Go big or go home? We’d rather go medium-sized and stay out

From Dot Dot Dot founder, Katharine Hibbert

It’s an amazing thing to be celebrating Dot Dot Dot’s 13th birthday this summer, and as a founder it’s particularly great to be marking it with a team who continue to renew and develop our approaches.

Why we’re in it for the long haul

My goal, when I started Dot Dot Dot in 2011, was to build a social enterprise which would be reliable and resilient.  Our aim has always been to house hundreds of people and support property owners with large, long-term regeneration schemes.

Since the beginning, we’ve aimed for sustainable growth. That means we didn’t start with a big sales operation then worry later about how to deliver the work.  For a start, I didn’t think that would persuade the smart people responsible for big projects.  Plus, the mess you’d make of people’s homes if it didn’t work out would be unthinkable, especially given that our reason for existence is to improve lives in a housing crisis. Startup slogans like “go big or go home” don’t sound so good when you’re dealing with people’s actual homes, and “move fast and break things” is a very bad plan when you’re responsible for large blocks of flats.

Back at the beginning, I decided the slow-burn approach would be better, if it meant we could keep on burning for years to come.  This approach went against the grain of the 2010s startup scene, which was dominated by maximising investment from venture capitalists.  Many founders aimed to achieve scale fast and with the widest possible audience before selling the business.  But today, more than a decade on, we’re a team of 25, housing hundreds of people across the country and supporting them to give tens of thousands of hours to good causes each year.

And we still have ambitious plans for what’s next.

Building relationships that stand the test of time

Rather than seeking growth wherever we could find it, we focus on finding the property owners and residents whose needs are a good match with the work we are best placed to deliver.  We work with property owners carrying out complex regeneration schemes who care about their impact on those living nearby.  We also look for would-be residents who are good neighbours and who make a positive contribution to their communities while being flexible enough to make the most of life as a property guardian.

This approach has resulted in working relationships which have lasted for many years – and in some cases nearly as long as we have been in business.  We are still working with some housing association clients who we first delivered work for more than a decade ago, and we have several guardians who have lived with us for nearly as long, moving from home to home as projects have started and finished.

What’s next?

We aim to continue to provide housing that makes a positive difference for years to come, so we are still focusing as hard as ever on being a dependable partner for property owners and a reliable housing provider for those who join us as guardians.

We continue to make sure, as we have for 13 years, that the business is on a solid financial footing and that our risks are well-managed. Looking after hundreds of buildings, of different types and ages, and in dozens of locations, means endless work to keep our safety information up to date, and to stay on top of the challenges that individual buildings present.  Similarly, as a business which takes on large numbers of properties at some points and gives them back to their owners in large volumes at others, solid cash reserves and careful financial planning are indispensable.  It might not be glamourous, but it is essential.

And while we use our existing systems to deliver good work, we also continue to iterate them, and to run pilots to see whether larger-scale change could be beneficial. Already this year, we’ve brought in new services to smooth the process of onboarding residents, and are trialling a new platform for managing repairs.  We’re looking at new ways to assess the investments we make in the properties we take on, and we’re launching new marketing approaches to reach people who’d be well suited to our housing.

We also continue to build relationships with new property owners and new potential residents – this month we expect to start work on a large regeneration scheme in London with a housing association we haven’t previously worked with and we’re looking forward to housing many excellent new guardians there.  And meanwhile, we’re taking on new work with existing clients whilst also giving back homes we’ve managed for years.

So it’s great to still be in business 13 years on, but even better to feel that we’re continuing to review and improve the ways we create social impact and serve our residents and property owning partners.  That’s how we hope to celebrate many more birthdays into the future.