We interview Greg Marsh, one of the founders of alternative hotel site onefinestay and winner of GWG Website of The Year.

When you walk into the Farringdon offices of onefinestay, before the legion of Macs and PCs, before the sofas and the snazzy little kitchen, a small square table sits nestled to the right of the door; home to four awards – the most recent The GWG Website of the Year Award (they came, they saw, they conquered), won amidst glowing fanfare not two short weeks ago. Hence my audience with co-founder and CEO Greg Marsh (one of the three brains behind this über brand); ‘I promised the team when we received our fourth, that I would go out and buy a cabinet,’ he laughs, and to all intents and purposes it seems that a visit to Ikea (or a higher end retailer) is definitely in order.

So here we are, shepherded into a nearby meeting room ready to discuss Greg’s current raison d’etre; to turn traditional hospitality on its head (‘disruptive innovation’ is the buzzword) by sourcing the hippest private properties in London (and more recently New York) and renting them out to the legions of ‘hotel weary’ travellers more akin to the comfort, concierge services and general high luxe ambiance of the world’s finest hotels.

Now there’s a niche to exploit; one that promises high levels of profit given that, in Greg’s words; ‘Something like sixty or seventy per cent of the dollars are spent in city centre lodging - in four and five star hotels.’ So how did they do it? How did onefinestay grow to 100 staff, all in two short years? As with all great start ups it all started with a relatively simple idea, in this case - ‘Couldn’t every one live like a local?’ The concept borne on a now seminal trip to Italy: ‘It was just a completely unexpected series of experiences; local Pisa life,’ Greg reminisces. ‘I came back into the centre of London where I was working - right in the middle of Mayfair where no one lives and had this weird experience of ‘Hang on a minute why are the nicest bits of cities, the bits where people aren’t? And the nastiest bits, the places where we corral the tourists? All of those lights not being on in Mayfair I suppose was my light bulb moment.’

The founder quickly set about sourcing his team; two individuals immediately sprung to mind – Tim Davey and Demetrios Zoppos; ‘Demetrios was one of the co-founders of a company I used to work at some years ago called GF-X, and Tim was the CTO of a company that Index Ventures [Greg’s previous employer] had invested in out in Silicon Valley. One of those people was someone I knew very well, someone I’d worked with very closely with for many years and had become a friend. In Tim’s case, he was some who I hadn’t worked that closely with, but I knew by reputation, and I knew that he was at an inflexion point in his career where he would perhaps have been more open than others to moving back to London.’

Greg Marsh with cofounders Demetrios Zoppos (left) and Tim Davey (right).

Greg’s background in venture capital certainly came in handy; ‘I’ve spent the other half of my career investing other people’s money, and know from third hand experience that the single thing most likely to blow up a young business is bad dynamics, mislead expectations or divergent expectations among the founding team - that’s the single best predictor of failure.’ Failure however was not an option; ‘When ‘the one’ comes along; when you’re waiting and looking and you’re open minded to it - you’ve already got that set of business relationships, or potential business relationships and you know when to pounce.’

And pounce he did; his two Musketeers by his side ready and willing to commit; ‘What I was investing, what Demetrios was investing, what Tim was investing more than anything was their time and whole hearted commitment... There’s an old adage – ‘most businesses are founded on borrowed time’, it’s probably true that most people are taking a little bit of time form their current employer, heading home a bit early in the evening or doing a little bit of cheeky work at lunch. That’s not uncommon - now as an employer obviously I whole-heartedly disapprove of it,’ Greg smiles. ‘But the reality is that has always been the way business have been founded.’

Despite Greg’s background the trio decided not to go down the venture capital route; ‘I deliberately didn’t go to professional or Angel investors. Largely because they would have demanded more of the business but secondly they would have wanted more proof or validation than we had at that point.’ The co-founders instead went to friends and family; ‘I didn’t ask for them to invest in the business I asked them to invest in us. I said “Look only invest what you can truly afford to lose.” No single person invested more than £10,000. We deliberately structured something called a convertible note, and the pricing at which that converted into equity wasn’t determined at the time, it converted only if and when a professional investor later on got involved in the business. That’s a structure which I think has some real merit because it avoids a completely emotional and theoretical discussion about valuing a business which isn’t yet a business.’

Two hundred thousand pounds got the ball rolling (followed by further institutional investment in late 2010); a canny investment for those who made the leap of faith. ‘We think it’s a huge market opportunity, I don’t mean that because we’re greedy and rubbing our hands with glee, but because that’s what gets us excited. It’s the potential to create a profoundly disruptive innovative category within an industry that really hasn’t innovated for many decades – upscale hotels have basically been unchanged since Auguste Escoffier figured out how to do high end catering in the kitchens of the Ritz in Paris in 1918. What we’re trying to do is bring the same level of industrial innovation, of logistics infrastructure and service innovation to the upper hospitality market, which really hasn’t changed for a very long time.’

So there it is, a meteoric rise; but what of the challenges? ‘It’s people, I don’t mean that because people are difficult, I mean because really good people are hard to come by. You’ve got to hire brilliant people – that’s the nature of the beast!’ Despite this staff numbers are sizeable; ‘I think the challenge isn’t having more people involved I think it’s retaining the same cultural ethos, the same dynamism, the same entrepreneurial enthusiasm as the company gets bigger. It’s one thing when you’re a hundred but the really difficult thing is when you’re in multiple locations.’

And what of the users; is there another challenge I wonder in changing the attitude of the world-weary traveller? One trapped in a Stockholm Syndrome mentality; so used to the familiar surroundings of high-end hospitality that they cannot make the leap? ‘We are not really asking them or asking of them to do anything profoundly different,’ Greg says with conviction. ‘We are meeting them when they turn up. We are there during their stay very much like a hotel; if they want us to fill the fridge before they arrive or if they want to rent equipment while they’re in town, all these things come with the package. I think we are more relevant to guests who are attitudinally seeking a more distinctive experience.’

On a more personal note, what of the sacrifices he has endured? ‘It’s mostly very thankless and very hard work,’ Greg laughs. ‘I tend to discourage people from believing this is the fun easy route.’ A typical working week is between 80-100 hours. ‘The tough bit isn’t just the absolute working hours, it’s that you can’t really turn it off; it constantly interrupts your waking and sleeping thoughts, you tend to worry, you tend to get up at weekends and make lists... But then again it can be tremendously rewarding.’

And what a reward it is; ‘In surveys of entrepreneurs people usually express a higher level of life and career satisfaction. Often because the people who feel they need to take that step value their autonomy and independence very highly and enjoy the feeling of being their own boss - they need it at some level.’

Further satisfaction is derived from Greg’s involvement with his team; ‘I enjoy meeting young people straight out of school or university and seeing them grow, develop and mature. I find that tremendously rewarding. We’ve also got a handful of managers in their second or third role in their career; seeing some of those guys begin to spread their wings, knowing that if we continue to grow as a business, that in five years from now some of them will be running entire divisions, entire countries - that’s incredibly exciting for me.’ A little feedback from users is another welcome addition; ‘It’s always nice when someone says “no more hotels for me!” – we get that fairly often.’

There it is – praise and rightly so, echoed in no small part by Gabrielle Hase (an expert in venture capital and ecommerce, and one of The GWG Website of the Year judges); ‘This service is clever and provides an option that a site like airbnb doesn't – the assurance that there will be a standard of cleanliness and design across all of the properties.’ Alex Chesterman, the founder of Zoopla, echoes the sentiment; ‘A great concept, delivered through an easy to navigate website. It makes it easy for travellers looking to 'live like a local.’

As the interview winds down, Greg’s professional mask comes down, asking me about my plans, my hopes, my aspirations (quite the gentleman), but not before he’s delivered one killer parting sound bite; ‘I always think it’s fascinating; you walk down the high street, open a newspaper - every single business you read about; the companies that shape and manufacture the lives that we live, once upon a time they were all a couple of folks in a room trying to figure out what the logo should look like… It’s certainly the only way the world’s ever changed.’

December 2012.

Interview by Alice Kahrmann