Operational mastermind and COO of Propertyfinder Paul Stewart-Smith talks about the challenges of building a world class team while running a million dollar business.
Paul Stewart-Smith and his team are trying to give property buyers a powerful new tool: high-quality, credible real estate listings in the region available in real time at the click of a button. “Spend a few weeks as a property buyer and you realise how challenging of a process it is,” he quips. “How many times do you come across a listing (that you consider to be perfect), but on calling the broker you find out that it has just been sold? Or, think of all the times you wished you had access to an expert, who could do all the initial ground work for you. It was these instances that inspired Michael Lahyani, CEO and Founder of Propertyfinder to build a platform that would make house hunting a hassle free journey.”
Looking back to the days of start-up and inception, Paul remembers: “In the mid-2000’s, the classifieds section of the local newspaper was the only source people had to find their future homes. There was no other channel available that could provide detailed information on properties. Propertyfinder was born out of the desire to fill this obvious gap in the market.” Michael’s vision has proved to be quite on point; his business model of catering to the needs of property buyers and developers has completely disrupted the market. At one end, it fulfills the requirements of anyone looking to rent or buy a property across seven countries in the Middle East, while at the other end it is a platform for developers, brokers and agents to spend their marketing budget in an effective way.
Though Propertyfinder has transformed the property market, it still has a long way to go, reckons Paul – the man steering the operational side of things. “Every morning I come to work thinking about the company’s larger vision and ensure that the team is moving one step closer to it. We may have passed the ‘start-up’ stage, but we are as ambitious now as we were then. We put a lot of emphasis on shortening the lead time for both our clients and end users. More importantly, we are focused on the quality of our content, leads, listings and partners. In fact, we’ve invested in technology that can help us set up quality algorithms that enable features such as ‘verified listings’, ‘call tracking’, ‘find agents’ and much more!
A tall order
Propertyfinder’s leap from a start-up to a growing enterprise has been very impressive. Even so, the company – like any other small business – has had to face its fair share of trials and tribulations. “One of the biggest challenges was incorporating all the necessary corporate governance mechanisms within the business. We were being run as a ‘single owner’ business and had to appoint an independent Board of Directors to help with the critical decision making process. This meant that individuals were not the source of all activity but rather roles within processes aligned to our overall strategy became the foundation that the business operated on,” Paul confesses. “From a business owner’s point of view, this required relinquishing some amount of control and trusting the opinion of the experts. Of course this wasn’t easy – for Michael and the team. It involved internal restructuring and there were definitely some members who couldn’t make the adjustment.” Speaking on the motivation to make this shift, he says: “With growth and regional expansion and with increasing maturity, the business needed to be able to scale in a consistent way, it needed to be able to predictably handle the challenges faced by each market. That also didn’t mean becoming fixed and rigid; markets of varying maturity and specific needs required us to have the right governance and control whilst maintaining the agility that allowed us to become the clear market leader. In an environment where many ideas and opportunities exist, having the ability to accurately and consistently assess the best ROI for each option and execute flawlessly to achieve our goals was essential.”
Building blocks for growth
With their eyes set firmly on the larger objective, the Propertyfinder team came together to surmount the challenge they faced. “In order to scale, it was important to set clear definitions of every team member’s role. And, this started from the top. For instance, the COO’s position was filled in to bring in structure and to develop the rigour that brings predictability. The alignment of the senior team across all locations was vital; it enabled the Group to speak with one common voice and guide the organisation at a key stage in the development of the business. In essence, the single voice of the Board started the communication flow consistently throughout the organisation. By enabling our team to communicate the relevant information to their teams, we began to see a more unified feel within the organisation. Interdepartmental connections became more of the norm and there was a better understanding of what each team was working towards. Clear KPIs for the team meant that each area of the business knew what was important for it to focus on to achieve the best result for the overall Group.” “We eased the process for the team by organising extensive individual interviews, which helped us understand their concerns, get their feedback and evaluate their performance.”
How has the business fared since this transition? “Propertyfinder has always been ground-breaking and the move to having better corporate governance and structure was no different. It enabled every team member to know exactly how they can best contribute to what the company is looking to achieve and it ensured that we are as cost effective and received the greatest value on our investment. But what I consider to be the best outcome is that we’ve emerged as a stronger team.” Echoing the sentiments of most other business owners, Paul regards his team as his biggest asset. “PropertyFinder prides itself on recruiting some of the world’s best talent. What is essential is the retention and development of that team. We conduct Townhall sessions, share regular updates from the Board and management meetings and have an open, inclusive culture that encourages people to participate. Development of our employees is pivotal as we want them to be future leaders of the organisation. The market has experienced one its strongest challenges recently and we have expanded our team in all locations. Why? It’s because we believe that by investing in the right team doing the right things, we can offer our clients the best value for their marketing spend.”
Breaking ground: the future of Propertyfinder
Moving past current challenges, Propertyfinder is finally on track and has big ambitions for the future. For Paul it all comes down to giving clients the best value for their marketing spend. “No matter how fast we grow or how large our organisation becomes, our clients will always remain our top priority. This is our focus, rather than focusing on what our competitors may or may not be doing, we want to focus on making sure we deliver all we can to our clients and consumers, if we do that to the best of our ability then we will succeed,” he surmises.
Rushika Bhatia Editor
Rushika Bhatia is one of the region’s leading commentators on business and current affairs issues. She is the Editor of SME Advisor magazine - the flagship title of CPI Business. She is passionate about infographics – with special emphasis on data, research and statistics. Rushika has a Bachelor’s Degree from Indiana University, USA and is also CIMA qualified.