Ex-police officer Jon Johnson runs upcycling workshop Strip The Willow off Abbeydale Road. He tells us all about his latest venture – Reach Homes, a not-for-profit business converting shipping containers into eco-homes.

I was inspired to start my business by …

It started when my ex-partner and I were looking at moving house and realised we couldn’t afford the traditional methods and routes. After seeing an architect in Ireland on TV programme Grand Designs working on shipping containers I thought we could do it to a good standard, applied for a small grant and was awarded £5,000 by Unlimited in London to buy a container and get started. After six months of reading building regulations – combined with some common sense – we had turned our prototype into proof of concept and launched it as a showroom in January last year.

My favourite thing about running my business is …

I like seeing the look on people’s faces when you challenge their preconceptions.  I lived in the showroom for six months to test it which was a very useful experience and I love seeing how people who visit react when they realise how spacious the units can be.

We’ve got a product that people really, really like and that has an awful lot of potential and it’s a business that’s going to help people. I’m not interested in being rich – I’m interested in making building and housing into something that works for everyone.

The three words that best describe my business are …

Innovative, sustainable and transformative.

Sheffield is a great place to start a business because …

There’s an amazing amount of support, encouragement and opportunity. The time and effort I’ve had from people for both Strip the Willow and Reach Homes has been nothing short of inspiring.

Sheffield is a great place to grow a business because …

The support for social businesses in particular. There’s so much vibrant stuff going on at the smaller end with social enterprises, charities and third sector organisations which helps underpin the high profile, large scale projects which is good for the wider economy.

The best advice I ever got was …

Make time for yourself. It’s very tempting with a new business to throw yourself into it 24/7 and try to do everything yourself. You need to ask for help and remember the importance of quality time for friends, family and leisure.

The worst advice I ever got was …   

I’m not sure I’ve had any!

The Sheffield organisations that have supported me and my business include …

Social Enterprise Network

Social Enterprise Exchange

Wosskow Brown Foundation

UK Steel Enterprise

Business Sheffield

The LEP

And the hundreds of people who have volunteered time and advice – it really has been humbling.

The main challenges facing my industry/sector are …

The establish building industry means there’s a lack of access routes into market for SME building. It can also be difficult to find development land. There’s a lot happening in affordable hosing that people need to get their heads around but no-one’s really coordinating it – we need to be influencing the agenda at a national level.

In 5 years’ time I expect my business to …

The initial aim is to get the factory up and running so we can get 600 units a year built, but further down the line I’d like to have an operating surplus into the millions which we can use to help us work with energy poverty and homeless charities.

The baby boomers are coming up to retirement and that’s a lot of bodies – and knowledge – going out of the industry. We’d like to have set up a skills academy for more formalised training so these traditional skills can be passed on but we also want the academy to address the lack of knowledge of sustainable building, building on brownfield sites and co-operative housing. This combination approach will help to create jobs for lower skilled workers, get them involved in the business, and feeling valued – all with our focus on a different way of doing things.