Article:

Home-Fresh: a construction chemicals start-up going global

07 September 2021

Banishing bad bacteria and building freshness into homes and workspaces, Home-Fresh® serves to assist the residential and commercial construction and home improvement markets, domestically and internationally. 

We spoke with Jigna Varu, CEO of Home-Fresh – a new brand spun out of its sister company, Micro-Fresh, that featured on The Sunday Times Fast Track in 2018.  Jigna has been listed as one of the UK's Top Female Rising Stars.

We spoke with Jigna Varu, CEO of Home-Fresh.

 

Can you talk us through the growth journey Home-Fresh has been on over the past 12 months?

I joined Micro-Fresh, Home-Fresh's sister brand, in 2013 with little experience – and I was almost instantly given an amazing opportunity to work on a project funded by Innovate UK to look for a solution to prevent the growth of mould in buildings, which is what Home-Fresh does. So, I’ve been working on this product for the last seven or eight years, it’s my baby. Once you put our Home-Fresh technology into plaster or paint, it prevents mould. I did a proof of concept and developed a prototype. Last October I took the plunge to launch the business. We were in the pandemic but there is no good time to launch a new brand or a new product.

Growing up in South London I was surrounded by mould in my own home, we were living in a council flat, people still accept mould in their own homes, and I am thinking, why?

 

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What has worked well?

Knowing we have an innovation that can really change our industry. Customers are always looking for a USP. People in construction can now say their buildings are different to others because of Home-Fresh.

We’re trying to raise the standard of living, so that it’s no longer acceptable to have mould in people’s homes. It’s about the workplace too, and hospitals and universities.

What is the outlook for your business growth in the coming 12 months?

We are growing. I’ve got eight people in my team now. We’re going for global brands [as customers]. In the construction industry, deals can take a good seven months to complete. Home-Fresh is already being used in the UK in a 70-bed student accommodation development in Birmingham and I'm due to deliver my first international contract in Abu Dhabi, I just can't mention who yet!

Looking ahead, will you continue any adaptation you made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

I’ve struggled with zoom meetings because I am such a people person. I feed off the energy in the room. With the pandemic and having to work with a screen, it’s been difficult. I believe it’s held back some of my deals. It would have been easier to fly out, take samples and treat buildings while I was out there. I can’t wait to get on a flight and go and talk shop internationally.

Some of my team liked working from home and didn’t want to come back into the office, so they ended up leaving the business. I could be a bit flexible, but with home working, there are so many things you miss out on as a team – such as conversations about what’s happening with a customer.

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Many sectors continue to experience a skills shortage coming out of the pandemic. Are you finding it difficult to find the right people?

With the new generations and new graduates, I am finding more and more that they see success as being on Love Island. But what I am looking for is really hungry people who have the same vision as I do and who want to give it their all.

You need to have the right people, with the right values. I believe skills can be learnt, but you have to have that hunger.

What have you found works well with attracting and retaining good employees?

We have used advertising on LinkedIn and we have used agencies in the past. But the best people are found when you are out networking. They are in a job, but you get to know what their real values are about. You should always keep your eyes open for good people, because you never know when you are going to bump into them.

It doesn’t matter to me if someone has a degree or not or comes from a different field. I am happy to give them an opportunity and teach them the right skills. I will move people between roles to help them find their passion. Good people are hard to find. If someone good comes along, you keep hold of them.

I’ve learnt that you don’t always have to like the people you work with. What matters most is that they can do what’s right for the business and their values are aligned.

How do you think your workforce will change over the next 12 months?

I am looking to expand my team. I am also looking to open international offices in the next 12 months. One thing that attracts people is being able to travel with their jobs. I think the founding members of my team, if they want the opportunity, would be the best brand ambassadors for Home-Fresh to build our presence internationally.

How do you encourage people into STEM careers?

In Indian culture, we are encouraged to become a doctor, dentist, lawyer or accountant. I do a lot of mentoring. I tell young people that having a passion for science doesn’t mean you have to be a doctor or a dentist. Being an entrepreneur and starting your own business is satisfying on another level. You are never going to get bored of it. You can make science into whatever you want. We formulated Home-Fresh using chemistry. I am all about sexifying science.  

One thing I do always say is: if you wouldn’t quit on a good day, why would you quit on a bad day?

 

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How have you found the balance between thinking strategically about your business vs. dealing with operational changes and challenges presented by the past 12 months?

When you are running your own business, you don’t have a choice. You have to keep going. You never know what is going to turn up tomorrow. I’m in construction, but also the chemical industry both heavily regulated industries. One thing we have been affected by is Brexit and the uncertainty it brings to business owners, as we like to be told where we stand, regardless of whether it's good news or bad. For example, we get raw materials from Europe and manufacture over here in Leicester, Brexit has created an extra barrier. It’s like doing business with any country outside the EU heavily filled with bureaucracy and dealing with different regulations and taxes. This can be a huge drain on a start-up business where resources are low anyway but you have got to make the best of the opportunity in front of you.

Do you have any advice for business leaders looking to ensure they continue to see the ‘bigger picture’ during times of uncertainty?

Just like life, you have good days and bad days. I tend to ‘bank’ my good days, ready for a bad day.  Problems or challenges are never as bad as they seem. There may be someone in your network who has faced those challenges. I have three types of network: my team in the business, my friends and family, and my professional network. Sometimes you need that hard business advice you can only get from someone in your professional network.

What do you see as being the main growth opportunity for your business in the coming 12 months?

As terrible as the COVID-19 pandemic has been, it has made everyone aware of viruses and bacteria. It made people more aware of the impact their surroundings can have on them. People were spending more time indoors.

This is an opportunity for us. Home-Fresh prevents the growth of mould and also has air-purifying qualities. We have done research that has found that indoor air quality is so much more terrible than we think.  We want to raise standards of living, for people in social housing as well as others.

What do you see as being the biggest risk to your business’ growth in the coming 12 months?

Brexit has had an effect on raw materials. There have been hikes in prices and shortages in some areas, so lead times have increased.

You always need a plan to mitigate risks. We produce in house in Leicester, but are looking at alternative sources as well. Because of COVID-19 business casualties, there is a lot of warehousing space available. We are weighing up the pros and cons of holding stock, which will have an impact on cashflow.

The other risk I see in the business is people. You do need the right people.  Sales people can be around short term, but hopefully the right people will stay on the long-term journey.

Where do you see the main growth opportunities for your business?

Although I’ve started the business in Leicester, I didn’t want to keep it local. I’m all about going global. The Far East, the Emirates and India are key markets.

I’ve found it so much easier doing business internationally – that people are more open to innovation. Some European countries class mould as a pathogen. So landlords want to Home-Fresh their buildings to retain their tenants and keep money coming in.

Remember the good days and don’t forget to celebrate your wins. But most importantly don’t forget to have fun because fun is key!

 

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What learnings could you share with other business leaders for the coming 12 months?

Don’t give up. If we can survive the COVID-19 pandemic, we can survive anything. So focus on the good days, don’t forget to celebrate your wins and have fun.

Innovation is so important for business growth. Not just innovating in your product or services, but in your strategy, processes and the way you work.

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