1. Before we get started, please introduce yourself
I'm Chris Holbrook, 36 years old, and my website is FreePostcodeLottery.com. I was born in Canada, went to secondary school in Solihull, studied Philosophy in Nottingham, and worked in marketing in Bristol, before moving to London 8 years ago to pursue a career as a self-taught freelance web developer. I quit freelancing earlier this year to focus on my business which I launched in April 2011.
2. What is Free Postcode Lottery and how did you come up with the idea?
FreePostcodeLottery.com is a free daily lottery where I sell ad-space to advertisers instead of selling tickets to users. Once a postcode is registered it is automatically entered into each of the daily draws for a chance to win money. Users visit the site to check the result which generates ad impressions and clicks for the advertisers. It's a similar model to a free newspaper, but instead of paying for journalists and printing I pay for prizes and hosting costs.
Every day at noon 1 registered postcode is drawn at random and the user(s) who entered it have until the next draw (24 hours later) to check the site and claim. It starts at £100 but if missed it rolls over to £200, £300, and so on. If more than 1 user claims before the next draw the money is split evenly amongst the winners. However, the more times a particular postcode is entered the higher the chance it has of being picked (a bit like names in a hat).
In addition to the main draw (or “Jackpot”) there is a twice-daily £10 “Stackpot” draw where missed claims accumulate rather than rollover, and a daily £50 “Survey Draw” where users answer a simple market research question before they can see the result and claim.
I came up with the idea when I heard a radio report refer to the provision of a particular drug on the NHS as a “postcode lottery”. I noticed that postcodes are ideal for a lottery since there are so many of them and each of them refers to a relatively small number of people. However, I've never liked gambling and, like most people, expect websites to be free. I had admired a fellow web developer who hit the headlines when he successfully made $1million by selling individual pixels on his website www.milliondollarhomepage.com to advertisers. I decided this was the model for me.
3. How did you fund the business?
At first I was simply giving away money out of my own pocket. However, after about 6 months the advertising started to cover the £10 daily prize so my losses were minimal, and recouped within months. I did have moments of doubt though!
4. Being a young entrepreneur – what do you enjoy the most about running your own business?
I love being creative, working with computers and having the freedom to work for myself. I could just as easily be writing music, or creating digital art but I'm glad I stumbled upon something profitable instead! FreePostcodeLottery.com allows me to be creative, make decisions for myself and have fun without having to wear a suit or talk to anyone who does. In any one day, I can be writing a press release, programming, designing, interacting via social media. It never gets boring!
5. This is such a unique venture, when did you realise you were onto something?
What? Am I onto something?! I still don't think it has sunk in properly. I have some great friends who have always been quick to criticise my daft ideas. For once they were very positive, and one of them even tried to buy in! I never thought it would amount to anything more than a beer-money-yielding hobby so I'm delighted that I am now living off it and supporting my family.
6. What is the best business decision you’ve made so far?
The best business decision I have made, by far, is to “come out” as the person behind the website. For the first 2 years the site grew but very slowly. Once I started to “show my face” and communicate to the users via the blog, press and social media the growth accelerated remarkably. On the whole, people refer to me by my first name when they send queries or post on the Facebook page. I get so many supportive and , frankly. flattering comments addressed to me that I am always buoyed up with confidence. If I ever encounter any bad press my “army” are there defending me and my site before I even notice it.
This, combined with regularly increasing the daily prize fund, communicates a narrative that seems to resonate really well with the user base. Ultimately it has allowed it to grow from 0 to 75,000 per day without ever having to pay for advertising.
7. You’ve had an incredible amount of press, what is that like?
It's amazing. I have a fantastic PR partner who gives me just what I need to get on and speak to journalists myself. There's nothing wrong with wanting to tell people about your business and I think a little charm goes a long way when it comes from the original source. My initial aim was to get it into one national paper but it has been picked up by nearly all of them and I've even been on radio and TV. When an article is published I'm usually unaware until one of my users posts about it on the Facebook page. However, I'm often left scratching my head when I see a sudden rush of traffic.
8. Think back to when you’d just started out – what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
If something is working, focus on it, and don't try to do something else. I can only assume that this is a trap that other entrepreneurs fall into. In the early days, the business was working so I swiftly tried to create more businesses which ultimately failed and diverted my attention from my business..
So many great ideas have failed because the time wasn't right, the support wasn't there, or the big break had just not yet arrived. You need to be in it 100% if you want to push your idea through, otherwise, it is likely to flop. I was lucky that my first idea worked and I must have thought that I had the “midas touch”. Ultimately I wasted a lot of time, some money and FreePostcodeLottery.com suffered.
9. Do you have any other businesses in the pipeline?
I've learned the hard way! I want to enjoy what I do, not build an empire. Sure, I will probably get involved in other things but my main focus will always be FreePostcodeLottery.com. I am currently looking to expand into Ireland, North America and other European countries. However, I will only proceed where I find the right partner to allow me to take a backseat.
10. What is your favourite cheat snack to have and why?
My favourite snack is celery and peanut butter. If you've not tried it, stop reading this and do so at once (although, not if you have a nut allergy).
11. What advice would you give to young budding entrepreneurs wanting to launch a niche business?
Focus on connecting with your customer/users, if you do that well, they will tell other people about you. If it does start working, you will be approached by others with ideas. Take the compliment but don't let it distract you.
Finally, don't assume it will just go viral. You need to empathise with your users and provide them with the motivation to share your business with others. No matter how good your business idea is, it's not a photo of a cat that looks like Harold Bishop.
12. What plans do you have for Free Postcode Lottery in the next 12 months?
I need to rebuild it to cope better with sudden rushes of traffic and to become more intuitive to use. Having never expected it to work I never properly designed it from the ground up. The challenge is to do this without upsetting the established user base. Unfortunately, it looks like we're stuck with the ghastly logo that I hand-drew... Wish me luck!