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  • Mal McCallion

Zoopla's houseful of trouble

Updated: Oct 30, 2023



Fifteen years ago, almost to the week, I met Alex Chesterman. He was recruiting his first Sales Director, someone to lead revenue-generation in his new online property business – and I was one of the final two candidates.


After an exceptionally tough back-and-forth about my suitability for the role, we got to the ‘any questions?’ section at the end. I asked the obvious one. With eight years’ experience of launching and growing online property aggregators, I knew that you called your portals ‘Primelocation’ or ‘Propertyfinder’, ‘Findaproperty’ or ‘Rightmove’.


“Why on earth would you call it ‘Zoopla’?”


“Well,” he replied, distractedly stroking his beard. “There are five reasons for that ...”


***


This week we learned that the name ‘Zoopla’ has been relegated underneath an entity henceforth known as ‘Houseful’. Having spent £2.2Bn to acquire the brand in 2018, it seems that private equity firm Silver Lake have taken a leaf out of Meta (Facebook) and Alphabet (Google)’s playbook and decided that it’s pretty cool to have a higher entity that can operate independently of its marquee brand.


The problem? Zoopla is no Facebook or Google.


First of all, I think it’s worth looking at the new entity’s name. I don’t know about you, but when I’ve got a ‘houseful’ it can be really stressful – particularly when many of them might be outside my immediate family or friends. So emphasising ‘Houseful’ as some kind of attractor, drawing people into the ecosystem that we used to know as ZPG, that’s ambitious to say the least. It certainly challenges CEO Charlie Bryant’s rather comedic assertion that, “The whole business is excited and energised by the opportunities unlocked by our new company name and brand.”


(If that’s not a project driven by bored marketing people, then I don’t know what is.)


This out-of-the-blue rebrand – and its associated PR – makes it feel like this is some sort of giant distraction from what’s actually going on at my old business. If a private equity firm acquires a company, they generally have a five-year timeline in mind before they exit, preferably at a significant multiple of what they paid for it.


Five years on, it is highly questionable whether Zoopla/Houseful is worth anything like the amount Silver Lake invested in it. Every acquisition contains significant risk – but buying something at such a price, without any definable plan to build exceptional value, elevates that risk to the borders of insanity (or ‘just too much money’).


***


“The name had to be six characters long, max,” Alex said, back then. “Looking at most successful online businesses, that’s a given.


“Google, Yahoo and Facebook’s successes indicate that having two ‘o’s in the name appeals to consumers, too.


“It’s important that it meant absolutely nothing in any language – I never wanted to find out, when I was abroad, that my business was a terrible swearword somewhere else.


“It had to have every one of the available suffixes like .com and .co.uk available.


“And, then, to be honest, I just really like the letter ‘Z’.”


Some people are genius entrepreneurs and some people are not. Silver Lake do have an asset that they can sweat, in the form of Zoopla. Get agents to fall in love with their tech again – perhaps even introduce some AI! – and see if they can’t take more big chunks out of Rightmove.


Or – fiddle with a brand name whilst Rome burns, then try and increase their prices when very few really care too passionately about their service anymore. It’s a genuine problem for Zoopla, fifteen years after its birth - what are they really bringing that Rightmove and/or AI is not?


As we move into 2024, further into a market that will not reward ‘same-old’ decisions, agents will have to decide where to invest. Multiple portals will not be the answer. AI will.



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