First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID19 times?
Luke Nolan: We are doing well and feel really thankful to have been safe and healthy during these tough times. It’s heart wrenching to see so much struggle on such a global basis.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Student.com
Luke Nolan: I founded Student.com when I realised how hard it is for students around the world to find a home when they travel to another country. I myself have been an international student many times (Spain, UK, Italy, China) and everytime I went through the process. I realised how you had to rely on“luck” to find your perfect home away from home. I was living in China at a time when every young student had aspirations and dreams to study abroad but it was not that clear how to navigate the process.
After helping out a few friends, I realised that something needed to be done to change this process. By that time Expedia and Booking.com had been around for years, and Airbnb was growing fast in their segment, but there was still a big gap for a service that helped students find accommodation. I started working on Student.com in 2010 and the more I worked on developing the service offering, the more excited I was about being able to help others and grow a business with amazing people. I believe students are the best customers in the world because they are at such a pivotal and exciting time in their lives, and if we can help make that better that is so fulfilling!
How does Student.com innovate?
Luke Nolan: We listen to what students tell us. They value their opinions being taken into consideration by companies, and we do that by feeding their feedback into our R&D and work on ways to solve it. If part of our platform or service doesn’t work well, we work to make it better. Education is an industry that is still ripe for innovation and we are excited to be part of the future that is unfolding.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business and how are you coping?
Luke Nolan: Student visas and travel restrictions have had a major impact on international students who are our customers. On top of that, there are a lot of geopolitical uncertainties in many countries, a lack of clarity from universities and governments on what was going to happen, and ultimately what’s next is impossible to predict right now. During the pandemic people are taking each day, each week, at a time. This has meant it was really hard or simply not possible for students to confirm their plans. The impact on our business of course was on revenue, and when revenue gets hit then we need to make adjustments to costs.
Did you have to make difficult choices and what are the lessons learned?
Luke Nolan: With revenue down we had to make quick decisions on what we do about costs. The easy choices were reducing costs like marketing. At some point though if you want to scale down the business in line with performance we need to look at people costs as it makes up more than half of our overall cost. The team took a 20% salary cut and the management team took a 40% cut. We also used the furlough scheme in the UK to help further reduce our people costs. Any reduction in salary is a significant sacrifice for anyone. In true Student.com style, our team was super supportive of the steps we needed to take to protect the future of the business, and we stood together to fight the challenge.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Student.com in the future?
Luke Nolan: Positive attitude is one of our core values and we believe that staying positive is extremely helpful in dealing with the most stressful and challenging times. When you take a second to pause, reflect, and keep things in perspective things generally get easier. We also have the benefit of having gone through a lot of challenging times as we’ve been building the business. Building a startup and creating a new solution while changing an industry is definitely not easy. Our team has been together for many years fighting and we still live the fighting culture. Our fighting spirit, “SWorld Fighting” as we refer to it, deals with any stress that comes knocking on our door.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Luke Nolan: There are a number of local companies in individual markets but we are the only global player. Being global is really important because it helps provide choice, transparency and convenience for students. Ultimately it’s our amazing customer experience that sets us apart, you can’t beat it.