“When I came to Cape Town, I had the same issue that every out-of-town student has - how the heck do I find student accommodation?! It's so hard!”
Identifying this as a problem that could be solved by matching up landlords with students seeking accommodation, Port-Elizabeth-born Alexandria Procter founded DigsConnect in 2017 - an online student housing marketplace. Since then, the company has raised over R14 million rand to date, and was lauded with the award for the Top Property Technology Company in Africa for 2020 - no small feat when their target market of university students shifted to more remote learning in the midst of the global pandemic!
Born in Port Elizabeth, Alexandria attended boarding school in Grahamstown. Before starting university, she spent a year travelling solo in India, South East Asia, the USA, South America and the UK. Upon her return, she began her Bachelor of Science . “Unless you know someone, or you bump into someone in a lecture, or you post on a WhatsApp group, or you’re looking at posters on walls, it’s really hard to find good, safe accommodation,” she shared with USB-ED. “You get scammed on some dodgy websites, or there are landlords that don’t want students, or you can’t really see what the room looks like or if it has WiFi. On a bigger scale in South Africa, there’s a huge lack of infrastructure and housing on campuses. There are huge chunks of students with no formalised housing for them.”
During her undergraduate degree, she became a student leader on the Student Representative Council and began dealing first-hand with hundreds of students looking for help to find accommodation while they were studying. “Landlords would call me and say they had spare rooms, vacancies, beds to fill and wanted to know how to advertise these rooms to the students,” she shared. “Thus, DigsConnect was born, as an online marketplace to match up sellers (landlords) with buyers (students).”
DigsConnect essentially aims to solve just this one point. While it may seem like a simple, straightforward thing to be doing, when she got stuck into it she found that it was leading into far broader and deeper aspects than she initially thought - something that has motivated her on her journey as an entrepreneur. This is something that Alexandria shares has been important to her entrepreneurial journey - having a passion and a fascination for solving a key issue.
“Just solving that key problem of how to connect landlords to students has become my life’s obsession at the moment! I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to solve this one, seemingly basic problem! But as you dive deeper and deeper into it, it becomes more complicated. As you go deeper and deeper into it, you find so many more problems that you can untap and uncover with this. So essentially, it’s become finding a way to facilitate this experience in the best way we possibly can.”
After outlining the problem, Alexandria touches on the fact that you don’t need to have an extensive range of complex resources to get going as an entrepreneur. Start with what you have, and do what you can. She candidly shares that it was ‘knocked up over a weekend’ with a bit of coding and a purchased domain: “I was originally matching up landlords and students manually but I realised it would be much easier if I just knocked together a little website where people could connect by themselves without having to go through me. Over a weekend I bought the domain and coded a simple website where you could list accommodation and search for accommodation.”
“Another good example of this,” she shares, “Is how Door Dash started in the States. Their entire website was just a PDF. You could download it. That was it! That was the MVP and I love that! It was their site validating if they had a market for this. So I could build a really low fidelity product and start testing it out and start getting some early traction. And this was before I even really understood what these words meant. It was basically just very intuitive. The service is needed, and it’s solving this problem that me and my friends were facing.”
To get things off the ground, after identifying the problem and generating a solution, Alexandria recalls how she went about getting her first clients. “I can very clearly recall this,” she says. I used to go to digs parties and market at digs parties - and I was that person! When everyone was there to hang out, I’d bring out some flyers and ask them if they’d heard about DigsConnect. I even went to Plett Rage to do some marketing, I was shamelessly marketing!”
With landlords, she took a more innovative approach - thinking out the box, she would scroll through the classifieds section on websites and would cold call everyone. Quite frankly, she says, “Cold calls kind of suck, right?! It’s really hard making cold calls! Greg Ramsay-Keal (my business partner) and I would sit there and psych each other up before phone calls and practice with each other. And everyone hates getting cold calls and sales calls. It’s like the person on the other end of the line knows you’re wanting to sell them something. The first few are really hard, and you learn by doing it. That’s the only way. The first ten are going to suck. The first hundred are going to suck. You’re going to feel like an idiot, you’re going to mess it up. People are going to have issues with you, people are going to block your number. But then you get the hang of it. You learn what to say and what not to say. You develop an intuition for it. You learn when to do your value offering, when to do your pitch, when to pull back, when to sell harder. For instance, now, when I do cold calls, I just pick the phone up and I go for it.”
This forms part of the key components that have been integral to her success as an entrepreneur: tenacity, an attitude of “just going for it,” and overall - creating a meaningful life. “I think the important thing is that the only way you’re going to know if something will work is by doing it. Entrepreneurship, and ‘foundership’ in a way, gets so much hype. It’s so glamorized and ‘celebritilized’ - if that’s even a word! There’s this idea around it... Ultimately, all I can say is just do it for yourself. It’s the only way you can do it. It’s basically an exercise in self-awareness, self-learning and self-growth. And if it is for you, great. And if it’s not for you then also great. It’s about discovering what’s meant for you in life. It’s about living life true to yourself.”
“I’ve realised that what would make life more meaningful, beautiful and worthwhile would be to have a life of service, a life of giving, and a life of doing good. Human connection is why I think we’re here. It’s so beautiful and so profound. There is so much human suffering, and I felt like if I could do something to truly connect with people, truly help people. If I could do something to alleviate suffering in a way and do good in the world and connect with people, across every boundary I could - that would seem like a really beautiful and meaningful life.” In this way, even as an entrepreneur, or someone in business, we can both be doing good and feeling good - using our endeavors as agents of positivity in the world.
As a school-leaver, student or young graduate, one can often have the urge to make a positive difference in the world - being driven, enthusiastic and dynamic. But sometimes it can be confusing to know what to do, how to begin forging your path, or what support is needed. This is where the Young Minds Programme comes in. This programme helps you to create your own career opportunities, with guided life direction, while equipping you with the necessary business skills required to become a highly successful entrepreneur. To find out more about the USB-ED Young Minds Programme, please click here.