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Necessity is the mother of invention. This phrase perfectly describes how the student housing platform, DigsConnect.com, came about. Here, founder and CEO Alexandria Procter shares everything you need to know when running your own business, from the importance of obsessing over every detail to why a lack of experience is actually a good thing. Alexandria’s providing inspiration by the bucketful and we’re here for it.
Describe your journey to running your own business. Why did you start your business?
I started a little project when I was a student at UCT to solve a problem I was dealing with. I had never planned to start a business, I knew absolutely nothing about commerce, and only had a tiny bit of experience with tech and coding. It all started during my undergrad, when I was elected onto the Student Representative Council. My portfolio included student housing, and so I was dealing firsthand with hundreds of students who hadn’t gotten into res and were looking to me for help in finding student accommodation.
Within the broader narrative and context of our country, this situation wasn’t surprising. The universities were built pre-1994, and while enrolment had grown beautifully, supporting infrastructure at public institutions had not been built at a rate to support this, so a chronic shortage of accommodation has become prevalent across the country.
Due to my SRC position, landlords would call me and say they had spare rooms, vacancies, beds to fill, and wanted to know how to advertise these rooms to the students. Ordinary South Africans had realised there was a need in the market, and their natural entrepreneurial spirit had kicked in, and they supplied the beds. The private sector had stepped up to supply the demand.
I was originally matching up landlords and students manually, using an Excel sheet, or Whatsapps, but I realised it would be so much easier if I just knocked together a little website where people could connect by themselves without having to go through me. Over a weekend I bought the domain, and coded a super simple website where you could 1) list accommodation, and 2) search for accommodation. Thus DigsConnect was born as an online marketplace to connect sellers (landlords) with buyers (students).
Before I knew it, I was suddenly strapped to a rocket headed to the stratosphere. I had stumbled upon something that was in huge demand, and thanks to good timing, the platform just exploded. Within a couple of months I had about 50 000 beds on the platform, from Cape Town to Stellies, Joburg, Pretoria, and almost everywhere in between! It was just something that people wanted – landlords wanted to find student tenants to fill their properties and students wanted to find great, affordable and decent housing close to their campuses.
A couple months later I dropped out of my postgrad at university, registered the company, and we’ve been going, and growing, ever since.
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What were the three most important steps you took when you began running your own business?
Looking back now with perspective, I can see that I was just running on intuition, there was no plan or agenda, and I’ve been super lucky that it’s worked out.
The first crucial step was to launch the product almost immediately. After getting the idea, I had the first prototype live on the internet within a couple of weeks. Honestly, that first website I built was hideous, it was just thrown together. But it worked, and so people used it. It was enough to prove the concept.
Another key step was bringing on the right people. My business partners Greg and Brendan are phenomenal. The team working on DigsConnect are utterly world-class. Finally, our investors have been brilliant. We raised R12 million in February 2018 from them, but they’ve brought so much more than money to DigsConnect – they’re a sounding board for us, they’ve opened up networks for us and they’ve supported us every step of the way. When you’re in a room with a group of highly intelligent and committed people, magic happens.
The third step, I’d say, is being user-centric. Because I was a student when I started this company that services students, I had a very intimate understanding of what our users required. I built a product for students, and at every step of the development, I would always ground my decisions in that: does this service the user? Authentically wanting to make people’s lives better translates into a product that adds value to people’s lives. Products that add value generate revenue.
What’s the most important thing you’ve ever done for your business?
Obsess. I am obsessed with every part of the business. Every element on every page of the website, and on the app. I am obsessed with our analytics and understanding the data behind our conversions. I am obsessed with every email we send out to users, every push notification, blog post, sales communication. About the features we add or remove. I think about it constantly and bring it up in conversation (luckily my two best friends are also my business partners, so they’re always happy to dive into an analysis of our UX and UI). [Ed’s note: UX, user experience; UI, user interface. The user interface – for machines and software, like computers, home appliances, mobile devices etc – maximises the user experience.]
It drives a lot of people insane, because I can home in on a tiny detail and raise hell until it’s perfect, but at the end of the day, the numbers don’t lie and we’ve seen great success due to perfecting the system.
Did you have any experience running your own business? How did you upskill yourself?
I definitely had zero experience in any of this, and what’s more is that I didn’t even know just how much I didn’t know! Now at least I know how much I don’t know, and it’s still substantial. Haha!
Not knowing how to do things is not bad at all. In fact, I’d say it’s a great thing. Firstly, because you don’t want to be scared off from the challenge and so thinking that it’ll be easier than it actually is lowers the barrier to entry, which is great. Next, some of the best and most out-of-the-box ideas come from non-experts. I think that “experts” and the industry leaders often get complacent in their market dominance, and that’s when the industry becomes ripe for disruption, and we see explosive adoption of new technologies. It’s super exciting.
So, generally, I’d say you don’t really need skills other than competence and team-work. Everything else can be learnt on the job. For example, the best sales pitch is just authentically and honestly telling people about your product. There’s no need for tricks or games here, just build the best product that solves a problem, and tell someone about it. In terms of management and HR, my ethos is “do as you would be done by”.
The only thing I really had to get outside help on was upping my tech skills. I did a computer science course at UCT, a couple of night classes and a bunch of free online courses to give me a basic working knowledge of technology. Since technology is a huge field and constantly improving, I keep up by doing online courses one after the other. Some great tools are Coursera, Udemy, the MIT lecture series and Khan Academy.
If you’re authentically trying really hard to just do a good thing, and you’re willing to be vulnerable, ask for help, and make mistakes, you’ll find your way. Guaranteed.
What’s the best advice you’ve received and how has it helped you?
You can’t please everyone, so you might as well stay true to your vision. The world doesn’t need replicas, it needs individuals, thinking for themselves, with fresh, bold, brave ideas about how we can build a better world (and hopefully soon galaxy!), and the sheer audacity to make it happen. Be your own beautiful, crazy, authentic self.
What’s one thing you wish you had known at the beginning that would have saved you so much grief?
Life isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Consistency is more important and impactful than a stopping and starting. You need to increase your productive output and have the discipline to stay the course, but you increase your odds by making small incremental changes every day as opposed to a sudden seismic shift that is unsustainable.
READ MORE: How To Show Up For Yourself And Others
Any tips for women entering the business world? Why should they persevere when things get tough?
A lot is said about how much it takes to build a company. Insane hours, sacrifice, risk, stress, responsibility, premature ageing (legit), little to no personal relationships outside of work, pressure, uncertainty. But what we don’t often speak about is what you gain from the process and from the challenge, and how infinitely rewarding it is.
From my experience, one part of this has been a growing awareness of my worth. A growing sense of self-respect. For as long as I can remember, I’ve really struggled with self-worth. It’s heartbreaking to think about how little respect I’ve had for myself. I certainly didn’t take myself seriously at all, so naturally no one else really did.
It was in this state, truthfully a bit of a mess, that I started working on the project that was to become DigsConnect. I didn’t notice it, but bit by bit as this project grew, I started taking myself a bit more seriously. Started finding a little bit of worth in my existence. It’s been an act of co-creation: you build a company, and it builds you.
You look back and there’s the proof – you are capable. You are worthy. You don’t wake up one day and suddenly you’re this bastion of Zen, but slowly slowly, inch by inch, we claim our selves.