Learn the secrets of being a small business owner from successful woman entrepreneur Penina First.
What is a â€œlast-minuteâ€ business? Business blogs urge you to plan ahead, but the failure to plan leads to Penina Firstâ€™s success.
Penina First is the CEO and founder of Swifto, which is an online marketplace for last minute needs. She is also an award winning entrepreneur and has won a number of competitions such as the Exit ’09 competition in 2009 and the Prime Minister’s Award for Innovation in 2010. She recently was a finalist at the Cartier Women’s Initiative awards.
A few months ago, I interviewed Penina on my weekly Goldstein on Gelt show. Below is a transcript from this interview. To watch a video of the interview with Penina, scroll down to the middle of the page.
Penina First: Swifto, like its name, is for things that you need fast. The thought behind Swifto is that there are different solutions for different problems that people have in their day-to-day life, but none of the marketplaces that currently exist are designed for the things that you need urgently. If you think about different situations where you’re really aggravated, whether it’s because you’re in a real hurry and you have to clean up your house at the last minute, or maybe you are having a party and you didn’t have time to organize something, or maybe you forgot something, all you have to do is last minute and a lot of these problems can be solved easily with people nearby. The thought behind Swifto was basically to solve those problems by connecting the person who needs something with people around that can help.
Douglas Goldstein: What inspired you to start Swifto?
Penina First: When it started, Swifto was a marketplace for last-minute workers, where if the worker would call in sick, the client would be able to post a request and get a last-minute waiter, cleaner, or dog walker. The reason why I was inspired to build it was because at that time, my husband was running a computer lab and his only worker kept calling in sick, and every time the worker called in sick, my husband was stuck. As he was a student at the time, he didn’t actually go to the lab and he had to close the shop for the day. It made me realize that if there would be a really easy way to connect people that need something urgently with other people that can help, it would solve a lot of problems.
Penina First: It started out being used by companies and now we’ve expanded it to individuals. Just recently, we launched a campaign for dog walking. Let’s say you’re stuck and maybe you’re not feeling so well, but you still need to take your dog out. You can’t just go and contact dog walking companies, see who is available, and sign a contract because you need someone to take a dog out today. That’s the type of thing that we solve. We focus on things that you need urgently. Basically, it’s suitable for so many things and so many problems that people have in their day-to-day life.
Douglas Goldstein: What would be the response time?
Penina First: For example, with dog walking, we commit to finding someone at your house to walk your dog within the hour. Let’s say your dog is really nervous and he wants to get walked, but you don’t feel like taking him or maybe you have some other commitment that you have to do. From the time you post the request until someone is at your door, it will take an hour.
In a way, if you think about it, it’s a way to solve problems with other people that are looking to earn money and they want it. The people are really keen about being dog walkers, as an example. They are looking to earn money and it’s a good flexible job that doesn’t commit anything. For you, having someone to come to get your dog is a real time saver and it’s a really big thing for you. It’s just a question of connecting the person who needs something with people around that could help, and that’s really the key thing to Swifto.
Douglas Goldstein: Do a lot of these jobs end up becoming long term or are they really only one at a time?
Penina First: When we started this business, we found that sometimes the employer ended up hiring the person for longer periods. However, those same employers keep on coming back again and again because they keep on getting stuck in other situations. If we speak about a waiter, for example, and someone has an event tonight and a few waiters called in sick and he needs someone urgently for tonight, he may hire that person that he found again and again. But the person who is in charge of the company is going to get back again, and they get stuck so often in this situation so they use us again and again for other workers. They may hire the waiter, but then something else happens. The cleaning person doesn’t come in and then the bus boy doesn’t arrive. There are always situations like that.
Douglas Goldstein: Is it a quality type of service as opposed to being a low-price provider?
Penina First: Yes. The thing is that when you’re really looking for something desperately, price is a little bit less of an issue. Sometimes, when you’re in a situation where you just need help, you would pay any price for it to happen, although our pricing is actually pretty cheap. For dog walking, for example, we charge $20 for a half an hour walk. It’s not like that’s a real issue now.
Douglas Goldstein: You’ve actually run this company both in New York and Israel? What are the differences?
Penina First: There are many differences. First of all, in Israel, you find that people are more into having strangers. In Israel, for example, we didn’t do any background checks and that was very acceptable and very normal, and people had no issues with that. In New York, that’s when we started doing it, and everyone was asking “Did you talk to people? Did you review them? Do you know them?” We realized that we have to really know all the people we work with. We have to background check and review them. That’s one major thing that we changed.
We found that, in a way, Israel is more casual than New York. There are different things, such as on the site. We tailored different features for New York and for Israel that would suit each environment.
Douglas Goldstein: In the system, when the person shows up to walk your dog, do you just hand them the $20 or does Swifto get involved?
Penina First: When you ask for the dog walker, you may say, “I need that dog walker to arrive at the house within the hour,” which is the typical case, although you could specify different times and then you pay. You put the $20 in the system. We are actively using technology to seek out an available dog walker. We have potential candidates and we contact them by Smart Phone alerts, SMS, or by email telling them about the specific offer that’s just been posted, and the first person who responds takes the job and goes to the client’s house. The payment has been made already before, so the client doesn’t have to pay the dog walker, and then the dog walker at the end gets paid by us. He could collect the money online.
If there’s any problem, such as if someone’s not happy with how he walked the dog or whatever problem there is, we always make sure that we refund the full price. It’s very, very important for us for everyone to be really happy. We found that because we have this 100% full refund policy, the percentage of people that ask for it is relatively low because we really make sure that we do a good job when we do it.
Douglas Goldstein: If you’re speaking to other young entrepreneurs looking to get into business, do you have one piece of advice that you could share with them?
Penina First: I have a few but the first thing I would say is that when this company started I was a student. I was 22, and I was doing my masters in biotechnology. I always wanted to start a company, but you read about it in the newspapers and you hear about it on television and whatever, and you think there’s like a science to it. You have to write the business in this way, you have to make a presentation, you have to talk in a specific language, and you would think that there are rules to it.
While I was in a competition, people were very experienced and had a career for 40 years, but at the end of the day, I won out of 300 competitors. So what it made me realize is that it’s not about being a professional. It’s not about saying the right thing or doing it by a specific recipe. It’s really about common sense and logic in everything. Everything about a company is common sense when it comes to how the form should like. It is common sense to do what’s right. It is common sense how to treat your customers. Everything is common sense, and it’s much easier than it sounds. Once you realize that, I think you’re very motivated to do it because most people have common sense.
Douglas Goldstein: Do you have another project in mind?
Penina First: No, it’s a company. I’ve been working on it for two years. I already have 10 employees here. I’m going to be here for a while.
Douglas Goldstein: How can people follow you and your company?
Penina First: To reach the company, go to www.swifto.com and open a request there. Me, specifically, you can’t really follow. I’m pretty private.
Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for investment advice that takes into account each individual’s special position and needs. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns.