“May you live in interesting times” is a curse often attributed to the Chinese, even though its origins haven’t been confirmed beyond doubt. Bulgarians, on the other hand, can be heard saying to their foes: “May a handyman enter your home.” Silly as it seems, this is the byproduct of many a home repair gone wrong, dozens of burst pipes and hundreds of simple renovation jobs that dragged on for months taking a toll on the homeowners’ bank account and nerves. Where some people see a crisis and invent new curse phrases, however, others see an opportunity and start a business instead. Meet the founders of MaistorPlus, a Sofia-based startup that takes a collective fear and turns it into a successful business model.
A business spurred by disaster
When Stoyan Irinkov’s seemingly innocuous home renovation led to a flood of epic proportions, he discussed his frustration with former schoolmates Bozhidar Iliev and Boris Sanchez. The former, having worked in the construction sector, struggled with the lack of venues that offer access to customers, while the latter had some web design experience. The unlikely trio discussed the mythical quality of handymen in Bulgaria, whose clients are forced to rely on word-of-mouth fame alone and often get it wrong, with disastrous results such as an impromptu swimming pool in the living room. “It is a complicated process,” says Bozhidar. “You need to ask relatives and friends, they may know somebody but aren’t ready to give you a guarantee. Every household ends up needing a handyman sooner or later, but there isn’t a platform where you can easily reach them, let alone compare reviews.”
The team named the platform after the Bulgarian word for handyman, ‘maistor’ Photo credit: MaistorPlusGrabbing the opportunity in what others see as a nightmare, the trio started working on their project, MaistorPlus, a platform for choosing the best handymen based on offers and ratings. Naming the business after the Bulgarian word for home improvement professional, “maistor”, they started by comparing notes with foreign companies in the sector and incorporating the features that they thought would work best on the local market.
They created a platform where people can post ads for free, describing their needed renovation, specifying the type of repairs, the location, their budget and timeline. Once the ad is posted, they receive offers from the registered handymen and weigh them based on customer feedback. When the job is complete, they are urged to submit a review of the job and the handyman. Clients have over 40 categories to choose from with ads ranging from small-budget tasks such as repainting a wall to complete projects, like building a house or constructinga road.
“Interestingly, some of our clients include big construction companies, looking for subcontractors on a certain task. Say they are building a mall, for example, and they need someone to provide all the lighting. With a single ad, they can reach a number of companies through the platform and weigh their options,” says Bozhidar.
Navigating uncharted financial waters
Although the platform now boasts about 30.000 unique visits a month, at first, financing was an issue and they all kept their jobs, working on MaistorPlus on the side. “When we started with this product, there were no accelerators in Bulgaria. We had been bootstrapping, relying on our salaries, when we found out about a competitionby the Start It Smart club,” Bozhidar recalls. Things moved fairly quickly from there. The team was accepted to Start It Smart’s year-long programme, meeting mentors and going through all three rounds of the competition to secure the win at the end.
The MaistorPlus trio Photo credit: MaistorPlusIt was at the Start It Smart club that they met representatives of the Eleven accelerator fund. They were selected among the fund’s first 11 startups in Bulgaria to receive 25.000 euros in exchange for 8% of their company. “That’s when the real work began,” says Bozhidar. “We quit our jobs, devoting ourselves entirely to the project as per the Eleven requirements and joining their offices for the three-month-long programme.” They were successful in securing a second round of funding, another 25.000 euros, this time for 5% of the company. They were also looking for other investors in a market where the concept of business angels is still largely underdeveloped and ended up with support from two – Bozhidar’s father and a friend of the family. “We did not launch a big funding campaign, although we saw some interest from business angels. We chose to work with people close to us, to preserve our independence in making decisions,” says Bozhidar.
One of the complicated decisions was the revenue stream – currently the end customer doesn’t pay to post an ad, but the handymen do need to shell out a membership fee to be present on the platform. The team has faced some online criticism over this model, but Bozhidar believes it’s a fair one: “In reality, we are giving the handymen a platform to reach customers that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. They know the annual fees and can spread them out over the price of the repairs. Also, a happy client will increase their word-of-mouth advertising and is likely to directly contact them again when the need arises.”
The company still hasn’t quite made it in the green and it has led to some tough discussions over the past year. “Our families were with us, to a point,” says Bozhidar, “but eventually they started doubting us, asking why we would do this, when it has nothing to do with our university degrees.” The team ended the first fiscal year on a significant loss, and as the second draws to an end, they still have to tap in their capital. “We are close to breaking even, though,” Bozhidar says with an expectant smile. “If not this month then the next we will be at that point.”
Reviews – the backbone of the business
But what is it that keeps a business like this going? “Reputation,” Bozhidar answers without hesitation. In a country, where the service industry is infamously bad at client interaction, the trio is committed to making the end client’s experience a priority. “We hold interviews with our prospective handymen and will not take on a new one, if they come out as rude or cannot write a proper sentence – even if it means missing out on revenue.” The fact that their business relies heavily on the reviews submitted after every job means that negative reviews often lead to people dropping out from the platform, as they do not get jobs anymore.
Because of their dedication to the quality of the platform’s offers, the team finds the most difficult aspect of expanding to other markets to be finding a good partner. “We place a great importance on fact-checking, we make sure handymen are not posting bogus ads and then pretending to have done the job well to boost their reputation,” says Bozhidar. “We also interview each one and monitor their performance, so this requires a reliable partner, who speaks the local language.”
And the team seem to have come a long way.
“Despite all the naysayers, here we are, a year later, with over 2.000 registered professionals, many return customers and many new ones saying they have been recommended the platform by a friend,” he says, but doesn’t downplay the hardships. “Am I worried about competition locally? No. Knowing what we’ve been through this past year, the person who tries to do what we do would have to be an extremely brave one,” he adds with a hint of a smile.
In the future, the MaistorPlus trio plans on rolling out the service in the region, with partnerships in Romania, Greece and Turkey, possibly under the more universally recognised name MeisterPlus. They are also mulling the option of spin-off platforms locally, focused on other word-of-mouth dominated services, such as babysitting and cleaning. And while they are working on that, this reporter plans to focus on battling the national fear and finally calling a handyman for the broken washing machine. One with good reviews, of course.