043 SME Surveyor Business Stories with James Brook

James Brook is a chartered surveyor and co-founder of Novello Chartered Surveyors. At the age of 29, James was shortlisted for the 2020 RICS Young Surveyor of the Year Award and won the Residential Property category. This podcast was recorded before the winner was announced.  Since starting Novello in 2019 they have grown to a firm of four surveyors and have big plans for the future. They have developed their own suite of home surveys and valuation reports and have created their business around technology aiming to provide high quality reports in a quick turnaround. 

Corporate vs. SME

Although his first degree was in politics, James Brook has always been interested in property, coming from a family of builders and surveyors, so he did his Master’s degree in building surveying. His first post-graduate engagement was with Countrywide Surveying Services where he worked for almost four years. Eventually, he decided that he wanted to take another route, away from corporates and towards SMEs.  

“I got to the point where I realised that my path of progression was not going to be becoming a better surveyor,” James says. “At the big corporates, you can only reach a certain level where you stop surveying and become a manager. When I reached that junction, I decided I wanted to be a much better surveyor and get chartered, craft my skills and feel like a proper practitioner, rather than being someone who’s there to tick boxes. There’s a real problem within our industry and the volume and amount of work that surveyors are expected to do. Now when I think about doing five or six valuations a day, I don’t know how I ever did that. I wanted to get more involved with bespoke surveying work, and the best way to do that for me was to go to a small practice where you’re hands on, and you’re dealing directly with the customers, talking them through, and developing the craft of being a surveyor.”

Working with a smaller company opened James’s eyes to the business side of running a surveying practice.

“When I moved to a small practice, I was expecting all these big systems that I was used to at the corporate. But it was very much a case of just do it how you want. That gave me a good chance to have a trial run and introduce tablet technology, online banking and invoicing. Eventually I got to a position where I thought I could leave and do this for myself. It’s one thing working for a big corporate, but at an SME you’re everything – you’re the bookkeeper, diary manager, surveyor, and it’s great to get that other side of the experience. One thing I would say to anyone is that before jumping out and doing it by yourself, try and get some experience of how a small business runs.”

Technology Based Surveying Business

James founded Novello Chartered Surveyors in 2019, and their business is completely built on technology.

“For us, technology is everything,” he says. “Not a single piece of paper gets sent out to any of our clients. The biggest thing we rely on is our reporting. We use GoReport and we’ve been able to build our own suite of surveys, our own L2’s and L3’s. Reporting technology does get some bad press and there’s a lot of people who are critical of what they call the iPad survey. But for us it means we can do really detailed surveys. We can take photos on site, I dictate a lot using Siri, and then I sit down the next day, reflect on that and fill out the report. Most of the time my clients have got their surveys by 9am or 10am the next morning. That is quite easy for us to do because of that technology. But we are also doing very detailed, accurate reports, and the feedback we get is that people are quite amazed at how quickly we can turn those reports around without losing the quality.”

Work-Life Balance and Millennials’ Business

With any business owner and especially with young companies, the question of work-life balance comes up. James admits he is not yet at the stage when he can dedicate more time to things outside business, but he equally enjoys what he is doing now.  

“When I left for the smaller private practice, I had a great work-life balance. On a survey day, I would start at nine and I’d always be finished by five o’clock. But since starting Novello last year, it has been long hours. I’m getting to the point where I’m thinking let’s finish that, let’s finish this, just one more survey and then everything will be easy. But I don’t think that ever ends. I’m now very conscious of that because we’ve got four surveyors. I’m having to schedule days when I’m only focusing on business development, networking, and looking after where our work is coming from. So short answer, I don’t have a work-life balance at the moment, but I wouldn’t spend that amount of time working on my business if I wasn’t building something that I absolutely love doing.”

However, James is dedicated to creating a fulfilling work environment at this company, attracting great surveyors and doing things differently than others.

“At the moment, we’re looking to go down to four days a week, the idea being that if you can do two surveys in one day, if we can get them in the same area, or do smaller properties, that gives you an extra day off. It’s the same amount of work, but by improving planning and organisation, potentially that could happen. We also give a lot more holidays than corporates probably do. As for the tech, all our surveyors have the best iPhones, because that’s literally what we rely on. Surveyors are naturally risk averse people, so to go to a little firm that’s started off just over a year ago, it is a big risk, especially in the market today. But we want those people who want to come on board and grow the business with us, and do things a little bit differently. We definitely want to challenge that typical six point a day, high volume burnout type of work,” James concludes.

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