Renters have traditionally often had the short end of the wedge, often facing poor conditions. Property tech companies such as SPCE are changing all that.
Leon studied Economics and Management Studies at Leicester University and went to work for Deutsche Bank. From there, he moved to Barclays and then onto Edmond de Rothschild.
Leon came up with the idea for SPCE in his penultimate year of university as a student ambassador. He was working on behalf of his universities’ estate office, conducting student viewings. He noticed patterns in the issues that students were facing. These patterns were particularly evident with the students coming from abroad to the UK, who had to lodge in costly temporary accommodation while looking for a more permanent place to stay.
In his third year of university, Leon was deployed to the other side of the lettings fence. He became a keyholder for landlords – dealing with everything from rent collection to property maintenance. Here, Leon noticed a similar number of issues, especially with agencies charging private landlords anywhere between 12-20% of the rental income for a basic property management service. Leon planned to venture into property tech and do something about it when he graduated but felt he needed to go into his planned career of banking for experience first.
In banking, Leon worked on commercial relationships and financing and listened to how other people had been successful, seeing gaps and opportunities. He also met Omar Fahmi, who was to become his co-founder with SPCE. Omar owned a brand design consultancy. It would be the combination of Leon’s ideas and Omar’s ability to translate them and make the vision come alive, to which they credit their initial success.
Leon is very far from what one might expect, given his banking roots. He has another side, which shows more clearly in a second company, Roach. Roach describes itself as a collection of artwork “strictly for mad people only.” Not what you would expect from an ex-banker turned tech founder.
He aims to combine art and science. He explained that scientists are respected for their reason and logic, but people fall in love with artists – they appeal to a part of our humanity, which transcends rational thinking. To be great, you must have both “intellect balanced with emotions of joy and happiness,” he told me.
If you look at Steve Jobs and the iPhone, it technically had half the storage and a far worse spec than its competitors, but because it felt so good, and made people feel good, it smashed the market. When products convey that reason and art behind them, you get success.
SPCE Property Tech at the start
SPCE was initially a property tech company in the form of a digital app to connect students and landlords with automated processes for each stage, from search to contracts. Both student and landlord paid an affordable fee. There was also better built-in protection for the students, who were new to the rental market and easily ripped off. Any dispute over 72 hours would have SPCE involved as an independent arbitrator. Landlords also got better protection as students had to supply their guarantees at the start of a search.
Early Challenges and Solutions
Leon and Omar raised money for the property tech venture launch via crowdfunding, and I asked Leon if that came out of his banking experience. He says that it certainly taught him a lot about potential investors’ mindset but not how to do crowdfunding. He says a strong, clearly defined USP is essential for investors.
Leon went on a course to learn the crowdfunding. He also formed an advisory board, filled with people who did have experience. He believes that learning is key to success, and is massively self-taught.
However, much preparation you do, there is still risk exposure. Leon explained that they discovered that the market for their property tech was restricted by the numbers of students seeking short term accommodation. The students were also short of money, and they had to lower costs to tackle this.
How Leon Developed a Team and the Culture:
Leon says that at the start, they often met new team members online. They were cash poor, so needed to attract talent in different ways, such as equity deals that would vest over time and revert if things didn’t work out. It is critical to him to find people whom he had an emotional and spiritual connection with.
Leon describes the culture as one of co-operation and intellectual curiosity and controlled anarchy. He says that everyone has their individual agendas and is unique and working through these synergistically is the key to building great corporate cultures.
Leon says that his job is to bring the team together with equilibrium and never micro-managing.
Leon believes that too many companies hire when they are short of a skill, rather than overworked and waste money by doing so. He combats this by operating a continual training scheme so that if and when additional skills are needed, the team already has them in house.
Adaptability – and How SPCE pivoted
Leon believes adaptability is critical for success, and it has stood the property tech company SPCE in good stead. As they grew, and the market for the original app stagnated, they had to pivot entirely, to becoming a software company, and from selling to individuals to selling to universities and organizations.
These days, SPCE is still in property tech and continues to develop its capabilities and capacities as a global software and data company. They partner with non-profit and public sector organizations to deliver exceptional, transformative housing and real estate. Key partners are the universities, student associations, local government, housing associations, property groups, and commercial companies internationally.
Their software, re-named Atlas, has become a leader in property market place software. The software helps track maintenance as well. Their technology can provide blockchain solutions, cloud computing, internet provisions, and augmented reality services to providers.
Clustr helps universities personalize student well-being and engagement. This well-being service helps create a COVID secure campus and has allowed contact tracing and localized lockdowns with minimum campus disruption.
Leon told me, “Our team is working remotely and leveraging our digital and IT tools to continue operating the business efficiently. We are maintaining a close dialogue with our customers and suppliers, who are all facing similar challenges. Our goal is to minimise any disruption to our clients, sustain activity as much as possible, and keep them informed at all times. By acting as a partner, we want to strengthen our relationships as we confront the COVID-19 challenge together.”
Despite having gone a more formal and careful route than many entrepreneurs, Leon believes that business tools are limited and only get you so far. He thinks it is only once you are working within the actual market you get to start learning.
You have to be extraordinarily adaptable, and your place in the market place can change as radically as his own has. Leon’s business is a great example of one that has continually pivoted and adapted to what the market demands.
Another entrepreneur who is doing amazing amounts of good with property tech is Jimmy Williams of Urban Jungle.