Graham Lindley – Getting in to Serviced Accommodation and Scaling-Up the Business.
This episode is the the second in the series of interviews exploring how entrepreneurs scale up their Serviced Accommodation businesses.
In this episode Chris interviews Graham Lindley as he talks through moving from being a mobile engineer to forex and crypto trading, and then finding his passion in Serviced Accommodation and Property.
Chris and Graham then look at how the journey Graham has been seen him scaling up his Serviced Accommodation business, and how it has happened.
Graham is managing director of Prim Short Stays in Nottingham, UK.
The Serviced Accommodation Podcast is a show brought to you by Chris Poulter and Ritchie Mazivanhanga aimed at new and experienced property investors alike. With each show we help you Start, Systemise and Scale your Serviced Accommodation Business.
If you would like to ask us a question or discuss anything in this episode, please join The Serviced Accommodation Podcast Community on Facebook, and ask away. To listen to more episodes or get more information go to www.thesapodcast.com.
Find out more about Graham’s business here: https://www.primshortstays.com/
Chris: Hi, I am Chris.
Graham: And I am Graham.
Chris: And welcome to the Serviced Accommodation podcast.
Chris: For continuing our series on scaling up and how to scale up your Serviced Accommodation business successful, today I am going to talk to Graham Lindley. So Graham, thanks for joining us.
Graham: Hi, thanks very much, it’s my pleasure. I have been listening since the beginning, so it’s quite strange to now be inside here.
Chris: The strangest thing is when the podcast is released and you sat in your car listening back, and it’s like, that’s my voice.
Graham: Oh really.
Chris: Yeah, I am sure.
Graham: I have got all that to look forward to.
Chris: You do. Absolutely.
So could you give our listeners just a little bit background on yourself, like where you kind of came from, from a profession, and where you are based in the country.
Graham: Okay. I live in Nottingham, being there around eleven years, after growing up in Kent. And I have been an engineer all my life, since I left school, in fact, I started when I was still at school — and that was very good, I enjoyed it very much. I was always in different places, meeting different people, whether a country man or a council or state, I always find a way of getting on with everyone, and really finding ways to help people and being resourceful. And so I was a mobile engineer with my van and that’s what I did.
Chris: So when you say engineer; what type of engineering was that?
Graham: So I did security and fire, I guess the technical term would be a technician. In the trade we all call each other engineers. So for the first part I was mostly installing and then transitioned more towards maintenance side of it, so I didn’t really have to call around lots of space and things like that anymore.
Chris: No, but at the same time I imagine like, diagnosing and repairing stuff is a lot more difficult than installing in the first place.
Graham: Yeah. Really it was the thing of diagnosing and fault finding was something that I did excel at and that is a matter of just breaking things down and working out process of elimination, really. If you have got a huge fire system of course, a massive factory, with a random fault in it you can just keep breaking the system down into half and then walk out where the fault is and then go to that half and split it again — you know, it is possible.
And I think once you get the idea of how to find faults then really you can apply that to anything, and that’s something I had really try and teach my apprentices was, focus very much on the process not on the kind of particulars; if that makes sense. So you can then apply that skill to any system, whether you have seen it or not before — you can compare working parts with non-working parts and just work out where the fault lies. So yeah, that was something I enjoyed doing but it also meant I had more time on the road and a lot of people wouldn’t like that, but for me, if I had to go and help someone on an installation I would really notice actually being on site for ten, twelve hours, something like that, and then a little driving at the side of the day. I had noticed the difference really in the fact that I couldn’t listen to all my podcast in audio but a lot of sites now have banned earphones, so even doing that was impossible.
So for years I have been doing the job that I could do and to be honest with you, I had got to the highest point I could without then going more office based or more managerial, and I kind of knew it was something I had always done and so I could do it easily but not necessarily something I always wanted to carry on doing. So I kind of consciously decided to plateau, I guess, and have that quite nice space in the fact that, I was entrusted and I did do a good job and I did the very best I could, but it allowed me to focus a lot of time or mental energy — at least — on other things — my real passions — and that was initially a lot of forex trading, and stocks and shares, crypto, and later I have got into property and that’s when I really found my true passion.
So listening to business development podcasts and various audio books, I really started to kind of get an idea that that’s what I wanted to do and it certainly wasn’t going to be carrying on being an engineer, and I couldn’t see myself starting my own business in that field either because it’s quite a mature market and you have to start very small, you know, it would take a good ten years, I think, to start scaling in that industry I was in. So yeah, that’s where property really started to make a lot of send to me.
Chris: So when did you first become interested in property then?
Graham: I have always been interested in property: definitely. I mean my dad certainly always was. And I made a big mistake and I bought my first home, it must have been around ’06/’07, I spend a lot of money doing (it out). And then we just moved to Nottingham, we weren’t that familiar with the areas and it turned out to not be a great area and we weren’t very there at all. And we put it on the market and the end we just wanted to get out of there, I mean I briefly consider renting it out but we just wanted to wipe our hands off it, so we sold it for a loss.
And then went into renting, supposedly just for six months. And five years, I am (certain), I think (the one after), you know, trying to kick myself away from what the value would have been, what my mortgage would have been if I had put tenants in. So it did turn out to be a really good thing and they do say everything for a reason and certainly I won’t be where I am or living where I am now if I hadn’t made that decision but yeah, in the end it was six years of being in rented — which initially, you know, it was very nice, but once we had started a family and we wanted to settle and I only wanted to focus on the business, it didn’t make much sense.
The actual trigger for really deciding to become a property investor and focus some more time on that space was… I guess was really be committed to being a successful-professional forex trader and I was spending a lot of time on self-discipline, on proper strategy — that was my root financial freedom, as I thought.
But also the guy, my mentor, the guy that I was learning from, he was maybe thirty-six/thirty-seven, gone fully grey from the stress, sitting in front of six PC monitors for twelve hours a day — you know, it would be a Sunday afternoon; his family would be out, having a barbecue he would be preparing for the markets to open the next day. And I am starting to think, you know, I am not really sure this is the future kind of future I want.
And my wife asked me a funny question — she was reading some book — and she said; “what is it you are doing when you lose track of time, because that’s where your true passion is?” And I didn’t much over it, I was just thinking yeah, forex, but only when I am winning, when I am not I am kind of getting up at 01:00 AM to check the yen against the dollar and you know it wasn’t healthy.
So we got offered single buy to let property, and at the time I didn’t know about property education, I didn’t know about the courses, and didn’t know a lot really. However, I knew it was something that we wanted to do and we were still at the time, so I was a strange. When I spoke to the broker he said well, there is not many people that don’t own their own home already and they are trying to get into buy to let, in fact, there was only two lenders that would even consider us — Natwest being the one that we went with.
And yeah we got offered buy to let, and that was, I nearly bought a dud actually, my whole strategy was going to be buying twenty percent below market value — I think I might have heard something someone was doing — and my way of doing that was going to be finding what had been on Rightmove for the very longest and of course I had been the most desperate, so I am more likely to accept an offer. And I thought I had found a gem and I would start to hold it up in my head that I was going to be buying it at a twenty percent below, I didn’t even consider that you might not want to go for that.
But my main concern was why I hadn’t been on the market so long, I really thought it was a Call KA, and you know, I had accepted at face value what the agent was telling me for rental figures. And yeah, I was just putting up the word about, you know, I was speaking to people saying, look, I am going to be going into property, I want to get a buy to let. And having that random conversation with someone he said to me, very randomly, I think there is something going on at Trent bridge cricket ground at the business centre there, I think it was a property event on tonight, you ought to pop along. So I went down to that — and I guess technically that was my first property meeting — but it was out on by state agents and really they were just talking about the state of the property market — this was 2015 — and I found it very interesting.
And I just reached out to a guy, he was in a suit, and I said, I am looking at getting into property — I have seen a property I think it’s call KA, I am not sure entirely why it’s still in the market. He said, “you know what, I love looking at property, (focus on viewing), and I am just going to come down and join you, you know, I will just do that”. It really was a nice thing for him to do. And he came down, and he pointed out a lot of defects. And a year later, I found all his notes that he had given me and he was absolutely right and everything he was saying was just… I understand why I would have done very badly if I had went for that.
So, well forwards, we got a different property: bought well. And we got quite lucky, we bought one that was (Hecks) house and association, and it was just a matter of treating a state agent professionally as potential business partners almost, if you are buying property you are going into business with that person, so having respect for conversations with them and also involving the when you are doing viewings.
And I was doing that and I think we had already kind of made enough to own a place because I am naturally (knee jerk) because of them, and then I thought hang on, let’s just see what else is out there, we went for another viewing, mentioned the (impulse) that we were scaling up and we were going to be buying our portfolio, just telling the agent everything they needed to hear. To then say, I might have something you are going to be interested in, it’s not gone on the market yet but we have just put the sign on the outside and the neighbours asked for a viewing, I am going there now and I said, “I am coming with you.”
It was great, (Hecks) housing and association. Fuchsia pink all over. It hasn’t been touched since the seventies, and yeah, very good price.
So we had the agreement and principle done, we had the deposit proof of funds on the desk of the agent by 09:00 AM that next morning, they couldn’t really go to market with t at that point, so we didn’t have to complete. And as I understand it was about two hundred investors that are after this (Hecks) housing and association properties, where they are offloading their old stock and buying newer stuff, and so we were very lucky there.
So yeah, well forwards, it took a while to get through conveyancing, throughout that whole time I was on eBay and I had gone through every night and buying stuff that I thought I would need for the renovation. I was an engineer, I had a big van, I had tools, and we had the company van as well, so it meant we could quickly — if we sort of (bargain) — go and get stuff.
I think the best part was we got a brand new bathroom suite from B&Q, it was the guy that bought it, left it in the garage, didn’t need it. Put it on eBay with a spelling mistake and we got the whole lot for thirteen pound, just amazing. The next first thing we got a second hand kitchen, but it was a high-end kitchen, with grounded worktops, appliances included — that cost £250. And then we sold the old one which was horrible, 1970’a kitchen; we just though you know what, we will try it on Gumtree for a hundred pound, someone bought it. And then we are just going to use it in the garage, you know, art studio, and for them it was perfect. So net it was a hundred and fifty pound grounded worktop kitchen. But at the time I knew, I had no concept of leverage or anything like that, I did all the work myself, so I was working every day and then going to the property at night, working from 05:00/06:00 PM till 10:00 or 11:00 PM — annoying the neighbours — and yeah, it was hard gruelling work.
Chris: Was it annoying the neighbours who wanted to buy the property?
Graham: Maybe that’s why they gave me such a hard time.
Graham: No, I was pretty respectful, but it was hard work, and I would probably age myself five years during that process. I got to the point where I was actually resenting the property, I was going in and just feeling empty; it was horrible. My wife thankfully… I just wanted to sell it, it wasn’t even ready and I said look, let’s just put it on the market I have had enough. And we had an agent man that said look, you at ninety-nine percent, just finish it and then we would value it properly.
And my wife said look, you didn’t do this to sell it and really after legals, forget home under the armour, when you look at what you are going to make after everything, even though we had only spent maybe four grand (£4,000) and had done everything, and we have made a very nice home for someone. We won’t have made much money at all, it certainly wasn’t worth all that effort I had gone through, and she said look, this isn’t why you did this, it was to start in your property journey so let’s just it, find a tenant.
So thankfully we did that, it took us two months, we were very (fassy), more (fassy) than we needed to be, but of course it was our precious first ever property.
Graham: So we got a couple of teachers and then we went for a year. That was nice actually.
And after that whole endeavour, I had totally had enough of properties though, we got tenants in and I was like forget about that for at least a year, let’s see what happens to the market and I will start thinking about it; the (tiling) for next year. And that was my time to really then start getting into forex and really double down and focus very hard.
The biggest thing I have got out of that was the self-discipline. My mentor, he did meditate before even looking at any charts in the morning, he was very, very disciplined and focused and so I really kind of started to develop that side of myself, which I had never known before — to be honest with you — and that was really useful.
So I was really trying hard to be a very successful forex trader, and I wasn’t losing a lot to be honest with you but I was really trying to hone my skill before putting any significant amount of money in, but whether you are twenty pounds down or twenty grand (£20,000) down, I think once the emotions kick in they are very, very dangerous. So I was just learning to try and separate decision making from emotions. And I think the truth is I wasn’t really enjoying it and my wife asked e the question of; where do you lose track of time the most? And I wanted to answer forex but I didn’t really know the answer.
Coincidentally, that night I had seen on meetup.com, a weird thing I had never heard of before, it said property networking event — I was like not really so interested in that but I am quite interested in listening to the guy that retired in his early thirties using other people’s money. I thought well, he is either a corny man or he has got something that I could learn, so let’s go and hear him. And I would never forget, I said to my wife, you know what, it says networking from 09:00, I will be home just after 09:00, I am not interested in all of that. And I went along and it was quite a forced thing, there was the ringing of bell every couple of minutes and making you go and talk to someone else.
Chris: Be networking…
Graham: I had never known anything like it, and you know what, I met some really good people, some people that hadn’t gone into property, so I had advice to offer them and people that had been in it twenty years and twenty plus properties, and I loved it, I absolutely loved it. I met some good people, I met a plumber that I was getting on really well with him and you know people have been on these courses and I was arguing with them, you know; why would you do that. When that can be out towards a deposit and they were arguing with me saying well, how long I it going to take you to save another deposit before you can buy another property. And that’s how far detached I was with being a real property investor.
But the guy, you know what, the guy spoke — he was good — I wanted to say hi to him, there was a couple of people I wanted to follow up conversation with, afterwards. 11:00 PM we were getting kicked out of the bar, at 11:30 PM we were still kind of raveting on — to be honest with you. And I was really energized, I was buzzing, and I went home and say, I know where my true passion is, I lost track of time and I could have talked all night with those guys, though I have never met before and it was all around property. And I really knew my passion from there on, and in fact, this is it, this is what I am going to be doing, and it was very nice to have that kind of inspiration, if you like.
Chris: Yeah, definitely. So you kind of find your direction and in terms of property; and what was it really that attracted you to SA, you know, how did you go from this point where you go right this is what I want to do to actually establishing Serviced Accommodation, would sit you write well?
Graham: There was a guy that actually was doing a thing called Serviced Accommodation, not really heard of but I have heard of Airbnb, so I kind of understood it. We have been doing Airbnb from our spare room at times, it wasn’t something we enjoyed doing, but my grew up in a guest in New York and so for her it was always kind of a dream to go back to that, whereas for me that was just a nightmare that I do lots of strangers in your home and I was just not ever enjoying that, whereas Airbnb can be a bit more picky and choosy, enquiry only, for example, I was travelling a lot for work so we did have women only if we let it out at all while I was away.
And so I was exposed to that and then I had met a guy that was doing it more professionally, I just assumed with his own property. And I was aware of this thing that everyone at the time was doing rent-to-rent and HMOs, and it was quite funny actually because I had heard about that when it first… Well, when I first heard about it, it was getting going in London quite big and it was around 2013, and my mind-set is to show mind-set shift, at the time I just thought I went on too late, these people are already doing that, you have to be the first, otherwise, no point. And that’s where my head was out at the time.
And a while forwards, years and years, and everyone is talking about rent-to-rent, I am like oh yeah I know what that is. And I don’t really know, I don’t know if it’s arrogant, but I thought I had a brainwave, I thought I had a really good idea that no one else had had, what about if you combine these two strategies: rent-to-rent, but instead of putting HMOs, what about rent-to-rent for Serviced Apartments. And I spoke to someone, I then got to go another couple of networking events and I said to someone, oh I have got this idea and they kind of laughed at me, and they went yeah that’s what everyone is looking to do, I was like oh okay, cool, cool, cool. So that was it.
I will go back to an agent I met — the guy who first helped me out with that property I nearly bought — me and him kept in touch, I involved him in the buying of the successful purchase and the renovation, in fact, I invited him around when it was complete so I could show him everything and also he had me help him. He had a couple of offices and I did security lamp, CCTV, that kind of thing, so we got a business relationship going on and so that was good and keeping in touch, and we enjoyed each other’s company.
I do remember being at one of his offices and doing a repair, and (seeding) of the Serviced Accommodation thing, I said have you heard of this thing that people are doing and he said that sounds similar to the corporate lets, but you know that sublettings are kind of not allowed and it’s definitely frowned upon, I said oh yeah, I know. But I didn’t really move it forwards from there.
Well forwards many months and I get a phone call from him, I was his go to guy I guess and looking back — having now read Daniel Priestley’s book –his key person of influence within anything that was technical. And he had just acquired a block of apartments, just four apartments, and he was going to be giving the block management. And he asked me, he phoned me up, and he said look; what’s going to be my requirement for fire safety? And I said what have you got? And he explained. And I said you know what, it would be easier if I come down and meet you in person.
Chris: Of course it will be. I’ll have a look!
Graham: Yeah, brand new renovation in a listed building, not in the market yet, four high-end one bed apartment. I thought yeah, you know what, I am going to pop down. So I went down in the afternoon and I had a look round and it really was stunning — very, very nice, oak everywhere, massive windows; very, very central in Nottingham; fantastic location, and yeah the place was stunning. And I said to him you know what, I am interested. And he said “what do you mean?” Is everything alright Graham? If you didn’t split up with your wife, why do you want a one-bed flat in the centre of the town? I said no, no, no, I am interested in taking the block.
And so he kind of looked at me and he… I was a little bit gone out to be honest with you; to let you know no offence, eighteen months ago you were about to buy your first dod property; and now this? I was like yeah, you know, Serviced Accommodation; do remember that thing I was telling you about? So he was the first challenge, to honest with you, and my knee-jack thing was to phone that guy I had met at that very first networking event that was doing that thing called Serviced Accommodation, and he very quickly recognized it as a good opportunity and was right in my house that night. And actually we met with the agent quite quickly afterwards and you know what, he did a very, very good job of… He had been on the courses, he knew what he was doing and it just was getting going and he is very, very prepared, and he did a perfect job of convincing the agent that it was first of all a legitimate thing to be doing with the building but second of all, it was actually the better thing to be doing with that property, it would have worked better as SA a it would have worked under AST, which the owners were looking at. So that was fantastic, you know, the idea was to be doing some form of JV, it didn’t end up working out mostly because the guy really had to focus on his own properties which was quite a sensible thing and that was he advice he had received at the time from his mentor.
Now, I also saw the importance of having a mentor, and I wasn’t sure about doing the course, so I bypassed doing the course and I actually reached out to Mark Stokes — at the time he was quite heavily involved in Serviced Accommodation — and I said to him; would you mind mentoring me on the side? And from there that was very useful and I was getting to learn a lot. And the way I have always been is I do real deep dive in any subject. I would never forget; I wanted to buy s mountain bike, I had spent three months researching, I had to know about every single component, every single (back) on the market, the price points, the pros and cons, everything — and that’s just how I am, and of course then started my journey into Serviced Accommodation really.
And it was a bit of a blessing really, the owners weren’t too interested, they (popped) some cash in this big block and their main focus was on their business which needed their attention, so nothing was happening for months actually; however, the agent was fully on board and was representing us, he was the guy selling it to the owners, not us — and so that was very, very useful.
Well forwards, I was probably at risk of being the most qualified bystander in all of Serviced Accommodation in the UK and every day I was working towards it, no matter what; whether it was researching, or testing software, or reading books, and I was really focused on business development, I wasn’t using this as a property strategy. And I think, looking back now that was a sensible thing to do and I think that’s possibly not what everyone in the space has done — they have got their single lets, they have got their HMOs, and then they have jumped into Serviced Accommodation as the next best thing to do. And possibly some people might not have the right mind-set around everything when taking that journey; whereas, I was very much focused on, okay we are going to be starting a business here; how do we do this successfully.
And yeah, I was using the time very wisely but it took a very long time before we finally got that call the agents saying, “make yourself available 08:00 AM next week.” And Mark was kind enough to join me but it was like Alan Sugar’s boardroom and talking some very big successful guys about (capital allowances), it was a little but intimidating, so I was glad to have a partner by my side. And long story short, we got the block — they didn’t trust us — we had proper business plans and everything, we have done a lot work towards it and they could recognize that. Equally, I recognize that we were taking a chance, we really were.
We hit the ground running, we opened up and we were prepared and did everything right, and very quickly we were getting very good reviews and getting a good turnover. And we got offered quite quickly — by the guy we nearly did a JV with — another property.
Chris: Yeah, I did say what’s quite interesting there was these three key events which kind of happened prior to getting going which some people would call luck, but I think if you examine closely, it’s not really luck at all, it’s kind of point yourself out there and being in the right place at the right time. The first of all was being saved from buying the (dead, few at first) buy to let property. And you could say yeah, it stroke a lot but at the same time if you hadn’t been in that network building, if you hadn’t put yourself out there you wouldn’t meet the person that you then come along and say, actual you need to worry about this.
Similarly with the agent who kind of brought you your first single let property, it was kind of lucky, but again if you hadn’t been there, if you hadn’t been putting yourself out there, talking to the agents, being in that position with then when they said oh yeah, I got this one, you know, you might be interested in, then it would happen. And very similarly with when the block came through; exactly the same situation, if you hadn’t been building that relationship, maintaining that relationship with that person over time then it just never would have come through, really.
And I think it just highlights the importance in property, it’s a cliché to say but it’s completely a people business; isn’t it.
Graham: One hundred percent, yeah.
Chris: You know it’s not about (a person motto) at all, it’s completely about people.
Graham: Yeah, a hundred percent. Even we didn’t talk about tenants but a big part of my success was is having really good tenants and looking after them. So yeah, it’s definitely a people business.
Chris: Yeah, absolutely. So when you kind of started out then, what was this thing that you struggled with the most — do you think?
Graham: Initially, when I was still working, my hand was fun…
Chris: Struggle when you were running full properties.
Graham: Full properties and a full time job which was very demanding, there were long-long hours, I was doing sometimes eighty hours a week. A lot of those hours where on the road, I could make phone calls, but my hand was forced quite quickly to get help, so, it was a struggle but it was also what I needed, it was a kind of blessing really.
Chris: One of those blessings in disguise is what it’s like because you can’t do everything yourself, you are then forced to kind of leverage early; right.
Graham: Absolutely. So I found a UK based VA, and I was struggling to find one. Again, my wife was instrumental in helping me find my first VA. And she persuaded me to reach out to a contact in London who was growing a multi-million pound, massive, very successful business. And she said, “why don’t you ask Lauren?” And I said well, we are at very different places, I am not really sure he is the best person to ask. But you know what I did; and he said my very-very best PA has left, very annoyingly she has left to have a baby and she has now had a baby and is wanting to start working from home which I can’t do, I need someone in the office in London; and so why don’t I connect you. And I said, thank you very much.
And so that was Emma, so Emma joined us very-very early, initially just for a few hours a week, and it was research and it was this and it was that, and quite quickly I got her trained up on some of the software we were using, and it became a more regular position for her, and she enjoyed it. And it was something different for her — she had always been a PA — PA’s are fantastic at organizing things. However, she always wanted to double check everything, which was fine, you know, I was available in the phone most of the time, so having that job and being able to do it quite easily because I had always done it, allowed me to have the mental capacity to say well do this, now do that, and I almost micromanaged but it meant I had someone there available — and that went very well. So that was that was the struggle. I am trying to think of something else but that was probably the main thing at the time. Absolutely.
Chris: Yeah, because I mean you were quite well prepared. I love that phrase: “the most qualified bystander” and all of those accommodation. Because you basically spend about a year working on that deal before it came to a (finish).
Graham: Probably a good nine months. And really towards the end actually, certainly by the time mentor, I mean during that process as well we actually bought our first home, so that was going on, I renovated that, I had learned the concepts of leverage and using other people’s time while I was going off at doing what I was good at. And also we had got our second buy to let as well by refinancing the first one with the added value. So by doing all that work myself in the first place, it did build in the value, and so, looking back it was the right thing to do but it’s not something — I am not sure — I would like to do it again, if I am honest.
Chris: So the three stages that we talk about like start, systemize, scale, so you obviously got started, it sounds like very early on you had to start leveraging and to leverage you really need the systems in place; don’t you?
Chris: That was absolutely key if you are going to be working with other people, you are not just handing responsibility over to someone, you are putting the systems in place, you are plugging the right people into those systems and then you are kind of monitoring their performance on them. So at what point did you then start scaling the business from these four guaranteed rent properties you have taken on?
Graham: Well, very-very quickly actually, the guy that we nearly did the JV with, he introduced me to a landlord, at the time he was at full capacity himself and this other landlord he needed some investment in the property, he needed furnishing and decorating — nothing too major — but he didn’t have any. And it was his first buy to let, he was a London investor and he had had experience with Serviced Accommodation, so he knew what he wanted to do, and he needed help bringing it to standards which we were in a position to do. However, my whole conversation was around how much rent do you want, and he just didn’t want to do that. So he wanted the reward from Serviced Accommodation, that’s why he wanted to do Serviced Accommodation. So really, we ended up doing management for him, and looking back we did actually set it up perfectly, he was an accountant by trade anyway, and it was a very simple management contract. But yeah with the gentleman’s agreement on the side, you know, of a zero percent loan, so you get going, so that loan was going to get paid back from the income of running it as a Serviced Apartment.
Chris: And what party was that to, was that from you to him to get it going or…?
Chris: Okay, cool.
Graham: And so, it was very quickly, we were adding some portfolio, I think that was within the first couple of months. In fact, I think we had only just gone live when I first met him, I remember him coming, I did an introduction and showed him around our first block, and we had literally just furnished it and started getting guests at that point, so it was very-very early, we were adding to it.
So very quickly, I recognised the importance of systemizing and I knew that was going to be essential. I have got another friend who was local to me in Nottingham, who was growing a very-very successful business completely separate, they are coders, they are in the games industry. But he put a book unto me, The E-myth. For him, as a developer, it’s what he needed to stop developing and look at the high picture, and look at the chaos around him, and starts putting things in order, and from there that’s when his business started getting successful.
So he said to me right from the get go, read this book and follow it — and really if you have not read it, it’s about really the franchise model and looking at what’s good about that, lost franchises succeed, most small businesses fail, and the main difference is the fact that franchises are systemized, you are buying a system and that is a set of instructions really. And if you are to break your business down and everything you do in that down into a set of instructions, then you can start to then give those instructions to others. And so I had to do that very early, I had no choice.
And that’s where we started to really build our own systems and processes and found our way of doing it. I had someone build me a flow diagram, I showed them everything I was doing, and they build me a flow diagram of — we called it guest work flow — and from initial enquiry all the way through to check out. And you know what, there were so many kind ifs and buts, you know, if it was an Airbnb, can we do this; and if it was a high value (booking), can we do that — and there was a lot of variables. And I also very quickly realized the flow diagram was not the best way of doing it. For example, if a guest and we have to 4.1 in the flow diagram and then no action to take for three months, you know, how are you going to record where they are on that journey and trigger the next action?
And so we looked at alternatives and that’s where, really, I started to build something and teach it to Emma and have her run it for me. And so yeah, that was how we got going for the whole systemization.
Chris: That’s cool. I think when we started working together; do you remember you have the four properties on the block plus one on the management, and you were going a bit crazy at that point looking (at those) different stuff, where you going to have a look at a hotel when we first had our meeting?
Graham: Yeah. I got to know a property sourcer who is based in Manchester and he had a contact that was struggling with a very small boutique hotel, near Manchester airport. And, I thought yeah, you know; why not?
Chris: In fact, it’s a couple of hours journey, yeah, whatever.
Graham: Yeah, sort of that. Don’t worry. He was quite local too, where it was located, and it would have had an office space which was what he needed — so he was going to be my guy on the ground. So there was some logic around it, like teach him the systems and the processes, and actually I was going to be sharing the management with him, and there was that, but also I had started to speak to some large property investors around my area in Nottingham. And one of them had muted the idea of just testing market with twenty-five studio apartments.
And so, I was like okay, I need a mentor because my time with Mark is always going to be just three months — that was just to help kick-start me — and that was months previous really. And so at the time I was then thinking I need a mentor. And so, I was just thinking, okay, I need to say yes to everything but I don’t know how I am going to do it; we have got systems but they are not ready for this amount of scale — we can’t go from five to thirty apartments in one hotel. One of which was in Manchester.
So I reached out to Chris after listening to the podcast and after hearing him advocate management which by the way really started to recognize the benefits of that. Because everything we were doing was scalable, our systems were scalable, our processes were scalable. But also, I had been advised against taking the block because it was a big risk to take on the liability — you know, for me and my wage, it was more than what I was earning, so if it didn’t work, it was going to be very-very costly, especially after buying my own property. So I did recognize that that sort of things was not scalable. And so management landed in my lap, if you like, and from there I recognized it as being a much more scalable strategy. Yes, we (are making) less per property of course, but yes it was scalable.
So my mind was on that, I then was listening to this podcast and I heard about how great management was from you, Chris, I remember I reached out to you and said look, I have ended up doing management and I would like to learn a bit more about it, and also I am not sure I am going to kind of take on all these new properties that are coming my way.
So I still remember, it was here in Heathrow actually, first ever board room session with other operators. And the advice was quite strong, Manchester does not sound like a good idea at all. And there was a few red flags around it, which I was maybe glancing over.
Chris: Yeah. The key one I remember was that the guy who was still going to be living on site and that to me sounds like an absolute nightmare because when you do management, there is got to be a real clear distinction, what the roles are and who is doing what. If your person is still living on site, then clearly you are going to get involved and basically with everything that you are doing, so that was the biggest one for me. But there are some other ones around it, (not a list of all) like I say, Nottingham to Manchester is not a short journey, it’s not very close and having had experience running hotel before, it’s not very much fun. You are going have to be doing quite a lot of work around it, very hands-on, even hands-off hotels were remarkably hands-on, so there is a lot of stuff to do around there.
So I think that was kind of clear, kind of realigning of focus a little bit and obviously you realize that scaling up using the management model was going to be the way to go for you.
Now, generally, the challenge with management is… Although the model works brilliantly for you, as a management business; it works brilliantly for like an operator, developer, landlord — at the same time it’s a lot harder to kind of come across the deal; isn’t it. Because you are having to push people a lot out of their comfort zone to kind of understand how it works, compared to; oh yeah just give me this and that rent each month. Instead of saying well, I am going to manage it for you, it can go up, it can go down, you are probably going to make more money, but at the same time you are then going to be the actual operator, so you have got some liability around that etcetera.
Well, like I say that the management model is brilliant, the challenge most people have with scaling that up is; where do I find my clients? So how have you found your clients as you have scaled up the management model?
Graham: Well, it was actually a long while, so although we went from four to five very quickly, going beyond five took a long time and it was — I am trying to think really — it was a random comment on one of the Facebook groups, and it was an operator in London asking for cleaners in Nottingham. And so I reached out then I just asked how I could help, and they explained that they were actually trying to help someone else that was doing rent to rent in Nottingham. And so that’s how I got introduced to another London investor, this time instead of buying property in Nottingham he was renting property in Nottingham to run serviced accommodation.
So I met him and he had actually been using another agent and they already had one property of his and then he acquired a second property –giving them the keys — and it had taken a month for not much had happened and he was getting frustrated. He met me on the Saturday, on the Monday we had contracts drawn up and signed, and by Friday we were furnished and live, and Saturday night we got out first guest, so he was very-very happy with that.
Chris: No messing around then.
Graham: That’s it just kind of being ready to just absolutely hit the ground running, you know, and I guess that’s where having systems really helps as well; step one do this, step two do that.
To be fair, the on boarding process — as I call it — was chaotic, but everything else was just what we were already doing, so that bit was quite easy. It came naturally and I also had people that could do that and I could focus on the on boarding. But yeah, in my mind, probably a bit more chaotic that it should have been and it’s a bit like oh yeah we need to do that definitely. So I was already thinking this needs systemizing.
But from there we got to know another operator who was also using another agent, the same other agent, and yeah, they weren’t doing the very best job actually and although they have been growing for about a year on a block of apartments, the actual owner of the apartments haven’t really made much money. And the difference in the way that we structured, you know, complete transparency, and almost an open policy versus the setup he had, it looked like a breath of fresh air. Furthermore, the owner, he was a developer, he wanted to focus on development, he had a team in place to help with the development, although he had given the block to a management agency. A lot of his resources and time was continued to be used on looking after his block, and it’s because the agency was in a completely different part of the country, trying to manage something in Nottingham.
Chris: And that’s a fundamental issue with the national management companies; isn’t it? It’s actually very hard to have people on the ground and to have the same level of local knowledge with a local business.
Graham: Yeah, a hundred percent. So issues with cleaner, you need to find a new cleaner (please). You know, light bulbs going in the bedroom, a cleaner can’t reach; do you want us to send the call-out engineer, a hundred and forty pounds, or do you want to go down and sort tell light bulb and you know, it just comes through things like that. And then with the potential, I would say, just lack of clarity around other things as well. I guess my introduction to him was a breath of fresh air for him and it was just what we needed as well, I was already kind of getting to the point where it was going to be handing my (notice in) at work. And so, it all happened together to be honest with you, we went from six properties to me handing in my (notice in) and on boarding another seven properties and it all happened very quickly. From there we also got the second property from the first guy as well.
So yeah we were then really putting our systems to the test and on boarding more staff at that point as well, we had separated out the companies of course — operations with the first block and management — and that happened quite a bit earlier actually.
Chris: You mentioned like creating your job there, so that was something you have been putting off for a while; what impact do you think that had on your growth?
Graham: Yeah, massive. And I think it changed from; can I do everything? To should I be doing everything? So yes, I could do everything, I could have a full time job but I was at work for twelve to fourteen hours a day and run as successful business because of having the help and people, the very-very good people. Emma by now, by the way you know she had come on to working six hours per day, I think at that point, and she was a very-very high standard, high calibre. Initially her only weakness wasn’t really a weakness, it’s where she has always been a PA and she just want to double check things and that’s what being a PA is; should I do this, should I do that? And entrusted her, I said look, this is your thing.
And I guess for me, going back to the whole fault finding, when things went wrong it wasn’t a matter of like whose fault was it, it was more like well, which bit of this system is broken, and how can we stop that happening again.
Chris: I think that’s really critical. Most people when something goes wrong they inclination is to kind of blame someone. My first question is; what didn’t we do which would have stopped this from happening? As opposed to it’s this person’s fault. So if you have a cleaner that doesn’t turn up at your property, for instance, to create that massive problem in an SA business — now, most people turn on to blame the cleaner and go…
Graham: Well, we had it happen.
Chris: Yeah, absolutely, and that’s the thing. The correct response to that is okay; what haven’t I done which would have stopped this from happening and it might be that you didn’t have clear enough communication around, when you didn’t give the assistance to make it very-very easy, to see exactly what it is, you didn’t have the confirmations in place so that you knew a hundred percent that they knew about it etcetera. And it’s a very different response, of course, in way that’s kind of a natural because that kind of human nature just wanting to blame someone straight away. But once you kind of take that step back and start looking at things like that, you start developing your business very quickly; don’t you.
Graham: You have got to take responsibility and that’s it, it’s your business, it’s your responsibility, and it’s your fault if something goes wrong like maybe it’s the wrong person role but…
Chris: But you appointed them in that role.
Graham: Who appointed them?
Chris: It’s definitely your mistake.
Graham: Have you given them clear instructions then ask them to follow them and have they gone against those. And if they have gone against them, is it because you haven’t trained them well enough. So it might be the person but most of the time it’s not, actually. You know, that cleaner that did forget a second time as well, and that’s ends being a (full wave) onto the guest and moving yet if you can; it’s really embarrassing. But yeah we have got much more solid systems around the turnarounds now, things cannot get missed, and if it looks like they may have been missed, we have got four hours warning and everyone in the company is getting alerted to the fact that maybe we have got a cleaner that is not of the cleaning today. And so it’s very-very… Good systems we have got around that and those only come off the back of something going wrong, otherwise we would have just carried on, we (are) just letting them know when their cleans were, without any feedback knowing that they were aware of the cleaning the first place and knowing that they (off from) site.
Chris: Yeah, I think that kind of feedback in the business is critical, whether it’s things going wrong, whether it’s listening to your guests, listening to your staff as well, of course, but that feedback is critical to really grow and improve your businesses into.
Graham: Yeah, absolutely.
Chris: There is one thing I just wanted to pick up there. And with management you have really got two kind of different (avatars): one is focusing on people within — you might call it the property education community, the people who are kind of active and involved in what we are doing like this — and the other is people who are more kind of traditional landlords and developers. Now, how will your clients spot between those two and how do you find those two different (avatars) to work with?
Graham: Actually, I think the first avatar, as you call it, the guys that are in the industry already, that’s word of mouth, people get to know. And that developer that moved over to us he did a lot of due diligence with us and I think people really trusted him and of course then got his feedback as well — we had done a good job and that did reach other people. And actually coincidentally, that first guy that I was going to be doing a JV with ended up being one of our clients, it was great for us and it was great for him. And that’s what real business is about, it’s creating win wins, and Serviced Accommodation is a win, win, it can be a win for the property owner, a win for the guests — getting much nice accommodation than hotels — and it’s a win for us, as much more it can be a much better cash flow strategy.
And that for me is a real win, win and that’s where real business is. And so creating ways for other operators to come to us, to leverage our systems and our team, to then really help them kind of focused on what they want to do — whether it is acquiring more Serviced Apartments or focusing their other businesses or their other property strategies — really by enabling that connection to happen and finding a way that it really will be to the true mutual benefit, that’s where we have grown a lot to be honest with you.
So we have had four, I guess… Other operators join us now as clients, which is great. Yeah, working with the landlords is… We don’t really do any marketing, I mean we are getting a big and better name for ourselves now, and so we are becoming the kind of go to guys within Nottingham.
So it’s much more about personal connections rather than random marketing to be honest with you.
Chris: Yeah. And what has been your experience with the developer market; has that been something hard to break into?
Graham: Yes. Quite often because a lot of developers in Nottingham are building to sell right now, and you can’t blame them with the (passes) they have been getting, and actually if they are building to keep, they are then looking to refinance off the back of that and so it’s more difficult to then convince there lenders that Serviced Accommodation is a legitimate way of kind of having this work. And you see, because we are not offering any sort of guaranteed rents to developers, they really then kind of struggle. So yes, it needs much bigger developers to be honest with you; who don’t need to finance out of the back of each deal and can park some cash, or have got better and bigger relationships with lenders.
Chris: Yeah. And if my understanding is right, so you haven’t done any deals with developers outside the property education community, so far, but you have been working on these relationships for a few years now and you have got stuff now coming up the pipeline; is that right.
Graham: Yeah, absolutely. We have got two blocks of sixteen apartments in different areas of the city.
Chris: That’s sixteen each block.
Graham: Sixteen each. Yes. And we have got another block coming, it’s really early days but it will be a block of twenty-eight, we will get first (refuse) the number of apartments we would want to take in that block — and again, at a completely different part of the city. And so I think we will definitely be taking fourteen there because of the way he building is split, but we are going to be able to adjust the market there and potentially take more from that point as well, even if some go to (YST). But those relationships take a long time and I think developers will tell you their deals take a long time, a lot longer than they anticipate as well. So whether that’s the acquisition, the legals, or the kind of planning process, or even getting contract as on site to then finishing the site. Everything takes much longer than anticipated.
One of those blocks of sixteen was going to be ready before Christmas and it’s isn’t now, here we are in June, six months. So it’s just a couple of weeks away, so we will see on that one.
Chris: So it sounds like the kind of process you have gone through scaling up, it has been working with other operators, helping local people who were already involved in SA, and then continuing those relationships of course. But starting to build the relationships with the developers, which is really going to then escalate and take the growth to another level, you know, if you are taking on blocks of sixteen to twenty-eight at a time, as opposed to maybe individual properties at blocks of four/five, that type of thing.
Graham: Yeah, absolutely. But you see a lot of individual ones as well in much bigger blocks…
Chris: More issues around it, isn’t it. (Free holes), neighbours, etcetera.
Graham: Access. And look it is where we are very much found above board and everything is being done right and so, if you are not meant to do it in a big block then just don’t do it, it’s not really worth it.
Chris: There enough places out there which you can do it legitimately and it’s not worth the time, or effort, or money, which you are essentially going to waste if someone turns around and says, you can’t do this right.
Graham: Yeah. And look (Riggs) are coming, (Access Riggs) are going to be getting tightened up and you have got to be prepared for that. And I think doing SA where it’s not really allowed is going to be one of the first areas of attention from the authority, so it’s just not worth it.
Chris: Brilliant. So you have kind of taken us through the whole journey and show people how you scaled up, which I think would be really useful for people to hear. So what would you say was the most important elements to start scaling successfully?
Graham: Definitely the systems and processes. I mean we were absolutely over (queue), initially, on our processes and our systems. I mean I remember showing someone and he said, “well, you have just got five properties and you are doing all that.” And it’s like yes, but this will handle fifty easily without even thinking twice, and really we just need to plug the staff in. And that really is breaking everything down into like, step one do this, step two do that. And all those variables and having that system in place where we have got accountability within it, we know who has done well and when, so if there was something that’s going wrong, we can go back and just have a look again at the training and so on and so forth. But also if we need to slot more staff in, we have systemized the training now as well, and so we can just add people, (as in when).
Emma, she is ops manager now, so she is absolutely full time, plus, plus.
Chris: But you say she is ops manager but kind of really, she is more of, almost, general manager (to help you out); isn’t she. She is kind of essentially running the business for you with some oversight from you I would say.
Graham: Yes, certainly more recently. I think initially she came on full time as ops manager but I think…
Chris: It’s a role which is developed often, I have been absolutely critical with having one person who has that kind of responsibility for overseeing; right.
Chris: And it kind of almost started as a PA role and then it evolved into an ops manager and now it has evolved into a kind of general manager.
Graham: Absolutely yeah. So she is handling all the girls: the coms assistants, the bookkeepers. Although I have got a relationship within, they know I am very open, an easy to speak to guy. You know there, I don’t have much to do, if I am to be honest with you.
Chris: You are not their line manager.
Graham: I am not their line manager. I mean I have a very much instilled company values of team work and we are all equal. I have taken my cleaners out to dinner, multiple times. We wouldn’t have a successful business if it weren’t for the cleaners doing a very-very good job in turning up.
Chris: And most people only appreciate that, when they do a bad job and they see the impact it has on the business. So, it is really-really important when the staff (going well), and to also appreciate the importance they have in the business and then reward that when that’s having it’s impact on what you are doing.
Graham: Yeah. So systems but also the team work, it has been essential. Emma has had, I have asked her what she wanted, and we have created the wall around her family life and requirements. So it meant that she is much happier in her role, she is being more responsibilities all the time, but she is rising to the challenge (at hand); the amount of money she can earn also rises with that. So it is a good thing to have.
And really instilling in everyone that if they have got good suggestions, make them, and if it’s an improvement, we are going to implement it across the business.
Chris: So kind of feeding on from that; what advice would you give to someone who is scaling up their business?
Graham: I don’t want to keep saying systemizing.
Chris: You can keep saying systemizing, that’s absolutely fine.
Graham: Well, how do you systemize? I guess that’s the question.
Graham: It’s teach someone. Even if you have got no one to teach, maybe do a screen recording on your laptop and read out the instructions of what you are doing. Because actually you will find those little bits in your head that you are just doing them without much thought, and maybe you have got three ways of doing the same thing, and it depends which day of the week and what mood you are in, as to the one you are doing. So actually; what criteria would you do this or do that.
And when you really break it down, I would say do ten minute videos, I aim to do lots of ten minutes videos and then you can even get a VA off People Per Hour or such like and get them to write a set of instructions from that video. And that’s the start of the systemizing, that’s getting it out of your own head and putting it into a process, do this if that, and so on and so forth.
And that’s absolutely essential because if you are going to add staff as you start scaling, they need to know what to do. And so you can then start identifying the higher value stuff and the lower value stuff. You know how Emma is being instructed to leave most of the comms and focus on the high value stuffs, so when we have got guests requesting a late check-out, it’s a science — you go to the cleaners, and you check their schedule, you check the next check-in, and you speak to the guest. And that’s a science where there was great management, maybe that’s a bit more of an art, and that’s high value.
Chris: Art-science; isn’t it.
Graham: Yeah. And so that’s a high value task. So we wanted to be able to focus on that without keep getting distracted about having an extra hour in the apartment.
Chris: I think when we look at how you have been able to scale up that quickly, I think it has been three elements really, and it’s again the things that we always all about when we talk about leverage it, putting systems in place — and you have clearly had those basically from day one — and getting the right team around it with the right culture and the right attitude, and tell following up with the accountability. And again, a lot of the accountability with what you are doing comes from the systems you have in place: using things like Slack where you can communicate easily with the team, you can also see if something hasn’t been done, if there is a problem, etcetera.
So it’s getting all the three elements right, which has allowed you to scale quite quickly; isn’t it?
Graham: Absolutely. Yeah. Definitely.
Chris: Brilliant. Well, hopefully that has been very useful for everyone and thank you for joining us today Graham.
Graham: It has been my pleasure. Thank you very much indeed.
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