Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Michael Dent and I’m the founder of PropertyData, a subscription website for property investors and developers in the UK that helps them make better-informed decisions when buying a residential property.
PropertyData helps investors research local property markets, source opportunities, and do due diligence on potential purchases.
I started the business in April 2017, and today it’s making $128,000 per month in recurring revenue.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In 2017 I was running a profitable ten-person web development agency, but I was tired of that business model and looking for a way to transition to building my own SaaS product.
One day I was hanging out with a friend of mine and he was showing me how he was researching local property markets because he wanted to buy an investment property. To assess prices in each area, he was making a spreadsheet and manually rekeying property addresses, prices, square footage, and so on, to calculate things like the average price, average £/sqft, and typical rental yield.
To a software developer mindset, this process looked silly. It was laborious, slow, and worst of all error-prone. What if he transposed two digits while keying in the data, and that led to a £100,000 mistake?
I knew there must be a way to automate at least some of this analysis, and thus the idea for PropertyData was born.
It’s simple: quit your job and do it! Do it while you’re young if possible before you’re married and have kids and a mortgage.
I discovered that other data & analytics products existed for the UK property market, but that they were all designed for big companies and cost £500/month or more, far out of reach of the UK’s typical ‘one man band’ property investor.
So I decided to launch a property market data & analytics tool that would cost less than £50/month, democratizing the kind of data that the big guys were using so that any property investor or developer in the UK could benefit from it.
Take us through the process of designing your first product.
I knew from running my web agency, where we built full-stack websites for customers, that the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) approach was the way to go.
I’d spent the last 6 years telling countless customers who arrived with 60+ page technical specs to go away and come back with the smallest ‘core’ version of their idea for us to build first.
So I followed my own advice and built an MVP myself in just 3 weeks, all the while continuing to manage my agency.
The MVP was simple – it enabled users to define a custom area, and then connect to the API of Zoopla, a major UK property portal, and ran an analysis of the local property market in that area. The clever bit was a piece of code that used OCR technology to read the internal area of a property from the floorplan and then calculated the £/sqft.
It didn’t cost me a penny (other than my time) to finish the MVP, and I soon had it up and running on a $5/month cloud instance. The joys of starting a business in the era of cheap cloud computing!
Describe the process of launching the business.
I cobbled together a press release and sent it to a few industry news sites. One or two took the bait. A guy called Nick who runs London’s biggest property trade show saw one of the articles and called me and asked me if I wanted to take a last-minute stand at a good rate, with just a week to prepare.
In some ways, it seemed like an old-fashioned way to promote a software product, but I knew it would get me in front of potential customers who would ask hard questions, and it would be a great way to test product-market fit.
Pricing was something I wasn’t sure about, but I knew I did want the price to be an obstacle to early traction, so I set the first pricing very low with three packages at £6, £12, and £24 per month. I thought it would be easy to raise prices later for new users, which in due course I did.
Iterate constantly - deploy new features every week if not every day, guided by both user suggestions and your own vision
So I conscripted one of my agency team members to support me running the stand, and off we went. Most stands had expensive and flashy fit-out, but ours was just in black ‘shell’ condition with one table with an iMac on for demos.
I’ve wondered whether people were actually drawn to the simplicity of our stand, perhaps thinking that suck stark minimalism in the sea of bling must mean there might be substance to our product.
We saw hundreds of people over two days, and the early reaction was very positive. We signed up a bunch of people to our mailing list and got our first subscriber in the following days.
More helpful were the questions people asked. “This is cool, but can it do X?”. Which it invariably couldn’t. So I came away armed with the next 6 months worth of feature development.
I felt I must be on to something, so I borrowed £50,000 from my sister so that I could close down my agency and focus full-time on PropertyData. I basically lived on that money for a year, investing all the revenue into growing the business. But I never needed another penny of investment and after a couple of years, I was comfortably able to repay the loan.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I’ve followed the same basic recipe for four and a half years: Iterate constantly (deploying new features every week if not every day), guided by both user suggestions and my own ‘vision’ for what the site should be.
PropertyData has grown largely by word of mouth and referral, but of course, paid media has played a part too. Initially, I ran the Google Ads campaigns myself, but I quickly realized this wasn’t something I was good at.
I’d met a guy at a party who ran a PPC agency, so I appointed them to run Google Ads (and then Facebook/Instagram, Microsoft and LinkedIn) and never looked back. They grew the number of conversions from the campaigns consistently month-on-month for a couple of years. In the early years I structured the fee according to the number of signups they generated, which helped keep incentives aligned.
We also launched a simple but generous affiliate program, which has been a steady performer delivering 5-10% of new signups and making great recurring revenue for 20-25 affiliates.
The affiliates promote PropertyData however they can, most often through YouTube videos, in-person events, and their own networks. They generally create their own promotional material which I approve, and they receive a generous 25% lifetime commission on all revenue from users they refer.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
PropertyData has grown every month since launch, even through the Covid pandemic. Today it makes $128,000 per month in revenue and is comfortably profitable. It’s a zero marginal cost business, so serving an additional customer costs nothing.
The main costs are paid marketing campaigns and data purchasing. Overall margins are very healthy and growing as the scale of the business increases.
I’m not one for elaborate long-term plans, but in short, I aim to continue to improve the product, grow the business, and perhaps one day sell it.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The main thing I gained is an appreciation for the organic, self-funded approach to starting a business.
I’ve been involved in many businesses, lots of which needed considerable external funding. what3words, which I co-founded in 2013, has taken on more than £80m of outside investment to date.
For businesses like what3words, that’s a necessity, but with PropertyData I wanted to start something that could grow organically just by reinvesting its own revenue. With the low cost of starting a SaaS business, it’s surely the easiest type of business to do this with.
This approach has allowed me to keep 97% ownership of the business (two key people from the agency days who helped get it started to have 3% between them). Having no external investors means you are truly your own boss.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Google, Facebook/Instagram, Microsoft, and LinkedIn for paid marketing.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
My favorite business book was always How to Get Rich by the eccentric British multi-millionaire Felix Dennis. It’s a bit dated in places now, but it’s a no-nonsense approach to business success and a very entertaining read.
Everything is Negotiable by Gavin Kennedy also influenced my thinking a lot.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
It’s simply: quit your job and do it! Do it while you’re young if possible before you’re married and have kids and a mortgage. Bootstrap, keep your costs low and keep as much ownership as possible for as long as possible. Start a software business if you possibly can.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I have kept the business very lean in terms of employees, but I am currently considering hiring a Growth Hacker / Marketing / CRO type role, as well as a Data Analyst. Likely on a fully remote, possibly part-time basis.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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