Ben Grech, Mariano Kostelec and Miguel Amaro met at university in London, where they discovered that finding good student accommodation was often a nightmare. In 2012 the trio built a website customized for the student community in Lisbon, Portugal, picked up the phone and began calling landlords to sign up. Eventually one agreed, they photographed the house and put it on their site. Two days later the fledgling founders made their first deal.
Today the London-headquartered company is backed with almost $30 in venture capital, hooking students up with accommodation as far afield as China, Brazil and Uzbekistan. Here co-founder Kostelec (center of photograph) talks to Red Herring about innovation, fast scale and the importance of asking for help.
As someone who has grown a company from concept in Portugal, how true do you think it is that the country is enjoying a startup renaissance?
Lisbon’s startup hub is living a great moment and hosting the Web Summit last year is proof of it. We have witnessed the evolution during recent years with more and more entrepreneurs being able to launch their projects, since here they get the right support.
Everything is coming together in Portugal to impulse the startup ecosystem: the government is working on providing the financial instruments to keep boosting this sector; there are some great startup incubators and accelerators like Startup Lisboa; venture capital firms ready to support good ideas; great technical and non-technical human talent; people with close-to-fluent English skills; and the city itself is a great and very affordable location compared to its Western European neighbors.
A vibrant startup ecosystem was crucial for Uniplaces’ launch and as Lisbon-based startups grow and succeed it will nurture and flourish even more success.
How important was it for you to make Uniplaces an international brand a quickly as possible?
In the beginning we were coordinating all the expansion plans from our main office in Lisbon. However, a few months ago, we realized how important it was for us to have a local presence. Each market is at a different stage and has different needs, and therefore having local teams that better understand those specific needs working closer to our main partners was very important.
We adapt the goals to each market’s maturity stage. Currently, we have local offices in Madrid, Barcelona, London, Berlin and Milan. The local teams are in charge of adapting the global strategy to the specific market needs and can have a much closer relationship with landlords, universities, students and partners in their countries. All the learning and takeaways from the countries where we are more established are crucial when trying to launch or develop new markets.
Is it easy to find adequate talent in Lisbon?
We were very lucky that from the very beginning we managed to attract talent. People really believed in our project, and once we invited them to visit the office, they could really see themselves working there.
Lisbon is full of talented people, the tech scene was and still is very strong here, so for an online business this was a great advantage. For some roles, we needed to hire international people–not only with language skills, but also with local market knowledge. Again, there is no better way to attract international people than inviting them to visit the office and the city. An office full of enthusiastic people and a city as charming as Lisbon are hard to resist.
Lisbon’s talent pool keeps on growing. Particularly for product design or management and specialized marketing roles. However, the scene has gone through an almost miraculous evolution since we started and this is much easier now. More and more companies are flocking to Lisbon and realizing the clear advantages of having an office there.
Is the urge to scale too quickly one you believe many companies are struggling with today?
I believe that the best way to scale is to first prove that your business works well in a few key markets. This way, you can focus all your efforts and resources in making them successful and providing the best possible service to your customers.
There are a few risks when trying to launch in too many countries at the same time: you can lose focus, you will need to divide your resources or budgets in too many different areas, etc, especially in a marketplace, where getting the right balance between demand and supply is crucial to providing a good service. It’s easier to start in the top markets and then keep scaling.
Of course we want to be a global company, but we want to do it right. At the moment, we have very clear objectives and targets regarding where we need to be in those main markets. Once we are there, we can move on to more cities.
With all the learnings from those top markets, it will also be much easier to open new ones. To sum up, we want to help students all over the world to find great accommodation regardless of where they study. But we want to do it right, without compromising the quality of our service.
What’s your biggest piece of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
To have a great network of mentors and advisors. There are plenty of successful entrepreneurs and operators that are more than happy to share their knowledge and learnings. Sometimes this is crucial and what can make a new project see the light. We have been lucky to have a great network of advisors and investors that help us on a regular basis. And then, it’s all about sense of urgency, focus and execution.