Interviews

Finance expert creates company that's a 'linkedin' for holiday home-owners

13 min read

09 January 2019

Reporter, Real Business

Co-founder of uber-secure holiday home platform, Stay One Degree's Thomas Bennett is changing the way people holiday. He talks to us about vandalised homes, GDPR threats, and the joy of travel.

Thomas Bennett was a finance professional and travel junkie long before he co-founded ‘holiday home’ business Stay One Degree. But his founding story was not that straightforward, says Bennett as we sit down for coffee on a busy Liverpool Street morning.

Whilst for many entrepreneurs, the ‘eureka’ moment for founding a new business often comes from moments of joy and inspiration, Bennett’s came from a place of distress, and dismay. Let’s find out why.

Through his work as an investment banker, he travelled the world with his wife and children.

Eventually ending up in ex-pat finance hub Hong Kong, they were faced with their beloved Spanish family home sitting empty for months on end.

So what was the family to do? Well, only the most financially sensible thing families with a couple of kids to pay for would, namely they put their house up for holiday rentals.

The “eureka moment”

“It was an obvious decision”, says Bennett. “We thought, that’s great, we can make some extra money for a holiday or two by doing this, and still get our home back at the end of it,” he continues.

But then something terrible happened, and unfortunately, it’s an experience that occurs all too often with homeowners who let their properties:

“We were under the impression that a family were renting our property for a holiday. In reality, it was a bunch of young guys who essentially trashed our house”.

This wasn’t some bland and underfurnished buy-to-let the Bennetts were sharing with the world, it was their much-loved family home, a house that had been decorated with love and care, especially for them.

“I remember returning to our house, and my wife and I bursting into tears”.

“We stood there and looked at the broken hand made tiles that we had selected ourselves, and thought not only who would do this, but that we would never try this again”, he adds.

This is when Bennett’s eureka moment made its ascent. What if home-owners had a platform where they could offer up their much-cherished abodes for short lets, but through a business that would safeguard their best interests, namely the security of their homes.

Stay One Degree was born from this moment of shock and despair the Bennett family experienced. But the company only came to life with the help of Bennett’s friend and colleague from his banking days, Jorge Juan Munoz, who also had a holiday home that had experienced a less than kind treatment by renters in the past.

“Whilst I brought the technical expertise to the business idea, Jorge had the marketing and promotional skills that I didn’t. So as well as a combined interest over this idea we had created, we also had a complimentary set of skills needed to service both arms of the business” says Bennett.

Only founded in 2018, Stay One Degree didn’t stay embryonic for long, just take a look at the stats below:

The growth stats

How does it work?

Stay One Degree uses social networks to ensure that home-owners and prospective renters only connect with people who have tangible links with each other.

“It’s a little like Linkedin,” says Bennett. “On there you have primary connections, namely your closest professional contacts, and then your second, and third connections, such as people you often meet through others. Ultimately you can trace these people, there’s a record. It’s the same with us, it’s only users with connections to each other who can exchange services on our platform”, says Bennett.

The USP value here is two-fold: The highly secure nature of the vetting process means home-owners feel more comfortable about renting out their properties, whilst the ‘only renting to people you know’ element is also an emotionally attractive concept for renters looking for a more authentic and curated holiday experience.

Prospective renters are interviewed by the operational team before they are onboarded onto the platform. This process includes a combination of automation, and staff-led research and interviews to ensure that trustworthy candidates are using the platform.

“This is not an overnight thing. However it is certainly thorough, we make sure that both sides are fully empowered with information about the other party, making the transaction a secure and stable process”, says Bennett.

Branding

Although Bennett has a strong fintech background, he also has a creative bent and is a dab hand at company branding and messaging. You only have to digest the name of the business to understand why:

“The idea for the name, Stay One Degree comes from the theory of six degrees of separation,” says Bennett.

“It’s based on the idea that we are all no more than six steps away from anyone around us, we wanted to bring that concept and strengthen it to suit our brand,” he continues.

“In our business, we want to show customers on both sides that they are not six, but only one step away from the person they are buying from or selling to. The links are not tenuous, they are direct and secure, ensuring that everyone involved feels happy and calm,” he adds.

The “human touch” in home rentals

Stay One Degree ensures that information is shared between home-owner and renter about their location and their occupation, ensuring that they are fully trackable and liable throughout the process.

“Imagine you’re looking to rent a high-quality family house somewhere. You find our site, you sign up and once you’ve chosen the house you want to rent, you can direct message the owners and start a dialogue about the local sights and recommendations before you arrive,” says Bennett.

The value of human connection is a key aspect of Stay One Degree that Bennett values the most, and his face lights up as he talks about it.

“Whilst Airbnb users may find a one-sided A4 sheet from the owner with a few basic recommendations about the local area, we offer users the chance to build an informal relationship with the home-owners before they even arrive, whilst a black book of contacts, recommendations and locations will be found at the destination too”, he continues with gusto.

Trumping the appeal of luxury alternatives

But how about luxury hotels? You might ask…

Whilst Stay One Degree offers customers quality family homes from between £100 and £40,000 pounds a night (including some Richard Branson style islets), if customers are going to spend the big bucks on a holiday experience, surely they’ll want the guaranteed luxury and service of a hotel?

“Although users know that the likes of the ‘four seasons’ hotels will be luxurious by default, they don’t guarantee any exciting or genuine experiences. That’s where we trump the idea of the classic luxury hotel. Staying at one of our family homes means you get insider scoops on the best restaurants, activities and general sights to see near where you are staying and from actual residents,” says Bennett.

“You can bother the concierge, and trawl through fake TripAdvisor reviews all you want, but you’re less likely to get the same genuine and quality holiday experiences that you’ll get by staying in one of our family homes,” he continues.

“Rental prices for members are typically 10 – 50% less than other comparable rental platforms. This is due to members offering their connections “friends” rates, and the ability of owners to share special offers directly to members via our news feed. Commission rate for homeowners are also competitive and are up to 40 – 60% less than other luxury rental websites”.

Neither is Stay One Degree having to play ball with the seasonal demands of holiday-makers nor does it ever face a slow-season:

“Because we have properties available all around the world, we are not constrained by peddling to the popularity of the summer season in Europe for example. We are truly global and can cater to all locations and preferences, whether that’s people living in Hong Kong looking to holiday in the far-east or within the UK itself. This means that people worldwide want to go on holiday at all times”, he continues.

Scaling a business and GDPR fears

Before we part, I take the opportunity to throw the last barrage of questions at him, GDPR and growing pains among them:

“GDPR regulations were never going to be an issue for us. We started Stay One Degree with the specific intention of promoting customer security, this makes us a pro-compliance company  as a result”, he says.

“Whilst many businesses are operating on the back-foot, and having to regulate their dissemination of information, we’re not, as we were never interested in selling anyone’s information for money.”

Finally, I ask him that eternally important entrepreneurial question, namely, is it more challenging to start, or, up-scale a business?

“Upscaling definitely”, comments Bennett with cooling coffee cup in hand.

“Late last summer we experienced the challenges of upscaling a growing business directly. We went from having ten home-owners on our site to hundreds, we were concerned about how we would manage that growth in interest without damaging the user experience by failing to keep up with the demand,” says Bennett.

So how did he stop the business from potentially crumbling around him? The answer? He took a step back and got his ‘house’ in order…

“The best piece of advice I got was to slow things down when we were at the zenith of our growth, although that sounds really risky it was worth it,” he says.

“We were able to make sure that we had the right foundations to take the business forward for the long-term, in order that we could support our growing users. There’s no point running with the popularity of your business without having the long-term logistical support in place. If you don’t, your business could fail to respond to the long-term demand effectively,” he finishes.

After that, he gets up and leaves, heading to another meeting, and to future prospects for Stay One Degree.