Having sold his first property while he was still studying for A-levels, Akshay Ruparelia is now at the helm of online estate agency Doorsteps and is challenging the market leaders with his low-cost, flat-fee proposition…
Disruptive, technology-led businesses are continually looking to streamline familiar transactional processes to create an easier path to product fulfilment.
Or to put in another way, in the case of online property business Doorsteps, it means minimal contact with an actual estate agent. An arrangement which virtually nobody sees as a negative.
Having been operational in its current form for around 18 months, the online house selling firm offers a flat-fee service of just £99 and already claims to be the third largest online agent in terms of stock levels and share. OnlineAgentPicker shows it as fifth in terms of market share with 5.63 per cent, some way behind the market’s big daddy, Purplebricks which has nearly 50 per cent, but enough to see it comfortably within a top five that looks to have broken away from the rest.
“We have listed over ten thousand properties on the market across the UK, and sold over £1bn worth of homes,” says founder, Akshay Ruparelia, who sold his first house - a five-bedroom detached property with a swimming pool - while he was still studying for his A levels.
“Of all these figures, the one I am most proud of is that we’ve saved our customers over £11m in estate agency fees. It may sound cliched, but providing the best possible services and value for our customers is absolutely central to what we do.”
With much of the property market still centred around the traditional model, and still not even 10 per cent of UK properties sold through online agents (according to OnlineAgentPicker), there is still plenty of potential in the market, despite already impressive sector growth of 150 per cent over the last four years.
Scaling up the business
Doorsteps’ fast rise has been largely positive of course, but Ruparelia has says the firm has had the usual problem of matching growth with operational expansion which, despite the largely positive feedback, has created some issues which have had to be addressed.
“Inconsistency has probably been one of the greatest challenges we’ve faced,” he says. “Because we’ve grown quite quickly, some parts of the business have grown at a faster pace than others. On the customer service side, for example, we’re working to establish a more consistent process and implementing more training.
“From a personal perspective, uncertainty around Brexit and then three Covid lockdowns has made for some anxious times. Being accountable for the salaries of dozens of people each month on payroll can have an emotional and physical impact. On the flipside, these experiences do mean that, as both a business owner and a person, I have built up more resilience and can better deal with problems next time they arise.”
That growth has seen staff levels grow to 60 and the addition of new services including conveyancing, mortgages, auctions and surveys, making the website a one-stop shop for house sellers/buyers.
Key to that growth has been a knack for securing finance that has seen the firm secure £1.5m through a mixture of angel investors including the MD of Bank of America Merrill Lynch Europe, Julian Mylchreest, and crowdfunding on Crowdcube (£1.3m).
The funding enabled the firm to ramp up staffing levels, improve its technology and invest in marketing. There was of course, the small matter of a global pandemic to deal with in the meantime but, as with many online businesses, it was perfectly equipped to operate remotely and ended 2021 with sales up 50 per cent compared to 2019.
Thus far, all this growth has been achieved with very low level marketing, but that may be about to change says Ruparelia.
“To date, all growth has been organic or below the line,” he says, “We have never spent a penny in mass marketing. Off the back of a solid foundation from organic growth, we are now looking to implement a more aggressive marketing strategy, including raising awareness of the business on national television.
“We are also looking to grow our customer base and, as I mentioned, the range of services we offer. This will include an auction and secure sale service; in Australia, for example, many homes are sold via auction and we like how this model enables people to sell their homes securely.”
Helping young entrepreneurs
Despite his confidence in the online model, he does not see it ever replacing the traditional estate agency business. Estate agents, it seems, like death and taxes, are inevitable.
“I don’t think the estate agent industry will ever be completely automated or technology based, without human interaction. But I do believe in a hybrid model, where local experts and consultants do the face-to-face work backed up by a digital infrastructure.
“Technology means more power in the hands of the people, lower costs, better convenience and better processes; if someone can come in and use technology to disrupt the antiquated conveyancing market, for example, then I believe this can only be a positive thing.”
Beyond Doorsteps, Ruparelia has put together a kickstarter scheme with the ambition of finding jobs for 1,000 young people who became unemployed during the pandemic. The Department of Work and Pensions-approved scheme works to supply SMEs with new-talent in the under-25 year old age bracket.
“The gateway means we will manage all aspects of the scheme on the business’ behalf, including the application process itself, all programme administration, Kickstart Scheme training for the SMEs and the delivery of employable young talent.
“It is targeted at SMEs that are time poor and don’t have the resources to invest in and train new staff, or whose training may not be up to DWP standards. Youth unemployment is currently a huge problem, and through the gateway scheme I hope to help both young people and businesses get back on their feet.”
Although hardly a veteran himself, he has plenty of advice for youngsters with similar ambitions to his own, that he disseminates through his consultancy AKR Growth Ventures.
“If I had to give one piece of advice, it would be to be open-minded and experimental. When things seem difficult, take a step back and look at the bigger picture. And don’t be afraid to fail, because failure is an individual event, not a reflection of someone as a person.”
Wise words for a would-be business magnate and typical of his older-than-his-years attitude. Although, as plenty of headlines have pointed out, Britain’s youngest millionaire doesn’t seem to have endured much in the way of failure yet.