by Claire West

Leading student accommodation finding service, (AFS) is celebrating a string of successes as well as its 10 year anniversary this month.

Founded by entrepreneur Simon Thompson, from his own student digs with a budget of just £250, the service has gone on to help house 1.6 million students in the last decade, attract 21,000 landlords and 1,200 letting agents and has been Google No.1 for 10 years, consolidating AFS’ position as the number one website for student accommodation in the UK.

Today, AFS is the biggest player in its market with 85,000 properties listed; it operates nationally and Internationally, helping students to find accommodation. Managed by Thompson and business partner William Berry from the company’s Manchester headquarters, with offices in London also, the AFS website hit an all-time high of 720,000 unique visitors last month, 42 million hits!

A lot has happened in the last 10 years, Thompson says: “When starting out, the dot com boom was just happening and I felt there was a big opportunity, so I drew up a business plan and semi-built a website. I then met fellow-student William Berry, and we took it from there. As we were both at University we managed to get lots of support from fellow students and local landlords, we were able to ask the right questions and establish quickly exactly what students and landlords needed from an accommodation website.

“Nothing gave me a bigger adrenaline rush than contacting landlords in the evenings and watching them put all their properties onto the website. I couldn’t believe the response we got – within the first 24 hours of going live, 200 properties had been uploaded to the website.”

The company appeared on Dragon’s Den in 2006, where it was offered the investment, but AFS turned down the offer from Doug Richards and Theo Paphites. Thompson says: “The Dragons were impressed with William’s pitch and offered us investment. We asked for £150,000 in return for a 10 per cent share of the company. They agreed to the £150,000 share but wanted 50 percent, so we took the decision to decline the opportunity, but thanked them for telling 2.8 million people we had a good business!”

Thompson still feels that this was the right decision as the company has since gone on to handle around £546 million worth of rental business in total.

“We were also approached by a wealthy Australian, who’s in the World’s top 100 Rich List, but after two days of negotiations, we declined this opportunity. Yes, he wanted to invest a significant amount of money, but we didn’t feel he fully understood our business model nor shared our passion for the business. Nevertheless, it was an interesting and exciting time for us and we learned a lot from those meetings and negotiations.”

Thompson and Berry have worked side-by-side for the last ten years and the fact that they have a highly successful company is testament to their entrepreneurial skills and business acumen. Their reputation and quality of service have also enabled them to secure long-term sponsorship from Endsleigh, the student insurance specialist, and STA Travel, the youth travel specialist, as well as LandlordZone, UNITE, The Independent and MSN Student.

Simon Thompson comments on the milestone: “I’m really proud of everything we have achieved so far and to think AFS is the UK’s most used student accommodation website is just fantastic. When we started AFS ten years ago, while students in Manchester, we set out to offer a service that would end what was then the dreaded, time-consuming flat hunt and I am really pleased that we were able to put what was a vision into reality and help over 1.6 million students find and source accommodation.”

Top honours 
AFS’ excellence has been commended by prestigious industry awards, including winner of the Best Website at this year’s Landlord & Buy-To-Let Awards. Plus, it has also been a finalist at the New Media Age Awards for Best Use of Web for several years running.

A free iPhone app, StudentAccom, was developed earlier this year and has since been downloaded over 7,000 times. It helps students find their ideal property from the palm of their hand, by automatically detecting their location with the help of the iPhone’s in-built GPS. It then displays where the suitable properties are in that area. If the property looks of interest, one touch allows students to contact the landlord for more information or to arrange a viewing. All the relevant details can then be saved to the iPhone where they can be revisited at any time.

Always one step ahead, AFS features at the top of all search engines and hosts more content than any other student accommodation website. The site is constantly being developed so it is easier to use and up-to-date with technology and users’ demands. New additions include a forum, which students use to share vacancies or post their search requirements. Plus, Twitter feeds (@No1ForStudents) appear on the homepage so house-hunters can communicate with each other quickly.

Going global
AFS is already international with sites in 16 different countries, including the USA, Australia, Russia, Japan and South Africa, allowing students across the globe to find accommodation, wherever they are studying. Thompson is planning further expansion and will be taking on more staff over the next 12 months. He also plans to provide property management services for landlords and launch a tenant payment collection service in the very near future.