Listen and communicate with everyone – Interview with Dustin Figge, CEO of proptech startup Homelike

Homelike_founder

Dustin Figge is the co-founder and CEO of Homelike, an online furnished apartment rental platform designed specifically for the needs of long term business travellers. Founded in 2015, the platform has 45,000 flats in its portfolio across more than 100 cities, and employs over 100 people in Europe. Previously, Dustin founded TalentsConnect and served as Executive Assistant to the CEO at arvato, where he travelled extensively and managed some of arvato’s biggest tech clients.

Below, Dustin shares his observations on the changes and digitalization in the real estate market, the keys to his success as a startup co-founder, and his advice to fellow entrepreneurs.

What is your background, and what led you to found Homelike?

I founded my first company when I was still at university, studying Business Administration in Cologne. This company was called TalentsConnect – it was a Software-as-a-Service solution disrupting the recruitment industry by creating a completely digital process for matching talent with corporates.

At university I also became the CEO of the World Business Dialogue, a yearly event in Cologne which sees global business leaders and future business leaders speak about key business issues. This is where I met the CEO of arvato – a global services company – who invited me to become his Executive Assistant. In this role I experienced long-term business travel for the first time, moving from Cologne to Silicon Valley and staying in Shenzhen, China for 6 months and Dublin for a couple of months, amongst many others.

It was in this period that I experienced the challenges associated with long-term business travel: feeling cooped up in hotels, getting homesick because I didn’t know anyone in a city or speak the language and feeling unhealthy because I didn’t have access to a gym or didn’t have a kitchen where I could prepare my own meals. Furnished apartments always felt like a better option than hotels because they were cheaper, more comfortable and gave me more flexibility than a hotel but it was a massive challenge finding a suitable apartment for a long stay online.

I then met my co-founder Christoph Kasper, who had become a friend during my time at the World Business Dialogue, in Silicon Valley. We clicked over a few beers and started talking business. We both had experienced similar business traveler experiences and had an idea for a business which could help long-term business travellers like us find a “home away from home”. And the rest is history!

How is Homelike different from other rental property platforms?

We are completely unique in the market, connecting two previous disconnected groups of professionals, real estate supplier and business traveller. We are the only digital platform that connects furnished apartment suppliers directly with business travellers and corporations looking for long-term accommodation. We’re bringing technology and process to a part of the real-estate landscape which still mostly operates offline and we’re bringing business class customer experience to our business traveller clients, providing them with a “home away from home”.

Who is your typical customer?

We don’t really have a “typical” customer. On the real estate side it’s more straightforward in a way because we work with suppliers of furnished apartments who normally have a medium to large bank of assets.

On the business traveller side we work with three different booking “groups”. At large, global companies we tend to work mostly with travel managers but will have many points of contact like HR and legal to get processes set up in a way that complies with multinationals’ travel policies. With our SME customers it’s simpler and we most often work with office managers or PAs. The third group we work with is individual travellers – these people could belong to multinationals but book through Homelike directly rather than going through internal procedures or they could be individual entrepreneurs. We’ve also had people book with Homelike that are travelling long-term for medical treatment and we even work with ambassadors and international sports stars!

How did you start out, and what have been some of the main challenges you’ve faced since you’ve founded Homelike?

We’ve grown super fast from two founders to over one hundred people in offices all over Europe. Because of this rapid growth, I’d say the two biggest challenges have been retaining our company culture and ensuring effective internal communications.

When you’re just ten people you don’t worry about these things – you share all successes; everyone knows the company revenues and KPIs. When you start growing to over twenty or thirty people you need to start thinking more about how you can retain a healthy level of communication with all of your staff. We’ve overcome this challenge by building internal communication chains and cross-functional meetings.

An additional challenge has been maintaining our culture and values as our team grows to encompass people from sixteen different countries. I think great company communications are a really important part of retaining these important aspects of the business. For example, at our weekly all hands meetings we discuss highlights and lowlights across all departments and often have external guests who come in and share inspirational stories so we’re always learning. People from the satellite offices also visit Cologne regularly so that they feel connected with HQ and take our vibe back to their own bases.

How have you grown since 2015, and what do you think are the main factors in your success?

In the four-ish years since we launched, we now have a portfolio of over 45,000 apartments under our belt, we are linking business travellers with apartments in over 100 cities and we have over 100 employees across Europe! We’ve also raised over $18 million in funding.

There are many factors that contribute towards our success! A combination of our entire team working incredibly well together, and Homelike fitting in a very profitable niche in the market, means that we have a good reputation with all kinds of stakeholders: investors, corporations and suppliers. As a management team we’re also known for being honest and authentic and we like being challenged – people who work with us appreciate that.

Finally, I’d say that being focused and taking the time to perfect our technology has meant that the end result (which is improving every day) is of incredibly high quality. A huge part of our business is the fantastic experience our customers receive when they work with us and that is something we never want to change, no matter how big we get.

How do you see the (online) rental market changing?

The online rental market is still in a very nascent stage. Real-estate relies on legacy, offline ways of working, still utilising very few digital tools. This is because, like banking, real-estate is a conservative industry which has been successfully generating vast sums of money using the same processes for many years.

The answer is simple. There is so much more which can predominantly be unlocked through digital transformation. There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, consumers (which all buyers are, even if they are operating in the B2B space) are now expecting a digital experience whenever they purchase anything, including renting and buying real estate. Secondly, B2B customers in particular expect seamless, high-quality and secure processes (which are also integrated into their existing process landscape and technology). Thirdly, real estate is at the edge of many other industries (such as travel and banking) which have already undergone digital transformation at a massive scale. To be able to continue successfully integrating with these other industries, real estate must evolve.

I see the industry transforming completely. Real-estate must keep up with the consumer demand for a digital experience or risk being taken over by tech companies.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?

Listen and communicate. With everyone. I’m always gathering learnings on how to improve the business in large and small ways. Our investors give us great strategic counsel, having founded unicorn organisations around the world. We send out bi-weekly surveys to staff on how we can improve the culture and general employee happiness. We also bring in business coaches on a regular basis to ensure our leadership skills are always the best they can be.

What are your plans for the future, and what cities are you hoping to expand to next?

We have massive demand from our customers to be present around the world. We just launched in Madrid which was super exciting and our strategy is to keep launching around Europe and than overseas. Bringing the business global is probably one of the most challenging but very exciting moves at the same time.