We are all aware of the problems St Andrews students face in trying to secure affordable accommodation. Nightmare landlords, complicated application processes, and simply not enough housing to go around all contribute to a difficult and stressful atmosphere come February. Last year, then second-year student Allen Farrington decided to take matters into his own hands and set up his own website, Bubble Browse, to make finding accommodation in St Andrews easier. The Saint interviewed him to find out more about his unusual move.
The Saint: Why did you decide to take the leap and start Bubble Browse?
Allen Farrington: I went through an awful experience trying to find a flat in first year, as everyone does, and realised that my situation wasn’t even that bad; we had it sorted by February, but a lot of people don’t until April or May even. I felt our experience was just ridiculous, however; there should have been more support and information about the various different options available to students, and it basically just came from that. There wasn’t really one moment when I thought ‘I’ll set up a website!’ but after months of gradually thinking ‘it would be really good if this could happen…’ I thought that there was no reason that I couldn’t do it myself.
TS: How did you go about setting it up?
AF: I have personally have no technical expertise; I hired a firm to handle the website, which is almost entirely the cost. I thought about finding computing students, but it went through a lot of phases of becoming more complex, so I decided to get it done professionally. The biggest challenge was setting it up as a business, but this proved easier than I had imagined. We had a feasible model of using advertising to pay for it.
TS: How does the website work?
AF: There are three ways for students to use the website; the main one is to simply search the database. You can look through the properties of all of the estate agents and private landlords who’ve signed up, and in searching you can use filters such as a rent band and number of bedrooms. Before this website, you’d have to go to each estate agent and do the comparison yourself, more often than not in person rather than online. This puts everything in one place and makes the whole process easier for students. Another feature is a facility to collect all of the application forms for the agencies in one place. We’ve also included a small description of how they want you to apply; all of the agencies have different procedures that can get very confusing. There is also a subscription feature; that means you can put in your email address, and when that property goes ‘offline’, or no longer available, everyone who is subscribed will receive an email say- ing that the property is no longer available. Finally, there is a ‘sign-up’ feature on the website, where you fill in your search criteria and email address, and when something matching your preferences comes online, you receive an email notifying you.
TS: How are you getting estate agents and landlords to sign up?
AF: I emailed all of the estate agencies asking them to be involved, had meetings with them, and the majority have now signed up, with the exception of Eve Brown and Delmor. We’ve engineered the admin side to make their lives a lot easier; we pitch it to them by saying that by signing up to our website, they will save themselves time and effort; students are often confused by much of the accommodation process and so ask estate agents a lot of questions that they could find answers to on Bubble Browse. If they advertise through us, hopefully that will be completely removed. The second thing is that we’re offering them what I like to call ‘inventory management’; our admin side has a fairly unique feature of distinguishing between deleting a property and making it inactive, which almost all of them don’t have; every year, therefore, they have to go through and re-enter the information on to their system, whereas with us, they would only need to change very specific information every year. They would have very little work to do, and there’s been a pretty positive response so far.
TS: The university runs its own ac- commodation database, St Andrews Student Pad, which offers a similar database of properties. What makes Bubble Browse different?
AF: The Student Pad website only shows properties from independent landlords; the most properties it listed last year at any one time was 24. We had 350, so it’s definitely not as useful as Bubble Browse from a student’s point of view. It’s very limited and doesn’t give a proper picture of the accommodation situation in St Andrews. Ours clearly does; it’s as broad as could be asked for.
TS: How are you publicising the site?
AF: Almost entirely by Facebook, to be honest. Last year we spent a bit of money on advertising, through The Saint and putting posters up in halls. Although this was helpful, it probably wasn’t worth the time and money spent on it. We can reach thousands of people for free on Facebook.
TS: How is this being funded?
AF: The business model is for it to be funded by advertising. I initially put up the costs from my own savings, to get the site up and running. Aside from the large start-up cost, the running costs are negligible. In the long term, we are hoping to recoup the money from advertising.
TS: While Bubble Browse will hopefully make things easier for students in the short term, it isn’t a proper solution to the housing problem in St Andrews. What do you think about housing in St Andrews more generally?
AF: I’m really keen to emphasise the fact that this website can’t solve the frankly atrocious accommodation problem. Occasionally people get too excited and think what a great idea the site is, and that it’ll get rid of the problem; it won’t. There simply are not enough properties, and I can’t change that situation.
TS: How succesful has Bubble Browse been so far?
AF: Last year, we just wanted to do a test run, but this year we are more certain of how it’s going to work, and it’s been far more widely used and promoted. I was quite pleased with it last year, but I’m keen to emphasise the fact that it worked at all; students, estate agents and landlords all used it and liked it. I’m encouraging people to play about with what’s on it. It’s really a very simple idea that can be summed up in three seconds – an online database of student accommodation.