We all know that estate agents and landlords aren’t exactly a student’s best friend, and many of us have personally fallen victim of pushy sales tactics, resulting in a less than ideal but extortionately expensive student flat. Such experiences prompted Ben, a final year student at Bournemouth University, to start his very own online business. Unishack.com allows students to rate their accommodation in order to help those currently looking to rent. Felix had the opportunity to pick Ben’s brains about running his own business whilst still at University.
Is this your first shot at starting a business, and have you always aspired to start one yourself?
When I was 15, I started a computer support company that specialised in ‘At Home Support’. This quickly became a small successful business however after a couple of years I decided that I would go travelling for five months before going to University. I have always had a keen business acumen and a passion for web technologies, the perfect pair for starting Uni Shack.
Had the idea Uni Shack not taken off, what do you reckon you would be doing now instead?
My plan B has always been to set up a Web Development/Design company – but hopefully I won’t have to worry about that!
How did you go about building your team, and how many people work for/at Uni Shack?
I believe a great strength is to know your weaknesses, and once you know them you can build your team around that. Following that analysis, I’ve picked up the phone and got in contact with a few friends who I know also have a passion for business. The team at Uni Shack comprises of four people, including myself – two in technical and two in marketing and PR.
How have you found balancing your academic commitments with running your own business?
It really helps staying organised! My University work is quite heavy at the moment as I’m in my final year, so that takes priority. However I’m really passionate about Uni Shack, so the majority of my spare time is spent on that. I’m quite fortunate that the business relies on user generated content so most of my time is spent on promotion and further site development.
How are you planning on making substantial revenues from the website (or what other goals do you have for the business)?
Our business model operates on a series of different revenue streams, such as standard business to consumer advertising, and advertising the letting agents/landlord contact details. Soon letting agents and landlords will be able to add a plugin to their site, this plugin will show the rating and comments of a property.
Would you advise students to start a business whilst still studying or wait until they have more experience/financial security?
I believe that if you have a good enough idea and it is realistic then why wait? If you have a fantastic
idea bottled up until you have more experience, then another company could come in and get the market before you – that wouldn’t be good!
Young entrepreneurs often tend to run before they can walk. What would you say are the best first steps to take with an exciting new business idea?
I’d say that the most important step is to do your homework first. You need to understand the market for your idea, and also where your main revenue streams will come from. Writing a business plan from the start is always a good idea.
What has been the biggest hurdle so far, and have you ever considered giving up?
The development of the site was the easy part - the hurdle was getting people to use the site. With a limited budget that wasn’t easy. Uni Shack is a good idea so I knew with persistence students would eventually start rating. With the right team on board and using social media to our advantage, Uni Shack started to grow.
Have you ever run into issues with letting agents and landlords objecting Uni Shack? How do you ensure ratings remain fair and reliable?
It has always been our number one priority at Uni Shack to be neutral. We strive to keep things amicable between the student and the letting agent or landlord. We ensure ratings are fair and reliable by monitoring each and every review that is submitted, we will not approve a review that contains profanities for example. We are currently developing a portal that allows letting agents and landlords to log on, and comment on the student reviews of their properties. So by doing all of this, we haven’t run into any issues with landlords or letting agents.
Are students not running the risk of receiving no/very poor references from previous landlords if they rate their properties badly?
Protecting the identity of the reviewer is the answer to this. We do not disclose their email address, tenancy year, or any other information that can relate back to them. We always advise any reviewer to express their opinion in a way that does not identify them. Plus the student can always rate their property once they have left.
What do you currently love and hate about the flat you’re currently living in?
This is probably the best rented property that I have lived in! My girlfriend, Faye and I had a strict list of requirements that we wouldn’t budge on, it helps to know what things to watch out for when looking for a new place. I’d say the best thing about our flat is its town centre location, the only thing we really disliked was the lime green colour of the bathroom, a tin of magnolia soon sorted that out!