Founder Stories

From ChargedUp to CleanedUp: How to Pivot in Times of Crisis

Founder Stories

From ChargedUp to CleanedUp: How to Pivot in Times of Crisis

Words Hugo Tilmouth

April 1st 2021 / 10 min read

ChargedUp, an alumni of Founders Factory, were Europe’s largest phone charging network – until the pandemic hit, changing their business overnight. 

In a matter of days, the team pivoted from charging stations to sanitising stations, launching their brand-new service, CleanedUp. By the end of 2020, they had delivered over 45,000 sanitising dispensers across the UK, turning over £8m in the process. 

Since then, they’ve relaunched as theUp.co, and introduced their second service: ServedUp, a platform enabling customers to order food from their table in a restaurant.

In this piece, co-founders Hugo Tilmouth and Charlie Baron share their story, and offer advice to other founders who might be considering pivoting their own business. 


You can expect to read about:

  • How the founders made a decision to pivot and launch a new product in under a week

  • How they delivered over 45,000 sanitising dispensers across the UK and turned over £8m in 2020

  • What they did to keep their team engaged through uncertainty

  • What they’re planning to do when things return to normal

Going into survival mode

Back in March 2020, when the COVID-19 situation was escalating in the UK, I’d just been in China with our manufacturers – I had even taken the bullet train through Wuhan. 

When I returned to London, people were starting to worry. With ChargedUp, our business model relied heavily on the hospitality industry – so we knew we’d be hit hard if the government decided to close down pubs and restaurants. 

Once lockdown hit, our immediate reaction was to come up with a plan that would enable us to survive. We figured out how to cut back on our burn-rate and expenses, reducing salaries by 20% across the company, and cutting the lease for our new office space. Our board members, including Andy Fisher (Ex-CEO of Shazam) and John Wright (former CEO of Innocent Smoothies), were massively supportive of this plan, and helped us think through our initial strategy of cutting costs back to the bone.

To make sure that the whole team bought into the plan, I held 1-to-1 meetings with every single person in the company via Zoom. I told them: “If we do this, it’s for the best of everyone – we’re not letting anyone go”. 

The good thing is that we acted super quickly. We weren’t going to hang around and wait for the government to tell us what to do. We needed to make sure we’d be okay, even if no help came – that’s just part of our startup mentality.

Two weeks later, furlough was announced.

“We never thought CleanedUp would be as big as it was. We never even spoke about it as a pivot. Everyone was doing things to help out – so that’s what we did.”

How we adapted our strategy to launch a new product in under a week

Once we got a plan in place that protected us, it meant that we had more time to ideate. We started looking at “COVID-proof ideas”, creating a Slack channel where we could brainstorm across product, tech, and marketing. 

The question, for us, was: what can we do over the next 3-6 months? We wanted to continue expanding the business – and more importantly, we wanted to do something good.

Our brainstorm generated loads of ideas, and we came up with a framework for ranking them according to the difficulty of execution, impact, and confidence. But our main priority was figuring out how we could help our customers through a tough time. 

ICE Score = (Impact +Confidence +Ease) / 3

We came up with around 50 ideas. There were some super rogue ones in the mix, such as turning pubs into supermarkets – but the most rogue of them all was CleanedUp, which would pivot the business from charging stations to sanitising stations.

The idea made a lot of sense: venues wanted to reopen, and they wanted to give their customers something to make them feel safe. We knew there was a market for it, as we’d already seen a lot of people taking advantage of the need for masks. Meanwhile, no one was able to manufacture hand sanitiser dispensers quickly enough. People were struggling to get the materials from China and shipments of ethanol were being seized by the Russian government. So we decided to make what our customers needed.

The best thing about this idea which made it so attractive to us as well, was that ultimately, CleanedUp would help open the ChargedUp target market when things do return to normal.

We had previously worked with UK manufacturers to produce our charging stations – so we set them to work on making sanitiser stations for us. It took a couple days to produce the first prototype, and another few days to set up the new brand and website – Charlie and I just hacked it together in the evenings. We registered the trademark on the weekend, and CleanedUp was born.

Launching in 45,000 venues across the UK

We didn’t intend to make much money on it – we hoped to cover our margins, nothing more. But CleanedUp quickly snowballed to become a crucial part of our business.

We never envisaged being a single-product company, and we’d always wanted to add more value to our network by introducing more services. The pandemic just shortcutted that pipedream. John Hegarty, who sits on our board, likes to tell us that the “Up” (theUp.co) is the center of our brand. 

We had no idea how well it would go. Because of the CleanedUp campaign, the size of our network has grown over 10x. We also secured an amazing database of direct contacts, which has completely changed our sales process across the business from cold outreach to speaking to existing customers.

Our sanitiser stations are now available in 45,000 venues across the UK – around 25,000 of them are in the hospitality space. The crazy thing is that with all of the stations we have set up, we will now have cleaned over 300 million hands.

CleanedUp has been introduced at every major pub chain and most of the UK airports. Early on, we struck a deal with Diageo, one of the world’s largest producers of spirits and beers. Together with Guiness, one of their leading brands, we launched an initiative to put a hand-sanitising station in every single pub across the UK. 

The campaign kicked off in early June. We had until July 4th, when the pubs were due to reopen, to get the message out to every single pub, sign them up to the new service, and distribute tens of thousands of units across the country. Using eight UK manufacturers and 160 lorries full of sanitiser stations, we managed to secure half of all the pubs in the UK in a matter of weeks.

We also brokered a partnership with TFL: we’d been talking to them for years about getting ChargedUp into London tube stations, so when we launched CleanedUp, we got back in touch. 

We were only two weeks old, and didn’t think for a minute they would go with us. But on Thursday 8th May, to our utter surprise, TFL called us and said they needed over 2000 hand sanitiser stations across London. At that point, we had only manufactured 2,000 units – so we got on the phone to our manufacturers straight away. 

We really had to hustle to get it done. TFL needed to add extra safety features, including a lock to prevent terrorism – we even had to send a prototype to the terrorism unit of the police for approval. Somehow, miraculously, we managed to fulfil the order. By the following Sunday (17th May), we had delivered all the units, and Sadiq Khan reopened the tubes. Since then, TFL have bought several hundred more units from us. 

The partnership with TFL eventually led to another brand partnership: Dettol (Reckitt, a Founders Factory partner) became one of our sponsors, and they went on to provide sanitising gel for CleanedUp’s stations across the Tube network. That partnership was incredible for brand awareness – we even have a great photo of Sadiq Khan scrubbing his hands at one of our Dettol-branded stations. 

Image source: The Evening Standard, September 2020

So much good has come from this pivot – and we’ve rapidly become the fastest-distributed sanitiser dispenser company in the UK.

How we kept our team engaged throughout lockdown

It’s easy to run a company when things go well. But when things dry up, it becomes more challenging. We had to deal with a lot of uncertainty – but we didn’t really have time to get upset about it. One day, everything got locked down. The next day, I woke up and thought: “Let’s just solve it”. 

Those first few weeks were chaos: we were building a business and a new product that could be scaled in a matter of weeks. But it was also exciting – and the speed we were working at helped keep everyone motivated.

To be honest, our whole team was quite optimistic: everyone was involved in finding a solution, and everyone rallied around that challenge.

“Charlie and I are eternal optimists – I don’t think you can start a company without being an optimist.”

Of course, it’s extremely difficult to set goals in times of complete uncertainty. We kept having to change the goal posts, increasing our target from 100 to 1000 to 10,000 units. We thought we’d try to hit £1m in revenue – and then we completely smashed that target.  

We love the idea of using OKRs to drive progress – something we learnt how to do during our time at Founders Factory - but we quickly found that system too restrictive when things were moving this fast. 

We quickly pivoted to using simple metrics to track our progress, and introduced a daily all-hands meeting for anyone working on CleanedUp. This worked really well to sync up our efforts, especially while everyone was working remotely – so well, in fact, that it’s become a full company all-hands. Every morning, we all spend a few minutes catching up. It’s almost like making your morning coffee at the office, and it’s just a nice way to get into the speed of things.

We had lots of celebrations in those early days. We created a “Big Wins” Slack channel, where we could share major updates with the team, like when we landed Leon and TFL. We also started a weekly vlog, where I would go all around the country visiting new CleanedUp units that had popped up (while that was still possible). Those little celebrations really helped keep everyone’s spirits up.

Our top five lessons on how to pivot in times of crisis

  1. Make decisions quickly. We’ve launched three distinct sub-brands and three products to market in a really short space of time. Our “secret sauce” is that we’re not at all risk-averse – we’re incredibly quick to make decisions, and once we do, we just go for it, testing as we go along. We also have a team that can change tack quickly; all of them come from agency and startup backgrounds, and are used to the floor shifting underneath them. That combination means that we can shift gears quite quickly. Looking for these traits when hiring is critical for us.

  2. Zoom out and look at the bigger picture. It was important for us to ask ourselves: is my business going to be around when things reopen? And when will that be? We thought lockdown would be over by January. So it was important to work out how we could survive until then. There are two ways of doing it: either you hunker down, reduce your costs, and wait for things to reopen (lots of our friends in the hospitality industry ended up doing this); or you can adapt your strategy, and come up with a new idea that you can put into action right now. We got bored of waiting around and had to do something.

  3. Whatever you do, make sure it aligns with your company mission. Don’t do something rash. What you build has to match what you’re doing as a company in general. If you want to do something completely different, just start a new company. The reason things worked out so well for us is because everything we do is related – we’re helping the same customers across all three services.

  4. Bring your team onboard your journey. Our people trust that we’re doing the right thing, because we show them the impact they’re making. It’s about keeping up the level of engagement: people like to have a mission, younger people and millennials especially want to be a part of building something big.

  5. Hire for values. How do you find and hire the right people? The ones who will be willing to back you and move quickly? Someone asked me this on LinkedIn recently, and it made me reflect on our own journey. Over the last year, we’ve hired 25 people, growing our number of employees to 55. We needed extra support in customer service and operations, so we hired a lot of temporary people for a month or two, all working remotely. Now we’ve downsized again, and we’re back at a team of 35. Through this experience, we came up with a solid interview process: 

  • Before the interview: You’ve got to be really clear on what your company values are. Write them down before you interview anyone. 

  • First interview: Sort out all the formalities. Are they competent? Do they have the skill sets for the role?

  • Second interview: Ask them to do a task – it’s a great way of filtering out the people who actually care about the job and are committed to jumping onboard.

  • Third interview: The final step is the most important one: DO NOT hire someone unless they match the values you’ve codified as a team.

What happens when things go back to normal?

Social distancing has created a huge need for order-to-table and no-contact delivery services. And when restaurants reopened across the UK the first time around, we decided to launch ServedUp, a platform enabling customers to order food from their table. 

In the UK, venue operators have already found that they’re making more money: when people can order from their phones with just one click, they buy more. It’s easy and frictionless, like ecommerce. And in Australia, venues are still using order-to-table solutions many months after lockdown has been lifted. 

We expected to see things slow down after each lockdown announcement; but each week, we’ve seen another increase in customer acquisition. We’ve actually been able to track our sales and expansion based on government announcements.

“We’ve all spent the last year ordering food on our phones. And when people start going back to restaurants, they’re not necessarily going to want things to go back to normal.”

Long-term, we hope to push all three of our services forward – ChargedUp, CleanedUp, and ServedUp – because there’s a nice convergence between all three products.  

Someday soon, you might enter a venue and sanitise your hands at a CleanedUp station; you might use your phone to order via ServedUp; and after using your phone, you can charge it in a ChargedUp station.

Of course, everything depends on levels of uncertainty. We don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way things were. Instead, we’re embracing our status as theUp.co: we’ll continue upgrading the hospitality industry, and looking at ways we can help make things better.

Join theUp.co in our Accelerator program

Hugo and Charlie are alumni of Founders Factory’s Retail Accelerator program, which is where they launched and scaled ChargedUp (now theUp.co). If you're interested in joining one of our programs, submit an application here.

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