“Exercise caution? No, you just need to make decisions…”

Ben Grech likes to make things happen, fast. Here, the man behind uniplaces.com explains what confi dence can do for your career.

The youngest CEO to grace these pages so far, 29-year-old Ben Grech is the co-founder of uniplaces.com, the world’s leading online marketplace for student accommodation. The company was launched in 2013 (with backing from the founders of Zoopla and Skype), employs a team of 132 across five countries and has helped students find places to stay for a combined total of 2.5 million days. Imagine what this British entrepreneur will achieve in his 30s…

Don’t do it yourself, delegate “I met my two business partners, Mariano and Miguel, at university. Back then, I was running the Entrepreneurship Society and was used to being incredibly busy all the time. It was a challenge, but I enjoyed it. Miguel took over from me in the role and I sat in on one of his first meetings as leader to see how he would get on. He said nothing. He just sat there and drew up a list of action points. The next week, he returned and he had completed all of it – an insane amount of stuff and I couldn’t comprehend how! The answer was that he was exceptional at delegating and empowering people. I learned there and then that doing everything yourself isn’t very effective – and that I wanted to work with Mariano.”

I’ve always been entrepreneurial “I guess I’ve been interested in business since day one and I often had side ventures on the go when I was in school – I bought and sold art on eBay before I realised that it took a long time to realise your profits. However, it was when I organised a school boat party for 200 students that I really got the bug. This was an extracurricular event, and it involved hiring the boat and four coaches to ferry everyone down to London. It felt like a huge responsibility back then, but it was exciting to count all the money I’d made. I also learned a few basics – such as not paying for things by sending cash through the post!”

Do something you love “When I was starting out, I did some work experience with my cousin. He was working in a business that invested in intellectual property and it was phenomenally successful – worth around £350 million at its peak. What really rubbed off on me was that everyone in the company was enjoying what they did. They were motivated, they were having fun and they were doing amazing things. It was refreshing to see and made me want the same from my working life.”

Pool your resources “I wasn’t particularly good at it, but I chose to do finance at the University of Nottingham, because I knew it was the lifeblood of business. I’d started reading annual reports to find out more about how companies worked and I could see right there in black and white where the challenges and opportunities lay. I also wanted to be able to speak to accountants on their level, which is invaluable. However, my two business partners don’t have that financial experience or education and it’s worked out well for us. They focus on what they’re good at, I do what I’m good at and we’re collectively stronger for it.”

No big idea? No problem “The three of us committed to working on building a business together. We didn’t have a clue what that business might be, but it didn’t matter. We had the right team and we knew that we’d spot the right opportunity when it came along. I guess some people think they’re going to need that perfect, unique idea to succeed in business, but it’s not the case. I used to have killer ideas all the time, but they were never going to come to anything. I learned to look instead for an opportunity and then to work out how to build a business around it.”

Do your research “The opportunity we spotted was to do with student accommodation. Back then, students were spending over £200 billion every year – it was a bigger market than vacation rentals – but there was no standout online destination for connecting students with accommodation providers. It seemed like such a simple proposition – students are tech savvy, socially mobile and they’re looking to move quickly. Our unique take was to build a brand that could be recognised around the world.”

Get the right backing “When you’re starting a company and raising money, the people you strike the deal with can have a huge influence on your long-term survival. At the start, we were offered investment from a fund that we didn’t have a lot of confidence in. It would have been easy to take it, but it just didn’t feel right. We kept on knocking on doors and took it right down to the wire financially, but we got there in the end. The right deal came from credible investors who support us and take us seriously. And because of that credibility, other companies that we deal with take us seriously.”

Embrace globalisation “What we’ve achieved wouldn’t have been possible without companies like easyJet. There was a time when I was spending more time in planes than in cars and I still fly every other week between London and Lisbon. We’re a UK-based company, but we have a hub of operations in Lisbon, because of the access there to the talent we need – we have a team from Poland, Italy, Spain, all over – and the operating costs are cheaper too.”

And don’t fear the unknown “This has been a massive learning curve. You start a business with the ambition to be big, but there are so many things you can’t account for – you don’t know how it’s going to unfold. So what do you do? Wait? Exercise caution? No. When businesses grow at this pace, you just need to make decisions and grind it out. Yes, you’ll make mistakes, but Uniplaces is everything I wanted it to be. It’s been a great journey so far and there are still plenty of places to go with this business.”

This interview was carried out by SIM7’s Simeon de la Torre and first appeared in easyJet Traveller magazine. To read the latest issue (and the entire back catalogue of magazines), visit: https://ink-global.com/our-clients/portfolio/easyjet-traveller/