Every decision that you make, whether it be business or whatever it is, not all decisions have a financial cost. Some have a cost to your health, your time, your relationships, or your family. Welcome to the Bricks and Bytes podcast. I’m Owen Drury, and together with my co-host, Martin P. Kars, we’ll be interviewing people involved in transforming the construction and property industries through the latest and most innovative technologies.
Today’s guest is Paul Conway of UNO. UNO’s goal is to navigate its users through the complexities of the property market by providing free access to market intelligence. Using technology and intelligent data, UNO tracks and maps market changes to allow its users to identify opportunities to optimize their property portfolio.
Paul, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. How did you end up where you are now?
Paul: Yeah, so I was born in Scotland, funny enough. A beautiful town called Falkirk, which is exactly in between Edinburgh and Glasgow. So those are the places you’d like to be, and we were in the middle. Not the best of areas, but a lot of good friends and my family are still around there, in Stirling, Larbert, Falkirk, Grangemouth, up to Aberdeen, and we have family in London, Sheffield, and even France. So yeah, there’s people I know in my family all over the place. But yeah, I went to school, and then worked in the oil industry.
I did something called fiscal metering and spent three years on oil rigs. But then, like most people, I always did property on the side. I mean, even people in property do some property on the side. It’s like everything’s on the side. Yeah, you mentioned, like, “Oh yeah, I’ve got a QS business, but I’m also doing something on the side.” It usually starts as the most important journey, right? You start on the side because you figure out that it’s something you want to pursue from the inside out rather than having it imposed on you.
I think it’s because you’re following something that’s like, “I’m not happy with what I’m doing,” or “It’s not fulfilling me,” or “I’m interested in something else.” So, much like you, when I started a consultancy firm, this is jumping ahead in the story a bit, I then went into the tech business because consultancy firms are fine, but they don’t blow your hair back. And I don’t know, maybe in a few years, I won’t have a lot of hair left, but it’ll be a good time.
So yeah, I worked on oil rigs, did property on the side, built a portfolio in Scotland, and got involved with a friend of mine. We bought properties in Falkirk, Edinburgh, and then he moved to London. He was in the industry as well, working for BP. He moved to London and started a company called Rips, Keep It Clean. He was dating an estate agent in Chelsea, and we were shown the way to good deals, shall we say. Everybody was well looked after, and everybody had a good time, especially him.
Yes, he had a really great time. I mean, I was happy because I was making cash, having a good time, and hanging out in Chelsea, but he had a much better time. So anyway, we bought a flat just off Lower Sloane Street, near Sloane Square. We turned the studio into a one-bedroom apartment and sold it to the freeholder.
So, UNO is a landlord-developer platform that’s really dynamic. It’s a dynamic reporting tool that helps monitor portfolios and various other things, and for businesses, it’s also a lead generation tool. If I were to describe UNO to someone who has no clue about properties and isn’t technical, I would say it solves several issues.
Firstly, from the data side of things, the easiest way to explain it is that every country in the UK has different rules, laws, and legislation, and even within those countries, there are local legislations. You could have one street with legislation and one street without it. So, you can imagine that if you’re investing in properties all over a country or multiple countries across the UK, every time you look at a different property, the legislation is different. We solve that by giving you the answer just by inputting an address and the number of tenancy occupants or something like that. That’s what we do on the data side of things.
The platform itself builds something out, which I guess is the only dynamic lettings report in the industry. It’s the only lettings report or property PRS report that actually includes licensing and planning permission. PRS stands for the private rent sector. And I guess the other thing about UNO is that it’s the only platform that compares short-let, long-let, AST (Assured Shorthold Tenancy), corporate-let, and LHA (Local Housing Allowance) rates.
So essentially, what UNO does when it builds a report is help you determine the best way to manage and run a property and identify any potential problems that may arise. For example, if you’re looking at a property in a certain location, the platform calculates how much you would make if you let out individual tenancies or short-let on Airbnb. It estimates the daily rent for short-lets and the expected occupancy rate, like 54%. We work all those things out for you.
However, that’s not the whole story. If you change one of those variables, like the location, the number of tenants, or switch between short-let and long-let, any of these changes will affect your mortgage product, insurance product, planning, licensing, certification, and possibly the property manager you use. That’s the dynamic nature of UNO, as advice is dynamic. No one has built a platform based on an advice structure like this before.
The main USP of UNO is that it brings all these questions and answers into one place. As for our main customer, currently, we’re fully B2B. We do have a B2C strategy where landlords, investors, and developers can come onto the platform and get free use of the platform, with some really exciting features offered for free. We can discuss more about that later on. It is a freemium model, that’s correct, with upgrades available. So that’s our third or fourth USP.
You can’t actually pay to upgrade if you’re a landlord or investor. We get paid through sponsors. So when you pick a sponsor, we get paid. Landlords, developers, and investors can go onto the platform, monitor their entire portfolio, and get monitoring for licensing and planning permission. They also have access to the ICE, the advice, the training system, and the full functionality, all for absolutely free. We make money through sponsorships and advertising.
We’re launching this model around April or May, and it’s essentially changing from a strictly B2B model to one that also includes customer access. One of the things we’re trying to combat with this is figuring out what a property tech company can do to add value or improve the private rented sector in some way.
We’re offering free licensing checks for the entire market across the whole of the UK because there are only three companies that do it, and it’s a bit ridiculous that it’s not available for free. When we were researching this issue, we found out that last year, the NHS spent £104 billion due to poor living conditions in the private rented sector. Licensing was created to address these issues, but it also generates a lot of negative press because it’s a huge burden on landlords with costs, confusion, and complexity.
So, we wanted to try and take that burden away. That’s what we can do. And then we also consider what local agents and local businesses can do for landlords during a time of massive taxation increases, increased regulation, leveling up, and other changes coming into place.
So, essentially, we got partners on board and asked them if they would like to sponsor local landlords and local investors, people who want to invest in their area. They were enthusiastic about the idea, recognizing that landlords and investors could use some support at this time. We decided to put that together and see what happens.
As for how we came up with the idea to tackle this issue, it wasn’t like we woke up one day and decided to solve complex compliance problems. It’s more about the path we took and how we ended up in this niche. The initial spark came from our experience transitioning from property development to the social living concept. The most boring and arduous part of the journey was trying to navigate licensing, planning, fire regulations, and financial products, among other things.
Landlords were complaining about the complexities of the process and how changes in property classification could affect their mortgage requirements. We realized there was a need for a platform that could provide this information and adapt to changes in property management strategy. This led us to develop a solution that addresses these challenges and offers dynamic advice tailored to the specific situation of each property.
They had to go one by one and examine licensing, planning, mortgages, insurance, and all those other factors. We learned all of this the hard way over time. Essentially, based on how you run a property in the private rental sector, all of these elements change. So, after years of facing problems, we decided to shift our focus from property development and social living concepts to starting a legislation law-based compliance company.
That’s when we went down a rabbit hole and partnered with property managers and agents like M&P, DNG, Hamptons, KFH, and others. London High Street agents admitted that when it came to licensing, planning, design, and fire regulations, they didn’t have a scalable solution. They knew what they were doing, but they didn’t know how to train all of their staff and handle various responsibilities.
To address this, we brought on accredited experts, such as environmental health officers accredited by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, who had experience working with local councils. This allowed us to create a comprehensive solution that would help property managers and agents navigate the complex world of compliance in the private rental sector.
So we thought, okay, well, that’s what the council used. So we put those experts in place, and that became our USP. Then, with HMO services, we wondered how to scale that as a regular services company. We embarked on a massive data collection exercise, partnering with a UK-wide data collection partner, and gave them specific instructions for the reports we wanted, including 360-degree videos and pictures.
This allowed us to offer a UK-wide service on licensing, planning, and design, and provide advice on fire regulations (though not fire risk assessments) from one central location. We could do this not only once but also in six months, a year, or 24 months. By collecting all that information, it was like being at the property ourselves.
We could sell clients a licensing product, then a planning product, a design product, and advice on fire regulations. If a fire risk assessment was required, we could go out and do that as well. As long as nothing changed in the property, we could continue to provide these services. If someone asked a question 18 months later, we could simply pull up the video tour and address it. That’s how we made the service scalable.
But then, we grew bored of that and decided to tackle the next problem: the numerous questions that people ask before they engage with a services company.
So, how can you make the process more efficient to stop all those phone calls and various other things? How do you build tech for that to happen? All the businesses that were using our services had many questions, difficulties, and needed help training their staff. So essentially, a bit of tech was required. We went down the rabbit hole of building tech that solved all those issues. We would then identify the problem or opportunity and bring everything together.
As for the journey of creating the tech and the issues we faced, I wasn’t a developer or anyone with a background in coding when I started this business. I had to familiarize myself with the technology and learn to manage people around me who were designing it. Two and a half years ago, I was a non-technical founder, someone who didn’t have a clue about tech or engineering. I do have an engineering background in the oil industry, which I guess helped, and I was a geek who understood the compliance we needed to solve inside out.
Regarding using machine learning techniques or anything along those lines for data, when I first started, I didn’t know much about the tech side. I remember when someone told me I needed a full-stack developer, and I was like, “What the hell is a full stacker?” I had to learn about these things and adapt as the business evolved.
So a full-stack developer is someone who can code both in the front-end and the back-end. I had to learn about these things and adapt as the business evolved. Initially, we used an external agency, which had its pros and cons. We outgrew them quickly and I decided it was time to build my own team. I brought in a CTO that I knew from school, who built a team for us. Although I don’t have coding or engineering skills, I understand it more every day and take on the product management side of things.
As for how we aggregate and solve the data problem, we monitor different websites for changes related to our interests. If any relevant keywords pop up, we check if it’s actually relevant or not. If there’s a question mark, it gets escalated to an accredited expert or me to review. If it’s something that can affect our clients, we’ll include it in the platform.
On a more advanced level, we do a lot of geospatial mapping and polygons. We draw out local legislative areas on a map of the UK and use longitude and latitude to determine an exact location of a property versus where layers of legislation sit on top of each other. Sometimes, a property could be outside local legislation but within other areas based on its location in relation to these polygon
So to provide accurate answers, we have to build a massive logic flow that considers various factors such as whether it’s a house or a flat, the number of stories, the number of tenants and households, and whether it’s a long or short let, among other things. We have to gather and monitor the data, but we don’t currently have any AI to read and understand the legislative part.
The cost of building such AI for our specific purpose would be prohibitive or too expensive. We could potentially use someone else’s AI, but the time required to train it and implement it might not give us a return on investment for this specific task.
As for what AI is, people may have different interpretations, but generally, it refers to the development of computer systems that can perform tasks that would typically require human intelligence. These tasks can include learning, reasoning, problem-solving, perception, and understanding natural language. In our context, AI could potentially be used to automate some parts of our data processing and analysis, but we currently don’t see it as a viable solution for our specific needs.
Like you mentioned, many people are collecting data in the hope that it can be used to create some sort of AI algorithm or platform to help with their business case. AI, in general, involves training machines to perform tasks that would typically require human intelligence, such as analyzing enormous amounts of data to determine the next steps or possible ways to solve a problem.
As for your business, you started about five years ago in 2018 as a consultancy model, and then two and a half years ago, you began the tech arm of the business. The plan for the next year involves adapting and evolving as necessary, as tech businesses often require longer-term planning compared to service-based businesses. In a tech business, you decide on a plan and then see the results of that plan a year later, whereas in a service business, you can quickly pivot to a new direction, like deciding to become a photographer and starting right away.
Moving forward, your business will likely continue to refine its offerings and adapt to the changing landscape, focusing on growth and expanding your reach in the market.
Tech businesses can indeed take a long time to develop and launch their products. Sometimes it can take years before a final product is launched, and even then, there may be failures along the way. In your case, you have had paying customers for about a year and a half, and you are starting to get more and more paid customers. After two years, you had something pretty sellable, and the new version of UNO is expected to be available soon, though it may take longer than initially planned.
In the tech world, even simple tasks like moving a button on the interface can take a long time and be surprisingly costly. While it might not actually take developers a long time to move the button, the process of discussing, planning, and implementing the change can be time-consuming and expensive. This is a common challenge faced by tech businesses, as even small adjustments can require significant resources and coordination.
In the tech world, tasks can often take a significant amount of time, with standard response times ranging from a couple of days to a month. Some tech businesses spend years on customer discovery before even launching a product, while others opt for no-code or low-code solutions to quickly test and iterate on their ideas.
UNO is currently composed of about 20 team members, including both full-time staff and some “kickstarters.” These kickstarters are government-funded young people who are given the opportunity to work and gain experience. By participating in this program, UNO has been able to bring in young talent and even offer some of them permanent jobs. The team is diverse and located in various places.
UNO has an office in Clapham Common, London, and team members located all over the world, including Japan, India, and various places in the UK. The business has received some investment and financial support through a bounce back loan, government grants, and the kickstart program. Additionally, the services side of the business has helped fund the tech side.
At the current stage of the business, the founder is not actively seeking more investment but would be open to potential investors who can bring more than just cash to the table. They are focused on launching their new product in two months and will reassess their needs after that.
Essentially, UNO is not bootstrapping in the traditional sense but is using revenue from the service side of the business to fund the tech side. This model allows the founder to retain more control of the business while still financing its growth. However, balancing control and external funding is always a consideration for businesses in this situation.
Control and speed are the two main factors to consider when weighing up whether to seek external funding or not. By developing a sellable tech product without giving away a lot of equity or control, a business can position itself favorably. If the company can generate revenue and maintain ownership, it will be grateful for the investment made in itself and the team.
As for the future of PropTech, it has often had a reputation for not being particularly forward-thinking or cutting-edge, mainly due to its customer base, such as agents and property companies, not being very tech-savvy in the past. However, expectations are changing, and the industry is becoming more technical.
It’s unclear whether property transactions could eventually be based on blockchain, as there are many obstacles to overcome. Although some companies are trying to make this happen, there are differing opinions on the feasibility of such a development. Regardless, the PropTech industry will likely continue to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of its customers and the broader market.
It’s unclear whether the property industry will adopt blockchain for ownership or transactions, as there are many challenges to overcome. Currently, people often don’t know their exact address due to inconsistencies, making property identification difficult. However, a solution called a Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN) is being used to assign a unique identifier to each property in the UK.
The industry aims to link all property-related documents and transactions, such as fire risk assessments, gas certificates, EPCs, sales, lettings, landlords, and tenants, to the UPRN. This system would simplify property management and make it more efficient.
In comparison, some countries like Scandinavia and China have advanced identification systems that some might consider intrusive. For instance, Scandinavia has a highly developed personal identification system, while China extensively uses facial recognition cameras. As the property industry continues to evolve, it remains to be seen how new technologies will be integrated and what level of personal identification will be deemed acceptable.
So, in a society where individuals are tracked and benchmarked using unique identifiers and facial recognition, there are concerns about the infringement of personal rights. The only way to find solutions to these issues is through government involvement, and having industry professionals contribute to the discussions and policy changes.
For instance, the Rent Reform Bill and the government’s leveling up campaign aim to address proposed changes in the industry. However, seeing how slow progress is in these conversations, it becomes evident that substantial change is still decades away.
When considering the challenges of implementing change in organizations and larger entities, it becomes even more complex on a national scale. In the case of the Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN), which already exists, the challenge lies in getting various systems to communicate with each other and centralize the information.
The UPRN is public information, and anyone can find their property’s UPRN using the Unipart form. But to effectively utilize this system and streamline the property industry, substantial work is still needed to integrate existing data and services.
And you get loads of free stuff as well, hashtag sales. But it brings the day. It’s a free version, can you have a break? Check it out. Yeah, so like how you would get to that level of change, decadently, because you can’t change something without the government and the government to do that level of change will take a long, long time. Do you think we should try? Yeah, we should try. Yeah. Always try. Yeah.
Very interesting. In summary to that question, the future of PropTech. What was the question again? I’ve got do that, they should use UPRN because it’s the only thing we’ve got our hands on just now. And that is what I see the future of property connectivity through unique identification that we can all agree on and then connectivity through single API through open APIs without that the whole industry is just going to continue to fall on its face. Yeah, working on silos and like not talking to each other. I should have just said that before. You want to cut out all that other rest of that nonsense. Yeah.
All right, let’s go off topic a little bit. Paul, you’ve done like a hell of a lot of stuff by the sound of things. How do you find the time? What’s the, you must have some interest in like, say systems or routines or something that you follow to do so much and fill your time? No, I just don’t really have a life, I guess. It’s just messy. I guess this is my life. Yeah.
I think that’s it. I think that, could I benefit more from practicing what the industry and the good things that you’re supposed to do
Just keep going, keep falling on your face, man. Yeah, I agree. Was there something like a thing that you learned the most from or something that you’d like to share in terms of the whole journey? And yeah, is there something that you can say, “Oh, thanks to this or thanks to this, I understood that blah, blah, blah, and that gave me this.” Ha ha. It’s very specific on the way I need to structure this. This is good though, because obviously I just go off on a tangent.
So I guess the most important thing, so I guess on the same vein as the last question, it’s like, do you, you know, I did have a mentor once. He wasn’t a paid mentor. In fact, I had to convince him to mentor me. His name was Phil Laney, and he was a fund guy, and then he ended up starting a company called Livly, which is a social living concept. We filled out a very interesting way of putting things and asked him to give us a little bit of business chat, right? And start mentoring us.
So he came to the office, and me and the guy I was in business with at the time had all of our little documents in a row, like a little marketing pack, some numbers, and we’re like
But there is always going to be a cost. And I guess one of my favorite sayings is there’s a cost to absolutely everything. Yeah. Yeah. Every decision that you make, whether it be business or whatever it is, not all decisions have a financial cost, some have a cost to your health, have a cost to your time, cost to your relationship or cost to your family. And for me, that’s always been something in that way up. It’s like, what do I want versus what is the cost? Inspirational. That’s a very good one. It’s opportunity cost. And it’s something you never really realize what the cost is until you’ve made the decision. That’s something I struggle to get my head around, and it’s like, what decisions do you make?
All right, Paul, where can we find out more about UNO and you? Well, hopefully that’s everything you know about me now. So that’s it then. But yeah, so I guess I’m on LinkedIn as everyone is. And yeah, UNO is www.goUNO.com. So G-O-Y-U-N-O.com. What does UNO stand for?
Oh yeah, so UNO, well, apart from being a great name that your competitor says, “did you know that we were better than you know?” Or “you know we’re better than you know?” I almost said a competitor’s name. And some other companies. Essentially that was obviously a really good draw towards it. But it’s actually come from a Japanese word called y
And essentially, actually, it comes down to in the property industry is, oh, yeah, I am competent. That’s like, well, you’re an accountant. But for some reason, now you’re competent to be a fire risk assessor and competent to be all these other things rather than just being, but when they trained to be an accountant, they had to do lots of other things and pass an exam and all the rest of the things. But in the property industry, it’s very much like everybody’s an expert, everybody’s competent. Actually, that went, no, we’re a services company, our consultancy business is going to stand for something different in the fact that we want everybody qualified, experienced, and accredited. And that with that then transpired into why we chose, you know, why we shortened it to, you know, because it sounds cooler and nobody’s going to remember how to spell, you know, not let anyone, you know. So there we go.
All right, Paul, thank you very much for your time.