21st & 22nd of May
Maribor, Slovenia
Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Mariano Kostelec: I expect Uniplaces to join the 'unicorn' club

Mariano Kostelec, co-founder of Uniplaces.com, the international portal for student accommodation, is convinced that student and youth mobility has great benefits for the development of communities, societies and economies at large. The young and ambitious citizen of the world plans to make Uniplaces a global player and even a member of the "unicorn club."  

Mr. Kostelec, your company Uniplaces has received more than 30 million dollars of investments. How did you manage to convince your investors that the world needs more than just Airbnb? 

This is a typical question! Airbnb is a great company and a great service. The world clearly needs it; and I’m a big fan of them!  However, there are large differences between Uniplaces and Airbnb, which might get overlooked at first sight.

Uniplaces is a platform for student accommodation. We are building a brand for students, developing our presence in universities and student communities. As we become the “default” option to find and book student accommodation, we are building a platform through which we can also provide students other services and products they need during their studies; focusing on improving the overall student experience. The accommodation on Uniplaces is in neighborhoods where students want to live, near universities, in student residences, etc. 

This is very different from the service Airbnb offers, which is targeted towards travellers, holidaymakers, tourists and similar. Their average booking is around 5 days long, while on Uniplaces students book on average for 5 months, with the longest booking being almost 4 years.

These are two huge and different markets, and as Airbnb has grown to become the market leader in the short stay space, Uniplaces will become the market leader in the student accommodation space. 

You were born in Argentina, you regularly return to Slovenia, home of your ancestors, you studied in London, worked in Japan and China, and now you live and work in Lisbon, Portugal. You call yourself a "citizen of the world". Did your international experience contribute to the creation of a student accommodation platform? 

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to live in so many different parts of the world. Moving to different countries several times, I also faced the challenge of having to find accommodation to stay in a number of times in different cities around the world. This clearly contributed to the idea of Uniplaces. However, more than that, living in different countries while studying or working made me realise the world today is still very fragmented with too many boundaries. Uniplaces is removing those boundaries. We are empowering student mobility, giving people the opportunity to have a great experience in any country they chose to study. 

The world has become flat; this is also proved by companies like yours that are solving problems of global nomads. How will increased mobility (mostly of young people) influence the development of economies and societies in the future? 

Student and youth mobility has great benefits for the development of communities, societies and economies at large. When people from different backgrounds, experience, religions, nationalities get together, they develop ideas and solutions with a much broader range of perspectives. They also become more tolerant. They appreciate things more. They spot opportunities faster. They face challenges and obstacles easier. They take more risks. This clearly has a positive impact on those societies and directly contributes to economic development.

Which new opportunities do you believe will arise from this?

With increased mobility and enabling such diverse people to live, study or work together; opportunities arise everywhere. One clear example is that anyone who wants to develop a project or business idea can find the right team a lot easier than would have been otherwise.

Does international experience like yours contribute to young entrepreneurs' success? How?

It surely does! With international experience, you meet people with completely different visions of the world, you see how things work in different places, you realise countries don’t define your boundaries, you can go beyond them. You create a network of friends or colleagues who can open doors, introduce you to the right people, help you understand their own countries, etc. Living in different countries also makes you develop and grow as a person and builds your confidence and knowledge. I won’t say you need international experience to succeed, but it can definitely help you get there faster!

You have more than 130 employees at your company. Are any of them Slovene? Do all of them work in Lisbon or also remotely? If you have remote employees, how do you coordinate your teams, how do you make sure they're all on the same page and that all company’s goals are achieved?

Our headquarters are located in Lisbon, however we also have offices in Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Rome, Berlin and London. Working across such diverse locations is clearly a challenge. Communication is crucial to ensure everyone is on the same page. The “remote” teams need to also feel part of a larger organization, part of the same shared vision, irrespective of their location or contribution to it.

Although we are far from perfect, I can share some of the things that we are doing about this. Every Wednesday we host a company meeting, where we introduce all the new joiners, leavers, we go over the main KPIs of the company, remind everyone of the plans and targets for the week/month/quarter, and we also have someone each week doing a short presentation about their area, a project they are working on, or a topic that particularly relates to their work. 

Apart from this, we organize an annual company meeting offsite, where everyone gets together; we do quarterly leadership offsite meetings, bringing the leadership teams as well as general managers from different markets together. 

In addition, everyone that joins in any location spends at least the first week in our Lisbon HQ to go through an intensive training session, as well as to meet everyone else from the team. Even though communication through email, skype, phone, etc. are part of the daily life and crucial to manage and work with teams across different countries, face-to-face time is equally important. 

When does a startup stop being a startup and turns into a "mature" company? What kind of challenges do you believe a company faces during such a transition?

There are probably numerous different definitions of what a startup is – and when it stops being one. In my opinion, a startup is more of a mentality of the company rather than something that is defined by the number of employees, revenues, or anything else. In a startup, the team needs to believe in a vision, which holds them together, and they follow ambitious and often crazy plans to (try) to get there. I believe that for as long as a company keeps that in everyone’s mind, it doesn’t stop being a startup. There are companies such as Snapchat which recently IPO-ed at over $20bn, but I think most people will still say that ’it’s a startup.

What will UniPlaces look like in 5 years? Do you think it will become an interesting takeover target for companies like Airbnb?

Students spend over $500bn a year on living expenses, over a third of which goes towards their accommodation. This is a huge market, and we want Uniplaces to become the global player in this space. In the coming years, we will keep getting closer to this goal, and I expect Uniplaces to join the “unicorn” club, and then continuing developing the business until we can help any students anywhere in the world book their accommodation through Uniplaces. We have ambitious plans and want to achieve our vision, which means we are not looking to sell the business, but rather keep it private or aim for an IPO in the coming years. 

Can you please share an experience you learned the most from as an entrepreneur with the visitors of this year's PODIM conference?

Probably the most important thing I learnt as an entrepreneur is the importance of staying humble, and never giving up. As an entrepreneur, you constantly have ups and downs, you have good and bad days. You have challenges to solve, and as you solve them new (bigger) challenges appear. You have to keep focusing on the vision, and accept this as a part of your life.  When a problem appears, you need to tackle it with enthusiasm and look at it as a challenge to overcome or an opportunity to tackle, rather than a problem. That way you have the highest chance of succeeding in whatever field you are working on. 


Mariano Kostelec is a young and ambitious entrepreneur from Spain and the co-founder of Uniplaces.com, the international portal for student accommodation that raised $24M in 2015. 
Over the past years, Mariano has worked for leading investments banks, including UBS, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, and several fast-growing startups. He was recently leading the international expansion of Groupon and Wimdu in Asia.
His specialties are Entrepreneurship, Start-ups, Finance (Venture Capital), Technology, Real Estate, Project Management, Recruitment, Business Consulting, Strategic Management, e-commerce, e-Business and Travel & Tourism. 

Mariano Kostelec will be a keynote speaker at this year's PODIM conference.