Interview with Gregory Villain, French Entrepreneur, Founder of SmoovUp

By Shadi Biglarzadeh
Social Media Blogger

 

I met Gregory Villain few days ago at the French Entrepreneurs’ meeting in central London organised by Loic Dumas, Frog Valley’s founder.

 

 

Gregory started by a vigorous “Hi, what are you doing in life? ” l haven’t yet finished my phrase that he launched to me  “ you must share SmoovUp!!! “. We knew each other for only 3 minutes or so! This gives you a clear idea about the guy.

 

After almost 2 hours of one to one meeting (he is very talkative) Greg was obviously determined to spread the word on SmoovUp, the start up he founded in France in 2010 and which is starting on the UK market since April 2012.

This was a great occasion to make a game of questions and answers with this young French Entrepreneur.

 

But, what is SmoovUp in a few words?

 

SmoovUp is a brand new free website which is going to shake-up the thriving flat sharing market!

 

The concept is simple: people who are looking for flatmates sign-up and take a funny but well-thought out quiz – the SmoovTest – that lists all the points of agreement required to live peacefully when you share your place with others!

 

Gregory, tell us about you, where are you from?  What is your Education and past Professional Experiences?

 

Shadi! Thanks for the interview; it’s the first one in the UK!

 

So I’m Greg, 28 years old and French. I was born in Abu Dhabi and then lived in different countries for 12 years. Then, I studied Management and Marketing at Dauphine University in Paris and then did a Specialised Master in Entrepreneurship at EM Lyon Business School. During my studies, I had the chance to be part of various associations, one called Phinedo.com, which is basically Dauphine’s social network, and the second one called Japad that organises student parties and events for Dauphine students.

 

Since my A Levels, I did internships every year in different fields so I could know what I wanted to do and what I would never do for a living! So I went across hotel business and banking, and finally ended up creating my own company… in the Web!

 

You are a French young Entrepreneur, founder of SmoovUp, What is it?

 

SmoovUp.com is the true matching flatmates website! Thanks’ to SmoovUp, you can find THE perfect “soul” flatmates as we developed a matching algorithm dedicated to flatshare. The SmoovTest is really focused on your living habits, the way you see a flatshare, how often do you party, cooking, your hobbies, and a lot more questions… It’s not only about to know whether you smoke or not or want to live with pets, but really meant to match like-minded flatmates (called the Smoovers)! Give it a try and I’m pretty sure you’ll find a flatmate with whom you’ll become good friends instead of “just” sharing a home.

 

How do we become an Entrepreneur? I mean is it something you have in your blood or not necessarily?

 

Ah…Ah, that’s a big question!

 

Well, I think everyone can be an entrepreneur; the only condition is that you need to be ambitious. From the age of 15, I started thinking of creating businesses. At the very begining, it was about importing fashion brands in Dubai. Then, I thought about a water ski and wakeboard club. After that, I planned to open restaurants and hotels, then it was about salad bars, and finally, I did a website!

 

So the scope is very wide and there are plenty of good ideas to develop.

 

But you can also be an “intrapreneur”, meaning that you’ll be in charge of developing something new in a company. The main thing is that you need to have a clear vision of your business. It’s important to do a business plan so you know where you’re heading (knowing that what you projected will not often happen but that’s not a problem because you always adapt and improve!).

 

If I have an advice for future entrepreneurs, study and learn from successful entrepreneurs. If you can meet or get in contact with them someday, that’s even better! I was very inspired by Pierre Chappaz, one of the founders of Kelkoo. One day, I read one of his blog posts and decided to send him an email. I asked him some advice because I was hesitating between a job offer in finance OR launching SmoovUp. I was very surprised, but he replied to me the day after, in a short response:  “Dear Greg, when you are 25, you can take the risk of launching your company, you’ll learn way much than in finance. Good luck!”.

 

Two months later, I was writing the first line of my business plan and 2 years after this email, I confirm that I’ve learned so much! One day, I had the chance of meeting Richard Branson. I was really excited (I felt like a teenage girl in front of her idol!).

 

I went to see him directly, gave him my business card, told him about SmoovUp and that I was also a kitesurfer. Unfortunately, he never sent me an email… But I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to meet him again someday!

 

So if you have an idea and you think it’s worth trying it, GO for it, you’ll never regret it!

 

How many people are involved in your project? And what do they do so far?

 

I talked about my idea with my girlfriend and she was very enthusiastic about it. Then I talked about it to Leonore, one of my best friends. She was studying to become a lawyer and she told me that she really wanted to be part of the adventure so we set up SmoovUp together in 2010. Finally, Remy, one of my kitesurf friends, joined SmoovUp team in 2011 as CTO.

 

How did you find the “concept” of SmoovUp (filling questionnaire like a dating web-site)?

 

I had the idea of a matching website for flatmates thanks’ to one bad and one good experience in flatsharing… Concerning the bad one, it was during my master’s in Lyon. We were 3 flatmates and very soon, it happened that we didn’t have the same vision of flatsharing with one of them (who I didn’t know before moving in together…).

 

After 1 month, we were not talking to each other for the next 6 months. After that, in Sydney, during my internship, I had the chance to live with Charles who is a great guy, although very maniac ;-)! We didn’t know each other but had a lot in common as we both liked surf, kitesurf, electro music, party, and cook. And now, we are still very good friends! I was very lucky to find Charles as Sydney is the city where most people live with flatmates, but there were no proper websites to find the right match. So that experience convinced me of setting up SmoovUp, helping people find the right flatmates who share interests and living habits.

 

 

If SmoovUp takes the lead and encourages its members to meet up, for 100% free, then Landlords and real-estate agencies can also post their ads on the website for free: How do you make money if all is free?

 

To be honest, that was not the business model we imagined first. We were thinking of a pay to contact business model (like the dating websites). However, our competitors are either very well established (since 1999), or 100% free. We are a challenger for these websites so we need to adapt to them.  So having a 100% free website is the best way for us to expand and make our users happy. When you post an ad, you can subscribe to our premium program in order to highlight your ads (7£ for 7 days, 10£ for 15 days or 18£ for one month). That gets you more visibility and a better chance to find new flatmates faster.

We are now thinking of a lot of services that could be very useful for our Smoovers… But I can’t tell you much about that now, it’s still “top secret”!

 

  • How many subscribers do you have so far?

 

After one year of testing in France, we have 5000 Smoovers. We’ve improved SmoovUp developing 4 different versions based on user feedback, and opened it to landlords and estate agencies in September 2011. We expect to have much more English Smoovers as the UK is a more developed market for flatshare than France.

 

  • What is your conversion rate roughly?

 

Actually, it’s very good. We have more than 10% of our visitors who sign up!

 

  • Do you believe UK market could be different and raise your business fast?

 

I’m 100% sure about that! France is not a good market for flatshare as it is not a traditional culture as it is in Anglo-Saxon countries.

 

The problem is that there is a very strong demand, even more with the rent prices rising and the crisis, but few offers. The biggest problem is that French landlords often do not want to rent to flatmates… Why?? One of the reasons is that the rent contracts in France are very protective for renters (especially in winter) and sometimes, landlords get afraid and prefer not to rent their homes than renting it to flatmates… French exception.

 

In the UK, it is normal and common to live in a flatshare so the landlords do not have any problem with that. And what I can notice is that it is way better than in France as thanks to shared houses, people have more comfort and space than living on their own.

 

  • Who are the main competitors here?

 

On the free listings, there is Gumtree. On a pay to contact basis, there is Spareroom which holds the leading position in the UK. Easyroommate also has a strong market share, especially thanks to their international presence.

 

  • Because as you probably know, “Flat Sharing” have always been an Anglo-Saxon culture more than European, why starting in France and not straight here in the UK?

 

I first wanted to start SmoovUp in Australia when I was living there but I couldn’t get the visa. Indeed, to get a visa for setting up a company there, you must create 13 jobs the first year if you want to get your visa granted and renewed… That’s pretty hard for a start up!

So I came back to France in the end of 2009 and decided I would launch SmoovUp in the UK. However, when I went to see the banks, they told me they would not give me a loan if my business was not in France… So I decided to set it up in Paris and have the French market as a test. That enabled us to do mistakes and improve the website and the algorithm for a year and now we are ready to expand quickly…

 

  • You told me that flat sharing is not only for young people (18-35) but it can also be for seniors or even retired people, how could you explain that?

 

Well it’s funny because we really thought that our main target would be the 18-35. But very quickly, we started to see listings from flatmates who were more in their 50’s/60’s. We even have our senior Smoover who is 79 years old! I met him once, he is a great man, former photographer and film maker.

 

He lived alone in his big apartment and wanted to rent his second room to a student. He didn’t have any problem if the flatmate wanted to have dinners or invite friends and really wanted to share good moments (talking about photography for example). Also, retired people are very keen to live together as they can help each other and share good time.

 

We also have divorced people and women with children who want to live with flatmates in the same situation.

 

  • Could you give us some up to date figures on this very important fact that I believe lots of people are not aware about … (thinking that sharing is a young thing only)

 

50% of our Smoovers are students below 26. The other 50% are actives or retired people. Of course it is more a way of living for young people who are not yet married but definitely flatshare is adapted to everyone from 18 to 99 years old!

 

  • What are the main obstacles you meet with SmoovUp?

 

In France, definitely the lack of offers.

 

We launched SmoovUp in October 2010 and had very good press releases through out 2011. That gave us good visibility as a new and different actor on the flatshare market.

 

However, we still have 5 demands for 1 offer, which makes it hard for everyone to find a flatshare. That’s why we encourage our users to buddy up in order to form a new flatshare together. Also, we opened SmoovUp to landlords and estate agencies so we can become the first real estate website dedicated to flatshare (where you come for both finding the perfect flatmate AND the best apartment for your flatshare).

 

What we need now that we are expanding is getting more visibility.

 

  • SmoovUp is born in 2010, why launching it on the UK Market so late?

 

So we could shape the perfect product…

 

What are your expectations now?

 

Now, we hope to get good visibility thanks’ to a word of mouth effect. We are also expanding quickly.

 

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