Country: United Kingdom
Status: Graduated

The Pikhaya Smart Streets product reveals viable business opportunities in empty commercial premises


  • Age of business: Six months (Pikhaya)
  • Location: Oxford
  • Team: Gavin Chait (founder, consultant), Toby Dacre (software lead)
  • Funding: €100,000 (via ODINE) and £5,000 (via NESTA)
  • Elevator pitch: Pikhaya Smart Streets is a free market intelligence web service for entrepreneurs, revealing viable business opportunities in empty commercial premises.

What does Pikhaya Smart Streets do?

By 2020, Whitehall’s core distribution grant to local councils will end. Authorities will also retain all locally raised business rates. Empty business premises become both a risk and opportunity.

Pikhaya Smart Streets is a free market intelligence web-service for entrepreneurs, and a subscription service for local authorities to support city economic growth, inward investment and rates-setting. Pikhaya reveals business opportunities and revenue analysis in empty and existing commercial premises by aggregating open data on consumer purchasing, commercial rents, and staff numbers and salaries, to offer industrial, office and retail business intelligence.

How did you meet?

I used to be the commercial director for the software team at the Open Knowledge Foundation. Toby was one of my developers. We both left the organisation at about the same time and, as I built up our CKAN open data publishing software deployment business, I brought Toby in to lead on software development.

Where did the business idea come from?

From 1998, together with students from the University of Cape Town, and professional consultants, Whythawk (Pikhaya’s parent company) helped support and develop thousands of small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) across South Africa.

The main challenge was a lack of affordable market intelligence; data locked away in local and national government, and affordable only to big businesses.

When I moved to the UK in 2008, I joined the open data community and began developing what is now Pikhaya.

Are you working with any other partners?

We have formed a strategic relationship with Zoopla in order to have a link to Zoopla’s Commercial Channel to access identified letting opportunities. There is also a long-term objective to ensure our data are presented via their commercial property search service.

Our intention is to collaborate to develop a rental valuation model to provide guidance on what commercial rentals should be (improving the resolution of the five-yearly Valuations Office Agency audit).

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I don’t think there is any quick way to develop sufficient context and knowledge to build a product like Pikhaya.

While every business (and business owner) is different, there are common mistakes. The decades-long experience of consulting to SMMEs has given me insight into how to provide the core analysis that promotes investment and improves business outcomes.

I wouldn’t do it any differently.

How has ODINE helped you so far?

Pikhaya can only exist because of open data, and the work that ODINE partners – especially the Open Data Institute – do in raising awareness of the value of open data, and in promoting its release, are critical.

We have also immersed ourselves within the industry so that, when we call on our prospective clients, open data is neither alien nor unexpected.

Finally, the funding is permitting us to take Pikhaya from concept to a commercial product.

What advice would you give to other companies pitching to ODINE?

The same advice I’d give any company: be very clear about what it is you wish to do, and why your prospective customers would want to pay you for that service. Also have a thorough understanding of your costs and how ODINE support will benefit your market entry or expansion.

And then, just go for it. It was a straightforward and encouraging process and I definitely recommend it.

What would you say to other startups thinking of working with open data?

Solve a real problem of which you have first-hand experience. Data in and of itself are not particularly useful. Analysis and insight are.

It’s the difference between providing entrepreneurs with a large and complex set of socio-economic data, or instead advising them to move across town to improve their income for the same investment, instead of signing a five-year lease for this site.

It’s a simple answer, but complex to get that answer.

How would you encourage big business to buy into the open data movement?

Like any organisation, big businesses are attempting to make the same money go further amid competitive pressure. Certainly, corporations have far more money to invest in data-driven analysis than do the businesses which Pikhaya serves, but that doesn’t mean their money is infinite.

Companies which ignore open data will simply lose money; paying for data which everyone else is accessing for free.

What’s the key trend in open data at the moment?

Not so much a trend, as an urgent need…

The industry is still supply-driven. Government provides data and, optimistically, hopes that “we” (as entrepreneurs and innovators) will figure out what to do with it.

The more of it we use, and the greater the economic impact of that use, the more government will continue the critical role they have in releasing data and encouraging the industry.

If not, government will – rightly – shift its priorities.

This article was first published on The Guardian.