The 23-year-old who built one of London’s most exciting tech businesses in just 24 months

Less than two years. That’s how long it’s taken 23-year-old Hugo Tilmouth to turn a feeling of panic into a million-pound company, backed by some of Britain’s best investors. It was while basking in the sunshine at Lord’s Cricket Ground that the fear took hold. Everything was nearly perfect. England were even playing well. But there was a fly in the ointment. Hugo was expecting a crucial call about a last-stage job interview and his phone was running out of battery – draining away like Champagne in the executive boxes. With no solution available in the ground, Hugo had to visit a corner shop and splash out on a new powerpack.

At that moment, the seed that would grow into ChargedUp was planted. Ironically, its sowing rendered the incoming call pointless because Hugo wasn’t going to need that job after all – his serendipity moment would take him immediately from employee to employer.

The question is: how did Hugo and his equally youthful co-founders – Hakeem Buge, Charlie Baron, and Forrest Skerman-Stevenson – take that feeling of mild panic and turn it into a business backed to the tune of £1.5m by some of the UK’s most successful investors, including The Garage (Sir John Hegarty’s fund) and JamJar (the venture capital fund created by the founders of Innocent Smoothies)?

“The Lord’s experience got me thinking. There had to be a better solution to the constant problem of phone battery drain,” says Hugo. “At the time I was so desperate that I was willing to pay almost anything to keep my phone going. I knew there must be thousands of people out there facing the exact same situation each day. The question? How could we meet their need?”

It was the rising popularity of London’s sharing bikes and scooters that pushed Hugo’s thoughts in the right direction. “The idea dawned on me,” he explains, “what if you could share power banks too?” And with that, the seed had sprouted. 

ChargedUp has now grown into a network of shared power banks located at charging stations across London. Coming to other UK cities soon, customers can download the app, visit one of 600 stations in bars, restaurants, and cafés, and scan a unique code. Your phone then automatically unlocks a battery. You can take that battery away, charge up with it, and drop it back to any other station in the network. The rental price is £1 per hour, or a maximum of £3 a day.

You’re probably thinking: “But I’ve got three power banks in my kitchen drawer at home –so why would I rent one?” It’s a fair question. A clue to the answer can be found in ChargedUp’s URL: “We’ve wanted to create a green business from day one,” says Hugo, who studied renewable-energy engineering at Exeter University. “That’s why we believe in the sharing economy. Rather than everyone having lots of power banks at home – which is neither efficient nor good for the environment – they can share ours. That reduces lithium demand. We’ve also partnered with a green-energy provider to offset the energy usage of our stations and we’re committed to recycling all the batteries in our network. The whole cycle is green from start to finish.” 

The green element is critical. It not only provides extra ethical motivation beyond profit and growth for its founders and team; it also gives customers an important additional reason to use ChargedUp. Both factors appeal to its investors. 

But what else won over those hardened money men? Each day, thousands of UK start-ups stick their hands in the air to ask for funding. How did ChargedUp win out, convincing The Garage, JamJar and Founders Factoryto invest £1.2 million in February 2019? On this topic, Hugo – recently named in the Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe list – has some valuable insights.

“To attract investors you have to hustle and problem-solve on a shoestring to prove your business model,” he says. “That’s what excites investors. They want to see that you’ve taken a small amount of money and done an awful lot with it.” 

Winning backers is all about building “traction”, argues Hugo. ChargedUp created theirs with a series of tests at music festivals. He explains: “Once we’d come up with our concept, we tried to figure out a quick way of testing whether or not people would want to use this thing and pay for it. So, we went to festivals with credit card machines and lots of batteries. We rented out the batteries and we sold out within a few hours.” 

These tests created momentum and inspired the team to invest more time, energy and what was left of their shoestring budget into their idea. “We worked from a tiny, windowless office near Heathrow and tried to win over investors,” says Hugo. “We pitched all over town and applied to all the start-up accelerator schemes. In the early stages, if you have no traction, no one is interested in you. But as soon as you get traction, investors come. The tables turn.” 

First, the ChargedUp founders won £15,000 through Shell’s LiveWire and O2’s Think Big programmes. “That cash injection allowed us to create our first prototypes and test the concept in the market,” says Hugo. Next, they won a small piece of investment from Daedalus Capital Partners, that allowed them to launch in London, creating their first charging station at the Big Chill bar in Brick Lane and at a further 50 sites. Next came the big one: a £1.2m cash injection from The Garage, JamJar and Founders Factory.

Hugo’s advice to fellow start-up entrepreneurs is to understand fully what investors are looking for and to keep knocking on doors. “Read up on what they want,” he says. “It’s a two-way relationship: they’re selling to you and you’re selling to them. We tend to think of entrepreneurs as beggars trying to prise money off the investor gods, and that’s how it feels at first. But then you realise that investors also have targets to hit. They need successful entrepreneurs. Also, it’s a numbers game. You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince. Lots of investors will say: ‘This is not for us right now. Come back when you’ve got more traction.’ And when you do come back after gaining some momentum, they start to take you more seriously. But it’s never too early to start talking to investors.”

ChargedUp now has more than 40,000 users and 600 charging stations. This number will soon rise to 1,000, as they are expanding across the UK and eyeing up international growth. They have also set up ChargedUp Labs, the research and development arm of the company, which will be crucial for staying ahead of the curve as technology changes. And they have some of the UK’s most intelligent, experienced investors batting on their side. This all came from an ambitious 23-year-old spotting an unfulfilled need and finding an elegant, environmentally friendly solution. But as Hugo suggests, the genius of ChargedUp doesn’t lie in the idea itself – clever though it is. Rather, it exists in the way these young founders have grabbed the idea and built entrepreneurial traction with it, turning it into a business in just two years. That’s what’s impressed the investors and that’s what will take the business to the next level and beyond.