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Sam Parton talks about his unique sports business

Clear Books spoke to Sam Parton, founder of OpenPlay - a digital platform that connects the public with sports facilities and activities. Sam discusses how his experiences of managing an under fifteen football team led him to create OpenPlay, and talks about being part of the launch team for WhipCar, the first neighbour to neighbour car rental service.

Why did you start OpenPlay and what do you do?

OpenPlay was born out of frustration. I was managing an under fifteens football team and was struggling to find venues to play at. We often had last minute cancellations so I found the whole experience a bit of a nightmare. At the same time, regulating and getting enough players each week was also a nightmare, one week we would have nine, maybe eight and the next week we would have 16.

This was back in 2012 and I thought that the internet had developed a lot and I thought this was something the internet could make a lot better. So I started researching it, and noticed that it was incredibly backwards and it still is really, hugely public sector dominated in terms of who manages sports facilities and activity provision, so I thought I would like to do something about it.

So as I said, it was born out of personal frustration, and I wanted to create something that would solve a personal problem and hopefully do the same for a lot of other people, and although it’s early days, thankfully it seems to be doing that.

So OpenPlay has been around for 3 years now?

It’s difficult to gauge really because I actually quit Whipcar in February 2013 to pursue OpenPlay full time, but the way I actually started the business was on the side, and using some offshore developers very cheaply created essentially a database and a really basic website and started manually adding venues into it. The first version was terrible but I just did it in the evenings and on the weekends which got something up and off the ground and it went from there really. What really allowed me to leave Whipcar (my previous business) was meeting my co-founder who is a web and mobile developer, to build a booking system and actually make OpenPlay a business.

What would you say you particularly enjoy about working in the recreational sports industry?

Well, it’s mentally challenging. Trying to modernise and give an industry which has been so slow to digitise a kick up the backside is mentally challenging but also very rewarding, for example writing loads of lines of web code. What’s helped me to do it is the knowledge that I’m connecting people to sports venues, each other , to activities, and really generally saving a lot of other people time.

I’m very passionate about sport— it’s the thing that gets me up in the morning — but knowing that I’m working to do this for other people and saving them a lot of time, hassle and money —what’s better than that really? It’s pretty easy to get up in the morning and work on it.

How would you differentiate yourself from your competitors, if there are any?

I’ve noticed that there are a couple of people who have seen what we’ve done and thought it was a good idea so they start doing it as well which is quite natural. I think where we differentiate ourselves is going for the hardest part, which is the public sector, and getting credibility with local authorities and some of the sports bodies like Sports England. It’s really really hard to do because it’s about building up your brand image and building a rapport with them and It’s taken us a long time. We’ve recently won our first tender with a local authority, and anyone who has ever worked with a local authority knows how slow they move.

If you look at sports provision, depending on which area of the market you go for, we’ve gone for the more recreational team sports in parks, schools, community sites and to some extent leisure centres, and that differentiates us. I think pretty much everyone else I know is going for the fitness industry, which is studios, cycle classes and private gyms, so that’s how we differentiate ourselves. I would say what we’re doing is a lot harder, but the impact is bigger in terms of the number of people who use the municipal areas.

What was the biggest challenge when you were setting up your business?

I think creating the first initial booking system was very challenging because we had to guess how it might work and created something which was hopeless so we had to go back to the drawing board, and getting the first paying customer was a huge challenge and breakthrough. We’re a marketplace and when you think about it, when you start, you’re trying to tell people you can get them more customers, but you don’t even have any users, so it’s a difficult sell since you’re almost blagging it at the beginning and I think that was certainly the greatest challenge.

Who would you say was your biggest inspiration when setting up the business?

This might sound a bit corny, but someone like Richard Branson really is because he took on British Airways when he started and, to some extent with us, although it’s not really comparable, it feels like we’re taking on a very slow moving, incumbent industry that is heavily public sector dominated. The fact that he was able to do what he did facing a massive, great big company like British Airways is very inspirational. I think the likes of someone like Elon Musk who sent spaceships into space, and who came so close to failure doing so; I think you can draw a great deal of inspiration from that. I’ve also got a friend who started a business from scratch and proved very successful was more of a personal inspiration.

I come from a family of entrepreneurs, my dad started his own business, and my grandad started his own porkpie factory, so to some extent it’s in my blood, so I drew inspiration from them too.

What would a normal day look like to you?

It’s quite varied at the moment because we’re fundraising so I’m spending a lot of time with investor decks and meeting ageing investors, but we’re also working heavily on development. We’ve got two apps, one for consumers that is taking up a lot of my time at the moment helping to design it, user test it, and speak to customers. We’re only a small team still so unfortunately I still have a fair amount of administration just in keeping the business going, but thankfully some of the heavily lifting has been helped by various tools, one of which is Clear Books for bookkeeping, liasing with my accountant and things like that. It’s just about managing my time at the moment, but we’re looking at taking someone on after we fundraise because it’s becoming pretty busy now.

How would you say Clear Books has changed the way you do your accounts?

When I started, I didn’t have a clue about accounts and although we have some accountants who we pay a monthly fee, I chose to do our own bookkeeping and when I first started I just used Microsoft Excel. Clear Books was recommended to me by a friend at a company called HireSpace because I noticed he invoiced me using Clear Books so I asked him what it was. When I got my head around it, I set up my account.

I do my bookkeeping every Saturday morning by going through what we spent for the week and our earnings and just have a regular routine. I whack it into Clear Books which is really useful to me, particularly with fundraising at the moment because I click a button and I have downloaded a profit and loss forecast for the year or the last two years which makes it really easy to show that, and you can make lots of pretty graphs when you need to. As long as you’re in a routine of regularly doing your bookkeeping, you save so much time. It is really really useful.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting their own business, or has just started their own business?

The advice I can give is more from the perspective of a digital or technical business since I don’t have much experience of bricks and mortar although I think it’s interesting. I would say that if you’ve got an idea, just try and get something up even if it’s ugly and you’re maybe even a bit ashamed of your first version. It doesn’t really matter, just get something out there, try and get it in front of some users and try and prove that your idea has legs as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible. Stop talking about it and get something out there. If you speak to anyone who has started their own business, they’ve probably made mistakes, sometimes catastrophic, and that’s just part of it. You’ve got to learn from them and eventually laugh at them, and just keep going. Something a lot of people forget is just enjoy the challenge, it’s incredibly tough and emotionally will test every aspect of you, but it’s also very rewarding at the same time. Enjoy the highs, but expect lots of lows as well, it’s not easy.

To find out more about Sam Parton, take a look at the OpenPlay website.

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