Going for growth

Source: The Times (UK National Newspaper) Kathryn Hopkins Published on March 17 2014

A group of friends aim to expand a business that was founded after a birthday trip

The average person is normally left with only a hangover and a few hazy memories from a weekend away spent drinking heavily. Luckily, that was not the case for Phil Neale and his friends, who came back with an innovative idea to develop the technology for people to pour their own pints and order food and drink using an iPad, ending the unpleasant task of queueing in pubs.

"We had been on a weekend away for someone's birthday and spent a lot of time queueing at bars," Mr Neale, who is now managing director of Robot Pub Group, said. "On a hungover train journey back we were talking about ways to get around it and came up with the idea."

"It was the pour-your-own-pint idea we came up with first. We thought that was great, but people will have a few drinks and they'll want to change their drinks during the night, so we thought about a touchscreen on the table."

Using their backgrounds in IT, the group of friends spent about six years developing the technology that has been licensed to several pubs, before buying their first in 2011 - the Thirsty Bear in the London Borough of Southwark.

As well as serving a busy trade, the pub, which has a beer keg with a tap on each table and a tablet that clocks the amount used, is also used as a showcase for others interested in buying the technology. The pub was such a success that last year they bought their second, the Lazy Fox in Fulham, southwest London.

Mr Neale considered trying to patent their idea, but because he wanted to protect the concept rather than any specific invention, he decided that it would be best to "keep progressing the pace of the development and stay one step ahead".

The friends are on the lookout for their third pub, which required them to seek outside funding for the first time. Until then, they financed operations through savings and then profits.

Mr Neale and his partners decided to bypass the banks and went straight to alternative finance providers because they believed that they could get what they wanted "more quickly, with less hoops to jump through".

He originally applied to Funding Circle, but the peer-to-peer lender could not help because the company had not been trading for two years. Instead, it referred him to pensionledfunding.com because he had a director's pension that could be used to fund his business.

Mr Neale later found a way to go forward with Funding Circle, whose website enables investors to lend directly to SMEs in exchange for an eye-catching rate of return, because he was very close to finishing his second year of trading and was able to provide two years of accounts. He recently borrowed £99,500 from 1,795 investors through the site, but is also investigating pension-led funding after Funding Circle's original referral.

Its type of funding allows business owners to use their accrued pension benefits to back their own company, potentially providing an efficient way to expand the chain.

"The Thirsty Bear is going as we want it to now," Mr Neale said. "It's making enough money, but we don't want to wait a year to be able to afford to expand.

"We're turning bookings away here most Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. If we can get another venue near by we know we've got bookings we can redirect. A lot of people know about us in the City, so we want to get another venue around here basically to capitalise on the demand that we have been turning away."

Original Article: www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/business/goingforgrowth

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