2014 features shanks greatlittleplace

Rossa Shanks (MPhil in Management 2006) and James Lohan, Founder of Mr and Mrs Smith

2 May 2014

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Co-Founder of Great Little Place, Rossa Shanks, talks start-ups, revenue streams and train sets with his mentor James Lohan, founder of boutique …

Co-Founder of Great Little Place, Rossa Shanks, talks start-ups, revenue streams and train sets with his mentor James Lohan, founder of boutique hotel and travel company Mr and Mrs Smith.


“Look for someone you’d be happy to go for a beer with.”
Rossa Shanks, Co-Founder of Great Little Place

My business partner Rich Brown and I had started Great Little Place as a Facebook page back in 2010. The idea was simple: get people to share a great little place that they knew. Within two weeks we had around 40,000 followers. It grew organically and we soon launched in other cities including Toronto and Amsterdam. We then raised £10,000 via Crowdfunder to build our website. By last year, the audience was big enough that we thought there had to be a business there, even if it wasn’t clear at the time what that would be. So we both left our jobs to work on Great Little Place full-time.

In the last six months we’ve really focused into how we are going to make this into a scalable, sustainable business with a core revenue stream. There are similarities between Great Little Place and Mr & Mrs Smith, in that they’ve taken a niche within a market and that’s what we’re trying to do. And obviously, it’s not a dissimilar marketplace.

James originally approached us because he was interested in investing in the business, and he ended up being on the Board. Because Rich and I both come from advertising, we are both very brand-led and that’s what’s brought us a following. Mr & Mrs Smith is also very much about the brand, and James has really reinforced that.

How does he help? James has experienced the same growing pains. He forced us to think about a revenue stream that came from our core. People are a lot less forgiving here than in the US, where it’s all about grabbing as many users as you can and monetising later.

James forced us to really focus in and figure out something that made sense to our core business. In any start-up you can chase so many different things because you’re trying to spin too many plates. We’re very visible; we are not a startup in isolation. We get loads of people contacting us, which can be a real time drain. When you’re a small team, you really need to focus in on the core of what you’re doing, otherwise you think you’re working but you’re not getting anywhere. We’re now going in the direction of pre-paid experiences – great little experiences, if you will.

On a very simple level, we’ve exchanged a small amount of equity with James, so he has a personal interest in the business. That’s a positive thing; he is incentivised to get us contacts, help us and move the business forward. At business school you get taught what you should know, not who you should know. But he also takes a genuine interest. Seeing a young team with momentum and the same passion he had when he started is invigorating for him, I think.

Plus, he’s a genuinely nice guy, and I’ve got a lot of respect for the business that he built over 10 years. If you don’t want to go out for a beer with someone, there’s no point in them being your mentor.

“It’s their train set, not yours.”
James Lohan, Founder of Mrs & Mrs Smith

It was the combination of Rossa and Rich that got me involved; that kind of potential is hard to find and these guys have it. When I heard about Great Little Place, I loved the name, which is a good start, and I loved what they’d already managed to do with pretty much no money and no investment at all. I thought they were on to something.

My support is quite structured in some ways. I attend monthly board meetings, which are minuted, and we check up on progress. But there’s no point having too much structure when you’re a start-up. You’re still trying to find your feet and work out the business plan and how you’re going to maximise your revenues and raise money. It’s a very liquid state and it moves very quickly and things can change very quickly. Trying to tie people down to things like KPIs isn’t necessarily the right thing. So I’m always at the end of the phone and email, as well.

From their perspective, they get my 11 years of experience in a similar business environment. I can leapfrog some of their decision-making because I’ll have hopefully been there and had the same challenge or issue or problem. I can help them make that decision more quickly, or open up my little black book of contacts. A lot of what I do is guidance, opinion and contacts, rather than the day-to-day running of the business.

It’s an entrepreneurial tendency to do too many things, rather than focusing on ‘less is more’. We tend to want to do as much as we can – as entrepreneurs we can see a vision of a company that can do a lot of different things. So I think when someone isn’t at the coalface every day they get a simpler perspective of what the company should be doing, and hopefully that’s part of my job.

What’s in it for me? It’s just really exciting putting myself back 10 years to when we started Mr & Mrs Smith. There’s something quite nostalgic in that. I recognise a bit of myself, 10 years ago. I run a much bigger company now, and decisions can’t be made so much on the fly. You can’t move at 100 miles an hour any more. There are more people you have to consult and more dissemination of information across offices across the world. So it’s a very different animal. And I think my heart’s always been more in start-ups.

It’s rewarding for me to be able to talk through all the things that I got right and wrong, and accelerate their growth more quickly. It’s just nice to be able to help someone else go through what you’ve been through. But I do think you need to have a certain kind of character to be a mentor. It’s not your train set, it’s theirs.

I try not to forget that small start-ups and entrepreneurs have started something because they see a gap. They are in tune with that gap. Someone older may not have that vision, and I would always try and listen to the mentees as much as possible. So if you’re a megalomaniac, helping start-ups isn’t the right thing for you. Being a mentor isn’t for someone who wants to control a company; it’s about complementing it.