Starting an online business

Starting an online business can be risky, fun, stressful, and exhilarating all at once. Most of all it is exciting. Steven Keith provides the low down on his latest Edinburgh based venture.


The Path That Led Here

Before venturing into the unknown with Property Squirrel, I worked for many years as a software developer.

Being a software developer had its own challenges. The one I struggled with was being ignored by management.

Management often make the wrong assumption that software developers are unable to comprehend the need for a business to make money. Often, when a developer raises a concern it goes largely unheard.

I decided I’d had enough. I had ideas, passion, and a drive to succeed. I was not going to spend my whole life going unnoticed. I would not become Dilbert.

And so it began.


Being Fearless

If I was going to start my own business, then I would aim for the top. No safe niche that would bore me to death.

I decided I would do property; one of the most competitive markets out there, with millions spent on advertising alone each year.

Madness? Perhaps, but often a little madness can push you to reach your potential.


The Idea

I decided to create a property portal – a search based property website. I looked at what was out there and said “I can do better”.
I often hear people criticise ideas because they are not original. “You can’t do that, its already been done”.


Facebook would not have succeeded if this was the case. The real strength of an idea lies in its implementation. I believed I could improve the state of the art. Push barriers.


My Two Pronged Attack



I’d worked as a contractor at a property portal, so was familiar with the hoops agents are made to jump through to get their properties onto a website. The methods used were archaic, unreliable, and confusing.

I decided I would take the difficulty out of the process. I would do all the legwork required for the agent to get their properties onto my portal. They would do nothing. I would also automate the process, as it’s no fun repeating yourself.



Users were given a lot of thought.

What annoyed me as a user of a property portal?

The general mess of the sites for one. Adverts here, there, everywhere. Text on the page that is useful to no one, except search engine spiders. A purple button, simply because they’ve heard “Make that button purple and you will improve your conversion rate. You’ll get more viewing requests.”

We would be different. The site would be written for users, not search engines. It would be easy to navigate, and obvious to use. We would not throw a purple button onto the page simply because it was the marketing trend of the week.

What else? The speed of the existing portals. The majority of the portals I had used were incredibly slooooooooow. We would be fast. Quick page loads, quick searches. We would respect the user’s time.


How could we hope to achieve this?

Well, all those years of writing software for a living was a blessing in disguise. (Even if it didn’t feel like it)

I could design and build the website myself. No upfront fees to development houses that charge extortionate rates. No twiddling my thumbs because they had other work to do.

I also had friends with relevant skills that I was sure would be able to give great advice. To paraphrase Dale Carnegie “Talk less, listen more.”

I could be fast. I could create a feature and have it live on the site on the same day. Not many companies can do that. Too much red tape, too many meetings to attend.


Technical Challenges

There were many challenges faced in the lead up to going live, and in the weeks following. As you might expect, its the ones you don’t plan for that give you the most stress.


SEO and User Experience

Search engine optimisation was, and still is, our biggest challenge. We are fighting with domains that have been around for a while, and have built up a lot of trust with Google. Because of this, I feel they can get away with many techniques that we are likely to be punished for.

For example, I believe several of our competitors use overly optimised internal linking, with keyword phrases as the anchor text of each link.

An example of this would be:

Location1 flats | Location2 flats | Location3 flats | …

Or worse:

Flats to rent in Location1 |
Flats to rent in Location2 |
Flats to rent in Location3 |

Often this is repeated on every, or the vast majority, of pages on the website.

This is not a great user experience. Humans would be able to figure out that each of these links was a link to flats to rent in that location, so a more natural way of linking to these pages would be:

Location1 | Location2 | Location3

And only on relevant pages of the website.

Google has been cracking down on these over optimised, unnatural, ways of linking pages internally. Unfortunately our competitors still seem to get away with doing it.


Business Direction

Initially, we thought we should focus on property to rent in Edinburgh, and expand gradually over time.

After speaking with several prominent contacts in the industry, we discovered that letting agents are not interested in listing on portals that do not have UK-wide coverage. This is because many agents have portfolios that span cities; some have portfolios that span borders.

Thus, we were no longer trying to become “the go to place to rent a property in Edinburgh”, we were, and are, trying to become “the go to place to rent a property in the UK”.


Taking it to the Masses

We went live on July 1st 2012, and immediately set out on promoting the site. A time-consuming, labour-intensive task.

I love it though. I get to finally meet people who use software I’ve written. I get to listen to their feedback, and act accordingly.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done, and it shows. If you don’t love your product, how can you expect others to?

We’re rapidly growing in size and popularity, and aiming for the top. The big boys are in sight, and we’re ready for battle.

I look forward to letting you know how we get on.

Steven Keith,
Director of Property Squirrel Limited


Steven Keith

Steven Keith is a Scottish Software Engineer and Internet Entrepreneur from Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the Co-founder and Director of property portal www.PropertySquirrel.com. Follow him on Twitter @propsquirrel.

Want to contribute a guest blog? Contact Julian Young


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