Under the leadership of entrepreneur Rune Sovndahl, this international venture takes the best from both the franchising and sharing economy worlds
Most people would probably attempt to make a discrete getaway if someone they’d just met at a party started going on about a stubborn carpet stain and how hard it was to find a cleaner to tackle it. But when Rune Sovndahl started relaying his troubles to Anton Skarlatov, the duo hit it off, agreeing that there was clearly a gap in the market for an on-demand cleaning service. And given his background as a systems engineer and the fact that he was employed as a digital marketer for travel booking site lastminute.com at the time, Sovndahl was particularly puzzled as to why booking a holiday was so much easier than finding a cleaner.
Within weeks, they’d launched Fantastic Services: an easy-to-use, online platform that connects people with cleaners. But while they knew they had a strong concept, the timing could have been better from a financial standpoint: Britain was in the midst of a recession and the entrepreneurs couldn’t even get an overdraft, let alone a bank loan. “We just worked hard and did everything ourselves the lean way: I built our website and in the evenings we would hand out flyers,” Sovndahl recalls. “And, as it turns out, we haven’t needed the funding so far.”
Fantastic Services made its debut in 2009 when the sharing economy was just emerging. However, Sovndahl believes that, unlike some of its peers, the company has always managed to find the right balance between catering to the interests of customers and workers. “There were some startups that were trying to be the Uber of cleaning but they weren’t thinking about the long term: they weren’t supporting the people doing the labour,” he says. “We believe that it’s important to compensate people for their work, even if that means that we’re not the cheapest on the market. You won’t find us spending billions on executive pay packets either.”
As the concept started to take off and more and more cleaners came on board, Sovndahl incorporated new technology as and when it became available. “Tech has played a huge role from the start, allowing us to create a transparent bookings system that was easy for everyone to use,” he says. Although it started with a backend built with Google Docs, the company went on introduce real-time booking functionality that adjusted the quoted price depending on demand. And then in 2014 the Fantastic Services app was launched. “The technology wasn’t quite there when we first launched but it’s really evolved since then and we’re now able to offer a much more streamlined and simple interface,” Sovndahl adds.
And while it may have started as a cleaning service, Sovndahl soon realised that the model could be applied to other areas. A man-and-van service was a natural add-on for cleaners to offer, since many people would book cleaning and house-moving services together. The company soon began introducing even more spin-offs, which were often borne out of problems faced by customers or occasionally Sovndahl himself. A suitcase-packing meltdown ahead of a business trip prompted a new packing and decluttering service, while a phone call from a harried parent saw the company babysit a garden snail. “The kid’s pet had just died and he’d grown attached to a little snail that had been crawling over the pet’s grave,” Sovndahl explains. “So when his family had to go on holiday the boy wanted to make sure his new friend was taken care of. We were happy to help and just let the snail hang out in our office for a bit.”
Whether it’s babysitting snails or helping people manage their Tinder profiles, Fantastic Services is open to trying new things if there’s a chance they may make people’s lives easier. Not everything pans out of course: a service that promised to walk your Pokémon GO characters for you only resulted in ten bookings, for example. But that’s okay. Sovndahl has established a culture where all ideas are welcome and failure is not a dirty word. “If something doesn’t work then we simply won’t roll it out,” he says. “We like to have fun and many of these ideas require minimal investment to trial. It’s important for people to feel comfortable saying ‘hey, I have this idea, what do you think?’ even if it doesn’t turn out to be brilliant.”
This try-it-and-see attitude is also behind the company’s international growth. When a handful of contractors moved down under, Sovndahl was reluctant to see them leave the family and so helped them set up a modest outpost in Melbourne. And seeing the concept mushroom and spread across Australia confirmed to Sovndahl that his model was scalable and had global potential. The entrepreneur started to take a more strategic approach, picking new territories based on factors like transport links, demand and competition. Fantastic Services now has a presence in the US and Australia and a turnover of over £32m, though entering Europe has proven to be slightly trickier. “We halted our plans to enter Europe largely because of Brexit but that’s set to change very soon,” he says.
Going global also prompted Sovndahl to finally go down the franchising route. Since the company was already giving contractors training and marketing support, it resembled a franchise in many ways. But the entrepreneur also wanted to ensure that his business was rolled out consistently. “It wasn’t until we signed up our first franchisee in 2015 that we were able to formally productise some of the things we were doing,” he says. As workers moved from being self-employed to becoming franchisees with a bigger stake in the business, Fantastic Services stepped up the support system around them, investing more in scheduling software and launching the Fantastic Academy: a training programme that helps franchisees grow their businesses. Since launching in English, the courses have now been localised and can be taken in Polish and Bulgarian, while Sovndahl plans to introduce more languages soon. Franchisees are also encouraged to use the portal to swap ideas and learn from peers in other territories, whether it’s discovering a new cleaning tool or finding the confidence to launch a new service entirely.
With all its checks and balances, Sovndahl believes franchising is an effective way of ensuring that everyone’s interests are catered to as a business expands into new territories. “Franchising offers a more professionalised and fair alternative to businesses operating in the sharing economy,” he says. “Your pace may be a bit more slow than some highly funded, fast-growth startups but you’re also less likely to find yourself caught in a bubble. Franchising – or perhaps some form of sharing-economy-franchising hybrid like ours – is the future.”