Category: Start Up

25 Jan 2016

AirSorted: Making Airbnb Hassle-Free

There are many great benefits of Airbnb hosting. Socially, it offers you the opportunity to meet new and interesting people from all walks of life, and can even foster life-long friendships. Financially, it gives you the chance to receive an extra income and, if handled well, quite a substantial return.

But anyone that’s hosted on Airbnb before will know that with these rewards comes a large amount of hassle. From damages and repairs to cleaning and laundry, there is a long list of unglamourous chores and potential problems that can make the process time-consuming, inefficient and ultimately unenjoyable.

Having encountered these difficulties first-hand, we set out to deliver a more hassle-free experience for Airbnb hosts, And so, AirSortedwas born.

Our mission is simple: we want to make it easy to share your home while earning an extra income at the same time.

We take care of everything, including screening guests, taking guest inquiries, arranging cleaners, conducting meet and greets, organising repairs, co-ordinating key exchanges, providing 24/7 guest support and even optimising pricing. Fundamentally, we are an Airbnb management service that takes care of your booking while allowing you to earn higher yields, without all the hassle that usually comes with Airbnb hosting.

We join Pi Labs as the programme’s youngest team both in terms of individual age and company lifespan. Having begun on Boxing Day 2014, we applied to the accelerator at an early stage to help us kickstart our business, and as an Airbnb property service, “Property Innovation Labs” seemed like the perfect option for us. We are currently focused on the London area, but have ambitions to grow internationally.

25 Jan 2016

Land Technologies: Creating A More Open And Connected Land Industry

Land Technologies started its life when Andrew Moist, a software developer, started researching how to build his own home in London. It didn’t take him long to discover that finding a plot of land was the first major obstacle. Looking around online he couldn’t find good information on how to find a site and set about understanding the issues. Following this line of enquiry past the roadsigns of ‘industry wide problem’, ‘antiquated planning system’ and ‘lack of good centralised datasets’, he decided that he would set up a business to try and tackle it.

He reached out for a co-founder on Twitter, where a mutual acquaintance connected him with a software developer with a background in Land Management and Planning, Jonny Britton. Having experienced the lack of good software in the development industry first hand, Jonny was enthused with the idea of improving access to good information – within a couple of days the business had a core team and set about working out what to build.

The goal was to make a product that made it faster and easier to work out whether a piece of land was suitable for building on – but what exactly that product looked like was not yet known. Speaking to as many industry players as possible, they spent timing shaping the product. What they found was that the data needed to assess a piece of land for its potential for housing is difficult to find, expensive, and technical to make good use of in a systematic way. Land Insight solves these problems by bringing together key information about any piece of land or property. Building the product has been a real challenge not only due the massive amount of the data involved, but being able to provide that at an affordable price.

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Screen shot of Land Insight features

In the longer run, the aim of the company is to create a more open and connected land industry accessible through light and easy to use interfaces. The enabling power of linked data on land could be seen in a whole range of situations from enabling development through to the design of infrastructure or more accessible planning. One of their founders, Jonny Britton, says “it is clear that better access to date is empowering. Our platform aims to unlock data about land, anywhere, anytime, so that it can provide answers to questions and enable development”.

The team see Pi Labs as a great opportunity to access a wide range of industry experience through the mentors and support network, as well as being a great platform to build their launch into the property development sector.

The software is now available to trial via the www.landinsight.io website.

25 Jan 2016

Property 3.0: The Emergence Of A New Movement – By Faisal Butt

If time be of all things the most precious, wasting time must be the greatest prodigality”

— Benjamin Franklin
In 2007, two young entrepreneurs named Cheskey and Gebbia withdrew the last few dollars from their accounts. With an immediate need to pay rent to a landlord that was quickly losing his patience, the two young upstarts were struggling badly as their world began to crumble. Vehemently business-minded, the two friends decided that despite their financial troubles they would still attend the Industrial Design Conference (IDC) held in San Francisco the following week. They were both design enthusiasts. They decided to attend in hope that the trip would ease the tension surrounding their situation.

In the days coming up to the event, Cheskey and Gebbia went in search for a get rich quick scheme. Their idea would allow them to pay their rent in the short term so they could buy some time to get their finances in order. This led to an innovative idea which would transform their lives and lead to the foundation of a $10 billion dollar company. The IDC attracted a worldwide audience. The hotels, hostels and all accommodation in the area were filling at record speeds. Many were stranded in San Francisco with no place to stay. It was clear to everyone that demand far outweighed supply.

Meanwhile, Cheskey and Gebbia had a moment of entrepreneurial opportunism that would ensure they never had to worry about paying rent again. They decided to transform their front room into a makeshift BnB filled with air mattresses – enabling them to pay their rent, attend the IDC and turn a profit.

Over time, this concept developed and refined into an innovative business that would flip the budget hotels market on its head and start what I like to call “the Property 3.0” movement. In 2008, the friends founded an online service catering to high profile events for which they knew that accommodation in the area would be in high demand. The company the founded, Airbnb, has helped 13 million people find accommodation throughout the world. 20 years ago, a business concept like this would have been unimaginable. Now, thanks to the internet and the booking systems and location based services it has spawned, we are about to see many more property services move to the online realm.

In 2014, I see London being at the forefront of the “Property 3.0” movement. By 2020, I predict that the Property 3.0 movement will revolutionise the UK property industry. I say this because I am friends with and a mentor to many of these young entrepreneurs. I meet them and hear their ideas and I support them with enthusiasm as they emerge from incubators and cafes with revolutionary ideas that will shake up the property sector.

Although Airbnb is a San Francisco based start-up- the “sharing economy” approach to property that I see in these young entrepreneurs is taking off closer to home. The Airbnb story proves that traditional property can be disrupted by online services. And local European flavours of Airbnb like OneFineStay and HouseTrip further validate this thesis.

As a hub of international property activity, London is the natural home for this emerging movement. The London property market and all the services that surround it are antiquated and are a constant cause of angst for occupiers.  And yet the capital continues to attract more and more international capital, putting additional strain to a creaky old ecosystem. I see the “Property 3.0” businesses as an innovative counter-cultural reaction to this public angst.  Unlike traditional property businesses, this new breed wants to understand “customer pain points” and build technology products that can help address them.

The UK property industry has rested on its laurels and shrugged its shoulders at the mention of change for too long. It is a system so intertwined with law that it has existed as long as law itself. English land laws can be traced as far back as Roman Times and last experienced a major upheaval during the Industrial Revolution. In fact, the Queen of England is still the world’s largest landowner ruling over 6.6 billion acres of land worldwide. Not to mention English land is still owned by 1% of the population, largely descended from William the Conqueror’s army (Source). This is a sector of our society that lays deeply entrenched in history – a history which seems to have stunted its future progress.

In 2014, the incumbents are sitting comfortably on wealth accumulated not through innovation or progression but through following an age old blueprint which does not look kindly upon innovative new models. The Property 1.0 generation accumulated portfolios and wealth through a system of rules set in stone, accepted as an overbearing commandment as “the way things were done”.

The custodians of Property 1.0 still remain unmoved by the sea of change that is steadily approaching their shores. By the time they realise that Property 3.0 offers superior, streamlined services which cater to the consumers’ needs – I fear it may be too late.

We have grown up in a world in which property services were complicated matters that were loaded with emotional baggage. Property transactions required a complex understanding of the legal system and time consuming red tape and paperwork.  The incumbents wanted us to believe that most property activity was complex, arduous and expensive.  Renting a flat, co-owning a property, procuring cleaning services, managing a household, and finding office space had to be complex processes that warranted hefty fees to brokers that added little value.  I’m not sure that’s the world I want my children to grow up in.

As a parallel to the sometimes unnecessary complexities in property transactions, let’s look at the history of the calculator.  Before the invention of this now ubiquitous device, someone who was not a highly trained mathematician could not instantly compute complex equations.  Mathematicians were deeply embedded into various industries that required computation, including the world of business.  Like the mathematician that has lost relevance in many common sectors, many in the property industries will have to look for new ways to add value as low value activities are automated.

The great equaliser for the Property 3.0 generation is their superior understanding of customer insight, and how to create a technology-powered service that plays to those insights.  The incumbents are unlikely to be agile enough to keep up with this rapidly evolving new breed of businesses – businesses built on Eric Ries’ principles of “lean start-up”.  Business bold enough to scale up through experimentation – through repeated customer trials and perpetual product iteration.

Everyone’s time is precious. In the modern world, we all yearn efficiency and speed. Property 3.0 will take the pain out of these transactions and create simplistic user interfaces where the complexity is hidden behind the scenes in reams of software code. My view is that the purveyors of Property 3.0 are about to drag the property services sector into the 21st century. There will be big winners and some big losers as these entrepreneurs emerge from TechCity incubators and accelerators with online alternatives to traditional property services.

So who’s next?

Spacious, a London based start-up is my first pick. Spacious is a visionary business chaired by Rohan Silva (often referred to as the architect of London’s Tech City) that adds unparalleled convenience to the process of renting office space. In the world of start-ups and SMEs, this can be a time-consuming, administration-heavy task. Spacious allows for flexibility in commercial property utilisation that high growth businesses desperately need.

Another online property service, Locatable, is looking to solve problems related to household management – their mantra: Managing your home shouldn’t feel like a full time job.  I can definitely relate here, as the tools (or lack thereof) we currently have for managing our household make the job so mundane that most people put it off altogether.  Watch this space for some clever tools for making life easier at home.

Providing simple solutions to complex problems seems to be an underlying theme across all these channels. eMoov, the Uk’s leading online estate agent, operate under the slogan “For Smarter Sellers Nationwide” is working on a minimalist-design mobile site to help sellers sell their homes.

The industrial revolution saw the last major overhaul in the property sector. This was later penned by Stephen Gardiner as “another of those extraordinary jumps forward in the story of civilization”. Could he have possibly imagined a company such as Airbnb? Probably not.

The internet is the strongest tool for businesses to harness since the invention of electricity. The UK property market is a sector that is screaming out for disruption. The Property 3.0 generation is looming in various cafes and incubators in East London. They are ready to emerge and turn the entire industry on its head.

As Bob Dylan concluded in his 1964 title track, the times, they are a-changin’:

The line it is drawn

The curse it is cast

The slow one now

Will later be fast

As the present now

Will later be past

The order is rapidly fadin’

And the first one now will later be last

For the times they are a-changin’.

25 Jan 2016

Property 2.0: Britain’s Property Innovation – By Faisal Butt

I spent eight of the formative years of my life in California – often trekking between university and work in Los Angeles and friends and family in Silicon Valley. 

A lot of the innovation in tech at the time coincided with the first dot-com era. I was very much part of that ecosystem and feel California has left a lasting imprint on the way I view the world. People who know me today as a Mayfair based venture capitalist would be surprised to hear that I actually did some of the software coding for Web 1.0. I was also was one of the thousands laid off when the dot-com bubble burst in the early noughties. I’ve been through that cycle, and survived it with battle scars and inspiration that I brought with me when I moved to London in 2009.

When I joined hands with James Caan in autumn 2009, I entered the business world in Britain with an open and inquisitive mind. I wasn’t quite sure which industry I was going to disrupt. It just so happened that we were in the midst of a global recession fuelled by a property boom and bust cycle. There were definitely similarities with the early noughties recession in the U.S. I observed an industry in churn where people had been laid off and teams were in movement. To me, the property sector seemed ripe for disruption. What had worked before wasn’t going to work for the future – and a lot of bright, talented people were now idle and looking for new ways of doing things. My thesis for investing in property innovation in 2009 was really that simple, but it’s one that has quickly proven to have some legs.

As a venture capitalist – I was a recipient of the business plans created by the unemployed-come-entrepreneur masses created out of the “Credit Crunch” – so I had an apex view of what was going on in the property sector and had a premonition of what would come. At the time James wasn’t looking at the property sector in a VC sense, but seeing the similarities with what I had experienced in the U.S., I saw an opportunity. You only have to look at businesses like Skype and LinkedIn, which both launched during the dot-com recovery, to see what can be born out of ecosystems that are in churn.

Old Street Roundabout

Silicon Roundabout

I felt that this would happen again with the property sector in Britain, and I wanted to be at the centre of it. A lot of innovation is formed out of constraints. When faced with adversity, people tend to tap into recesses of their brain that they wouldn’t normally utilise. Armies of innovators, faced with numerous constraints – the newly unemployed – were formed almost overnight. Like never before, people were questioning the status quo and challenging a sector that has been starved of innovation for decades. This was an early indicator of the change to come.

The drivers for property innovation in Britain go beyond market churn and constraints. I have definitely seen a “cluster effect” happening. In many ways, London is to the property sector what Silicon Valley is to tech. Real estate in London attracts investment from all over the world, and London is a global hub for professional services. There are financial, legal and accounting services that are built around the property sector here. And – because of the number of transactions and overall strength of the sector – there are all of these other support services that you wouldn’t see to the same degree in other parts of the world. The UK has a worldwide reputation for its property related services. You have British architects working on projects in Kuala Lumpur, British project managers in Dubai, and British agents and furniture people jetting off to new-development launches in Southeast Asia.

That said, we have also seen a massive influx of international tech talent. Since 9/11 immigration restrictions in the U.S. have become tighter – and a lot of international talent that would have gone to Silicon Valley – has set up shop in London instead. We now have a vibrant tech hub of our own – “Silicon Roundabout” in Shoreditch. Many of these tech entrepreneurs will try to solve problems in other industries, and we have seen hybrid businesses forming: FinTech, HealthcareTech and also PropertyTech. Rightmove and Zoopla are examples of that collaboration. These success stories have been an inspiration to both property and technology entrepreneurs alike.

What’s interesting is that it is people coming in from other sectors that have created this innovation. Alex Chesterman, the founder of Zoopla, for example, first founded an online DVD rental service which eventually merged with Love Film. No doubt he drew on his lessons from the subscription e-commerce space to disrupt the property search space.

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Zoopla

People from other sectors aren’t boxed in by traditional ways of thinking. They are more likely to challenge the status quo and look for solutions. I’ve seen some very interesting business plans from these “industry connectors” – those that straddle two different industries and innovate by connecting dots that wouldn’t otherwise be connected. I’ve seen new ways of delivering estate agency; there’s no reason why estate agency shouldn’t go in the same way that the travel agency industry has gone – completely online.

I’m also seeing plans for online household property services. It’s so cumbersome to manage all of the services that come into your house. Why is it so disparate to order a cleaner, gardener, babysitter, or plumber? There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to order these services through a single app on your smartphone, pay through one account, have all appointments sync with your smartphone calendar, and know exactly what you’re getting through an Amazon-style feedback loop. I’m seeing a lot of interesting things like that – and I believe it’s just a matter of time before streamlined offerings like this become commonplace. I call this next wave Property 2.0. And it’s coming soon to a home near you.

Perhaps more surprisingly, I’m seeing a lot of great ideas in the commercial property sector too. Unlike the residential sector where people tend not to have a vocational degree, the commercial sector is highly influenced by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and the associated RICS accreditations. While this has been good for the industry in terms of making service levels more uniform and consistent, it hasn’t necessarily been the best thing for innovation.

But once again, “industry connectors” are making their entry and changing things. A business called WeArePopUp.Com is an online service that enables landlords to fill vacant units with ‘pop-up’ tenants that are looking for space for a short period of time. With the challenges the high street and retail sector are facing, this is a clever solution that again is born out of an industry in churn. I’m not surprised to learn that the two guys that set up the company are not from a property background. This is a start-up borne out of disruptive thinking from a strategy consultant and a research scientist.

5mwtUwY9It is examples like these which reinforce my belief that the UK is certainly a leader in property innovation and PropertyTech. One of my co-investors from the U.S. has been surprised by the businesses I’m showing him in the UK, and through his venture capital vehicle he’s now spending quite a bit of time with me looking at businesses over here. Of course, businesses don’t have to be tech related to be innovative. I’ve invested in an investment advisory firm called 90 North Real Estate Partners. They have taken advantage of Islamic investors’ appetite for UK property by structuring Shari’ah compliant real estate investments. Not a technology solution at all, but one that responded rapidly to changes in the property fund management industry.

Being a generalist by nature without any preconceived notions, and as a venture capitalist, I tend to look at the property sector from an aerial view. From where I’m sitting, British innovation is very much alive and kicking. If you want to create a conventional business, a high-calibre management team with sector depth has a good chance of delivering success. But – if you’re looking to create an industry beating, category defining business – team up with someone outside of your sector. The debate you’re going to have about challenging the status quo is what’s going to drive ideas and create new offerings. What I’d really like to see is more marriages between the property guys in West London and the tech guys in the East. On my own VC platform, my strategy is to bring these two polar opposite worlds together like an arranged marriage.

Zoopla – the champion of inter-sector marriage – has recently hired a major investment bank to explore growth opportunities for the business, with one option being an IPO that would potentially value the business at £1.3 billion. I’m convinced that a billion pound business could not be built in just five years with insular thinking from the property sector alone. For Property 2.0 in Britain to really flourish, we need to see the West End property professionals spend a bit more time getting to know the East End technology entrepreneurs. It’s a match made in heaven, and one I understand quite intimately as my Californian battle scars and wisdom shape my forays in Britain’s property sector.

25 Jan 2016

Rialto: Why We Are Incorporating In London

I have been in many startup hubs in the past few years: San Francisco, Berlin, Singapore, Belgium.

First off, it was clear for the team that we had to move abroad. Staying in Belgium would make us irrelevant. That’s hard to understand when you’re in Belgium, but makes a lot of sense when you spend time in big metropolitan cities.

Why you should go abroad from day 1.

1. Product Market / Fit

The size of the market might be the number one reason. Yet a more relevant answer to me is to work towards a better product/market fit.

Obviously Belgium is a small market. It is perfect to validate an early product or idea, yet I also experienced it to be unique compared to the larger surrounding markets of Germany, UK and France. We’re addressing SMB’s and larger companies that are mainly operating within the same country.

In Belgium that is a niche market. The SMB’s that we are dealing with got accustomed to business processes created, shaped and regulated within a tiny country. If we were to pursue and build a product for the Belgium CRE market, it would fit Belgium but then we would find it difficult to scale internationally.

Understand that once you start onboarding your first customers and get early product feedback, you start adjusting parts of your product roadmap to that market. Of course you should always keep your focus on the bigger picture. Yet, tuning the product for the Belgium clients would potentially jeopardize a product/market fit in a bigger market.

The sooner you go abroad, the more your product will fit with the customers in that market. Of course, you want your product to stick to a large market as compared to a small one. The good thing is that there are more similarities between the big markets (UK, Germany, France) as compared to the Belgium market.

2. Ecosystem

There were a few options. Berlin would be the most viable one, since I lived more than a year in Berlin. And at this moment Berlin is still my number 1 startup city in Europe. I am curious to experience London in the coming months and see how both cities compare. I am still very much in love with Berlin, it is extremely international and very nice to live in. I can highly recommend any tech startup to spend some time in Berlin. We had the privilege of being embedded in the German real estate tech scene via the lab of ImmobilienScout, i.e. the largest European listing site in Europe.

In Berlin there are a bunch of real estate tech startups working on new interesting products. Some difficulties when commercialising a product in Berlin, especially when addressing the SMB market, is language. The SMB market that we were addressing mainly spoke German. Our mistake was that we outsourced the early commercialisation too fast. Accordingly we lost precious time in the early days. To me it is critical for the founders to be on top of sales of the business before there is a product/market fit.

What is different in London?

Obviously, language will not be an issue in London. We will work from inside the property innovation lab “Pi Labs”, which was founded to become the centre of the property innovation ecosystem in Europe. London is also the number 1 market for commercial real estate in the continent and definitely the right place for a product as ours.

Another big difference is that we will be working together with our UK customers before launching the product in the market. One of the strategic partners will be Cushman & Wakefield, the n°3 CRE broker in the world. On top of that we get the backing of seasoned real estate tech investors and business angels from inside the ecosystem.

In the end we keep in contact with our contacts in the rest of Europe, but the product market/fit will be shaped primarily with the help of early UK customers.

And so, Rialto Ltd was born.

– Didier

25 Jan 2016

OfficeRnd: Office Space Planning

The quality of the office design affects our lives, health and happiness dramatically. Lack of good planning results in poor performance, thus bad business results of the company overall.

Miro and I were managers in a dynamic software company for more than 5 years and we experienced the space planning problem ourselves. We relocated often and every time we struggled to plan our team rooms in the best possible way. Most of the time we failed because we lacked design and architecture skills. We didn’t know the rules nor had the professional software for such tasks.

We decided to make a tool suitable for non-professional designers to let them plan and manage their office. Let’s call it ‘Do It Yourself’ office space planning.

download (5)

Then we coded a lot in the evenings. We’ve learned a lot and met a lot of interesting people, including our Chief Architect Pavel Yanev who joined the team. We left our day jobs. Then at some point we were invited to apply to Pi Labs.

We were extremely happy because it’s called ‘Property Innovation Labs’ and we are doing property innovation software. So we thought “that should be it”. Then we researched it and found all the great mentors there. We checked the place – Second Home. For us doing architecture and design software it will be a pleasure to be in that place. The application was quick and smooth. We couldn’t believed it when we were accepted.

Now we are here, ready to relocate to London and start our journey in the exciting world of the proptech.

25 Jan 2016

Wilde Rooms: A Different Use For The Traditional Retail Space

When we can browse an infinite array of fashion products online, the act of browsing in shopping malls for clothes we like appears a very inefficient method of fashion inspiration. Why can we not select the items we like and see online, and then try those items in one place; without the hassle of multiple deliveries and processing returns?

“I want to go to a comfortable environment, in a convenient location, where the staff know my name and know what clothes I have come to try. I want to relax, try my items, buy and then leave.” 

In a world of convenience, fashion retail has become very inefficient. Physical fashion retail means you move from store to store; talking to various staff, trying and comparing items, all before buying. While online fashion retail gives you an infinite choice, but you have to then await deliveries and process returns. Why can we not combine the best of both these methods?

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At WildeRooms.com that is what we do. Founded in May 2013, our technology enables consumers to browse online selecting any items they like and create their bespoke fashion selection. The consumer can then schedule a time to try those selected items in one place called a Wilde Room. A Wilde Room is comprised of luxury changing suites in a high-footfall traditional retail location.

K fashion retail generates in excess of £0.5bn of spending per week on average. Whilst the market is huge it is extremely diverse. The variety of retailers in the industry range from luxury to trans-season fast-fashion. Some consumers buy £350 Givenchy T-shirts, while others £6 Matalan T-shirts. The point however is that fashion apparel retail is personal, and each consumer is unique.

Shopping malls in the 1960s became successful as they offered the consumer everything they wanted under one roof. Technology today enables the consumer to access an infinite aisle online, but the translation of that aisle to the physical is yet to be defined. It is with this opportunity in mind that we created the WildeRooms.com technology.

We have had advanced conversations with leading UK landlords Westfield, British Land, Land Securities and Hammerson who have all expressed an interest in providing the location for the first Wilde Room. It is with these conversations in mind that we joined Pi Labs. Whilst it is possible to create the technology within a small team; retail and real estate are global industries worth many billions of pounds. it is this realisation that meant in order to create the full Wilde Rooms concept we needed a partner that understood real estate and how technology was impacting the use of that real estate.

Wilde Rooms imagines a different use for the traditional retail space, the same space that landlords can let for high rental premiums to traditional retail tenants. Through the infrastructure and support Pi Labs can afford at Wilde Rooms we feel we are in a stronger position to unlock the corporate door that is our primary barrier to realizing our vision and proving that Wilde Rooms is a viable commercial proposition.

25 Jan 2016

Why Niche Accelerators Are The Future

How can a start-up business prioritise one from another with so many different accelerators to choose from? When there is equity up for grabs, it is important for entrepreneurs to be vigilant. So when you see an accelerator pop up in your local town – it may be a good idea to do some background research on the people and the companies involved, and to really question its r’aison d’être.

I pondered this question for many months as I toyed with the idea of building my own accelerator. I looked closely at the market and saw that it was reaching saturation point. Yet, everybody was still saying that this model was the future. I still very much agree – it is. Just the generalist accelerator model will no longer satisfy the entrepreneur’s hunger for niche expertise. It is fair to say that at one time, the tech sector could be defined as one sector. Not anymore. Tech is too general a term. In fact, some people say every business will soon be a tech business and that technology essentially will be the ever-present backbone – the conduit through which we acquire customers, deliver services, and engage with stakeholders. While the underlying technology becomes more commoditised, it is niche sector knowledge that will be the prized skill, particularly in industries that have been deeply entrenched in their ways, like property. This was my thinking when setting up my latest venture – Pi Labs (Pi stands for “Property Innovation”).

The future of the accelerator model is in offering niche expertise to early stage ventures that are breaking new ground in difficult-to-crack sectors. Property, in particular, is an old boy’s club – family links prevail, and you have to go ‘shooting’ together to create and sustain deep personal and business bonds. But what about the creatives looking to disrupt (and thereby advance) the sector who just don’t fit this mould?  These new entrants have no formal training in the sector but are bursting at the seams with new ideas.  They could be the future game changers of the industry, but only if mentored by the right people and connected strategically with the people sitting comfortably inside the ‘ivory towers” of the property industry.  Enabling cross-sectoral collaboration (property and technology in my example) at very senior levels is what can lead to transformational change in once-staid industries.  That’s where niche accelerators, in my view, can hold their own.

Y Combinator, TechStars and many more have been successful with running general accelerators. I believe there will still be a place for these accelerators – they may continue to help talented entrepreneurs and commercially minded people find a path and establish a career, but these companies were founded in 2005 and 2007 respectively. In this seven year period since, the speed of change in technology and what can be achieved has increased exponentially. To put it into perspective, 2007 saw the invention of the IPhone, 2008 saw the invention of Apple’s App Store and Facebook did not enter the Forbes 500 list until May 2013.

These three inventions alone have absolutely transformed the way we do business. In fact app making and marketing for Facebook have become entire industries in themselves. I believe that in the post iPhone and social media world (yes, for simplicity, I’m dividing the history of tech into two distinct chapters), every industry is being permeated by tech at unprecedented speeds, but some are proving more stubborn and complex than others.  In this new era, where the older more entrenched industries (like property) still stand largely untarnished, sector specific accelerators will be part of the answer. We have already seen this done to great success in the FinTech sector. I saw that the property world needed a similar programme, but one that was uniquely designed for the nuances of the sometimes difficult-to-navigate terrain of property.

This is why I set up Pi Labs – to help entrepreneurs innovate in this sector at a scale that can be truly impactful and commercially viable.

25 Jan 2016

How To Create An Ideas Factory

Pilabs gif

When Bill Gross founded business incubator experiment, Idealab, in 1996, he intended it to run for a 12-month period. It hasn’t closed its doors since. In fact, the project has been such a success that there are now over 2,000 duplicate ‘idea factories’ around the world.

These ‘idea factories’ (or ‘incubators’, as they are more commonly known) are in many ways behind the rapid evolution of the start-up ecosystem we see today. They have been referred to as bottom-up R&D units, while accelerators have been dubbed ‘the business schools of the future’. Whatever we call them (yes, there are different models and the semantics can get confusing), the idea’s many variants are churning out an assembly line of new businesses at a scale never seen before.

Gross’s Idealab success stories include Cars Direct, the first company to sell vehicles online directly to consumers, and web traffic analysis service Compete.com – sold to London-based market research company TNS for $150m. The Idealab incubator (and many more like it) nurtures ‘eggs’ in the hope they will grow into multi-million pound businesses. Many of these eggs never hatch and flourish, but the learning curve these programs instill within participants are priceless. Those whose incubated eggs failed to hatch are often the founders of the next wave of successful business start-ups.

Why they are great

‘Idea factories’ have tapped into something new: the idea that innovative problem solving and business creation can be manufactured. It does not have to rely on inspired moments from gifted people who go on to create global billion dollar businesses seemingly effortlessly (a la Mark Zuckerberg).

As someone who looks at and creates businesses in volumes, I’ve come to understand that one can break down the business creation process into its component parts and ‘productise’ it. Ideation, customer insight analysis, product building, pilot testing, iterating, business development and marketing, hiring and mentoring, finance and administration – these are some of the building blocks of a start-up venture. Like Lego, if the parts are robust, smart entrepreneurs can put them together in different combinations and permutations and pull them apart again far more rapidly than if the parts weren’t provided.

This has led to a fascinating paradigm within the modern business world: as soon as one disruptive model is launched, rest assured there will be another one in development looking to take its place. This is the cause and effect that arises from supercharging innovation through ‘idea factories’. Now that idea generation has reached overdrive – an innovation is an innovation until the next ‘Lego building entrepreneur’ comes along and builds (and importantly, goes to market with) something better.

The world is filled with wonderful creative ideas. What’s been lacking for decades has been that rare ability to turn a great idea into a viable business.  Now – I believe our creative ideas have a much higher likelihood of crossing that chasm. With sound commercial and strategic support, functional expertise, networks, and leadership training, ideas going through an assembly line can be transformed into job creating businesses.

From a personal point of view, if I didn’t apply a regimented process to entrepreneurship I wouldn’t have been able to launch six new ventures in two years. Although a structured approach does not suit everybody, it helped me rapidly build a portfolio of successful early stage businesses. Incubator type models offer structure and  discipline in these hectic early days of start-up businesses, during periods when the risk of failure and the need for guidance is at its highest. These platforms offer the direction and guidance I would have loved when I first entered the start-up world as a 25-year-old first-time entrepreneur.

Imagine an education system in which the brightest graduates in the world assemble through an incubator and team up according to their chemistry and skills sets and create profitable, problem solving businesses under the guidance of older entrepreneurs who have a wealth of experience and powerful networks for them to tap into. Such a system could diversify economies, feed the pipeline of future business creation, and even solve world problems if bolstered by the right amount of investment. The incubators, accelerators and idea factories, as they evolve and become more efficient, could create a steady stream of profitable, problem solving businesses to market.

While numerous variants of idea factories exist globally, I’d like to highlight two models of particular interest to me:

Y Combinator

Y Combinator is probably the best example of the incubator model. The most notable business to come out of this California-based incubator is Dropbox – which has recently been valued at $4bn (£2.34bn). Drew Houston, the founder of Dropbox, arrived in Silicon Valley with nothing more than an idea.

Houston was initially rejected from Y Combinator as he didn’t have a co-founder. His application was rejected with these simple instructions: ’Find a co-founder and re-apply’. He found a co-founder within two weeks and successfully re-applied.

The foundations and the connections he learned were invaluable. Before long he had raised $1.2 million from Sequoia Capital – the company remains Y Combinator’s greatest success story. Although often heralded for their approach, incubators do not ensure success. Entrepreneurship is still an unforgiving career path. Y Combinator recently revealed that 93% of the companies it accepted have failed.

Other notable companies with roots in Y Combinator are Reddit and AirBnb, today valued at approximately $400 million and $10 billion respectively.

Monkey Inferno

An incubator model I particularly like is Monkey Inferno launched by Bebo founder Michael Birch. It’s an interesting concept. You have one platform that has designers, engineers and commercial people. They collectively generate ideas and the programmers code the software. They turn the best ideas into companies which are incubated and funded by Birch, an entrepreneur who has already had his ‘life changing moment’ and wants to give something back.

What I like about Monkey Inferno is it’s a true ‘idea factory’ – each project is an egg fertilised and incubated from embryo to foetus to new-born, and cared for until it can stand on its own two feet. To watch these companies grow into world-changing businesses must be extremely satisfying for both the entrepreneur and the mentor. People typically look at a start-up and think they’re the result of an entrepreneur having a ‘light bulb’ moment, but when an incubator is involved we’re talking about connecting the dots between brainstorming ideas and developing those ideas into a fully functional business. These structures provide a bubble that captures ideas so they’re not left to evaporate; they siphon the best ones and then they pilot them to see which work commercially.

Final word

In the past, success in business often meant you had the right idea at the right time. Now these moments of serendipity are not the only route to building a great business. Thanks to idea factories, the business start-up processcan be partly commoditised – and the innovators and creators of our society now have the platforms from which to create category-defining new business models.  These factories have delivered to us services we never knew we needed and now can’t do without like Dropbox and Airbnb – I eagerly await what they’ll give us next.

Steve Jobs, in his signature ‘binary’ style, separated leadership into two camps: those who innovate and those who don’t. I believe there is a third, powerful camp emerging: those who curate innovation in volume. This new breed of leaders – those who connect the dots and harness the building blocks of entrepreneurship – might be the most prolific leaders the start-up ecosystem has seen yet. Watch this space.

25 Jan 2016

Interview With Nick And Vasanth From Splittable

We sat down with the Splittable team to talk about their latest product, Splittable, which has aims to be the go-to “no-awkwardness, no-nonsense app for housesharers”.

Co-founders Nick Katz (NK) and Vasanth Subramanian (V) share their insights on the rental market, rifts with housemates, and what they hope to gain from the Pi Labs accelerator!

logo-splittable-full

WHAT IS SPLITTABLE AND HOW DOES IT FUNCTION?

NK: Splittable is a budgeting platform which makes it simple to split bills and other expenses between housemates. It allows you to track one-off and recurring expenses.

V: There are two sides to the Splittable tool. An app, which makes it easy to track the expenses as they occur, and a web platform. On the web platform, users (members of the house) will see an “all-squared meter” which visualises who’s in credit or debt, as well as who has made the most recent payments on a timeline.

WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO CREATE SPLITTABLE?

NK: For me, it was personal. A few years ago, I shared a flat with my best friend, but things went downhill after I found out he was tracking expenses on a spreadsheet; unbeknownst to me, and I wasn’t. This made me want to create a transparent and centralised platform where housemates can be open about splitting expenses.

V: The subject of money with housemates can sometimes be the elephant in the room, but we wanted to reduce the pain points and make the process fun.

COULD YOU TELL US A LITTLE MORE ABOUT THE MARKET YOU ARE OPERATING IN? 

NK: Sure. Home ownership decreases year by year, making renting and house-sharing a much more attractive option; economically speaking. This market is ever-growing, but the number of companies supporting them is decreasing. It seems that only when you start looking to buy, is there support and platforms making your life easier.

V: We don’t think this is fair for the majority of people who can’t afford to buy, and wanted to make sure they’re represented too.

HOW DID YOU GATHER INFORMATION IN THE RUN-UP TO CREATING SPLITTABLE?

NK: It started off by establishing a need; we conducted focus groups, sent out surveys and targeted university societies to find out their pain points. Across the board, we noticed the same pattern; from the age you start renting, up until you start looking to buy a place, there are few tools to help you in the house-sharing process.

V: As it gets more expensive to buy, there is an increasing number of people in this space – which will result in a greater need to talk about issues like this. The problem of rifts between housemates is completely solvable given technology, and people were pleased to hear it!

WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO GAIN FROM THE BEING INVOLVED WITH PI LABS?

V: We’re really excited to be joining forces with Pi Labs and are excited by the buzz they are creating in the industry! We hope to get the word out and get people as excited as we are about Splittable, and make use of the extensive Pi Labs mentor network. Our priority right now is growth and getting more traction.

NK: Pi Labs seems to be an emerging force to be reckoned with in Property Tech and we are happy to be a part of this burgeoning space!