Exporting has so many variables, and the instability of the current economic climate throws another spanner in the works. Here, we look at Student.com, an exporting success story.
Student.com is the world’s largest online marketplace for student accommodation. Luke Nolan, the CEO and founder, had the idea when friends in Asia asked for help finding somewhere to live while they studied abroad.
Student.com is an online service – it does not actually own the properties on the platform. While scaling up a service online is in some respects easier than shipping a tangible product around the world, it is not without its challenges. Here, Nolan explains how the business forged a global brand identity.
At present, Student.com has around 200 employees based across Asia, Europe and North America.
Student.com in the beginning
Nolan founded the platform in 2011, and originally called it “Overseas Student Living”. However, by 2014 it became obvious there was an opportunity to expand globally and it rebranded to Student.com.
“In 2016 there were approximately five million international students worldwide and, according to estimates, there will be around eight million by 2020. As the international student sector continues to grow, so will the demand for purpose-built student accommodation,” he explained.
Initially, building up enough listings on the website was a challenge, as there is a lengthy vetting process to approve every student housing operator on the site.
Building a global identity
Another challenge the business faced when scaling up was building its presence and brand in new markets.
“When you work across such a diverse range of markets as we do, you have to appreciate that there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. It’s inevitable that any business experiences ‘teething problems’ when entering a completely new market for the first time.”
Expanding in to new countries takes more than just translating the website. Nolan says the main challenges often stem from understanding stakeholders – who they are, how to reach them and how to get them engaging with the platform. With that in mind, although the brand aims for a clear brand identity and consistency, Student.com does implement specific marketing practices.
“In countries like China, marketing channels are so unique that building our brand from the ground up can feel like an entirely different ball game. However, we’ve always been an international business – so when it comes to setting up shop in new markets, we’re confident in our teams and overarching approaches.”
In China, the brand is known as 学旅家 (‘Xue Lü Jia’) – which translates as “home for a student’s journey”.
Don’t let the politics get you down
Although there have been challenges for small businesses operating overseas in recent months due to Brexit and the weak pound, Nolan is not overly concerned. Instead, he takes a more overarching view to try and pinpoint demand on a global scale.
“Given the international nature of our business, we do not focus or rely on a single market – so we’re not hugely concerned about the current uncertain economic climate,” he said.
“Across the various teams in our company, we look at student flows on a daily basis – so constantly have our fingers on the pulse of demand from student accommodation in different markets worldwide.”
However, although Nolan is not concerned for his business, he has noticed a difference in the market.
“Whilst initial Student.com data indicated that demand for UK university places remains strong post-Brexit, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union has the potential to send out negative, unwelcoming messages to students coming from overseas – both in the EU and beyond,” he said.
“We’ve seen a similar effect with Trump in the US – a number of colleges have recently reported slower year-on-year growth in applications from international students.”
Where to next?
For Nolan, the main focus of Student.com currently is on enhancing the offering for students and growing the business even further.
“As the international student market continues to grow our goal is to provide the most extensive choice of accommodation possible.
“We’re continuing to grow our brand, in addition to improving our product and service offering. In addition to expanding into new markets, we’re also focusing on broadening our reach in our existing core markets.”