Interview: Jim Urell, Property Button

28 Jul 2017 | 11.25 am

Interview: Jim Urell, Property Button

Jim Urell’s software startup Property Button is growing fast but past failure has made him wary

28 Jul 2017 | 11.25 am

After Jim Urell decided to liquidate D2D Sales Outsourcing in 2013, his new venture Property Button was already on the launchpad. Property Button looks like it will be a more successful business, though after the D2D experience Urell is wary of taking anything for granted.

Established in 2011, D2D Sales Outsourcing worked for telecoms and electricity businesses, with freelance sales people engaged in door-to-door sales. According to Urell, tardy payments from clients caused D2D’s cashflow to dry up and he was forced to close the business. Things are better for the entrepreneur now, as Property Button enjoys rapid growth and expansion into the UK.

Property Button provides landlords and estate agents with a cloud-based solution to automate and streamline their everyday business processes. “Our apps and internet services automate and streamline all of the little jobs associated with renting a property,” Urell explains. “We remove all paper (even signatures are electronic), we offer real-time reporting with SLAs and we manage the property data.”

Property Button does not have a sign-up fee. Instead, it retains the commission it receives from utility service providers who connect with tenants through Property Button’s platform. Headquartered in Bray, Property Button booked a profit of €176,000 in 2015, finishing the year with cash of €97,000 and a debtor book of €457,000. The company currently employs 20 people.

Prior to D2D Sales Outsourcing, where did you work?

I’ve worked in engineering, business consulting and commercial roles in Ireland, Central Europe and Australia. At eTel Group, I was part of a small management team that consolidated many of the alternative telecoms companies in Central Europe. That business was eventually bought by Telekom Austria.

What went wrong in D2D Sales Outsourcing?

I was naive. I expanded too fast, trusting in contracts and not cash. That will never happen again. It was an extremely tough time on a personal and professional level. It drained me but I came out of it a better business man. I worked very closely with the D2D liquidator for 12 months and really took the time to ensure I learned the lessons.

What made you decide to try again with Property Button?

I hadn’t a bean, the mortgage was overdue and I had personally guaranteed D2D loans. It would have taken me months to get a new job and going to work for someone else would have felt like giving up. I needed to prove to myself that I could actualise myself as a business man. So I discussed the alternatives with my wife and we agreed to go again, so I just jumped off the cliff again.

I started Property Button during the D2D period. I had rolled the service out to a dozen estate agencies and proven the concept. On one bad D2D day, I was lucky enough to speak to Philip Sherry of Sherry FitzGerald about Property Button. He was really supportive and I made contact with the owners of two of the largest SheryFitz lettings offices in Dublin, Eileen Sheehy and Fergus Lowe. We took the business from there and have rebranded twice. The original name was Property Channel, which people thought was a Sky TV channel selling houses.

How did you go about software development?

We’ve scaled the business without outside finance and we made technical choices based upon our meagre investment capability. Initially, we developed the service using an open source platform. We scaled quickly to 200-plus estate agents but we were stuck with manual internal systems. We couldn’t technically innovate so we couldn’t launch new services, which was extremely frustrating.

In Q4 2014 we decided to bite the bullet and we migrated onto a Salesforce cloud platform. We were growing the business at 9% a month at the time so this was akin to changing horses during a race whilst galloping at full tilt.

How is the UK expansion going?

We launched in the UK during H1 2016. Our market entry strategy was based on our Irish customer acquisition model and tried to leverage the big brand name customers we have in Ireland. We soon learned that this was the wrong strategy. The UK market is hyper competitive and estate agents are one of the most pitched-at sectors. They are very wary of cold callers and this market entry strategy didn’t deliver the results we wanted.

We changed strategy in Q3 2016 and recruited an excellent marketing person. We developed and launched a marketing communication strategy designed to build awareness of our services on a city-by-city basis. We are now seeing the results we want.

Did you secure any investment to help grow the business?

Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown Local Enterprise Office helped us with repayable business expansion and scaling grants, which were crucial to help us make key hires. I’d love more of this type of finance: non-recourse repayable grants are crucial to support entrepreneurship and employment by indigenous firms.

There are loans available from the commercial banks but they come with mandatory personal guarantees, which I’ve learned to avoid at all costs. PG loans are toxic to entrepreneurs.

What has been your biggest startup challenge?

In my mind there are really only two challenges – matching your product to the market and, when you have done that, securing customers. If you lose your hunger for continuous product innovation your competitors will take your customers, while if you don’t expand your customer base some larger international competitor will consolidate your business or bring the fight to you in your home markets. You have got to keep growing.

What advice would you impart to other entrepreneurs?

Trust yourself completely, keep going no matter what, and work your ass off. If your business fails, you will want to fail by your own hand and not by someone else’s decisions. Don’t fear failure; fail honourably and be honest and open about your reasons for failure.

Photo: Jim Urell, Property Button

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