Ehab – Norfolk’s first blockchain startup

Josh Graham is the founder of ehab.co, a Norwich based startup that is building a platform on top of the blockchain to make housing affordable for all. This is the story, in his own words, of how it got started.

The ehab story, from the beginning

Josh studied Environmental Science at UEA and Adam studies Ecology. These courses revealed the incredible damage that the modern way of life was doing to the earth and the majority of the human and animal inhabitants on it.

The natural world had in fact been under siege for the entirety of our lives, and it had been losing, heavily. An area of forest the size of South Africa had been cut down, 52% of all biodiversity had been lost since 1970, greenhouse gas emissions have been rapidly rising during our lifetimes and hardly show signs of slowing and the human population has risen from 5.5 billion to 7.5 billion. If we continue to live in the same way that we are at the moment then ecological collapse is a certainty.  That does not look pretty for anyone, or anything on this planet. At the same time billions of people are being failed by the system, they live in poverty whilst other people live in mass throw away luxury.

We therefore set out to build a property development company which would produce homes and housing developments which could be self sufficient for energy, foster a greater sense of community, have biodiverse rich green spaces and allow for the growing of food.

We founded ehabitation on the 18th of September 2015 with a vision and a general idea of how to get there. We researched build methodologies and hunted for land. We wrote a business plan and started to understand what the property development world looked like. Finding land proved very difficult but we persisted. As we continued to research we found more and more that there were lots of groups of people trying to develop the type of housing developments we had envisaged. We discovered the very niche phenomena of Co-housing and custom build. (In Denmark 10% of people live in Cohousing and this has consistently been in the top 5 happiest countries in the world.)

It was at this point we decided to try to enable these groups of people and help them develop their own custom built houses. This of course also proved difficult, people needed real solutions and many had grown frustrated with searching for a decade or more and not finding one. We had managed to procure some small grants from the UEA these however were not enough to create the service we needed to deliver.

So in the New year (2016) we were struggling to see how we could continue.

But in early February we stumbled upon an app competition the UEA student enterprise were running in conjunction with Santander. The competition was simply to submit an app idea that would help your business and a team of developers would build it for you. The team would be made up of UEA computer science students and a scrum master from industry, all of whom would be paid to work on your idea.

Why not digitise the facilitation process for community oriented house building?

We could provide information and a support service and a marketplace where groups could connect with developers and landowners to build their project.

We entered the competition and won! Which meant the 3 summer months of 2016 were spent on the lean development process, iterating and building our app. At this stage our friend Filipe became the CTO and began to input ideas into the tech team. There were bumps and hiccups as there are in any development process but eventually we had created a very bare bones MVP.

During this development process we had been attending events and networking. It was at a digitising custom build event that we met the MP Richard Bacon who was the leading politician pushing for reform around housing to make custom build an easier process. He was very supportive of  our system and continued to invite us to events and gave us speaking slots.

At the same event we also met Thomas Hoepfner of Bright Forest limited, who supported our idea and invited us to demo it at their stand at the Homebuilding and Renovating show at the Excel in London.

Being able to attend this show and get first hand feedback about the app from potential users was incredible. We made great friends, and partners to this day, and could get validation from lots of different user groups that the platform we had been building and refining could be a real business.

There was overwhelming support for the product so now we thought it was just a case of costing out the full price of development and pitching for some investment to get the ball rolling.

Once again our idea was validated by several VC investors, but they needed to see more from us before they could invest.

We spoke at several events and continued to refine and validate our idea.

We attended housing events at Portcullis house and met lots of interesting allies for potential partnerships and projects, but without the platform it was difficult to take relationships much further and without the relationships we couldn’t build any homes.

After more pitching and trying to gain funding from somewhere we realised the project could just be too upfront cost heavy for a traditional investor to take on. Every conversation we had was that the idea was incredible, that it would work and that once we were up and running to get back in touch as they would love to be involved. But that doesn’t get a tech platform built.

At this point Adam decided to leave the founding team to become a teacher a seek a different kind of challenge.

So Josh and Filipe had to come up with a different way of developing the idea.

Why not incorporate blockchain, pitch ourselves as a global, digital house building platform and raise funds through a token sale? Our idea had always been to subvert the existing system of centralised developers and bankers so why not use the decentralised community to fund this?

So at the end of summer 2017 that’s exactly what we did.

Check out ehab.co whose token sale starts 1st February 2018

 

 

Are student loans a ponzi scheme?

I completed my A-levels 17 years ago back in 1997, the year before student loans came into existence. Heck I, like most of my friends, even had a grant to attend university. Yes, you read that correctly class of 2014, I was paid to attend which was ironic as attending my BA Management degree at the University of Hull was pretty low down on my list of priorities, coming far behind both playing pool and the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire pub quiz machine. We didn’t care, we weren’t paying for it and even back then I couldn’t see the value in a business degree.

Well now you are paying for it and paying big. The average UK student debt is now a staggering £44k and with the interest rate now at 5.5% the debt doubles, due to compound interest, every 13 years. And no you can’t go bankrupt to clear it. And yes it probably will affect your ability to buy a house or get a car loan seeing as you already have the equivalent of a sizeable mortgage.

Stop the madness (as Mr Wonderful aka Kevin O’leary says on the US version of Dragon’s Den, Shark Tank

You thought giving mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them was bad? At least they had some kind of collateral / income. We are lending to young people that have no assets and no money and lending huge sums which accrue interest. As Ian Cowie recently said in the Sunday Times:

[box] Encouraging young people with no jobs to run up debts is often equal to – and sometimes exceeding – what their parent’s generation borrowed to buy their first home is financial madness.[/box]

Unfortunately the madness – concentrating risk on individuals – doesn’t end there. People are investing in it through their pension funds. The non-profit (how ironic) Student Loans Company has been securitising student debt and pushing it onto the market in a way that would impress even the best snake oil salesman or crack dealer. Who wouldn’t want to invest in a fund called Thesis – it sounds such a wise investment even though the Government originally estimated that only (ONLY!) 28% of student loans would never be repaid. Now that figure is closer to 50%. Yes 1 in 2 (and you don’t need higher education to do that maths) students will NEVER be in a position to back their debt. The Government is losing 45p on every £1 it loans out. Yet investment funds keep buying the stuff.

So what of that ponzi scheme in the title? Let’s turn to Wikipedia for advice (as Alan Partridge says, Wikipedia has made education all but pointless!):

[box] A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation where the operator, an individual or organization, pays returns to its investors from new capital paid to the operators by new investors, rather than from profit earned by the operator. Operators of Ponzi schemes usually entice new investors by offering higher returns than other investments, in the form of short-term returns that are either abnormally high or unusually consistent. The perpetuation of the high returns requires an ever-increasing flow of money from new investors to sustain the scheme.[/box]

I’m not sure how you can make a return to investors when almost 50% of loans are defaulting. Is the Government operating a ponzi scheme in the name of the SLC?

If university is about ROI from both a financial and a learning perspective then making money online yourself has the highest expected value. It’s totally possible for young people to start up an online business alongside their degrees and be making a small income within a couple of months and there’s no better way than starting your own ecommerce business. I run iPanorama Prints on the platform Shopify where I take orders for prints, mainly in the US, and have a US printer fulfil and ‘dropship’ for me – it takes a few hours a week and generates four figures a month and, as a location independent business, I can run it anywhere in the world.

2015 update: We are now building free shopify stores for students and young people in Norfolk to get them online. Just email [email protected]

Validate your startup idea by asking for money

I’ve just been asked for advice from someone in Norfolk who’s into 3D printing who wants to startup their own business. This was my reply, Noah Kagan / App Sumo style, it’s valid for any niche:

Hi X

What I’d recommend is:

1) Identify what niche would have a need for your 3D prints – what is the problem you are solving for them?

2) Come up with a list of 10 companies or potential individual customers you think would be interested in buying a service or 3D product from you

3) Reach out to them via email / social channels and say that you are doing discounted 3D models for just £X to the first 5 people who are interested.

4) Ask for payment to your paypal address

This way you get paying customers and the money up front before you do the work

From there build a one page website advertising your products and then drive traffic to it through search engines and social platforms such as Facebook.

Basically research who your customers are, what problem do they currently have / what needs are not being met, reach out to them and ask for money!

As soon as you sell anything it’s a business.

Go for it.

Cheers

Richard