Before she set out to launch Whoomies, which opened for business this year, Lauren Dannay worked in the private banking sector. However, inspired by her clients and tired of office sexism, she set out to tackle another personal issue she faced – flat-sharing. Real Business heard more about her journey.
Why did you leave private banking to launch a business?
As a private banker, my portfolio consisted mainly of highly successful individuals and entrepreneurs. I listened to them tell their stories of how they got to where they were and soon realised that although private banking afforded me many comforts and security, I wanted to switch to the opposite side of the desk and tell my own story. I needed to be more challenged and to create something of my own.
Coming from an entrepreneurial family, I knew that when the time came I had to jump at the chance of creating Whoomies.
How will that financial background serve you when it comes to managing your accounts?
Those skills have already helped us from the beginning as we raised £300,000 through an angel investor. Although we must deal with many operational topics first, I believe that it’s more than essential to drive our business plan and decision with a real-time consolidated view of our financial situation.
Managing an overview of our budgets and knowing how, and when, we must plan the next funding step for Whoomies are the keys affording peace of mind and shields us against potential crises in the future. This is what I’m good at, hence I’m really happy using those skills and experience in a different way today.
Are there any horror stories that have stuck with you from your time in banking?
Well I think most horror stories are exaggerated, or maybe I was just lucky! But I would say that the management system of large companies didn’t fit me at all. Sometimes I felt that I couldn’t stay true to my own convictions and was used as a pawn. You don’t have a voice there, you are just one of many.
Luckily, I had a really awesome team and very supportive manager, yet I could not say the same for everyone with overhead positions!
The most frustrating experience I would have to say was with one of the seniors who was known to be very rude and demanding. It was a male-dominated environment and I saw in particular how this disrespect was particularly intensified towards women in the office. This obviously made work more difficult as it seemed his focus was more on us rather than the work.
Luckily in Whoomies we have a good balance and an awesome team. These experiences have really shaped how I lead the business.
Why did you enter the flat-sharing market?
The idea for Whoomies came from a conversation with Alex, my co-founder. We had moved abroad several times and had both experienced an unpleasant ordeal with our living situations.
At that time, he was looking for a flat share in London and, after his experiences, he knew that what really mattered to him was not the quality of the apartment but the roommates he was going to move in with.
It really dawned on us, if this has happened to us, it has definitely happened to everyone else! Why didn’t we do something about it? So, the idea for Whoomies started like this.
The service has been likened to Tinder for roomies – was Tinder an inspiration?
Yeah you could say that. We wanted to make something that was young and playful and super-easy to use. Looking for roommates or an apartment is usually daunting and tiring – we wanted to change the way people viewed this process. Why couldn’t it be fun?
So, taking inspiration from Tinder, the swiping method added a familiarity to the app for users, which further added to the playfulness and easy to use character of the app.
This is a theme that can be seen throughout the app, for example using hashtags that users use to describe themselves in the app, instead of writing up a long bio, such as #Adventurer #CouchPotato #GymRat etc. So there really is an emphasis on the social element of looking for a place seen throughout Whoomies.
What convinced you that people would buy into the concept?
First and foremost because the idea came from our own experiences, and to solve an issue we really believed people out there faced.
Secondly it really came from speaking to our users. We made this app for our friends, for young people moving abroad or to the big city. So, when we simply explained the concept of the app to people we could see their eyes light up. ‘Can I download it now?’ we kept hearing.
It really became clear to us during our beta testing that the need for Whoomies is there, and the response since the release has been overwhelmingly positive.
Is there a main demographic you’re targeting?
Yes, as of now we decided to focus on students. After a long and extensive research of the two markets, and considering where our connections were strongest, we decided to focus on students.
We have aimed to have a strong presence on campus, and create a real brand awareness around Whoomies. We are hoping our presence will grow organically as students graduate and move around on exchange or out of dorms.
The service has launched in London and Paris – are there similarities and differences you’ve had to factor in for people in the cities?
Yeah this was also a major lesson we learnt early on; we simply could not copy and paste every idea we had to each market. We had to really account for the differences in the market and talk to our team on hand to learn more about them. I would say the major differences between the two markets that we faced with was the rental market.
In France, this is done on a private level, where private landlords rent out their properties. Here it is more about getting to know someone, and finding someone you trust as, essentially, they will live in your home.
Contrastingly in London, most rooms we have for let are through agencies, so a major focus is about efficiency as they are dealing with a multitude of rooms and the process is much faster. We had to account for these differences and adapt our strategy accordingly.
What’s next for the development of Whoomies?
Whoomies is going to be a one stop shop for flat shares, catering to all your household needs. We have partnered with Lydia, one of France’s largest mobile payments apps. Users will soon be able to keep track of household expenses and pay each other with a simple swipe!
Whoomies will also soon be a directory of all your household needs, such as moving services, handymen, plumbers, you name it, all with exclusive deals at the best prices. We expect to grow into New York as we have received requests from users of the app and have begun creating partnerships there.
Where do you see Whoomies this time next year?
This time next year, we see Whoomies being the go-to moving app in Paris and London. We see people moving to these cities downloading the app from all over the world before they get here, finding roommates and a place to stay.
We want to create a community that just doesn’t just end here, we want people to create long-lasting connections, share tips about cities, sell their belongings when they leave a city. In five years or sooner, we will grow to other cities, our first goal being New York City!