Today’s Featured BizSpark Startup is Nestpick, a Netherlands startup that is enabling international students to securely rent places online.
Here is our interview with Fabian Dudek, founder and CEO. He tells us how he got his idea and how Microsoft Azure is giving them the flexibility they need to expand, scale and grow.
What is your company’s mission?
We strive to enable international students from anywhere in the world to securely and conveniently rent their accommodation from any landlord or real estate company from all over the world.
How did you get the idea for your company?
I started my studies as an international student in 2010. To discover the “pain” associated with the student housing market was no rocket science. I ended up almost homeless, when I looked for a room from abroad and 2 of my friends had been scammed. It was obvious that a simple and more secure approach to international students renting their accommodations was needed.
What has been your biggest "aha" moment sine founding your company?
My biggest “aha” moment, was when I looked at our analytics and realized that we had just had more than 2000 individual users from more than 30 countries in one day and realized we were really onto something. Students, especially from abroad, are looking for a secure and simple way to rent space online!
Tell us about your funding history. Are you currently looking for funding?
After a serious proof of concept in 2013, we raised our first round and added our CTO to the team. The second round of investments was planned in Fall 2014, but due to rapid growth we are now looking into additional funding directly. In short, yes.
How many employees do you have? How many of them are developers?
We currently count 15 employees, 3 of them are developers. Not included in those numbers is our amazing team of photographers.
Microsoft technologies that you are using in conjunction with the development of your application:
ASP.NET, C#, SQL Server, Visual Studio, Test Manager, Azure
Tell us about your Azure based solution.
Our solution is based on a global coverage and we are using a number of Azure websites in different regions, the traffic manager, storage blobs, cdn and the service bus. The frontend websites are lightweight websites (asp.net) using data from the distributed services (ASP.NET API and WCF). Those services currently use a local cache and connect to the database. We are currently developing a completely disconnected model using Azure Blob Queue’s and Azure Cache.
How did you get excited about Azure?
Before we started with this project, our CTO, Peter Hofman, was used to self-hosting with high availability servers and complex environments that were very hard to maintain and provided no flexibility. When we started, we did some testing on Azure and from the first results we knew this was the way to go. Azure provides the same high availability, powerful servers but most of all it gives us the flexibility we need to expand, scale and grow.
What were the Azure features that prompted you to decide to build on Azure?
Foremost the scalability of the system got our attention. From the beginning we focused on a scalable infrastructure, that could help people all over the world, Azure is the technological solution in line with that. Also, while not yet having reached our worldwide ambition, we already have visitors from more than 145 different countries and we needed an infrastructure that can provide the best experience (and speed) to those visitors.
What advice do you have for companies that are thinking about building in the cloud?
If you want to have a scalable environment for your product then the cloud is an accessible solution that puts you in control and gives you more possibilities than you can imagine. So my advice is go for cloud development!
Do you build for scale first, or for revenue? How are those things related in your mind?
We started out building for revenue, as we felt we had to prove the concept once more, while we of course had scale in mind. After we received an overwhelming amount of visitors and bookings, we are now preparing for scale with revenue in mind though. The major difference is the time it takes you to get to scale, when focusing on revenue. Constant validation helps on the other hand to build something demanded, in comparison to building for scale, where this constant validation is missing.
Do you make reasonable predictions about how you are going to achieve revenue and then test them out, or do you start with a business model and deploy it, to see if it brings in revenue?
Since we tested the concept and business model in 2013 and made revenues that showed significant potential, we are just tweaking on small parts. In everything we do, we focus on scalability and delivering value to landlords and students. The last thing this market needs is yet another platform that does nothing but exchanging contact details of landlords and students, enabling scammers and chaos to flourish in this space. We base our predictions on data we constantly collect and collected earlier, to make our predictions more of a roadmap of solving an issue we strongly believe, needs to be solved.
What questions do you and your technical co-founder / engineering team feel are the most important to solve about the business aspects of your company?
We think there are three major questions that are to be answered, on the way to solving many issues in the student housing market:
- Scalability: How can we scale our organization and our infrastructure within the capabilities of our company, while not losing touch with the customer?
- Security: How can we create trust among students and landlords, enabling them to come to an agreement online.
- Simplicity: What is the simplest way in which students can rent their home online and in which real estate owners can let their properties online. After all simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Where do you include technical members of your team during the building of your business plan?
Always … almost. Our concept spins around offering services to people, that make their life easier. Those services need to make sense from a business perspective, while being feasible from a technical perspective.
How much of what you are building is based on leaving a legacy vs technical challenges vs making something just for fun?
This is largely about leaving a legacy and setting a new standard of expats, interns and (international) students renting their rooms. The current standards, that have not been questioned for ages, are what we have to overcome. However the disliking of the general public towards real estate agents shows the need for change and our concept.
Our team, that largely consists of students, is another reason why I would say we do this largely for a legacy. Students that experienced the pain and inefficiency in the market have set out to solve the problem they once faced, for generations to come.
When did you decide that you were “startup material”?
When you have fun working on your business and making a vision come true that you believe can change things for the better, then you are half way. When you then make revenues while having fun - then there are really not many arguments left, for you not to be “start-up material”. When on top, the company revenues and the fun you have are larger than they would be in any alternative, then you can be sure. That is the case with us.
What impact or legacy do you hope to make in the market and in the business world?
The power of every start-up is the chance to start with a clean slate, to question status quos and to do things differently. With this being the essence of our company philosophy we hope to change some status quos for the better, starting with disrupting the current student housing market.
What are some of the challenges you face as a founder or developer at a startup, when it comes to dealing with family or social life?
Certainly, life is about choosing from an infinite amount of alternatives. Of course it will have consequences when you choose to prioritize one of the alternatives over many others. Yet that is what enables you to achieve great things – everyone would do it if it were easy. I am sure there will still be time after we helped thousands of students from all over the world to find their place to stay.
What characteristics do you possess that make you an entrepreneur? What makes your startup a startup?
I believe we are stubborn, disciplined and visionary enough to make a huge difference in the student housing market. Years of experiences in student real estate and IT also help.
What is most important though is that I believe that we are open and learn every day. Especially our amazing team, consisting largely of students, embodies this willingness to learn.
Lately the definition of a start-up has been watered down. The factor that makes a start-up a start-up is scalability, while a new bakery is a small business, even though one can of course argue that with a franchise the bakery might also be scalable.
Do you have any advice for young startups?
There is so much uncertainty in this world, even given the perfect endowment of experience, founders, capital and whatever else might be needed. That makes the things we have a clear influence over even more valuable. Therefore make sure to have as much fun as possible and to learn as much as possible along the way. After all, there is no better investment than those in yourself.
Can you describe the relationship that you have had with Microsoft in building your startup?
After our initial contact on Facebook we got the opportunity to directly talk with Microsoft about our project and got enrolled into the BizSpark program. The personal contact and interest was a great experience and shows the commitment from Microsoft towards startups.
What do you think of the BizSpark Program?
The BizSpark program has allowed us to use the best available tools from the start. It allowed us to speed up the development when we had very limited capital.
Why would an entrepreneur turn to Microsoft for help in building scale, a team, or using software?
Microsoft offers the tools and knowledge to build high quality software solutions and has proven to be very accessible for us.