Property technology start-up company Alimama Spacesis witnessing growth in its property listings and revenue by piggybacking on on-demand accommodation platforms, such as Airbnb and Bookings.com.
ITWeb TV sat down with Robert Manson, Alimama Spaces founder, to ask how the business has grown since it was founded in 2015, how it navigated the COVID-19 lockdown, problematic guests and the technologies anchoring the business, among other issues.
“I can describe Alimama Spaces as a digital spaces company. I buy houses under my investment vehicle, which is Robert Manson Investments,” he says.
“The way we do it is different from the traditional businesses like rental agencies. Mine is a digital company; we list our properties on digital platforms such as Airbnb, which is our biggest platform that we list on. We are also using Bookings.com, but what we’ve done over the last three to four years is we have converted Alimama Spaces into a bookings platform.”
Manson previously worked for tech companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, IBM and Altron.
“Around 2014 and 2015, I started thinking: ‘Do I want to be known as a CEO of a big multinational when my time comes?’ I said ‘no’, I want to create my own legacy. At that time, I already had a few properties where I was doing traditional long-term rentals.
“In 2015, when I was working for Oracle, I was travelling a lot. I was at home probably only during the weekends, and I was staying in this massive house on my own. I realised it was a waste of space and decided to list my house on Airbnb.
“I started renting out my house on a short-time basis, and when I realised the opportunity, I decided to launch Alimama Spaces. I evicted all my tenants after giving them notice, and listed all the properties on Airbnb and Bookings.com, and I have not looked back since then.”
He reveals the company now has about 35 staff members, and when there is huge demand, it gets additional capacity from shared economy firms, such as SweepSouth.
“In terms of the listings, I thought if I could get 30 or 50 listings, I would stop. But over the last eight years, we have seen tremendous growth. I am sitting on 265 listings, as of today, and my target over the next two to three years is to make sure we get to 500 listings.
“We can even exceed that because every day, I am getting people wanting to list their properties on my platform, and I am investing by buying new properties that we are also listing.”
Manson tells ITWeb TV that on average, the business makes in excess of R5 million per month.
“On some good months, we can generate R7.5 million to R10 million, especially in December. We are still a start-up that is just eight years old, but the growth is quite phenomenal.”
According to Manson, property technology is the bedrock of Alimama Spaces.
“I don’t have offices; I will never have offices; all my staff members work remotely. It doesn’t matter where they are based, as long as they deliver and give me the output, for me, that’s very important.
“On digital platforms like Airbnb, for example, I can go on to my app and it can tell me how many people have booked my properties for the next six to 12 months. I can tell you my occupancy ratios, all the reviews, how many people have stayed on my properties, all that.
“All of that comes from artificial intelligence and analytics, and they [Airbnb] are continuously refining their technologies.”
Not a bed of roses
He points out that one of the biggest challenges is that some guests book the properties for parties.
According to Manson, Airbnb has deployed a tool that can detect when a place is being booked to throw a party.
For example, he says, if the tool picks up that the potential guest stays in the vicinity of where they want to book, they book for one night on a Friday, they never stayed in an Airbnb before and don’t have a review, there will be a high probability they want to have a party.
“If the tool picks that up, Airbnb will alert us, and we will cancel the booking immediately with no penalty.”
The Alimama Spaces portal also makes use of chatbots, which enable customers to interact with the platform in real-time.
Manson reveals he has faced numerous challenges with guests, and in some cases, violence erupted at his properties and law enforcement had to be called.
At times, he says, guests claim they have paid by sending fake proof of payments, and the truth is only discovered long after they have checked out.
On one occasion, he notes, he found the apartment empty after all the property was allegedly stolen by a guest.
“I’ve got scars, I have seen it all and these are the challenges of the business. These are some of the things that make you tough.”
He also reflects on how the business emerged from the COVID-19 lockdown, which had a devastating effect on the tourism and hospitality industry. In every crisis, there is an opportunity, he says, adding the business actually grew during the period mainly by housing those who were deemed critical workers.
Manson plans to expand the business to Mauritius, Malawi and Namibia.
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