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Sophie Lee - Founder, SPACE4

Sophie Lee
'It really makes it all worthwhile when I receive an email from a member telling me they have found a flatmate on the website and how happy they are, or just thanking us for creating the site in the first place and telling us how much they appreciate it.'






What is SPACE4?

SPACE4 stands for Single Parent Accommodation & Childcare Exchange. It is a national online database of single parents who are looking to share accommodation and/or childcare with other single parents. Parents can search the site for others who live in their area who they can combine resources with.

In Australia one in four children will experience divorce, and research shows that costs connected to single parenting can rise by up to 60 per cent after separation – with most of these costs relating to housing. SPACE4 aims to assist parents who are going through a significant change in their standard of living during these times.

When and how did you get the idea for SPACE4?

SPACE4 was launched in March 2007. The whole concept was based on my own experience of being a single mum. My husband and I separated when my daughter was two and it had a huge financial impact. We were renting at the time and I could not afford to stay where we were living on our own.

A friend of mine, with a daughter the same age, separated the same week and we ended up house-sharing for 18 months. My entire family is based overseas so having someone there who understood what I was going through provided me with huge emotional support.

Aside from the obvious financial benefits, I have no doubt that my life would have been quite different had that support not been there. I knew I had been lucky to know someone else going through the same thing at the right time, and I wanted to create an organisation that allowed others the same opportunity.

What jobs did you have before you started your business?

I spent my early 20s working in the jewellery and gemstone industry, which was a lot of fun and led to a lot of travel overseas. After my daughter was born I worked in the fashion and surf industry as a finance manager before setting up my bookkeeping agency, The Accounts Studio, nearly four years ago. The benefit of having worked for a lot of small companies is that, whatever your position, your role ends up being very hands-on and, as a result, I have managed to obtain a really broad knowledge of all aspects of running a business.

What qualifications do you have?

I have a Bachelor of Arts in Languages and Business. Most of the benefits of the business side of the degree have probably been outdated by the huge changes in the business world in the last 20 years, primarily because of the Internet.

What do you do on a daily basis?

SPACE4 is set up to run itself on a daily basis. Weekly tasks include updating the database, checking through new profiles that have been posted, taking calls from parents and not-for-profit (NFP) organisations who are referring new members (any member referred by an NFP is automatically given free membership), sending mailouts of urgent accommodation requests to our database and media requests. There is also constant work to be done from a PR point of view to keep the site in the media and let parents know we exist.

Do you employ staff?

I use virtual staff - I have a web designer based in the UK, and a graphic designer and VA (virtual assistant) who are Australia-based. I also use a contractor for my other business, The Accounts Studio, who helps out with the administration side of SPACE4 for a few hours each week as needed.

FYI A virtual assistant is an independent worker who provides services to companies from their own homes. They rely heavily on technology to communicate with employers and clients. They may answer telephones, offer editing and proofreading services, do word processing, build websites, offer tech support, translation and legal assistance, and more.

What are the pros and cons of running an online business?

The benefits are that you can set up a viable business that reaches customers worldwide with minimal overheads, and you can easily and quickly change products and the direction of the business within a few hours. These days you can set up an online business very cheaply but you need to make sure you research the type of business – some categories have been flooded in the last few years which makes it very hard to compete. Other benefits are that you can run the business from home and at any time of the day or night. The downside would be that, as it is a 24-hour business, you never really switch off.

What kind of research did you do before starting your business?

I did a huge amount of research on the best way to structure an online business so that it involved minimal human intervention once up and running. I also spent about six months researching and writing the content for the site, and designing the layout. I wanted a site that had a really positive visual impact and was easy for people to use.

What was the hardest part of getting your business off the ground?

Finding a way to get the website built for an affordable price. Because it is database-driven, the initial quotes I received were way out of my price range. I was pretty determined to find a way though – I could not understand why in this day and age of modern technology it was still going to cost so much. After a bit of digging I discovered where you can get a website built offshore for a fraction of the price. The final cost to get the site built was one eighth of the original quote.

How do you advertise?

Most of the members who come to the site now come from word-of-mouth or Google advertising. We were lucky to get a lot of free PR in the first 12 months, including many of the parenting magazines, A Current Affair and Today Tonight. In the early days we did try various paid advertising opportunities but these generally did not work so well for us. We have a comprehensive tracking system of how members hear about us and so now only concentrate on the methods that we know work well.

Many small businesses struggle in the first three years. Is SPACE4 profitable for you?

SPACE4 is still only 18 months old. We invested quite a bit in the first few months in order to launch with a strong market presence. We regularly keep track of our budget and any profits are currently reinvested.

The aim was to get SPACE4 into a position where it has a strong database and reputation, and then approach companies to advertise on the site. This is where we foresee the growth of the site since our target market are generally not in a strong financial position, and we try to keep membership fees to a minimum to take that into account.

Do you receive feedback from your clients? Does this affect the way you run SPACE4?

I do and yes it does. It really makes it all worthwhile when I receive an email from a member telling me they have found a flatmate on the website and how happy they are, or just thanking us for creating the site in the first place and telling us how much they appreciate it. The fact that people take the time to write to us is really appreciated. We also encourage members to give feedback on the site and our monthly newsletter, and take all comments and criticisms on board.

Do you have a healthy work-life balance?

Absolutely not! But I am working on it. During the first 12 months I was working 18-hour days, seven days a week. As I had another full-time business to run, SPACE4 was dealt with at nights and on weekends. These days I am slightly better. I recently moved both businesses to a commercial office space and, as a result, I am finding it easier to not work at night. The hardest thing is that there is a never-ending list of things to do and I find it very hard to relax when I could be using that time to try to get closer to the end of the list. One of the things I enjoy most is developing strategies and planning for the future, which unfortunately means that my brain is pretty much constantly on the go.

What are the challenges facing single parents today?

For most single parents there is a huge drop in their standard of living after separation. Many are forced to move out of their current homes and often have to move their children to a school in another area. For those paying mortgages, they suddenly find they can no longer keep up with payments, and those renting can be overlooked for tenants who are in a more stable financial position. In addition to this, many single mothers find it impossible to go back to full-time employment, as the cost of childcare is just too high and often hard to find.

What is your advice for those hoping to start their own business?

Find something that you feel passionately about – you don't necessarily have to reinvent the wheel – and look at what others are doing and what you think you can do better.

Online business in particular can be a very cost effective way to start out as it can be done without you having to give up your day job and for minimal financial investment.

Also, start mixing and networking with people who are in business for themselves. It will make you realise that there is a whole parallel universe of people who have found an alternative to being an employee, and that it is more than attainable.

Finally, you absolutely have to believe in what you are doing. There will be times when things don't go according to plan and it will all just seem too much – those are the times when you have to be 100 per cent behind what you are doing.

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