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Building the global market leader in arranging student accommodation – interview with Uniplaces co-founder Mariano Kostelec

Uniplaces is without a question one of the biggest startup success stories Portugal currently has. Founded in 2011, the fast-growing student accommodation platform is helping millions of students around the world to find and book their accommodation when going abroad. Whether you are going for a semester in your home country or doing an internship or project in a different country, you can easily find and book a place to stay through Uniplaces.

Headquartered in Lisbon, Uniplaces is still growing fast and today employs more than 150 people. In total, the company was able to raise about $29 million in venture capital. For the expansion in Germany Uniplaces just hired Mathias Ockenfels, formerly Point Nine Capital, as General Manager for the German market.

Earlier this week, we had the chance to talk to the Uniplaces co-founder Mariano Kostelec, who is currently living in Berlin to accelerate Uniplaces’ international expansion. Here is our interview:

How did you and your co-founders come up with the idea for Uniplaces and how did it all start?

We got to know each other during our time at university. During that time, we noticed how difficult and tiresome it is when students have to look for a place to stay. Nowadays with all the technology at our disposal, this process can and must be easier. It was our chance to make the world a little bit better. That is why we founded Uniplaces.

What were the main stumbling blocks in the first 2-3 years after founding Uniplaces and how did you overcome them?

For a fairly long time our team consisted of only five people. All of us have done a bit of everything  — from distribution, to answering customer emails and taking photos of landlords’ properties. We worked hard, but nevertheless it was a great time. We had a lot of fun and learned a lot at the same time. Additionally, at first we invested in the company with our own money and tried to acquire as many free resources as possible. After about six months, Startup Chile selected us to participate in their accelerator program, which provided us with enough money to start our own funding round. We were able to inspire great investors for Uniplaces, people who really believed in our project. In Portugal, the Shiling Capital Partners, who have led our first round of funding, have shown tremendous confidence in our team and vision. In London we had excellent support from Octopus Investments; Alex Chesterman, the founder and CEO of Zoopla; and William Reeve, a board member at Graze.

What is Uniplaces’ unique value proposition and what sets it apart from its competitors?

Uniplaces allows you to find the best accommodation quickly, reliably and easily. Students can book their accommodation several months in advance, so on their first day in their new city they’re able to focus on more important things than finding a place to stay.

With about 150 employees split in different locations, how do you support corporate culture and how do you make sure employees stay happy and motivated?

Most of our employees work in our headquarters in Lisbon. We also have offices in Madrid, Barcelona, ​​Valencia, Rome, Milan and Berlin; for a lot of people, it is very motivating to build and develop a company in a brand new market. We also incentivize our local teams to create team events. We know that regular communication is very important to share important information and developments with all of our employees, therefore we have regular meetings with the managers of the local teams, during which we can share best practices, key information and learnings. We also have a weekly Q&A session with the entire team. All in all, the technology makes communication much easier for us to stay in contact with everyone, locally and internationally. However, the satisfaction of each individual employee is also very important. That is why we have regularly conduct surveys and performance reports.

What is your experience with Lisbon as a location to start an international technology company?

It was the perfect timing to start our company in Lisbon when we did, as it was on the verge to set its path to become one of the startup capitals of Europe. The Lisbon government continuously supports startups. Now it even uses Uniplaces’ success story to introduce itself as a popular city for startups. A lot of founders also come to Lisbon because of its perfect cost of living balance.

On the other hand, it is easy to acquire international talent when hiring for Uniplaces, as Lisbon has a high quality of life and there is a lot of great talent coming from the engineering universities, which also have great language and creative skills.

Why did you decide to expand to Germany?

Germany is one of the most popular European countries for students and will become more attractive in the coming years, especially due to the fact that universities charge no tuition fees. The market has a big potential, and the fact that faster results can be achieved when the company is located in the same country has led us to create a committed team in Berlin. We are sure that we will have more offices in other German cities soon.

How does the German market receive you?

The German housing market is in a crisis because there is not enough available living space for the strong demand. In addition, there are many barriers for international students, which must be overcome in order to find an apartment the usual way: a different language; the need to provide a guarantor or a schufa; or not having a steady source of income. This makes them less attractive to many landlords. Many students have to look for an apartment for months. Universities and partners are glad that there is a platform like Uniplaces, who supports students in the search for suitable accommodation. Landlords also appreciate that we do most of the work for them. We look forward to further developing and helping the students to find their new home in Germany.

What are the next steps or milestones for Uniplaces?

We want to be the world’s market leader in arranging student accommodation. One day we will reach our goal, and students around the world can laugh heartily about today’s problem of finding suitable accommodation. We work on it every day.

Thomas Ohr
Thomas Ohr
Thomas Ohr is the "Editor in Chief" of EU-Startups.com and started the blog in October 2010. He is excited about Europe's future, passionate about new business ideas and lives in Barcelona (Spain).

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