First up, one of the best-known and best-respected indie agents anywhere in the country – and a man who always does things his way – Mr Kristjan Byfield.
Someone I know well from the various events we’ve attended together throughout the years, Kristjan is the co-founder of base property specialists and PropTech firm The Depositary, on the board of the UK PropTech Association and an all-round good egg.
He also looks like a Viking, something he himself references in his Twitter description with the hashtag #PropertyViking. He’s also sometimes known as the Viking Estate Agent or the Viking of PropTech. But he’s not scary or bloodthirsty – quite the opposite!
Anyway, without further ado…
Can you tell us a bit more about base property? When, why and where was it founded? And what inspired the name?
An [Deckers, his business partner] and I started ‘base property specialists’ back in 2004. We launched in our current Shoreditch office with two desks, two laptops and three months to make it work; 16 years later and we are stronger than ever.
We started base because at the time we both believed that landlords and tenants alike (especially tenants) were getting an awful service from the majority of London letting agents. We felt they deserved better.
Neither An nor I are ‘conformists’ so the idea of launching Byfield & Deckers ltd didn’t sit right with us. I often ask friends ’where are you based now?’ and it really evolved as an extrapolation of that.
How many branches and staff do you now have?
We’re a single branch operation. We’ve just reduced to five staff after our sixth member left to pursue a new business she started during lockdown and furlough. We love what a small and intimate business we are and call each other family for good reason.
What is base’s main mission statement?
Ultimately, I think our core objective is to exceed the expectations of landlords and tenants alike. We constantly are looking to improve how we operate, both in terms of the experience our clients/consumers receive but also the internal efficiency and profitability of what we do.
Do you feel like local agents don't get the coverage and praise they deserve?
Agency is so saturated, especially here in London. I think any independent and smaller business in London struggles to get heard. There is so much noise that you can get lost.
What’s really important is to understand who your target market/demographic is and drill down into that to create leads that convert and are a good match. Local agents could do with a lot more coverage, though - especially raising awareness of all the amazing things we do as an industry and sector. Anything to counter the (often justified) bashing we almost always get in the mainstream media.
Which portals do you use?
As many will know, we very publicly left Rightmove early on this year. After years of 20%+ price increases with a ‘take it or leave it’ response, we finally took their advice and left. This wasn’t an easy decision to make but the data analysis we did prior to taking the leap left us confident it was the ‘right move’ - and our performance this year has underpinned that.
Our marketing with Zoopla has continued to be hugely successful for us. We have explored other portals as well as enhanced videos combined with targeted social media campaigns. So far Zoopla and PrimeLocation remain head and shoulders above the other portals we use, although we have signed up to Boomin and are very excited to see what results this delivers when it launches.
What is base’s main USP or point of difference from other agencies?
Two services we have run since 2012 remain unique to us – ‘property lifeskills’ tutorials at the start of a tenancy (which we call MainTenants), where we educate and empower tenants whilst reducing maintenance issues by around one third. The other is our service we call ‘base/ic appliances’ - on call appliances, dispatched for free to our managed properties when something breaks.
If, for example, a tenant’s fridge/freezer breaks down - we immediately dispatch a freestanding one from our office free of charge. The tenants have zero downtime, zero standing for any complaints and this keeps them happy whilst we deliver a permanent resolution.
Do you make much use of social media?
We have always been active on social media. We focus on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn where we can, but have taken a dramatic pivot to video this year, especially YouTube, with us now creating proper editorial-style videos for our lettings listings as often as we can.
How has the company been affected by Covid-19?
As a tech-friendly/centric agency I’m glad to say the transition to lockdown was easy for us, aided by us also being a small operation/team.
Certain changes were implemented, such as video inspections with tenants, but otherwise the infrastructure of our business meant a relatively seamless transition.
We will probably end the year about 10% down on last year but I estimate we have reduced our costs by at least that much this year, too, so all in all I think we will match last year’s performance which is quite staggering really.
Finally, where do you see estate agency in five years' time?
The market will continue to contract as the divide between the winners and losers of agency widens. This will be driven primarily by three things: adoption of tech, right culture and the M&A marketplace.
Ultimately, we should see an industry that delivers an ever-better consumer experience - ever more effective and efficient, tech-centric, with a greater regard of professionalism (as a result) by the general public.
The next generation of estate agents
I also spoke with Mathew Walters, who co-founded Story of Home with Stuart Aikman in 2020 – a venture which had been many years in the making.
“It might seem like madness to some, starting a business in the midst of a global pandemic, but it is often said that the best businesses are born out of crisis,” Mathew explains.
“We want SoH to be at the forefront of the next generation of estate agents. We act for clients across the whole of Central London, in areas such as Marylebone, Dalston, Holland Park, Stoke Newington and Little Venice, to name a few, but we hope to expand to other parts of the country over time.”
He adds: “We focus on homes that are interesting and quirky, that have impressive period features or amazing views. Homes with a story, that we can tell.”
The company has three main USPs, he tells me. “The first is our team – we are a senior team with extensive experience of the London market. We are skilled negotiators and passionate about achieving the best possible outcome. All Story of Home clients work directly with one of the business owners.”
The second USP is the brand and approach. “We bring each home to life through stylish photography and property descriptions that tell the story of the home through the eyes of its current owner. This helps prospective buyers to more easily visualise whether the property they’re viewing is the right one for them,” he says.
“The third USP is that we have successfully integrated technology into our business model, to benefit the experience and results for our clients. We are working with the companies at the forefront of the next wave of ‘PropTech’ innovation, that help agents to do their job more efficiently, and improves the experience of the buyer and seller during the process.”
But where did the inspiration for the name come from? “We had discussed launching our own agency for several years. Although the London property market is fiercely competitive, we firmly believe there is room for a new breed of estate agent,” Mathew says.
“The name ‘Story of Home’ evolved out of the brand values that we set right at the start. We had a clear vision of what we wanted the brand to represent, and how we wanted to be perceived by our clients.”
He adds: “We believe that people don’t just buy a property, they buy a home, a lifestyle. As a buyer, you have to be able to envisage yourself living there as soon as you open the brochure, or walk through the door. And it’s our job as agents to help clients find a home that not only fits their budget, and is in the right location, but one that fits their lifestyle.”
They were at a bar in Berlin when they came up with the name and ‘it just seemed to work’.
The importance of social media through Covid
“We believe that social media has generally been underused by estate agents with marketing budgets focused on traditional channels such as leaflets and canvass letters,” Mathew continues.
“Covid-19 has meant that people are spending more time at home, and as a consequence, screen time is higher than ever. Incorporating social media and display advertising helps agents reach a wider network of buyers. At SoH, we use a platform powered by AI that tracks buyer behaviour and pushes our ads to those considering a move.”
Alongside paid social, the company has invested in building its Instagram and Facebook accounts, showcasing its new listings but also useful content such as area guides, industry insights articles and information about the team and the company.
But, while social media has proved useful to many during Covid-19, what has the impact of the pandemic itself had on a company which started during it?
“Although starting a business in the middle of a pandemic is always going to be tough, it has in many ways presented an opportunity. As a start-up, we are very agile and can respond quickly,” Mathew says.
“We began setting up the infrastructure of the business in May 2020, during the first UK ‘lockdown’. This period of relative inactivity gave us the thinking time to build our brand, approach technology providers, and begin conversations with our contacts.”
He concludes: “Ultimately, we believe that buyers and sellers increasingly align themselves with brands and companies offering products and services that fit their lifestyle, and this is true of the property sector as well. Clients will approach us because they find our brand and values refreshing, and trust us to present their property stylishly and market it intelligently.”
Fantastic answers, chaps. Before I go, just time to wish all readers of this column and the Today sites, and all our member agents of The ValPal Network, a very Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year. Let’s hope it’s a bit easier on us than 2020!
The Natter will be back on January 2 with the last in the ‘Independents Day’ series, so keep your eyes peeled for that.
Until next time…
*Nat Daniels is CEO of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today. Follow him on Twitter @NatDaniels.