There are many fun things about going to university – from student discounts to marathon drinking sessions. But finding accommodation isn’t one of them - as Ben Grech, Mariano Kostelec and Miguel Amaro found out the hard way before starting university.
‘As a domestic student I just found my house by walking around the streets of Nottingham which wasn’t a really great experience,’ Grech says. ‘Mariano and Miguel as international students had even more problems. Mariano had to pay 12 months of rent upfront when he moved to London and Miguel just went to a residence as he didn’t know what else to do and then found out he was being charged a lot to stay there and could’ve found much cheaper rented accommodation elsewhere.’
The trio, who fittingly met at Nottingham University, realised ‘just how far behind the student market was’, particularly after looking into the holiday accommodation market and seeing the scope of tech and simplicity with online payments there. So in 2012, after Grech's stint in a private equity firm, they launched student accommodation platform Uniplaces.
It’s basically a letting agency, but Grech feels focusing specifically on students distinguishes Uniplaces from what else is out there. He argues the existing equivalents tended to be small, local players or less secure options. ‘When you consider that international students are still wiring money to a landlord they met over Gumtree and has zero verification, there’s really nothing there,’ he explains. ‘It’s by far and away a more complete service for students.’
And not many letting agencies could boast the funding Uniplaces raised at the end of last year – a £24m round led by Atomico. The company was initially bootstrapped by the founders, including Grech using his student loan (‘I’m still paying that off!’). The latest round, Grech says, will be for ‘product development, web design and service, scaling the cities we’re in and making sure we have more accommodation available for our students’.
The site charges a transaction commission on booking through the site – from both landlords and students. ‘On average it’s about 7% of the contract value, but it’s split between student and landlord,’ Grech says. ‘The student’s side is capped, so even if you’re booking accommodation that is very expensive, you’re never going to pay more than €180 (£143) [in fees] for a year.’
To justify the cost, Uniplaces has had to focus on service. There’s a multilingual customer services team contactable seven days a week and Uniplaces verifies the properties that feature on the site. ‘We visit them, we take inventories, we take the pictures and we intermediate the payment, so if there’s a cancellation or an issue, we can refund the student and there’s no risk of fraud,’ Grech explains.
The majority of Uniplaces’ 140 members of staff are based in Lisbon. The three co-founders are all different nationalities – Grech is British, Amaro Portuguese and Kostelec Argentinean and while the site launched solely in English, they always aimed to branch out as soon as possible and it's now viewable in seven other European languages and also Mandarin.
Miguel Amaro, Ben Grech and Mariano Kostelec
‘Introducing languages was a big milestone for us – it’s not just on the website, it then becomes every piece of marketing content you release, every email you send,’ Grech says. ‘It’s a cross-company change, but we recognised how important it was because a lot of students interacting with us were doing so in other languages.’
The multilingual aspect has been important for the business’s development. While Grech won’t disclose turnover, he says some 12,000 students have found accommodation through Uniplaces so far and it operates in eight European countries, across 39 cities.
The sheer variety of students seeking accommodation, with a range of individual needs, was tricky to cope with at first. ‘Some are postgrads who are looking for more of a family home because they’ve got a wife and kids. Some are undergrads in their first year, some are exchange students, others PHD students,’ Grech says.
While Uniplaces wants to offer choice – the cities it’s had a longer presence in have upwards of a thousand rooms on the site – the founders were surprised at just ‘how particular some students are in what they’re looking for’. For instance? ‘A lot of international students from Southern Europe really don’t understand carpets – it sounds like a strange thing’, he says, but many get in contact to check the accommodation doesn’t actually have any.
Building trust as a start-up was a challenge. Grech said to do so, the team prioritised the quality of the listings, particularly in the early days to make sure all students had a good experience from the off. ‘As you scale it’s also important to be transparent,’ he adds, so having straightforward payment mechanisms in place for students and ‘good remedial customer service’ on the occasions customers get something unexpected or not what they wanted on arrival.
‘We’ve taken it very seriously – if there’s feedback or complaints to sort it out,’ Grech says. ‘And I think that really helps, because then people say "Oh, they really looked after me" and that word of mouth spreads and builds trust as you grow.’