We sat down with Daniil Aal, Estateguru’s Head of Business Lending, on the occasion of his seventh anniversary with Estateguru, to discuss what he has learnt in his time with the company, what advice he would give his younger self, and why he’s stayed for so long.
First off, congratulations on seven years with Estateguru.
So what is it about the company that has kept you on board for so long?
Well, I joined Estateguru right at the beginning, as one of the first employees, and so I’ve seen first-hand how it has evolved. When I joined (in August 2015) we had lent out a total of one million euros and we had about one and a half thousand investors. Marek (Pärtel) was the CEO and founder, Ararat (Yuzbashyan) was the developer and we had one other guy, Stanislav (Klevtsov), who was our first product manager/business analyst, and then I joined. I was pretty much a 360-degree, all-purpose employee.
What was your job title when you joined?
I was kind of an Intern or Junior Credit Manager/everything. In the first month I was doing sales to the borrowers, sales to investors, customer support, marketing, digital marketing, IT development, everything really. So Estateguru is almost like a baby that I’ve been raising, and I feel like I know it inside out, how we’ve been growing and scaling up into new markets. It’s been a big driver of why I’m still here and why I hope to remain here for another seven years, and beyond. We now have 120 odd people but the core team, the first fifteen people or so that began it all, are for the most part, still here.
Can you tell us more about your experience of working at Estateguru?
In the seven years that I’ve been here, I don’t recall ever looking at the clock, counting down the minutes until I could go home, and I think that’s because it’s exciting, and there’s always a variety of different tasks to be done. After the first year in Estonia, we decided to enter the Latvian market, so I was sent to recruit a country manager, and then the same thing in Lithuania. As we expanded further, there were new challenges and I was put in charge of each new loan origination team we assembled. So there has been a constant evolution and I have to some extent had a licence to choose what I want to do and what I don’t want to do.
Do you miss marketing at all?
(laughs) It was fun in the beginning, and of course, there was no one else to do it, but over time we started recruiting people to fill these positions and I could refocus my efforts elsewhere. If you think of Estateguru as a shop, our main revenue source is what we earn from the borrowers, so they are the goods in a sense, so in the same way that a shop needs to have stocks of milk, sugar and cheese, we need to issue loans, for which we need borrowers.
When I joined the company, Marek ( Pärtel, Estateguru’s co-founder ) tasked me with focusing primarily on the borrower side, on sourcing the projects. Investors come to the platform more organically, through word of mouth, for example, referrals, and marketing activities, but the borrower side is more of a niche market, and you need to actively find these people who need financing of 100 000 or 1 million or even bigger volumes, so in the beginning, even though I was involved in marketing and customer service and so on, I was still focussed on that aspect, the actual lending side, and I believe that’s why I’m now the head of the lending department because that’s been my principal focus and I really enjoy it; the sales, talking with clients, building different sales teams, figuring out new strategies and techniques and making sure our loan origination department is always performing, that it’s efficient and automated and we can source new clients through sales activities, and not just marketing.
It’s been a very fun ride, with ups and down, but startup life is awesome. Coming back to why I’m still here, it has a lot to do with the variety of tasks, the opportunity to disrupt the real estate market, and also the amazing people that I have around me.
What was your previous experience before you joined the company?
I did an internship in a bank for about two months, while I was studying for my bachelor’s, and I also worked for four years as a dishwasher while I was studying. I also did a research project during my studies as well. And then when I finished my bachelor’s degree (in business administration) I started with Estateguru, after being approached on LinkedIn by one of the founders, who told me they needed a human swiss army knife, who could do a little bit of everything.
What were your expectations when you started with the company, and how do they compare with reality?
That’s a tough question, because when I joined I really had no idea about what I was taking on. The startup world was, relatively speaking, still in its infancy in 2015. I remember going to the Latitude 59 tech and startup conference, and I recall that the stall next to us was occupied by Taxify (now called Bolt, an Estonian vehicle hire and food delivery company), who were only just getting started. Several startups that have now become Unicorns (privately held startup companies with a value of over $1 billion) were getting started. So I had very little idea or expectations about what working at a startup might entail.
It was in the first year that I started to realise that it was not the same as working in a corporation, such as a bank I interned at. It’s not 9-5. Everyone needs to be available when they are needed. It’s a small team and you are united in your ambition to grow the company into something really big, and at Estateguru the growth is very obvious and nearly constant. As I said, we were originally a small group of people working in a small office, and now we have branches in several major cities across Europe. But I still believe there is much to be done and massive room for growth in the future.
What is your vision for the company now?
I believe that Estateguru can grow into a unicorn in our own niche of alternative property financing for real estate developers, SMEs (Small and medium business enterprises) and larger companies.
We are already acquiring a market presence in eight countries and I believe we can go on to conquer the rest of Europe and become a brand that everyone will associate with investing and borrowing in a Real Estate context. We want people to think of us first when they need a loan for real estate-backed activity. So there’s still much to do, to further develop that reputation.
We are obviously very well known in our first market, Estonia, but we want to see the same in Germany and the Uk, for example, and there’s still a long way to go. We can already identify that there is a need for our services in these markets, or indeed most countries, as traditional banking is lagging in terms of serving SMEs and real estate Investors. We offer an opportunity for people to diversify their investment into real estate-backed projects, in Riga, Berlin, Helsinki etc., which no one else is doing. I think it’s a tremendous opportunity that we provide to people, and by allowing investments as small as €50 we ensure that anyone can take it.
Another aspect of what we offer users, which doesn’t get as much attention, is knowledge, an education even, because not everyone has seen a real estate valuation report or is following the real estate market and we are offering these reports, and insights into market conditions in the different countries in which we operate, so people can attain an understanding of what the market is like, for example, in Latvia or Germany, which is interesting to know. People who want to enter the real estate investment market can start by investing in our projects and while they are earning interest they can learn more about it, and also be inspired by what they see other people doing. And perhaps after a few years, they can become real estate developers themselves, with the knowledge and insight they’ve gained on our platform.
How do you feel you’ve changed as a consequence of working with Estateguru?
I’ve learned so much and developed a passion for the real estate market. Now I find myself reading different blog posts and articles, familiarising myself with the behaviour of different real estate markets, not only in Europe but also in the US and globally. Two years ago I bought my first rental apartment myself and then last year I decided to try flipping real estate as well, so my girlfriend and I bought an apartment, demolished and then renovated it and now it’s being rented, and then we purchased a second apartment, and flipped it three times faster than the first one, so I feel like we are learning constantly, and our clients have also inspired me to slowly develop my own private real estate portfolio, and the passive income that comes with it. Nevertheless, I still continue investing in our projects. I feel like I’m learning from our clients as well, and gaining all this knowledge, and this has made me very excited to try it for myself, and I hope that one day I can get into real estate development myself, from the ground up. I see a lot of personal growth that has stemmed directly from my experience with Estateguru.
It must be nice to have so much confidence in your product.
What is your favourite memory of working with Estateguru?
There are so many memories made with so many different colleagues, that I feel it would be almost impolite to single out any one of them.
Ok, fair enough. If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 23-year-old self when you were just starting at the company?
Work even harder. Even though there were days when I came in at 9 am and was still busy at 9 pm, I feel I could have taken more risks and not held back over a fear of failure. So I would definitely say to my younger self, be more curious about new innovations and technologies, and indeed the world itself. Avoid being narrow-minded and limiting your focus to what you feel you need to know. More generally, I would say to the younger generation: be proactive and never take a job that feels like a duty, but something that you’re passionate about.
When I’m hiring new employees, I’m more concerned with their personality than experience or education. I’m not interested in working with people who function out of a sense of obligation. I want friends and colleagues who are passionate about something, who want to grow and who demonstrate curiosity. People who engage, who you can be relied upon when they are needed because they are excited about their work. Of course, there must be a work-life balance, and we must make time for friends and family, but part of the appeal of working at a startup is that everybody is fully engaged. This is a driver of success, and with an attitude like that, it doesn’t feel like you are merely doing a job, but that your work is part of how you enjoy life. So I’d say to the younger generation, don’t take a job for the salary, but find one that drives you. Find that niche that makes you happy and continue to develop yourself. Be proactive, and experiment until you find your passion.
Special thanks to Alpaka for Daniil’s great gift