How Johan Hajji uses UpperKey to provide fully furnished apartment rentals for ex-pats and business travellers
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Johan Hajji: We are getting through it. It would be really easy to neglect work/life separation when working remotely, but I am very strict that I won’t touch work email after 7 pm. That time belongs to my family – so I make myself available to our customers through other channels, including Slack and WhatsApp.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded UpperKey.
Johan Hajji: At 23, I took my first job out of university with a private equity investment fund based in Paris and London. Working during the 2008 financial crisis probably wasn’t the best time to kick off a career in investment, but it only made me more determined. After three years, I was proud of what I had achieved, but I wanted a new challenge. My co-founder and I started with a €2,000 investment, and we have grown a €15 million revenue property business.
How does UpperKey innovate?
Johan Hajji: We took an existing real estate model and turned it on its head to create an altogether better way of doing business. We use technology to make rentals as easy as possible for landlords and tenants.
In terms of day-to-day operations, we don’t try to continuously re-invent the wheel. Instead, we create tools and techniques to make that wheel run smoother, faster, and more efficiently. We experiment with new tools and processes to streamline operations.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Johan Hajji: As a co-founder and CEO, it’s imperative I deliver everything I do with positive energy to spread desire and excitement throughout every member of my team. It could be easy to let that slide right now, considering the negative connotations of operating in the current COVID crisis. But that would only feed concern, worry, and negativity. Our success is built on excitement, energy, curiosity and ambition.
We have also changed our offer to customers. Business travellers, for example, need more space to work and live, so we have strengthened our mid-term rental business model.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Johan Hajji: Like many other businesses reliant on movement and contact, operations have been impacted. We have had to make tough choices around staffing and building ownership to preserve costs. One of the biggest learnings, however, has been to have an increasingly global mindset. We can all benefit from looking at what is happening in different markets to predict trends and patterns which may influence business decisions.
What specific tools, software and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Johan Hajji: Lockdowns are still in place across Europe, which means rental demand is prone to fluctuations. So, we need to make sure we have the right technological infrastructure in place to scale quickly and handle pent-up demand. While the real estate market has been slow to leverage technology, it has woken up to the need to embrace innovation to run more efficiently and maximise profit margins. The proptech revolution is finally happening.
One technology that has supported us through the crisis is Zapier, which has helped us automate processes and deliver more efficient reporting to our landlords.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Johan Hajji: It feels like poor taste to name names, but, sadly, some of our competitors haven’t made it. Our plan to stay in the game is simple. Keep up and, if you can, keep ahead.
Your final thoughts?
Johan Hajji: Technology evolves so fast. As soon as you deliver a great solution, it seems there’s already a better one ready to take its place. We have to predict the technology faster than the developers, at a macro level, so we can act fast enough to stay in front.
It’s really important to keep the team on your side. We have been incredibly lucky to have been supported by our workforce throughout this pandemic – and we will continue to look after them.
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