Do you think volume homebuilders are missing a trick by churning out bland housing stock?
Commercial real estate developer, Gus Zogolovitch does.
And he’s decided to do something about it…
Based in London, Gus is on a mission: to develop better homes.
What does he mean by ‘better’?
Better design. Better quality. Better value.
And better for the environment.
But Gus does more than build homes…
He’s created a vertically integrated operation that offers peer-to-peer financing for people who want to build innovative houses and apartments.
And an estate agency to sell them.
Needless to say, creating these businesses has NOT been easy.
In fact, as you’ll discover when you listen to my conversation with him, Gus has faced one battle after another.
Listen now (or read the transcript below) and you’ll discover:
- What led him into the better homes niche.
- Why he thinks property development is about more than just money.
- How he has overcome typical development headaches.
- Why he thinks the traditional real estate agency model is broken.
- How to build a vertically integrated property operation.
- And MUCH more…
Liked this interview with Gus? Please leave a review by clicking here (then scrolling to the bottom of the page). Even one sentence would be great.
Note: this has been lightly edited to boost clarity and readability.
[Tim Benjamin] Hi there,
You’re listening to the Floorplate podcast, the place where successful commercial property owners and developers tell you how they built their businesses.
I’m Tim Benjamin, a commercial property developer based in London.
On today’s show, the trials and tribulations of being a property developer…
[Gus Zogolovitch] I decided ‘how hard can this be?’ and I did it myself. I hired builders direct. And it was a total disaster.
[Tim Benjamin] That’s London developer, Gus Zogolovitch who’s today’s guest on the Floorplate podcast.
As you’re about to learn, Gus Zogolovitch is on a mission to improve the quality of new-build homes being brought to market.
And to do that, he’s created a number of complimentary businesses.
For a start, he has a finance business, called Crowd Estates, which is a crowd funding platform designed to connect investors with people who want to borrow money to build schemes with a community or social benefit.
Meanwhile, his property development arm, called UnBoxed, is developing high quality but small-scale multi-family residential schemes.
He calls these schemes ‘Custom Builds’.
That’s because what he hands over to the homeowner is a semi-completed home that is often less finished than a fully completed new-build from a typical developer.
He’ll explain why in a moment.
Gus’s third business is a niche real estate agency.
Called Rare Space, the agency’s mission is to connect buyers looking for well-designed new homes with the output of like-minded developers.
I started my conversation with Gus by asking him why he’s operating these three businesses in tandem…
[Gus Zogolovitch] I’m in the business of creating better homes. That’s what I believe in. It’s what I’m passionate about.
By ‘better’, I mean better value. Better for the environment. Better quality. Better design.
My businesses all revolve around those topics. And I think that we’re in a good position to deliver those things in a vertically integrated way rather than rely on third party services.
What I mean by that is that we source land. We source finance through my peer-to-peer lending company. And we build buildings through my development company. And we source customers through my estate agency business.
[Tim Benjamin] So it’s a vertically integrated business?
[Gus Zogolovitch] That’s the vision. At the moment, we’re still relatively small and young. But we have a vision to create a sort of ‘nose-to-tail’ operation that allows people to feel like they can get it all from us.
[Tim Benjamin] What is the head-count within all of those businesses at the moment?
[Gus Zogolovitch] We’re about seven people right now.
[Tim Benjamin] Now – we’ll get into all the details of each of those in a second.
But if we go all the way back, it would be really fascinating to know your journey.
How did you get interested in property in the first place?
[Gus Zogolovitch] My father is an architect. He was quite an avant-garde architect in the ‘60s – he founded quite a famous architectural firm called CZWG.
[Tim Benjamin] And we’re, of course, talking about Roger Zogolovitch.
[Gus Zogolovitch] Exactly. And he was an architect for a few years. And then became a developer.
So I suppose I sort of grew up with property very much around me whenever I was around him.
I started my journey after university.
I was working in The City to start with.
[Tim Benjamin] Well that’s an interesting point: if we go back to uni, what did you study at university?
[Gus Zogolovitch] At university I studied maths and philosophy.
And I did a year in Spain which was very fun.
[Tim Benjamin] Were you tempted to study architecture or something related to real estate?
[Gus Zogolovitch] No. There was a point where I was thinking about architecture when I was about 13 or 14. But that lasted a few months. It didn’t last very long.
So at that stage, I wasn’t massively inspired to do architecture. It was much more around these slightly more esoteric subjects: philosophy, mathematics.
So I did that at university.
And then after that, by luck more than by choice or design, I ended up in The City using my maths I suppose to analyse companies and whether you should buy them or whether you should sell them.
That kind of thing.
[Tim Benjamin] Did you have a particular interest in finance?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Not really. Basically, a friend of mine said ‘Hey – come and do this job’.
And that was the best option available to me at the time.
It was very interesting being in The City.
[Tim Benjamin] Why?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Well, you’re around very intelligent people.
It’s an interesting place to be.
You learn a lot about business actually.
And learn about how investors think.
And how these things work.
I went from being an intern – got promoted a few times – and then was sort of running these…going to meet really senior management.
I was in my mid twenties, and I was meeting the guy that founded Swatch.
Or the guy that was running the entire Louis Vuitton empire.
This is me as a twenty five year old.
You wouldn’t have access to those sorts of people.
So these are very interesting business people.
Anyway, it soon became clear that I wasn’t really cut out for The City.
I was a bit too crazy: I used to wear red socks.
And that was frowned upon.
[Tim Benjamin] It was frowned upon in The City?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Yes – exactly.
[Tim Benjamin] Why was that?
[Gus Zogolovitch] A bit too radical.
The City like people to be in their box.
I never really fitted that mould, as it were.
And then sort of 1999/2000, I got made redundant from that – I got the opportunity to take redundancy pay – which I did.
And then I went travelling.
I travelled around the world for almost two years actually.
[Tim Benjamin] Where did you go?
[Gus Zogolovitch] I went to quite a few places.
I went to Africa – a few countries in Africa.
A lot of countries in Asia.
Out to New Caledonia.
And then worked my way back.
[Tim Benjamin] What was the purpose? That’s a big trip. Was there an objective?
[Gus Zogolovitch] No – there was no objective.
The original objective was go on safari with a mate that had basically said ‘hey – I’m going on safari in South Africa. Do you fancy coming?’.
And I was like ‘mmm – that sounds pretty good. I’ve just been given my redundancy cheque money’.
And I thought I can spend some of this on that.
Went from there.
Added some extra bits.
So I was originally going to go for like 3 to 6 months.
And then I thought ‘this is actually quite fun – I’ll do this’.
And that carried on.
And that extended.
And then a friend of mine said ‘hey – I’m getting married in Australia. Are you around?’.
So I went back down to Australia where I ended up meeting someone who would later become my wife.
And so these are all parts of the life story.
[Tim Benjamin] When you were in Australia, did you work in finance or property?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Yeah – I was always interested in social responsibility.
And in Australia, I ended up with a company that researched socially responsible – or kind of ethical – companies on the Australian Stock Exchange.
And so I did that while I was in Melbourne for six months.
That was fine – I kind of settled in Melbourne for 6 or 7 months.
That’s the place I settled for the most time.
Otherwise, I was exploring.
My redundancy package eventually ran out.
And it was time to go home.
That was about two years after I’d set off just before my thirtieth birthday.
[Tim Benjamin] So you arrive back in London aged 30 or thereabouts. What happened next?
[Gus Zogolovitch] One of the reasons I was able to go so long was because I had a flat in London that I was renting out while I was paying the mortgage.
I wasn’t really paying much on it – I didn’t need to worry about the mortgage.
So when I got back, it was looking a bit tired and a bit dishevelled after two years of people not really looking after it.
And it needed a big loft extension doing.
I thought ‘this is time now to do something about that’.
And so I went out to various people: builders, designers – whatever.
And none of them were really able to do it with the budget that I had.
So, I decided ‘how hard can this be?’ and I did it myself.
I hired builders direct.
And it was a total disaster.
[Tim Benjamin] Why?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Basically because the builders – they were generally English builders – and English builders at the time were not exactly careful or hard working shall we say.
So they would turn up late most days.
Go for kind of two-hour lunch breaks.
Come back for a few hours.
And then expect a full day’s pay.
I was paying them by the day.
So you can image that the incentives for them to work a full day were relatively low.
And they thought ‘here’s this guy – we’re really going to take him for what he’s worth’.
[Tim Benjamin] That was then. Have things changed now in terms of the quality of builders in London?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Yeah – I think what’s interesting is that eventually those guys all walked off site because I thought ‘this is ridiculous: they’re working 6 hours a day – it’s nuts’.
So, they all walked off site.
And then I was left with this half-built loft extension which I was living in with my girlfriend who was still with me and suffering.
Eventually I found some Brazilian builders.
They had an entirely different attitude.
They worked hard.
They looked at it carefully.
They thought about it.
And it just made you think.
This was maybe before the massive influx of eastern European labour that we have today.
But the difference in attitude and approach was enormous.
I then completed that loft extension – it was very successful in the end.
Even though it was painful at the beginning.
And I’d had these guys walk off site.
And then I thought: ‘now I’ve got these guys, it would be a shame to say goodbye to them’.
So I then offered my services to friends and friends of friends saying: ‘look – we can do the same for you: loft extension, re-furb, new kitchen, whatever it was’.
[Tim Benjamin] So you essentially set up a building business in cahoots with the Brazilian guys?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Correct.
[Tim Benjamin] And you were playing the role of sales guy and they were doing the execution?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Yeah – I was project manager, I was bringing the business in, etc.
[Tim Benjamin] How did that feel that role compared to what you’d been doing in finance a few years before?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Well, it’s kind of liberating in the sense that you don’t have to go to an office every day.
So I got that sense of freedom that you get when you start to become your own boss.
[Tim Benjamin] But on the other side of the coin, you’ve gone from meetings with the founder of Swatch and the guy who runs Louis Vuitton to now you’re hanging out with a group of Brazilians in suburban London.
[Gus Zogolovitch] That’s very true.
[Tim Benjamin] That’s a big change.
[Gus Zogolovitch] But remember I’d had two years to kind of meet crazy people in Indian youth hostels and in the Indonesian jungle to kind of take myself away from that world.
And on reflection, I realised that the world at that level of business was very very money oriented.
And I learnt a lesson about myself which was: money’s important – but it’s not one of my drivers.
I always felt that, working in The City, the problem is that you work really hard.
You work really hard.
But, actually, the end result leaves you with something which is very intangible.
It might be reports you’ve written.
Really good reports.
But they go out of date within months.
People don’t refer back to them.
Most of them end up in the bin.
And, actually, one of the really nice things about getting into the building work was this idea that, actually, you’re doing something that people really loved.
I called it the ‘TILI Moment’ which is: ‘Thanks – I Love It’.
That was a big driver.
So, the money was worlds apart.
But, actually, it was fine.
I rented out a couple of rooms in the flat.
And it worked really well.
You’re not meeting those people, but you’re meeting – in a way – people that really appreciate what you’re doing.
And that’s really nice.
And maybe it’s appreciation that we all seek in the end.
[Tim Benjamin] Well, it’s interesting because money and property development are two concepts that often belong together in one sentence.
Do you think your view – as a developer – about money is unusual?
[Gus Zogolovitch] I do actually.
There are a few of us out there that think that quality – in a way – is more important than money.
I mean money is important – don’t get me wrong – because money fuels growth.
But, actually, since that time, the money has always been secondary to my vision.
I think I get that from my dad, actually.
He’s always been – I think maybe from his architectural background – he’s always been interested in the project first.
And the money second.
If he believes in something he’ll spend more money on the windows.
Or the floor.
Or the doors.
He’ll spend more money doing the space.
And building it out of concrete which costs a lot more.
Now, I see the influence that’s had on me.
It’s always been there, I think, in terms of being interested in social responsibility.
And things that are better for the environment.
And all that kind of stuff.
But, actually, realising that I’m not necessarily driven by the kind of fast car mentality.
I don’t want the material stuff.
I’m not a big materiality kind of guy.
I much more value time.
Good quality time with friends.
And that kind of thing.
So having worked on this contractor thing, it did come to an actual end when I started getting phone calls on Sunday night.
That kind of disturbed my quality time which I didn’t quite like.
And then the whole thing around people doing websites was coming up.
And I taught myself how to code in HTML – very basic.
[Tim Benjamin] Very impressive.
[Gus Zogolovitch] Well, it’s not very complicated – it’s not like coding now.
[Tim Benjamin] But how many people in the building industry can code in HTML?
[Gus Zogolovitch] I don’t know.
But I’ve always been a bit different to other people in that regard.
[Tim Benjamin] So you were a pioneer in that department – as well as in the development of buildings.
[Gus Zogolovitch] Maybe.
My dad was like ‘we need some help with the website, so I went to help with that.
And then, bit-by-bit, my contracting business sort of shrunk to effectively my last client.
And then no clients because I wasn’t going out there and getting more.
I was spending more time with my dad.
[Tim Benjamin] What sort of stuff were you doing with your dad?
[Gus Zogolovitch] That was helping out however I could. Whatever it was in the office.
[Tim Benjamin] Can you give me an example?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Well I suppose it was website stuff and then helping him with numbers and appraisals.
Looking at the corporate governance of the business.
I started introducing things like board meetings – having meetings where everyone could kind of communicate with each other.
[Tim Benjamin] And this presumably was out the back of your City experience?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Yeah – exactly.
Using some of the experience I’d had working for a large firm and saying ‘OK – maybe we should introduce some of that’.
So I introduced some good practice – employees’ handbook – and all that kind of stuff.
[Tim Benjamin] And did those changes have a tangible impact on the business?
[Gus Zogolovitch] I’d like to think massively so.
But I’m not sure in retrospect how much change they really had.
But I was sort of getting to know everything and learning it bit by bit.
I think the numbers are good.
And there are some things that I think I did then that we do – or that my Dad – still does now.
I suppose kind of learning the ropes at that stage – looking at buildings. Looking at sites with him. Just beginning to get the sense of how development works.
[Tim Benjamin] And what was it about development at that point that was exciting you?
[Gus Zogolovitch] I think it’s the tangibility.
It was that massive change from going ‘Here’s this kind of note I’ve written that’s taken time’ and then – that’s it – a small number of people might see it.
And then it goes in the bin.
To like: here’s a building that people walk past every day.
That people live in every day.
And they’re touching, they’re feeling – they’re kicking the walls.
It’s that sort of touch and tangibility thing.
And that was great.
When I joined the business, he was at the tail end of a really great building in Waterloo called Centaur Street.
And it had been winning loads of awards.
[Tim Benjamin] This was a multi-family residential development.
[Gus Zogolovitch] Yeah – so four apartments.
And so I was helping him with the sales.
Then we took on letting.
And then I was analysing things like how can we do things better etc etc.
[Tim Benjamin] Can you give me an example of that?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Well, just looking at costs and thinking about how much do things cost.
Because, I’d brought some contracting experience into it.
I knew what was going on on the ground on a very basic level.
And then also helping him out, for example, with when the tenants needed something, I’d go and fix it.
Or I’d bring my contracting team, my Brazilians – brought them out of retirement – and did the odd bit of contracting in that building.
[Tim Benjamin] Just on the issue of costs for a moment, you were saying that you’d built up your skill set – firstly with the contracting business that you’d created – and then now working for your father.
But what is the trick to becoming – to go from zero to having a really good understanding of controlling costs?
[Gus Zogolovitch] I don’t think there is a trick, unfortunately.
There’s no shortcut.
I don’t think there’s a shortcut in anything.
I think that – basically – you learn by mistake.
And that’s why it takes so much time.
You might be really lucky and get everything right first time round.
And all your costs or whatever – they all come in and it all works well.
But you probably haven’t learnt.
Because, actually, you will think ‘oh – that was easy. I’ll do it again’.
And then, the next time, it will all go completely wrong.
You’ve got two ways to do this thing: you learn the hard way and make all your own mistakes.
Or you employ people that have kind of done it for so long that they’ve learnt the hard way.
So, in terms of costs, that was just really understanding:
How much does labour cost?
How much do materials cost?
Roughly how long is this going to take?
How much material am I going to use?
Put the two together – add a margin.
I mean it’s not really much more complicated than that.
And it still isn’t.
That’s what building is.
It can be more sophisticated now because you can introduce more certainty from factories, etc etc.
And then you’ve got purchase discounts if you’re buying in bulk .
But broadly speaking, you have:
How much are the things cost that I need to put together?
How many days is it going to take?
How much am I paying the people who need to put it together – because of course – demolishing something you don’t need to pay someone hugely skilled.
But building a beautifully handcrafted wardrobe, you clearly use a different skill-set for the people doing it.
Using a hammer is different to using a screwdriver.
[Tim Benjamin] So on that property – that first property that you worked alongside your dad – the Centaur property. As you say, you were involved with costing.
The other thing you mentioned was sales.
How did you go about selling properties?
I mean, this was your first time I take it?
[Gus Zogolovitch] We had an agent – I was just observing what they were doing.
I was helping them with the letting.
And it sowed this seed.
Actually, sales agents – they aren’t really acting in your best interests.
They’re acting in their own best interests.
They don’t really do a fantastic job of selling in my mind.
Or they didn’t at that stage.
[Tim Benjamin] Can you give me an example of that?
[Gus Zogolovitch] It’s actually a very common example, because what you have is you have something called the ‘agency problem’.
It’s a very standard economics issue.
[Tim Benjamin] Can you just explain it?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you have a house that’s worth a million pounds.
And you want to sell it.
So, you bring an agent around.
And an agent says ‘Tim – I’m going to sell that house for you for a million pounds. And I’m going to charge you 2%’ for the sake of argument.
Twenty thousand pounds.
And you say ‘OK – that seems fair enough’.
What the agent will do is – the agent is paying their staff time.
So basically, the longer it takes to sell, the less profit they make.
So, the pattern tends to be the following:
The first month, they put people on it.
And if it gets sold in that first month for a million pounds, great.
They’ve made a good margin.
If it doesn’t get sold after a month for a million pounds, they’ve got two options:
Reduce the cost, because they say ‘OK – actually I’ve over-valued this – I was trying it on’.
The incentive for the agent is to say it’s a million pounds even if they think it’s worth £950K because it’s more likely you as a vendor will say ‘well – I want the most amount of money. And they tell me they can get it’.
But of course, once you’re hooked in with them, you’re hooked in with them and it’s harder to change.
So, they’ve tried their luck on a million pounds and it hasn’t worked.
So then what do they do?
They go ‘OK – I’ve got two choices. The first one is that I’m going to go back to Tim and say ‘Tim – sorry – there’s no luck at a million. I think we should drop the price.’.
And you’ll say ‘OK – fine.’.
And they’ll say ‘£900K’.
And you’ll think ‘£900K? That’s £100K I’m losing.’.
How much is the agent losing?
Their 2% fee goes from £20K to £18K.
So they’ve lost £2K – and you’ve lost £100K.
So what’s their incentive?
Their incentive is for you to drop your price as quickly as possible.
And if you refuse to do that, they basically let it sit on their books and they don’t show anybody around.
The other incentive for the agent, is to not send the best people but to send the cheapest people – because that’s time wasted and they think that all they need to do is show someone around…
[Tim Benjamin] Just explain that – why would they do that?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Because most agents think it’s a numbers game.
If I get 25 people around to Tim’s property, one of them will show interest in it and make an offer.
I don’t really need a skilled agent.
How many times have you been around a property where someone has said: ‘Here’s the kitchen. Here’s the bathroom.’.
Well, I think you can probably work that out for yourself.
So, when you’ve got something that is a very standard property, you don’t need anyone skilled or specialised in selling it.
As an analogy, if you’re in a supermarket and someone says ‘Where’s the pasta?’, anyone can show you where the pasta is.
However, if you go into a very exclusive delicatessen and you say ‘What’s the best cheese to go with this wine?’. Or ‘What meat’s going to work….?.’
You need someone who really knows their stuff.
And that’s someone very skilled.
So what an agency will generally do is have very cheap staff – they’re paid very very little on the whole – and they’re paid all through commission.
And they’re not really going to be able to explain any product which is different to the average.
That’s a problem I identified quite early on.
[Tim Benjamin] So there you were, working on this property…
[Gus Zogolovitch] Even though this building had won awards as long as your arm – and become very iconic ever since – the agents weren’t able to sell them all.
I mean, they kept it and rented one out.
And, eventually, they did sell – and that’s fine.
But I think what’s interesting is that it demonstrated to me that, actually, you’ve got to be very aware of this agency problem.
And it happens in lots of areas of life.
You know, when you have a mis-alignment of incentives.
So the agent and the vendor are both aligned to sell.
But in a weird kind of way, the difference for the vendor in terms of adjusting the price is huge – but not really very much in the same way for the agent.
[Tim Benjamin] So did you eventually step in to a sales role for the property?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Correct.
Not with that property.
I mean, I helped a little bit with the lettings – I was only in my early 30s – I wasn’t really doing it – just observing.
And taking it in.
And thinking ‘we really ought to be doing this ourselves’.
[Tim Benjamin] So what happened next?
[Gus Zogolovitch] So what happened then is that that was sold.
And I was doing other stuff in the business.
And then we said ‘OK – maybe we should do some more new-build development’.
At that stage, my dad and I sat down and said, ‘OK – maybe we’ll set up a business together’.
[Tim Benjamin] When we talk about ‘that stage’, which year are we talking about?
[Gus Zogolovitch] We’re talking – I suppose – 2005/2006. Something like that.
[Tim Benjamin] So pre the recession?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Yes – pre the recession. Exactly.
He was working on some really big projects – but thought ‘OK – it would be quite good to continue what we we’ve done at Centaur Street’.
And he’d kind of created a brand name for that which had sat dormant for a year or so.
So we said ‘OK – let’s resurrect that. And I’ll kind of come in as an equity partner in that. And we’ll try and build this business up’.
[Tim Benjamin] And this is Solid Space?
[Gus Zogolovitch] This is Solid Space. Exactly.
I sort of ran that business.
Borrowed some money off his other company.
And we used that money to buy a couple of sites.
Now, unfortunately, it wasn’t a huge amount of money.
So I had to make-do with some really pretty poor sites if I’m completely honest with you.
And incredibly complicated.
So, one of the sites, we had to buy some land to make it at all viable.
And on the other site, it had massive restrictive covenants from Network Rail.
We bought them at auction because you get some quite good value at auction.
We did some great designs.
Got lots of people excited and interested.
Got some great architects doing it.
And then the planners basically said ‘no way’.
It took us four years to get planning permission to build three houses.
[Tim Benjamin] Which of the sites was this?
[Gus Zogolovitch] That was called Essex Mews.
[Tim Benjamin] And that was the one located next to a railway line?
[Gus Zogolovitch] No – that was called Stapleton Hall Road.
Essex Mews is near Crystal Palace.
In the end, we built three really lovely houses that sold very very well.
But, funnily enough, not with the local agent but with a specialist agent.
[Tim Benjamin] But with four years to get through the planning process…
[Gus Zogolovitch] Four years to get through the planning process.
And, of course, more time to build it.
[Tim Benjamin] And this is your first time doing a proper property development. And your first experience is to come up against a wall of four years.
Were there times during those four years when you thought maybe this isn’t the industry for me?
[Gus Zogolovitch] I was, like, this is nuts. This is absolutely nuts.
But you keep going.
I’m very very persistent.
And I don’t like to give up.
So I stuck with it.
And, eventually, we got there.
And Stapleton Hall Road – again – we had a massive battle.
And – again – I think I phoned Network Rail every single week for about three years until they agreed to sell us this little bit of site which, effectively, was a ransom strip at the back of the site.
And that allowed us to build and develop that site.
Again – only for two houses.
These are not huge schemes.
The land initially was cheap so it was never going to be huge.
[Tim Benjamin] In retrospect, do you think they were worthwhile projects from your perspective given the amount of effort you had to put in to make them happen?
[Gus Zogolovitch] You learn.
It was too much time.
In retrospect, it would have been much better to somehow tried to get some more money to buy other sites at the same time.
Because I now know that delays are inevitable.
Absolutely inevitable in building.
You either get a delay in buying.
A delay in building.
A delay in planning.
A delay in selling.
Occasionally, it all goes right.
But more often that not in my experience – and maybe my experience is very limited – but my experience is there’s always delays somewhere along the line.
These are complicated: you’re taking a bit of land and you’ve got to make it work.
And the numbers have got to work.
And you’ve got to get the builders onside.
And the planners onside.
There are so many people in these things.
So many parts to play.
It’s like a jigsaw – it’s all kind of intermingling.
[Tim Benjamin] And – as you say – these were both very small developments. Would you still do developments that small given all those inevitable delays?
[Gus Zogolovitch] You increasingly become less attracted to those small developments.
But, unfortunately, the price of land in London is very high.
So, unless you have a lot of money, it’s very hard to find the bigger ones.
So, I didn’t really have much choice.
[Tim Benjamin] So, you did those developments. They finally got up. You sold them. They were a success in many ways, obviously. What happened next?
[Gus Zogolovitch] By that time, I had actually found a piece of land for myself.
And I bought that for myself.
So, while these were going on, I was also trying to get planning on my own plot.
And I went through that whole self-build experience.
Having finished that self-build experience, I was very excited by it.
And I got into helping other people do their own self-build.
And then I went to London Business School to do an MBA – an executive MBA.
So, I started to kind of add other skills that I didn’t have – building on my financial expertise.
Building on my property expertise.
But I started to add things like marketing.
And some of the wider things.
And improve my network.
[Tim Benjamin] And was that worthwhile? I mean, London Business School – one of the world’s top business schools. Time consuming. Expensive.
[Gus Zogolovitch] Absolutely exhausting – but very much worthwhile.
And while I was at London Business School, it kind of gave me the confidence and impetus to start up these other businesses.
And say: ‘right – it’s time for me to move on from my dad’s business’ – from Solid Space.
Which, although we were equity partners, always really felt like his business because it was his money.
And so I felt ‘actually – I’m going to try and explore some other stuff’.
So, at that stage, we’d got some investors on board.
And so I said ‘look – I’m going to take over this project and run that’.
And that was the kick-start to my other businesses.
[Tim Benjamin] Well – talking about investors – do you think having done the MBA that that gave you more credibility to bring external investors on board?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Yeah – I suppose so.
I think that always helps.
You can understand it from their perspective.
You can understand the difference between an IRR and ROE.
I kind of understood it already from my City days.
But, certainly, an MBA didn’t hurt.
And I think when you’re talking to anyone it gives you the ability to be confident in the language.
And knowing what people are thinking.
And actually, funnily enough, there were lots of other very smart people doing the MBA, so it introduces you to a great network of people that you can ask about and – you know – ask for advice.
So that was all very useful.
[Tim Benjamin] So, you came out of your MBA. You take over this business – and run it as your own.
[Gus Zogolovitch] No – I started a new business from scratch.
[Tim Benjamin] Oh – you started a new business from scratch. Tell us about that – and where things went from there.
[Gus Zogolovitch] I kind of worked under the Solid Space banner, but it was 100% my equity at this stage.
That was effectively running a project out in Old Street where we’d sourced some land, we’d got the planning, building the building.
And, funnily enough, that was the first project where I floated this idea – I said ‘look – do you want us to try and sell these? Because I think we understand the product. And I think we can do a good job.’
[Tim Benjamin] Now – I’m assuming here – and I may be wrong – that this was again a multi-family residential development?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Yeah – exactly.
It was for three houses and five apartments.
All very large apartments based, funnily enough, around this Solid Space feel – but not one that my dad was involved in.
[Tim Benjamin] How did you get involved with the sales process?
[Gus Zogolovitch] We were the sales arm.
It was as simple as that.
[Tim Benjamin] Did you need to get a license or anything like that?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Yeah – it’s a relatively simple process in the UK.
It’s not that complicated.
We just thought ‘look – we’ll just do this in a slightly different way where here’s a building – we’ll try and show it to you as a potential buyer and explain what it is and hopefully find some people that buy into it.’
And we did.
We sold – I think – four of them off-plan.
And we sold another one once it had been finished.
And then they bought some other agents in after it had been finished because they bought some other local agents.
But it kind of gave me the feeling that – actually – we can do this as well as any other agent – if not better.
[Tim Benjamin] So by being involved with that sales process, did you sell product faster? Or did you sell at a higher average price? Or both?
[Gus Zogolovitch] I think we sold at a higher average price, because we got some valuations from the local market and we were able to demonstrate – or communicate – the quality in a way that I think the other agents weren’t able to do.
Or had the chance to do later on, but still weren’t able to really convert.
[Tim Benjamin] So that was the first of your own developments. You then – as you say – as a part of that moved into the selling space.
Now you’re also involved with funding.
Peer-to-peer lending in particular.
Do you want to explain to me what that’s about?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Yeah – again it happened while I was at London Business School where crowd funding was kind of getting going.
And I thought – you know – why can’t you sort of raise money from people to do developments.
It seemed like an obvious thing to do, right?
[Tim Benjamin] And can you?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Yeah.
I mean – that’s the ideal.
We’re just sort of starting.
It took a long time – again.
You don’t need planning permission, but you need Financial Conduct Authority regulatory approval.
So, you need authorisation.
It took a long time to get authorisation.
We got that kind of late last year.
And now we’re tentatively trying to find the first few deals.
But, of course, I’m thinking I could be putting our own deals up there.
But one of the things I want to do is try and sort of help socially responsible developers with doing theirs.
So I’m trying to kind of be a bit different to everybody else.
[Tim Benjamin] So, where do you see – I mean – you’ve got all these businesses now. You’ve got the development business. You’ve got the selling business. You’ve got this nascent peer-to-peer business. Ten years out from now, where do you see things going?
[Gus Zogolovitch] Development – I suppose – is a very very lumpy business.
And as I said before, it can get very delayed.
It requires a huge amount of capital.
And it can get very delayed.
So, you can put all your money in.
And you have to wait a long time before you see it back.
But then – hopefully – a return.
So, I knew that if I wanted to run a sort of sustainable business, I’ve seen that that’s been problematic for my dad and his business.
The way he solved it was by having regular commercial income from offices that he owned.
So, while I don’t have the capital to buy offices, I thought what I can do is offer services.
So, that’s kind of partly why, you know, I set up the other businesses.
To hopefully provide some ongoing income.
And then for the development business to be producing the big lumps of income – but only every few years.
Now, in ten years’ time, I’m obviously hoping that there will be several projects happening all the time so there is a more regular flow of cash.
But that kind of relies on me being able to recycle my cash more quickly.
And that’s partly why I’m very interested in the model that we’ve come up with.
[Tim Benjamin] Is there a possibility that a few years from now – given all the challenges with actually developing sites – and given potentially the additional ease of the financial side of the business – that you’re actually going to kind of wind up back where you started as a part of the financial services industry?
[Gus Zogolovitch] No.
Ultimately, the financial services bit is there – in my mind – as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
As I said at the beginning, my passion and belief is about creating better homes.
If I can be part of the eco-system that’s doing that – in whatever way I can – either by building them, by finding customers for those kinds of homes or finding finance for those kind of homes, that’s great – that’s what I’m interested in.
[Tim Benjamin] Well, as a final question, as you say – you’re focus is on providing people with better quality homes. What is your thinking around the future of residential in London?
[Gus Zogolovitch] I think there’s short, medium and long term.
Short term, I think we’re in an interesting time right now.
I think the market has come down.
But I think that there are some vendors or some owners who haven’t quite accepted that in their mind.
And so, the waters are going to be a bit choppy in that regard until everyone kind of accepts that the good times have gone.
So that’s probably short term.
There’s certainly a lot of new-build stock – unsold new-build stock – out there.
And I think those people are going to have to take a bit of a haircut.
And that could be painful.
Interestingly enough, I’ve been really busy on sort of appraising sites and things.
And that doesn’t surprise me because if you think about it, if people are finding it hard to sell, they’re not exactly in the right mood to go and buy.
Having said that, we put a bid in on a site yesterday.
And I spoke to the agent today: there were thirty other bids.
So, this is still popular.
I think Mark Twain said ‘they don’t grow land anymore’.
That’s the problem.
In London, if you look at London, you’ve got fewer and fewer opportunities until they change a radical kind of planning law and suddenly you can go up a few stories.
But that’s few and far between.
[Tim Benjamin] And what do you think the future in this city is of the owner/occupier model?
[Gus Zogolovitch] There’s a real challenge.
And I’ve got no idea what the future brings.
It could bring one of a myriad of different possibilities.
But I suppose two strong possibilities is either the city becomes a bit like Monaco where everything is super expensive – and there’s no infrastructure for the people that can’t afford very expensive homes.
Either to rent or buy.
Which would be a massive shame because I think the beauty of London is the diversity.
And the way pockets of poshness.
And pockets also of grimy bits.
And they’re often one street away from each other.
And I think that’s what one achieves.
I think it’s more likely that London will carry on being this sort of eclectic mix of people and places and incomes.
But we do have to be careful.
It takes vision and leadership.
You know – you do wonder if we can, at the rate we’re going – if we carry on at the rate we’re going – what will happen.
I think if that does happen – i.e. because we’re not building enough homes because one hundred thousand people come to London every year and we build twenty thousand homes – well it doesn’t take a genius to work out that that kind of supply and demand thing…
[Tim Benjamin] …can’t go on forever.
[Gus Zogolovitch] And you walk around and you listen to people.
And whereas before they were kind of moving to Zone 2, now they’re finding places in Zone 5, Zone 6.
This is not making their lives easier.
They’re having to commute for longer which makes people unhappier.
London’s got a huge amount going for it which is partly why that one hundred thousand net migration comes in.
But what’s interesting, if you weren’t aware, is that it was only about two years ago that London surpassed its population from 1938 or 1939.
So, basically, during and after the war, London had a massive dip.
And then has only recently just started increasing past that number where it was.
[Tim Benjamin] Yeah – because I think the population from the end of the war fell right down to about 1980 – and then started to grow again.
And, as you say, it’s now reached its all-time high.
But with very limited supply of new housing.
[Gus Zogolovitch] Exactly.
[Tim Benjamin] Gus, it’s been a fantastic conversation.
For people who want to follow up and learn more about what it is you actually do, this is your opportunity for a free commercial kick.
If people want to find you online, on social media, etc where should they be looking?
[Gus Zogolovitch] OK – so if people are looking for interesting design-led homes, then head over to rarespace.co.
If people are interested in getting involved with building their own homes or that kind of thing, head to unboxedhomes.com.
And if they’re interested in lending to stuff, it’s crowdestates.com.
[Tim Benjamin] Fantastic.
Gus Zogolovitch – thank you very much.
[Gus Zogolovitch] You’re welcome – thank you.