Bridget Harris has pivoted her career from politics to tech, by founding her own scheduling solution software business. She tells Toni Sekinah how she came to be a professional problem solver.
Bridget Harris has a theory about the internet and the problems it helps to solve. Those problems can be split into two kinds: ones that exist offline, and ones you didn’t know you had until the internet came along.
Harris and her husband Keith have focused on fixing problems that pre-date the internet and in particular the tiresome problem of timetabling appointments. They set up shop to fix them in 2011 with YouCanBook.Me.
The software, available on desktop or mobile, is for people who need their bookings diary to be accessible to others who want to plan and share meetings or appointments with them. To date, YCBM has notched up almost 5.5 million bookings.
Anyone can sign up, set up a personalised scheduling page and enter their availability. Colleagues or customers who want to see the user can access the page from any device, choose a convenient slot from the ones that have been made available, the user confirms, then that slot is shaded out on the scheduling page.
The app hooks in to Google’s calendar – and you must have a Google account to create bookings, as the Google link is integral to the YCBM application. People making bookings don’t need a Google account.
Once complete, the booker is sent an email or SMS reminder of the appointment, according to their own preferences.
Harris says that it is businesses that need to run bookings that benefit most from the service. “Booking is a central requirement for them to get work,” she says. “If they get a good booking system, then they get more work.”
Established entities such as TED, Uber and Netflix have used the app.
A steady rise in users reflects the growing popularity of the product. Where three years ago YouCanBook.Me had 10,000 active users, today that number has now reached 130,000.
“Our growth rate is over 100% every year and the volume is just going up all the time,” says Harris. By happy accident, the scheduling app itself is a perfect viral. Once a user sends a link, inviting someone else to schedule a time slot, they have advertised the software without even trying.
“Everything they say about viral marketing, viral growth and referrals, scheduling has that built in,” says Harris. “Without us really knowing or realising, we’d actually built a product which gave us this very magically return on viral growth which we needed because we didn’t have any money or resources for marketing.”
YouCanBook.Me, along with the Harris’s other related ventures, is entirely bootstrapped. Harris and her partner follow lean startup principles and scraped together resources, won support from friends and family, and juggled other jobs while their products “were in the oven.”
One of the apps that came out of the oven before YoucCanBook.Me is WhenIsGood. In fact, they both have very similar ingredients.
WhenIsGood is a scheduling system that allows groups of people to find a suitable time to all get together.
A friend of the couple went to study at MIT and told them that all the students had the same problem of trying to find convenient times to meet up, and they needed to create an aggregate meeting scheduler.
So the Harris team created a scheduler that avoided the time-consuming back and forth of people explaining when they are available but was as easy to operate as email.
“If you want to set up an event and try to find a time for everybody to meet, you don’t leave the interface in order to do it,” says Harris.
As well as students, the scheduler was really popular with people like gamers and poker players to organise activities. WhenIsGood took off in the US but struggled in gain traction in the UK. Harris did not push for monetisation of WhenIsGood.
WhenIsGood also faced competition with rival scheduling service Doodle. Its BookMe appointment booking service was also in direct competition with YouCanBookMe itself until Doodle ended the service in late 2014.
Harris says former BookMe customers have told them that YouCanBookMe is far easier to manage across multiple time zones, as with BookMe they had to create multiple accounts.
When team Harris fixed the problem of WhenIsGood with YouCanBook.Me, they already had loyal users who were more than willing to pay for the service. “Fifteen people wanted to give us a pound in the first month, so we thought ‘We are on to something here’,” she says.
A freemium subscription model charges enterprise users $144 per month, other professional users $48 per month and premium users or small teams it is $16 per month. It is free for solo users and the voluntary sector.
YouCanBook.Me is the most prominent in a line of software solutions the Harrises have created.
In 2003, they built Tickboxer, “a sweet little surveybuilding tool” that later became their first failure. When a friend told them about Wufoo, the online form builder developed in Palo Alto, they realised that they had competition and drew a line under the project.
This didn’t stop the couple from tinkering with other projects.
“Keith is a phenomenally quick coder so he writes applications really fast, he’s really good so they just pile out of him,” says Harris.
Harris had worked in politics since the late 1990s, working for Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes and then the office for the deputy prime minister. She encouraged her husband to write web applications that managed campaign software.
“We have a long history of working together and for a long time it was either on my political projects or trying to get entrepreneurial projects like Tickboxer going.”
When YouCanBook.Me really took off in 2012, Harris realised that she couldn’t maintain her career in politics, and gave it up to become chief executive.
“It’s been a very slow burner over the years but now all the hard work is paying off and people are now flocking to the tool. I couldn’t sustain a political career in Westminster at the same time as me and Keith having this enormous operation which we had not accidentally invented.”
Harris’ interest in technology mirrors her interest in politics. “I’m interested in systems and how systems can control outcomes and that’s essentially what technology does as well. Technology is basically a system.”
“If x happens, then y happens and that’s essentially what a democratic system is, and so for me it was a natural transfer of my interests.”
For Harris she has gone from trying to solve big-ticket problems through the political process to smaller but no less significant issues.
“I’ve understood how parliament works, how local government works, and how political power works. Now my interests are about how technology works and how it can empower people. It’s very on the micro scale so now we are working on micro problems,” she says.
Bridget Harris – CV
Chief executive and co-founder, YouCanBook.Me
Special advisor (House of Lords), office of the deputy prime minister
Head of office, Simon Hughes MP.
MSc, public policy, University College London
BA, ancient history, archaeology and classics, University College London.