A student-housing startup grows to 100 employees by being selective about its employees — and its investors

Uniplaces helps students find accommodations in Europe

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Uniplaces helps students find accommodations in Europe
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Uniplaces
  • Uniplaces, a web platform focused on helping students find accommodations in Spain, Paris, Portugal, and other locations throughout Europe, hired its 100th employee last year.
  • With investments exceeding €30 million, the company has learned how to hire well and promote from within and moved its headquarters to attract the best affordable talent from outside.
  • Co-founder Ben Grech advises other startups to be selective when choosing financial partners.
  • Grech has learned Jeff Bezos-style leadership lessons along the way, specifically how to make difficult decisions and avoid managing by consensus.
  • This article is part of a series on growing a small business, “From 1 to 100.”

Student-accommodation platform Uniplaces has gone from being a little-known startup to a sizeable firm with just over 100 employees. Launched in 2012 and headquartered in Portugal, the company allows students all over the world to find and book accommodations in Europe – and its website includes more than 100,000 rooms focusing on anything from one month to 12 months in duration.

The website of the Lisbon-based company is visited by more than 4 million potential tenants a year. It takes 8% commission on each booking, with 4% paid by the landlord, and the other 4% paid by the tenant.

Uniplaces co-founder Ben Grech said there are one or two key points on the journey that really stand out for him. The first is the moment early on when he and his cofounders – Miguel Amaro and Mariano Kostelec – all quit their jobs to focus 100% on Uniplaces.

“We just took a leap of faith and just went for it basically,” he said. “We were young and able to do that.”

Another milestone came shortly after launch when the company changed its business model. “We went from a classified listings website, which was literally landlords listing their properties and paying a fee to list, to a transactional marketplace website,” Grech said. “We secure the payment by intermediating that ourselves. That allowed us to take a commission.”

While Uniplaces is technically a UK company, the vast majority of the business is run out of Lisbon, and that’s where 90% of the staff is, too. There used to be more people in Spain and Italy, but the company decided to centralize the team.

The main reason for this is talent. There’s a relative abundance of affordable engineers in Lisbon compared to London, Grech said, adding that there are several top technical universities in and around the city. There are also lots of experienced people coming out of large corporations after the economic crisis, which hit Portugal quite hard, Grech said.

One of Uniplaces’ first employees was Miguel Manso, who had just come out of a big corporation. “We were very privileged kind of, for him to take a risk on us … three very young founders, basically straight out of university,” Grech said. Another key hire came in the form of Eduardo Oliveira, who built the architecture for the current version of the website that exists today. He now works for ecommerce site Wayfair in Boston.

Managing investment

Venture capital investors have backed Uniplaces with more than €30 million. The lead investors are Atomico, cofounded by Skype billionaire Niklas Zennstrom, and Octopus Ventures, which has backed companies like LoveFilm and Secret Escapes.

That cash has helped Uniplaces build out its team. The company has also focused on promoting from within, an approach Grech endorses, even though it doesn’t always work out.

“We got this right and wrong at Uniplaces. A lot of pressure to hire senior staff from renowned companies comes with raising capital. You have to do so very cautiously for that to really work,” he said. “I learned that building your people up is more often than not the best thing to do. At the end of the day, they are more experienced in your business than anyone you can hire externally.”

Though investment has helped the company grow, Grech advises entrepreneurs to be cautious when looking for financial partners. “Being very selective over which investors you bring on board is very wise,” he said. “They can massively help or hinder your business. When we were starting out, a VC friend of mine who I respect a lot, said: ‘When you are an entrepreneur raising capital, you are buying, you are the customer.’ It’s so true, but how many entrepreneurs really think that way?”

Reaching the 100-employee milestone

Hitting 100 staff last year was a milestone the company took time to acknowledge in an all-hands meeting.

“When you’re at 100 people you have to make sure the right people are getting the recognition for the hard work they’re doing,” says Grech. “I wouldn’t say it was a priority or a sort of measure of success for us, but it was something we did acknowledge.”

Grech has learned leadership lessons along the way. “A company is not a democracy and as the CEO you are there to make tough calls, not manage by consensus,” Grech said. “Key to this is building a culture where people can truly disagree and commit. That means no grumbling or backchanneling. Once the decision is made, everyone moves in that direction as a unit.”

He added, “I believe this one gets more and more important as the company grows, and is why Jeff Bezos stresses it so much.”