For a quick potted history of Zoopla, the company was originally founded as Zoopla in 2007 by LoveFilm founders Alex Chesterman and Simon Kain, with the Zoopla website launched in January 2008, backed by a number of investors.
It soon went on an acquisition drive to take the fight to Rightmove, buying up all manner of property websites.
In June 2012, ZPG Ltd was formed and two years later the Daily Mail and General Trust, Zoopla’s largest shareholder, floated Zoopla on the London Stock Exchange.
Uswitch and Money.co.uk joined the roster in big-money deals, while in February 2017 the company changed its name to ZPG plc. In 2018, Zoopla was purchased for £2.2 billion by US private equity firm Silver Lake Partners and delisted from the London stock market.
Here, I talk portals, tech, the modern method of auction and property predictions with Charlie. (For the record, we did ask a question about Boomin but were politely rebuffed with the answer that Zoopla doesn’t as a rule of thumb comment on its competitors and challengers.)
From a consumer perspective, are there too many portals now?
I’m a firm believer that competition is good for everyone in the market, including consumers and agents alike, as it encourages us to innovate, work harder and removes complacency.
We appreciate that challenger portals launch on a fairly regular basis, but consumers are loyal to what’s tried, tested, recommended and visible. Very few of the newer or smaller portals have the substance to compete with Zoopla’s 94% brand awareness, a peak marketing reach of 89% of UK homeowners, or the financial depth that affords constant innovation, brought to life most recently by the launch of our new product vision.
This vision is game-changing, not just for the portals sector, but for the broader property industry. We are leveraging our unique position, heritage and scale to stimulate more moves in the market, engaging consumers year after year at every stage of the life cycle, on and off portal. We are using data-led intelligence to identify homemovers right at the start of their thinking.
This enables Zoopla to target every prospective homemover with a laser-sharp focus, put our agent partners front and centre of our marketing, and help to shape and inform each property journey from inception through to completion.
As people move home less frequently now, is a ‘property listings only’ portal business model too narrow - does it need to have more diversification?
In short, yes. Too many portals have existed for too long as little more than digital notice boards. Pioneering for its time, the traditional portal model has fast become antiquated with the advent of greater personalisation and the pace of innovation that consumer tech brands such as Netflix, Amazon and Spotify have precipitated.
Our vision is fundamental to our mission to exact change. After 18-plus months of development and millions of pounds of investment, the foundations are in place, ready to orientate around agents’ needs and power their path to growth.
We know that the number of home moves has declined over the last 30 years, averaging at around 1.2 million in a normal year, with many households moving only once every 20-plus years. Our vision seeks to arm homeowners with market intelligence, coupled with razor-sharp marketing, which genuinely galvanises more home moves.
Innovation will continue throughout 2021, setting a new benchmark for portal excellence, with the next round of launches coming in the second quarter. At the forefront will be a brand-new homeowner experience, the My Home hub, empowering homeowners with everything they need to know about their home. Agents will also benefit from a game-changing solution to vendor targeting and prequalification with Prospector, resolving two ongoing pain points that will enable a rapid power-up for customers.
Critically, the vision has been informed by agent need, and we are inviting our partners to participate in the Product Research Panel to ensure we can help resolve the most pressing challenges and maximise opportunities.
How tech-reliant will the property market be in five years’ time? And will this be supercharged by the reaction to Covid-19?
The property market is a people-centric industry. The relationship between an estate agent and their buyer or seller, renter or landlord, is crucial to every transaction, and the rapport that an agent can build will shape a property journey.
It’s our view that technology’s role is to expedite processes, better inform agents with best-in-class market data, and ultimately stimulate the market. All for the benefit of that all-important agent/consumer relationship. Zoopla’s vision is intrinsic to this tech transformation, and the unveiling of our ecosystem of products and software, which provides a one-stop-shop for all agent needs, streamlines much of the time-consuming bureaucracy that has blighted the industry for so long.
Our vision was in development long before the emergence of Covid-19, so in many regards the next generation of property technology is distinct from the impact of the pandemic. However, in the wake of Covid, many elements of this vision have become the new norm. For instance, demand for virtual viewings has gathered pace, and our partnership with FocalAgent offers free access to virtual viewings technology, which can either complement or supersede physical viewings, depending on buyer or seller preference. More than a pre-recorded tour, agents are able to guide buyers through a property with a real time voiceover and are able to toggle between different properties.
We anticipate that virtual viewings will be more mainstream over the next five years, especially as they can be conducted around the clock, from anywhere in the world, without undermining the foundations of the agent/buyer relationship.
Zoopla has been championing the Modern Method of Auction in recent months - what do you say to agents and those in the industry who have concerns over the model's transparency and potentially high fees for consumers?
Our partnership with iamsold was devised to offer an alternative to buyers and sellers who need to transact at speed and with a guarantee.
While only 2% of property transactions in the UK are completed via auction, they offer higher completion rates than traditional sales, 25% of which fall through, costing sellers £400 million in fees, and jeopardising millions of pounds in agent commission.
The benefits of selling at auction for agents are clear. Faster sales, higher completion rates, leading to an increased rate of return. It’s also a great way to bring to the fore properties that might have previously struggled to get the attention they deserve. It absolutely has its place in an agent’s armoury, to be used for the right properties at the right time, and although growing will continue to be a small part of the overall market.
How has Zoopla adapted to coronavirus and the work from home boom? What are the long-term plans for your offices and headquarters?
All our staff are continuing to work from home - almost a year on - and we’re continuing to follow government guidance. The health and wellbeing of our staff and customers is our absolute priority.
We have recently introduced ‘Everyday Flex’, which sets a new standard across multiple industries, enhancing job satisfaction, while ensuring Zoopla remains a people-centric place to work.
In practice, this means that our employees have more flexibility about how, when and where they work. Each day is structured around core hours of 10am to 4pm, but this also allows each individual to start early or later, from home, from the office or elsewhere, to better accommodate personal commitments and family life, whether it’s a medical appointment or being available for the school run.
This, of course, has to balance with our responsibilities to our customers, but we’re confident in our committed team to keep putting customers first.
You’ve now been CEO for nearly two and a half years – what has been your biggest achievement in that time and the biggest challenge?
Launching the vision in January was a major achievement for the business. It was testament to months of hard work and an unerring commitment to innovation, all supported by our brilliant agent partners. But that achievement couldn’t have been fulfilled without the world-class employees of Zoopla.
We are a people-centric business, powered by the best minds in the industry. We’ve hired 535 experts in the past two years alone, many of them in a specialist tech capacity, and our vision couldn’t have been realised without them.
Alongside this, I’d say navigating Covid-19 was an unprecedented challenge for the industry. As the market closed in March 2020, our priority was to protect our agent customers and we announced schemes with up to nine months of free portal usage. This amounted to a £30 million sacrifice in revenue, but we regard this as an investment in our customers.
Doing the right thing and getting it right first time was a business imperative, backed by Silver Lake. This commitment and agent-centric approach saw agent member branches and branch equivalents increase to over 18,000 by the end of the year.
What are your property predictions for 2021?
House price growth is currently running at 4.3%, as the impact of the pandemic continues to initiate a once-in-a-lifetime reassessment of our housing needs. However, the rate of growth is likely to slow and our market leading Research & Insight team has estimated house price growth of 1% by December.
The stamp duty holiday has also fuelled the nation’s appetite to move home, and currently demand for property is up 13% on the same period a year ago, while new sales agreed are up 8%.
With the sales pipeline congested and transactions taking longer to complete, the case is growing for a short, month-long extension to help buyers who agreed a purchase in 2020 secure the expected savings.
It’s unclear how many purchases are dependent on securing stamp duty savings, but if an extension fails to materialise, buyers across some chains may help to fund stamp duty costs for others in the chain to safeguard completions.
Stamp duty holidays always cause some disruption and this one will be no different; however, we do not expect the market to grind to a halt on April 1 2021, and we expect the market to continue to transact at a steady rate for the rest of the year.
Thanks for the detailed answers, Charlie. Next time out I’ll be chatting with property queen and former owner of Tepilo, Sarah Beeny.
*Nat Daniels is CEO of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today. You can follow him on Twitter @NatDaniels. He also writes a regular column – Property Natter – which appears in the Weekend Features section every two weeks.