We speak to Alisa Zotimova, the Russian-born founder of AZ Real Estate, a boutique London-based consultancy that advises overseas buyers on UK property investments, from trophy homes to offices.
When and how did you set up the business?
Following a decade at big blue chip property companies including JLL and Cushman & Wakefield I decided to ‘go it alone’ in 2012. I was able to use my own funds thanks to some smart early personal property investments – and I have to say this is one of my top pieces of advice to anyone else considering it. If possible, try not to share any equity when starting your business, as tempting as it might be, because there is a lot to be said for staying in total control of the business and not having anyone else to answer to. Of course, it may not be suitable for every new business, especially if you need to invest up-front in supplies or inventory which may be more funding-intensive. Hopefully, the government’s new “Rose Review” will pave a way for more accessible business-lending for female-led enterprises.
How does your business model work?
We work closely with our clients to determine their investment preferences, whether they are looking for a trophy home to live in (a massive investment that should be assessed financially, not just emotionally), buy-to-let property or commercial investment, which could include an entire office or student block. Following this, we can advise the client on the whole process of transaction, from sourcing the project, negotiating the terms, coordinating lending, legal support and surveys, through to exchange and completion, whereby we take a percentage of the final acquisition or sale price as our fee.
In future, I may also look into starting to develop my own property projects, as the demand seems to be there and we have accumulated a lot of relevant skills.
What sets you apart from others in the property investment world?
I think it’s down to the smart, personal and professional service that we provide clients – which larger corporate firms can’t deliver. While we are primarily sourcing property for clients, we will always go above and beyond, whether that is advising those new to this country on the best schools for their children or connecting them with other relevant professional contacts.
A client once commented that I combine “Eastern cheerfulness with Western business sophistication” – so perhaps that can be my legacy!
Are there any headline projects you can talk about?
We are closing some significant investments in serviced accommodation buildings and offices in Cambridge – it’s a step away from London and is reflective of where some of the market is going as investors chase better returns. London still has its place though, of course.
We also recently had a ‘first’ – a design collaboration with Natalia Maslova of 3L Design in Moscow to furnish an apartment at Ballymore’s London City Island development. This was an investment property and we wanted to style and furnish it to help create standout, given that there are hundreds of apartments in this development. We did it on a modest budget using a combination of boutique and high street brands and we think the result is excellent. It worked – the flat was let out extremely quickly and for a higher rent than the others.
How has Brexit affected the business?
Brexit has dented confidence in the property industry – amongst many other factors – but as it happens 2018 was our most successful year in terms of revenue. 2019 will be challenging but with uncertainty comes opportunity – smart investors are looking to areas such as Birmingham, Cambridge and Manchester where they can get higher returns, often via commercial buildings instead of residential. The weak pound is also good for those with overseas money – but that won’t last forever.
Any tips for those aspiring to follow in your footsteps?
It might sound obvious – but I can’t stress enough the importance of being confident in your abilities and taking a trial and error approach. You need to make mistakes to learn and develop.
The importance of networking can’t be underestimated either – it’s vital that you immerse yourself with other entrepreneurs and start-ups for encouragement and advice. They don’t have to be from the property sector either, in fact some of the best ideas are those that are borrowed and adapted from another sector. Last year, I joined the newly founded Allbright – a members’ club focused specifically at women in business (wonderful men are welcome as guests) and the volume of ideas, workshops and inspiring women to meet and share with and learn from is great.
Another example of borrowing from other sectors is marketing through Instagram – the worlds of travel and beauty have been doing this for years while property has lagged behind but we’re seeing a real step change now.
Big property deals can be done or at least introduced through Instagram and it’s little surprise – many of the globe’s wealthiest are cash rich but time poor, so having the ‘shop window’ of Instagram is an ideal platform to catch them.