Allowing them to pick and choose which parts of the process they’d like to manage themselves, Daniel Attia’s Yopa is making it easier for homeowners to sell property their way
Taking on the established property giants is something few would have the stones for. Attempting to undermine brands with as solid foundations as Foxtons and Countrywide either requires a degree of naivety or a bucketload of bravery. Fortunately, Daniel Attia, co-founder and CEO of Yopa, the online estate agency, recognises how both of these things can be an asset when attempting to disrupt incumbent brands. “People are so scared of failure but that fear will stop you ever trying anything,” he says. “Keeping an aura of naivety allows you to experiment and try more things.”
Certainly this attitude stood Attia in good stead as a young boy growing up in Hampstead: thanks to the combination of the credulousness and confidence of youth, the entrepreneur was never afraid to jump in with both feet. “The first thing that I did was I threw a party for 13,000 or 14,000 kids,” he says. “It wasn’t even meant to be 1,000 kids but this thing went viral and at the time I made £1,200, which at 13 or 14 was like two years’ pocket money.” Attia’s next money-making scheme involved snapping up Levi’s jeans wholesale through an embryonic eBay, having a friend embroider them with patterns and then selling them at school for a profit. And before too long this entrepreneurial mindset had become something of a habit. “I was always trying and thinking of new ideas,” he says. “Whether they worked or failed, we always enjoyed the feeling of making money and the independence that comes with it – you kinda get addicted to that.”
After finishing school in 2008, Attia headed to UCL to study for a bachelor’s in economics but this was an uncomfortable fit for someone so used to ploughing their own furrow. “I hated academia,” he says. “I was encouraged to go down that route but it wasn’t for me.” Fortunately, after graduating, Attia found other learning opportunities that were a better fit for his enterprising personality: after doing some internships in the property sector, he began working for agencies that bought and sold commercial property. And this gave him the opportunity to build upon the foundations he’d laid during his youth. “It’s very entrepreneurial: you can make money out of nothing and that’s always fun,” he says. “I was always buying and selling so I learnt to understand how the whole process works and the dynamics of selling.
And the more Attia grew to understand the industry, the more he realised that the sector had some structural issues that would benefit from some renovations. “It was super archaic,” he says. “It just wasn’t harnessing technology in any way.” While commercial property agents were at least used to using data and detailed calculations to arrive at property valuations, the industry as a whole hadn’t kept up with the digital revolution. And given the sector had little in the way of external pressures or competition, in Attia’s view there was little to force those operating within it to up their games. “Everyone was plodding along, content with how much money they were making,” he says. “When you’re in a situation where you can charge a very high fee base and not come under any fee pressure, you have no incentive to innovate.
This experience began to fuel Attia’s desire to reform the industry but the spark that actually ignited it came when he sold a property of his own. “I got landed with a contract with a 2% fee: it was 2.5% sole agency, 2% multi-agency,” he says. “And I was like: ‘that’s crazy because I could sell this place myself.’” But while Attia initially thought he’d be able to list directly on platforms like Zoopla and Right Move, the reality was far more complex. The platforms didn’t allow the public to list unbrokered property and, although this left a gap in the market, he could clearly see that no new business would be able to compete head-to-head with the incumbents. Instead, teaming up with friends David Jacobs and Andrew and Alistair Barclay – respectively the grandson and son of Sir David Barclay, co-owner of the Telegraph Media Group – Attia realised there was the massive opportunity to create a fixed-fee, truly digital estate agency. “There was no R&D done, there was no market size analysis,” he says. “It was just instinctive, like ‘this could be huge: let’s do this.’”
True to form, Attia wasn’t afraid to follow his gut, although he admits naivety in this case meant that he and his fellow entrepreneurs faced a pretty serious learning curve. “If we’d known at the time how big a project it would be, we probably wouldn’t have decided to do it,” he says. “We had no idea how to build a product; we had no idea about customer journey.” While Jacobs had plenty of experience in e-commerce, developing a product like Yopa turned out to be far more complicated than any of the team had anticipated. “Essentially the initial website just didn’t work,” Attia admits. Fortunately, tales of this plucky band of entrepreneurs taking on bricks-and-mortar estate agents spread and attracted the attention of Tim Muir, former product manager at easyProperty, Rightmove and Zoopla and current chief operating officer at Yopa. “He came in and really was the one that was like ‘right, let’s look at this and do this properly’,” Attia says. “The learning curve has been crazy from that to where we are now, which is just a phenomenal product.”
On top of providing insight into how Yopa could smooth out its customer journey, Muir also helped the entrepreneurs address a more fundamental issue with running a purely online play in the property space. “The service we were providing was sub-par: not being present had such a negative impact on valuation quality,” says Attia. “We didn’t have local expertise: I knew that there was a hole there.” While Attia had already begun to realise that Yopa needed to pivot, it was Muir that helped him see that a hybrid model could offer the best of both worlds. By enabling existing estate agents to conduct business online while still carrying out valuations and meeting clients in person, they could boost their productivity and earning potential while offering a cheaper deal and more flexibility for the consumer. “It was a no brainer: the estate agents are from the high street and have at least five years experience,” says Attia. “We are just tech-enabling them to be more efficient, reminding them when to make customer-service calls and helping them to keep in touch with vendors.”
And embracing a model that brought together the best of online and offline came with some additional perks: those selling a house no longer had to either go down the purely full-service or do-it-yourself routes. “It essentially allows people the choice to sell their home the way they want to, not the way that suits the business at that time,” says Attia. Rather than it being a case of all or nothing, Yopa’s users have significantly more granular control over the level of involvement they want in the process, picking exactly which parts of selling their property they want to take on and which parts they want an agent to handle. “You can have a pick ‘n’ mix: if you want to do your own viewings or you want someone else to do them, you can,” Attia says. “If you want to talk to buyers directly or you want to have zero interactions with them, you can do that as well.”
Bringing estate agents on board wasn’t without its challenges though: getting them to leave their comfort zones working for established agencies and take a punt on the then untested platform took some convincing. “It was quite a challenge to get the first lot to jump ship but I’m happy they did: a lot of them are still with us,” says Attia. “And it’s become easier the more the brand gets known: it’s clicked with a lot of agents that much of the market share is moving toward this space and they need to get in early.”
Attracting homeowners to the platform followed much the same journey. “The first thousand customers are the hardest because they’re essentially the guinea pigs and the early adopters,” Attia say. When dealing with the most valuable asset the vast majority of people will ever own, trust is pivotal. Consumers want to be able to see an agent’s track record, the reviews they have received, their boards around the neighbourhood but these are all things that only come once an agency has reached a certain scale. Fortunately, two attention-grabbing ad campaigns – first featuring the Village People discussing whether it was time to move on from their past success and then focusing on the surreal reasons customers would have to find to not give Yopa’s platform a go – got the word out to consumers and gave the platform the push it needed. “Now, on our site, we have thousands of properties and people can find some that have sold in their neighbourhood,” says Attia. “So the marketing gets more efficient naturally as you scale; it’s a snowball effect.”
But creating this kind of customer-base for the company required some serious capital and accessing investment for the burgeoning business was easier said than done. “It was really brutal to be honest: we were rejected so many times,” said Attia. “At the time, the business was in a very primitive form and we were asking them to invest £15m in four 26-year-old kids, so we needed someone with a lot of vision and understanding.” Fortunately, the startup eventually found the help it was looking for in the unlikeliest of places – Savills. While the international estate-agency giant was in essence part of the very industry Yopa had been looking to disrupt, it evidently saw something in the plucky startup that separated it from the other startups in the proptech sector. “You’ll have to ask them how they came to the crazy idea of investing in us but I hope they’re happy they did,” Attia jokes. “We were very pleased to secure them as a lead investor because it provided everyone with the seal of approval that this is a model worth looking at.”
Without a doubt, having this kind of high-profile backer on board has also helped Yopa bring home top talent – although it’s true that Attia doesn’t need a huge amount of assistance here. “The skill set that I’m probably the best at is spotting, chasing, hounding and retaining great people in this company,” he says. “I know that these guys make my job a lot easier so I genuinely don’t take no for an answer when I’ve found someone that I want to hire: I’m quite relentless in my pursuit of excellent people.” But Attia doesn’t just invest in talent outside of the business: he also dedicates a lot of energy into identifying and building up untapped potential within Yopa. “You’ve got to keep your ears open in your own organisation as to who the rockstars are and give them that growth,” he says. “That creates a culture brilliant people can thrive in and therefore encourages more people to join us.”
Having such talented people on side – whether it be in Yopa’s head office or helping to sell consumers’ homes – means the startup is in a strong position, come what may. And in light of research from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) revealing that house prices are expected to fall across London and the south in 2018 and the lingering economic uncertainty resulting from Brexit, the sector definitely needs to prepare for leaner times. “It’s unfortunate that we’re in year three and the country is going through a tumultuous time but that’s the nature of business and you have to stay strong,” says Attia. However, Attia isn’t unduly concerned: even taking into account the fact that money pouring into certain sectors has a tendency to ebb and flow, property will always remain a strong industry and so the most important thing to focus on is capturing as much of the market as possible. “Markets will go up and down,” Attia says. “The measure that I always look at is how your market share is growing: within the good times or bad times, that should always be increasing.”
And this is clearly a lesson Attia is embracing with Yopa. “By the end of next year, I’d like to be a top five UK estate agent in terms of volume; the year after I’d like to be number one or two,” he says. “Eventually I would like our marketshare to be large enough that upwards of 7% or 8% of all transactions in the UK go through Yopa.” And it seems like Yopa is right on schedule: last year Yopa achieved 2.7x growth over 2016 and, if Attia gets his way, it will top that in 2018. “I’m a super-competitive guy and always have been,” he says. “My ambition is making sure this is a huge success and that we create a great consumer brand everyone knows and loves.”
And while Attia’s plans for the future of Yopa are evidently ambitious, he feels naivety and ambition are far less likely to threaten the long-term survivability of a startup than negativity or being overly cautious. “People will give you a million reasons why not to do something: everyone from family to friends told me this company would fail, that it was a dumb idea, that it would never work,” he says. “So surround yourself with people who think in the same way you do and don’t let those that don’t get you down.” As long as an entrepreneur has identified a clear customer need and an effective way to address it, they needn’t spend too long worrying about other people’s doubts. “Figure out what the problem is, why customers wouldn’t be happy with the existing status quo and how to solve it,” concludes Attia. “That’s the only thing that really matters.”