Alex Depledge is many things – startup founder, mentor to women in tech, an advocate for a free and open market across Europe, and a trailblazer in the U.K tech scene. Her home cleaning platform Hassle recently merged with Rocket Internet’s Helpling (or was acquired, depending on how you look at the deal) for a mix of stock and cash.
Depledge spoke onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt London 2015 with writer Steve O’Hear about the acquisition and what she’s learned in the past few years building and scaling a digital company in the EU.
“To get into this business you have to be massively naive. If someone asked me to go back to 2012 and do it I would say absolutely not,” Depledge said. “When your back’s against the wall you become incredibly innovative.”
Depledge, who was down to her last 100 pounds before closing on a seed round, didn’t have it easy at the beginning and said she had to learn fast what really worked for startups in the gig economy industry…and what didn’t.
“On-demand exploded over the last year-and-a-half…everyone is still learning what works and doesn’t work and there’s going to be collateral in that space,” she said. “A year is not a lot of time to figure out that space.”
Hassle started out as something closer to TaskRabbit, with other services like dog walking, errand running and house cleaning. Depledge quickly pivoted to a HomeJoy-like model, becoming a domestic cleaning service.
“You need to do one thing and do it really well, better than the competition,” she said.
There were plenty of other lessons to learn with that more singular focus. HomeJoy, the U.S. based home cleaning startup imploded earlier this year. The service offered discounts, deals and the promise of cheap labor to clean apartments in San Francisco.
Depledge learned soon on discounts didn’t work for the customer she needed. “It attracts the wrong kind of customers.” she said.
But even as things got tough, Depledge faced criticism not just in business but for continuing to work while pregnant, she mentioned a familiar entrepreneurial phrase, “It’s the highs that keep you going cuz it’s addictive, right? You become an adrenaline junkie. Or at least I am.”[gallery ids="1249713,1249714,1249715,1249716,1249717,1249719,1249712"]
But don’t refer to what she built as part of the “sharing economy.” Depledge hates the term because it implies people are sharing something with friends. She doesn’t think that translates in the minds of the people when it comes to a business transaction.
“I think what you are actually seeing in the sharing economy, and I don’t know what to call it, is innovation of disruptive models. It’s what Uber is doing, what we’re doing,” she said. “We’re allowing people to sell their skills in a very democratic way.”
Depledge is a big advocate for the free market and said the EU needs to open up to immigration and build a domestic economy as big as that in the U.S. “It’s my Christmas wish,” she joked on stage.
The founder also charmed the audience, advocating for parental rights in the workplace – a hot topic in Silicon Valley as well with Mark Zuckerberg taking leave from his role at Facebook for a couple of months to be with his newborn, and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announcing she would take very little leave following the birth of her twins.
As mentioned, Depledge chose to continue running her company while pregnant – something she, like Mayer, faced criticism for early on.
“Even my mom said to me ‘Are you going to step down now that you are pregnant?.’ I think people just expected I wasn’t going to haul a company at scale across Europe,” she said. “I left office on friday and gave birth on Saturday.”
Depledge mentioned the importance of women having an equal presence in the tech space as men – a statistic quite askew at present.
“It’s a huge problem because in 20 years time every business will be digital. It’s almost like the industrial revolution and we need equal representation in business,” Depledge, who is also a mentor for Girls Who Code, said.
“I really believe that maternity and paternity policy are equal. We are moving to a world where the boys and the girls get two to four months each,” Depledge said to much applause from both the men and women in the Disrupt audience. “Until we make it equal for men and women to care for their children equally women will always be the primary care givers.”
You can see the full interview with Depledge in the video above.