intended consumers
who will only engage through this technology. Looking at the last 20 years, the population always shifts towards a much more savvy product or service that allows them to complete as much of their process online.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Personal and product growth — You will enhance your social development, but you also increase your understanding of the world. This will prepare you to be a part of a global society, whether you are traveling to a new country, working with diverse co-workers, or just reading about events in the news that have heavily impacted a population different from your own. You will learn the skills to communicate and interact with communities and concepts that you are unfamiliar with and this collective intelligence can inform really great product design.
- Setting boundaries — As a leader, it’s easy to feel pressure to be available 24 hours a day. Establishing some work-life boundaries is very important for me. I try to avoid checking emails, Slack messages etc. from home in the evening, or not answering the phone during dinner.
- Taking time to recharge — taking short holidays, I do love to travel as it helps me to switch off from work by having periods of time when I am neither engaging in work-related activities, nor thinking about work.
- Being transparent and clear on goals — everything starts off with assumptions, which are then further refined.
And be ready to fail
Never give up and always be ready to learn from your mistakes. That’s how you build your experience and those are the tools you need.
5. There are two decisions you need to come to in order to be free, and to be more effective. First is that you are not entitled to anything in the world, until you first create value for another human being. Second, you are 100 percent responsible for producing results. No one else. If you adopt those two views, you will go far.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Making the internet and education accessible to everyone — we all should have an opportunity to learn and have free access to data. During the lockdown in the UK, we saw many schools and teachers move heaven and earth to get free laptops to children to enable them to continue their learning online at home. I think we should be thinking about this for every child from the moment they start school. Inequality of access is a fundamental barrier to many children from more deprived backgrounds.
“An educated man is not one who is trained to carry a few dates in history — he is one who can accomplish things…. A man’s real education begins after he has left school. True education is gained through the discipline of life…. A man may be very learned and useless…. Merely gathering knowledge may be the most useless work a man can do. What can you do to help and heal the world? That is the educational test. If a man could hold up his own end, he counts for one. If he could help ten or a hundred or a thousand other men hold up their ends, he counts for more. He may be quite rusty on many things that inhabit the realm of print, but he is a learned man just the same. When a man is a master of his own sphere, whatever it may be, he has won his degree — he has entered the realm of wisdom.” — Henry Ford.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Twitter — https://twitter.com/upilechasowa
LinkedIn — www.linkedin.com/in/upilechasowa