Maltese Entrepreneur Plans Global Expansion For Student Accommodation Site
Three university friends, one brilliant idea
At the start of 2017, BBC Business published an article about three young friends who were changing the way that students find and book their accommodation during their study years. Their business is called Uniplaces – a hugely successful student accommodation booking site – which began with Miguel Amaro, Mariano Kostelec, and Ben Grech.
Grech was raised in the UK, but spent every summer of his childhood in Malta, visiting most of his family. He first came up with the idea for Uniplaces together with Amaro and Kostelec when they were all still at university.
So, what made them think up Uniplaces?
"We saw the growth of sites like Homeaway and Airbnb in the travel sector, and it seemed that there was so much more progress in this space compared to the student market where there was such a big need for a good accommodation service," Grech tells Lovin Malta.
"We tried to understand why the student market had been so badly served, and realised that in general people thought it was too small a niche to attract serious entrepreneurs & investment capital. But when you research the market, this is just not true."
So the three-men team took a leap of faith and began working on launching their business. Grech studied finance, and from what he explains to us, must have looked at his market shrewdly as a first step.
"There are over 165m students worldwide, there will be more than 220m by 2025. They spend over $250 billion on rent every year. The market is becoming more international – the percentage of students who study abroad has been steadily increasing since 1975!" Grech says. The team quickly understood that the demand was there and that if they could create a brand that served the global student community, they would be winning.
"It's a real need. Accommodation problems can stop students getting the education they want. We want to solve that."
Uniplaces' goal is to make it easy as possible for students to rent a place, and for landlords to rent to students. We asked Grech how exactly the business model works.
"There are a few elements to it – you need to have a good variety of accommodation for students to chose from. But you also need to remove friction in the rental process – like deposits, guarantors, contracts, high fees etc. A lot of these processes are archaic and unnecessary. They are barriers that are particularly challenging for students who don't have a steady income. When my co-founder Mariano moved to London to study, he had to pay 12 months of rent up front! It's crazy."
So Uniplaces sets out to remove those kinds of issues. The team has recently launched the 'Uniplaces guarantee' scheme, which means that whenever a landlord gets a booking through Uniplaces, it is guaranteed by them. Students won't need a guarantor or punitive deposit/fees.
"We take the risk out of the transaction for both sides."
What Grech and his partners are offering mainly is security – an aspect which differentiates them from competing sites.
"We are a transactional site, which means we process all the bookings. This offers an extra level of security compared to other accommodation sites. We also verify the properties on Uniplaces," Grech tells us. So Uniplaces works hard to create a feeling of safety, but it also gives importance to transparency and ratings.
"Uniplaces' landlords stay on the site – they keep their properties listed, as well as full calendar availability. So students can book in advance and landlords can build up ratings and reviews. This is completely different to classified sites where landlords remove listings once the property is rented, there is no verification and no security in payments."
And if you're thinking – nice idea, but will it work? That question has been answered with staggering results. The company has now grown to 130 employees, in 2016 it generated over £30m in rent for landlords, and had millions of nights of student accommodation booked. They've also already expanded to 5 countries across Europe.
But despite this crazy success, Grech is most proud of his team and the people who are making it all happen, as well as the students that are part of the site's success.
"I'm proud when I see our team really motivated and energised. I felt proud when we realised our first employee is still in the business today, and when our scholarship campaign went viral – students all over the world were doing random acts of kindness, it was awesome."
It seems like these guys are on the road to meaningful success – revolutionising a market, and helping a vulnerable end-user. So what's next for Uniplaces?
"International expansion. We started the business with a vision to be global – we want to build a brand for the global student community. There is a lot involved in doing that. The next few years will be very exciting."