A Day in The Life: Interview with Sebastian Ross, Founder of Freshmover
This week, we met Sebastian Ross, an inspiring visionary who is developing three businesses along the central theme of “community”. Although he exudes the spirit of a natural entrepreneur, he is not a big fan of the word, humbly reflecting, “it gives the idea of some sort of success doesn’t it?” and preferring to call himself a “serial ideas man” or “serial dreamer”. We would argue that he is all three. Having studied Philosophy at Edinburgh University, a chance encounter at a Bob Dylan concert led his career to an unconventional start as that of a professional card counter. He spent two adventurous years winning and losing (sometimes) on the global casino circuit before deciding to build something for himself and the greater good of the communities surrounding his home in East London. Recently awarded a grant of £25,000 by the New Entrepreneurs Foundation to support his bespoke marketing company, Freshmover and with two other projects in the works, The Sawmill (an arts club) and Wellclose Market, to open this summer, it was a pleasure to catch him at this early stage of his business journey. With the inquisitive wandering mind of a philosopher and the bountiful courage of a true maverick, we are sure he is going to go far.
1. How would you describe yourself?
Entrepreneur gives the idea of some sort of success doesn’t it? So maybe Serial Ideas Man… Or serial dreamer! I’m not a big fan of that word “entrepreneur.” I think it gets bandied around far too much.
2. What time does your day start?
So it starts at around 7am but to be perfectly honest with you, I’m one of those awful people who presses the snooze button so I’m not actually up and out of bed until 7.30. I know that that’s when I need to move…
That’s very normal behaviour!
Yeah… I spent years not really rising before noon… when gambling was my profession so to speak and casinos were my office. So it was just a you know… I genuinely didn’t think that anything worth doing happened before noon!
Were you up very late in those days?
Yes, definitely a night-owl.
3. Are you a tea or coffee person?
I’m coffee… but I wish I was tea… It’s clearly better for you and it probably has about the same effect. I think I’ve just been taken in by the marketing of it all and I like being busy. Busy people drink coffee.
How many coffees a day would you have?
I have a weird reaction to them… but I quite like that nervous energy that it gives me… so I’d say about three or four if left to my own devices.
4. Tell us a bit about your business.
Which one? Which one shall we go for?
Well you can go for all of them!
Might be a bit crowded though…
I’d say that thing that’s on the tip of my tongue is my long term goal, which is Freshmover but also the thread that runs within each of my companies, whether it is the bar, the market or Freshmover, is this idea of community and being able to galvanise that. It’s a borderline obsession which is difficult to put into words. I really enjoy communities. If I could go on holiday anywhere, it would be on a kibbutz. That idea is really strong… I grew up in a religious household and I saw what the sense of community it gave did for people and how not just how good it is but how genuinely effectively it can change lives. I always thought how having a business just for profit seems a little bit empty and starts to use people as commodities. I mean the whole idea of capitalism is based on it but I know there is a different way of doing it and it’s a little bit harder. It’s the less trodden path but I think it’s worth doing.
And you’re building a community in the physical world… Not in the online space?
I have a sort of natural inclination to bit a bit of a luddite, someone who doesn’t really like technology, which is strange because I work in data and want to make an online platform. But I think technology can also restrict us when we don’t use it for the benefit of the community. With Freshmover a lot of the techniques we use are offline, because I feel that there’s a gap in the market for really clever marketing techniques to promote an online service. I don’t think you can ever replace the feeling of say… a newspaper! While at the moment it seems like many are veering more towards digital, I don’t think print will ever be completely extinct. The merit of something handwritten is precious, it’s almost a brand ambassador in itself and that’s what was very exciting about our handwritten format. That’s why I want to take data, direct mail – which can have bad connotations – and turn them into something socially useful.
So the data we gathered was of people who wanted to be marketed to, people who had just moved into a new home, who had a fresh thirst for what was around and we could expose them to small, interesting social enterprises in their new neighbourhood. It was with that data that we make direct mail marketing more direct. And it was handwritten, so it had a personal touch. The idea was to welcome them into the community. In reality the dream is to turn the company into a C.I.C, half a charity and half a business. As our vision is for it to be handwritten by people recently out of prison.
Some of the most entrepreneurial people I’ve ever met are criminals, it sounds crazy but they are a very underused talent resource. Many are natural entrepreneurs from what I can tell – they’re taking risks in an unregulated market, they’re hard workers… They also have to do the majority of work themselves, as there isn’t really a formal structure and there’s very little support within their trades – well there is if you want to get out of that lifestyle but not if you want to get into it! I think it’s a real shame that… I think it’s two thirds of all people who go in for a one year sentence end up reoffending the next year when they’re out and then they end up back in prison. That’s two thirds! Now that’s from either one of two things… One that they’re not reformed when they come out, which is a bit beyond my paygrade to even comment on that or two, they’re not being given the correct opportunities when they’re out because employers are reluctant to hire a felon. I’d like to create a direct mail company that only hired convicts, where you’d have to have a rap sheet instead of a CV! But while it’s an interesting notion, you’d be surprised at how much red tape there is…
Could you start employing them when they’re still in the prison?
Well very interesting actually, I looked into that. What I wanted to do was set them up with calligraphy classes while still in prison but also allow them to work and write these letters while they’re there. The thing is you’re not allowed to pay anyone in prison to do work so they would be paid retrograde so when they came out, they’d have a sum of money to help them establish themselves.
A lot of people come out and they are forced to go back into crime because they don’t have anyone who’s going to hire them – there is no-one waiting to pay them a significant wage and often their family and support structures are not there and the only people they really know, like vultures, are there kind of circulating the prison cell when they come out, are these criminal gangs who know they’re good for a certain job. So I can’t believe they won’t allow recruiting in prisons but they’ll allow any old company, like a weapons company to go and recruit in universities but they won’t allow a small business go and recruit in prisons… I think it’s mad! But there you go…
5. What does Freshmover do?
It’s a marketing and advertising company for small and medium sized businesses. We do work with bespoke clients but we have a data side and a direct mail side. I can give you the bigger picture but it’s not worth putting down because it hasn’t turned into a reality yet.
The reason why I started those two was when I started looking into data for marketing my own product. It wasn’t there in the way I wanted, I wanted to find people who would actually be interested in this, I did not want to spam. People who are newly relocated to an area would be the most interested. Once I collected the data I had a good pool to market toward. The hypothesis worked and from it I started two sustainable sub-sector businesses. I’d like to push on and create an online platform that is only accessible to small and medium sized companies.
Part of me getting steeped in the data side is that it’s so incredibly important that small and medium sized businesses are not lost to the community. A lot of it comes from a passion, the data and statistics I’ve seen myself. A large amount of small and medium sized businesses have fallen by the wayside since the 70s. Collectively, they are the biggest employer in the country and they are routinely not given a fair shake. They have to compete with commercial giants who will go into an area and pricefix basically – they’ll undercut the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker… These chains will purposely work at a loss until they drive out the smaller competitor. When I say small and medium businesses, I’m talking about families also. … because that’s what they often are… families who have been part of the community for a long time and it is a pity to see their businesses being driven out.
And as a consumer, we’re not getting a great product, we’re not getting a great service. These chains have routinely evaded tax and often paying their worker a decent wage as well. I genuinely think we can do so much more for the community: workers, consumers, shareholders even. Community has this wishy washy idea, I wouldn’t put it into any marketing blurb because of these connotations but it is such a strong idea. Preserving it is going to be a fight but a worthy one.
6. What brought you to this area?
What, to where we’re sitting? Wilton’s Music Hall?!
Well no but actually, yes… Tell us about why you chose to meet here!
Wilton’s Music Hall is my favourite place in London maybe, we can even go back as far as my card counting days. I sat in the top room, this was before it was renovated, and just played cards for weeks alone.
It’s just so perfectly old. It’s the oldest music hall in the world and it hasn’t lost that kind of wonderful decrepit look. They’ve done this fantastic renovation which is so pure to the original side of the building and they’ve opened up areas I never saw
before… They’re a wonderful organisation. And it’s still a working theatre. It’s one of the most beautiful buildings in London. They do plays, gigs, just next door is where I’m planning to start this new market. It will be… and this is our tagline… “London’s newest market on London’s oldest square”.
It will be called Wellclose Market. A bit like Wilton’s, it has this fantastic history. It was a complete square at one point and if you go into the history of it, it’s so rich and it’s about recapturing something of that. Now one edge has now become a car park… They built high rises up there… I almost feel that with a lot of the high rise stuff, you lose a lot of the community aspects of a place, just because there isn’t enough enough space and it feels a bit like a rabbit warren but it would be great to bring something to that area and crucially bring this kind of artisan food market, We plan to have 50% of the stalls for startups and hire them for a reduced cost for the community. They will be our first takers so I want them to have priority. And while it also has to have a commercial aspect, I think part of the reason why I’m doing it and the reason why we’re doing it is to create life on a square that had so much life on it before but has lost it through the ages. It’s got a fantastic church in the middle which has been turned into a school and they’ve got this great crypt down in the cellar, it’s really quite striking.
And is the launch close?
Yes so we were going to start in mid July but we pushed it back to August because we want to actually expand it… we have a performing arts centre in the community centre with a whole host of different acts coming through. So there’s a performance area, there’s a food area and then there’s an artisan area.
How will you get the artisans and the food suppliers on board?
Well it kind of feels like a redemption story. There were factors beyond my control, scattalogical or otherwise, which hindered the success of the bar I started. But out of it I have some wonderful contacts and it gives me a chance to still make something special from that. There’s already a waiting list on the artist front!
We also have two fantastic Michelin star chefs from Cuisson involved. They are going to have a weekly long table dining event right next to the old church.
7. What does your typical work day schedule look like?
I’m – if I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d hire someone to chase me around with a diary and make me a bit more structured. I’m quite flitty. I definitely have things in the diary and I’m never late, at least not usually but sometimes the days just feel like I’m
running from one thing to another, which is a completely stupid way to live… but… I like to mix it up a little bit. What was the question again?
Well it was what does your typical work day schedule look like?
8. So you’ve told us about Freshmover and the Market… Can you tell us about the Sawmill?
Well I took on the lease of this old building on Commercial Street last year. It started off as a coffee shop and bar and I wanted to develop it into a sort of Arts Club. We had a lot of supper clubs and word of mouth spread and the space became very
popular very fast. It had a very special atmosphere and we hosted some great gigs in the basement, which was small and candlelit, with these hidden alcoves… It was amazing but it is still very much in the renovation phase so we’ve had to put The
Sawmill on hold for now. It will live again though!
9. When is your most productive time of the day?
It used to be in the evenings… sort of between 12am and 3am… It’s when nobody else is around, so that I can kind of think… that’s when ideas flow for me… but I think it’s shifted now as I have more of a routine but it’s mainly outside of normal working
hours. I see productive long term as having ideas and being able to think. Obviously you get more done during working hours but long term productivity is based on kind of the ideas you come up with and how you analyse what you’re doing. If that’s the
case, than my most productive time is between 2am and 3am, just when I’m lying in bed thinking about things and nobody else is around and nobody else can disturb me.
10. What do you consider the greatest achievement in your work to date?
I don’t think anything I’ve done has been a great achievement to date.
Yes, honestly. I’m still on the journey…
Even the Sawmill? You don’t think that was an achievement?
I don’t know. I’ve become quite self-critical – in a hopeful way at least – I think the best is yet to come.
11. If there was any other job you could do, what would it be?
I’d be… Do you know Bob Dylan? Well I’m obsessed with him and he’s got this touring band called The Band and I’d like to be in The Band, behind Bob Dylan.
Do you play a musical instrument?
Well I can play the trumpet but not in any professional performance capacity… And I quite like to just sing along sometimes!
12. How does technology support your work?
The rise of data is well known to everyone but data is King and in a world where data is king it’s absolutely essential to at least find someone who knows how to handle it and your ideas can be framed. I genuinely believe that the trap most people fall into
or rather don’t understand is that If you are not paying for the product, you are the product. Data has had a bad rap but it needs a better PR man, or woman. The more honed it is, the more beneficial it can be – effective, niche. Amazon Prime is an example of this – they’re getting almost to the point where they’ll start to presend the item in the knowledge that you will probably order it.
And you don’t think there’s a problem in that? You don’t think people are going to start feeling claustrophobic?
I think people of course will, but I think Facebook is claustrophobic… It’s voyeuristic. People can get on their high horse about it but if they can see the benefits then they will generally accept it. If it’s used responsibly.
13. What is the one app you could not live without?
I’d say Headspace…. The meditation app… My friend Nick actually works for them and he’s a wonderful soul himself. Everyone who works within that company is amazing. It’s one of those wonderful times where you see the right people creating the right product for the greatest number of people and it’s lovely when you see that. It’s had such a profound effect on so many people’s lives that I know… Just being able to take ten minutes and be able to chill out.
14. What’s the best thing about working for yourself?
It’s a bit of a cursed chalice. You get to work for yourself but then you actually work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life. There’s very little reward at the start… I think understanding the realities of it…And being able to accept them… This is a bit
of a nuanced answer and doesn’t really give you an easy explanation but I think realising that it’s not all about your own benefit… It can actually become an obsession… Sorry I’m naming all the terrible things…. What’s the best thing about being an entrepreneur? I can’t think of anything except this corny idea of seeing your ideas become a reality… But the journey that you have to take to get there is so painful and so incredibly stressful, you’re not enjoying it most of the time but there is something burning within you to keep you going and it’s find out that you can actually sacrifice sometimes your relationships… Sometimes yourself and you will… you’d be surprised at how much you can sacrifice for your vision… And it’s not good but it’s the reality… I think you learn a lot more about yourself doing things by yourself rather than waiting for a paycheck and working for that reason and that reason alone…And that’s probably the thing… You grow up really fucking fast. And it’s not easy but actually things, when they’re not easy, they have a good way of giving you unintended benefits.
It can bring you to breaking point sometimes, can’t it?
Yes because when you spend so much of your time spinning plates, when one falls, they all fall and when that happens, you’re fucked. But being able to build yourself back up again… when you’re properly fucked and you’re in it, it just feels devastating,
like it’s never going to end… But then when you get passed it, you’re like oh my goodness, it’s amazing, it’s like a near-death experience, it’s quite weird… It’s like “ok, THAT’s how far I can be pushed… Ok THAT’s my breaking point… Ok I’m not
going to do THAT again!” Whatever that is… It’s just learning about yourself and that’s what life’s about, you’re supposed to end up knowing who you are at the end of it…
15. Where is your after work hangout?
It’s next to the Wiltons Music Hall… It’s called The Artful Dodger… It’s the nastiest old man pub you’ve ever been in but it’s got a pool table and I’m on their pool team with a 90-year- old woman. I love it!
16. Who is your professional role model?
A girl called Coco Fennell… She’s become a very very good friend. I saw her kind of breeze through the start of her business, you know, just be the most amazing person with no investment and build what is an amazing company with good values and good morals… She’s in the fashion industry and on the surface she is the most beautiful and wonderful woman in the world and in her heart and soul she’s doing something really good in an industry that’s actually full of very crooked values. She’s a designer and makes the most beautiful clothes for all shapes and sizes. She wants women to feel… and I never thought it was possible because I just don’t really buy fitted clothes and I suppose I don’t think about it that much… but she makes clothes that make women feel
fantastic… And they’re loud and they’re bright and they’re wonderful…And they bring out the best in the person who wears them and she’s been incredibly successful through that.
17. How do you balance your personal and professional life?
I didn’t but I’m working on it…Let’s put it that way. The trick is to stay balanced and to take a holistic approach. I went through a period when I was crushing everything besides my businesses into second place but ultimately I think that was one of my greatest failures and one of my biggest lessons was that you need to sharpen your tools… Even my friend came up with… actually not sure if he came up with it or he read it in some Chinese cracker but you know someone who cuts down a forest spends four fifths of his time cutting and one fifth sharpening his blade… So it’s allowing yourself time to do all those other things that will sharpen everything else and your mind… If you’re doing one thing and everything is just devoted to that thing, you will ultimately destroy everything you have… You will burn the house down and it will take the business with it and it will take you with it.
The tough times are part and parcel of the journey of going it alone and when you’re in them, you don’t have time to analyse, and you can’t process but looking back on it all, I feel it’s been very constructive…
18. What are the top 3 qualities you look for in an employee?
I think trustworthiness… And in a startup I think humour is more important than a lot of other traits somehow. Trustworthiness, humour and talent. Just God-given talent for the role they’ve been given… Not enthusiasm… Just talent.
19. What is the one piece of advice you would give to an entrepreneur starting out?
Don’t do it! [laughs] No no not really… that’s so untrue but you know, I don’t want to say “do it” either… I almost don’t feel as I’m in the position to give advice… As I don’t hold myself up as some great success but if someone came to me and asked me
that question, I’d say make sure you’re doing what you love, because you’re not going to be able to sustain the amount of work required to do that if you don’t have some love for what you’re doing and it can be in the weirdest nichest form but there has to be some love there.