Hanoi is undoubtedly one of my favourite cities in the world.
From the hustle and bustle of traders lining its intricate streets to the compassionate nature of pretty much everyone you meet; every corner is crammed with culture, small businesses pop up daily and an overwhelming sense of gumption and determination prevails. Ergo, despite moving to Nashville at sixteen and London a year later, it’s her upbringing in Vietnam’s capital that Zoe Vu credits for her innate, entrepreneurial drive.
Zoe Vu. We don’t sit around. We just think, ‘I’m eighty years old, I can buy this chewing gum. I’ll sell it to the next person and hopefully I’ll make some money off it.’ It’s in our blood!
Having founded Pass the Keys with her Co-Founder Alex Lyakhotskiy three years ago – a short let property management company that enables hosts to effortlessly earn money while they’re away whilst providing guests with a consistent service experience throughout their stay- Zoe has been on quite some journey since the two turned their idea into reality, during their final MBA year at London Business School in 2015.
Operating in ten cities across the UK with imminent plans to go global, in a quiet spot at Kitty Hawk on Thursday 18th January, I sat down with Zoe to discover how she’s navigated the journey so far…
ZV. Our mission is to help homeowners make money out of their property when their property is empty; say they were away on holiday for example…
When someone books on Airbnb they want the flat to be spotless when they arrive. They want fresh linen on the bed, fresh towels and toiletries. They want to know that everything works and if something doesn’t work, that there’s someone on the end of the phone line that they can reach so we take care of that too. If I asked you, “would you like to give me the keys to your property and I’ll manage it for you?” that requires a lot of trust. You want to know that I have local staff to send in at short notice if anything is needed so we have local staff in each city too.
That’s on top of managing the listing alone. Because that’s online, technically it could be done from anywhere in the world. It’s really the offline extra touches that make all the difference!
She can. She did. I’m thinking of Wimbledon. You always hear that homeowners rent out their property to tourists when Wimbledon is on because they can make so much money…
ZV. Yeh, special events really boost property prices on short let platforms like Airbnb. Wimbledon is a good example, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is another one, Notting Hill carnival… residents of those areas quite like to escape it. It’s good to have a service where it’s all taken care of and we try and make it as hassle free as possible.
SC.SD. Talk to me about where the idea came from…
ZV. When Alex was in California for his exchange term, one of his friends mentioned that he was renting his flat out in London while he was away and it’s actually making quite a bit of money… the friend was complaining that because of the time difference sometimes he gets calls at 2am and he’d say, “I wish someone would do that for me, I wouldn’t mind spending money on that!”
Classic business school teaching will say that if there is a need and you can solve that need in an efficient, cost effective way and the need is big enough then you have a business! It’s classic textbook! So we did some research on the market and we found that Airbnb and short let was really taking off…
SC.SD. Did he just call you from America?!
ZV. When he got back from London we just started chatting about it! I think he knew I shared that entrepreneurial calling and we were in the same study group during our MBA so we knew it was going to be quite easy to start working together. We did some research and found that yes, the industry is booming, there’s demand for it and the concept can spread around the world. So we then considered, ‘what do we need to start this?’
SC.SD. Which was?
ZV. We started very lean! It was just the two of us using the library as our office, we had our laptops, Alex built the website. The first version didn’t do much; it just had a way to contact us so it was very simple. That was back in May 2015 and then by June we got our first client…
SC.SD. I love hearing about all the little baby steps so how did you convince your first client to come on board?
ZV. We just made use of all the networks available in school. We reached out to friends and family and explained what we were doing. We asked people that owned properties to meet and explore the idea.
We reached out to our first client in a cold calling manner though. We didn’t have the budget to buy data and phone numbers but we found that there were other platforms – not just Airbnb – such as Home Away and in some listings the host displayed their phone number. I don’t think it’s the case now but in 2015 it was so we tried to reach out to some of their home owners. Don’t get me wrong, some hung up the phone straight away! It wasn’t always easy but that’s how we got our first client.
SC.SD. That’s amazing! And was it a case of word of mouth from that point on or was there a dedicated marketing effort to get the name out there?
ZV. We list all of the flats on Airbnb so we used and still use Airbnb as a ‘channel’ I suppose for lack of a better word! When you start your research into an industry there has to be some research about marketing channels and for us at the time and still now, it’s all online so you must have some budget – even if it’s small – to do Google ads for example. You must dedicate time to work on SEO, you must dedicate time to have a good Facebook page just to get the name out there.
It took a while to build but once you’re on the first page of Google, you do see that people come to you organically and that’s how we grew. And then obviously once you get more and more properties on board you dedicate more funding into the marketing…
SC.SD. What about responsibilities in those early days when it was just the two of you… Did you split the roles down the middle or did you assign roles depending on your strengths/weaknesses?
ZV. I have to say we have quite complimentary skills! I really enjoy talking to people and going out there and meeting people so I was in charge of sales and getting new clients on board whilst Alex is very detail orientated. He loves operations so he was focused more on that whereas if anyone called, it would be me that dealt with it and I’d meet the client…
SC.SD. Does that come naturally to you or was it more a case of putting yourself out there because you knew that’s what you had to do for this to work?
ZV. If I were to give advice, should you shy away from things that you’re uncomfortable with? No, because a lot of it comes down to practice. A lack of a skill isn’t because you naturally can’t do it, it’s because you haven’t had – until that day – the circumstances where you need to put it into practice… For me, the first time I met a client wasn’t easy but the idea is to write down various things you need to remember to say. I also created a FAQ sheet for myself so it meant by the time I’d met the tenth person I could pretty much tell what questions he or she was going to ask me. That took away a lot of the pressure and then I suppose the rest came down to being natural, friendly and trustworthy!
SC.SD. That last bit goes a long way! Especially when you’re asking them to trust you with their house..!
ZV. Exactly, “please pass me your keys!” Haha! So you practice and you learn and there are so many YouTube videos you can watch… There’s a TED talk by Amy Cuddy on body language and how you can convey different emotions to make you feel more confident which I love… I’ll send you the link!
Amy Cuddy goes on to explain in this particular TED talk that “if we pretend to be powerful, we’re more likely to feel powerful”, citing Usain Bolt’s body language as he crosses the finish line as a striking example of body language that conveys confidence.
ZV. When you stand like that, mentally, it has such an impact on your self-confidence so before you go into something your nervous about, be it an interview or a meeting with a potential client or a date, whatever it is, go to the bathroom and just stand like that. You probably think it’s silly but actually subconsciously your brain is telling you that you’re comfortable here. ‘I’m a big person and I’m spreading my wings’… it’s kind of automatic and feeds through…
SC.SD. I’ll have to watch that one; I feel like I need to do that!
ZV. You should! On a day to day basis though we both pitched in with whatever was needed. I used to clean if the cleaner didn’t turn up, I’d make the beds, I’d go to the flat and check the boiler at 10pm if someone said it wasn’t working…
SC.SD. Did you know how a boiler worked?!
ZV. Erm… I turned up with a manual in hand! I managed to fix it though but if not I would’ve called an engineer!
SC.SD. I love that. So you started in London, how quickly did it grow and what was driving that growth… other than that it was a really good idea of course!
ZV. Haha! So I think there were several factors controlled by us but also some external factors that played their part. You can’t grow unless you’re set up for it. Imagine if a person got married and wants to have kids, the likelihood is that they’d move out of their one bedroom flat right? It’s similar in business. If I think I can grow and add one hundred properties in the next quarter for example, I need to plan the set up so that the right staff are hired, all the right marketing campaigns are rolled out, the right tech settings are in place. So in the beginning we were thinking about things like, ‘when shall we get interns on board?’
I really like the idea of interns – especially for start-ups – as they’re cheaper but they also tend to be flexible with timing and they’re hungry to perform and to learn… and they often outperformed themselves.
SC.SD. Start-ups offer so much exposure to interns though don’t they? Naturally you’d want to impress to stay in that environment.
ZV. Absolutely! Start-ups are a great way to see what you’re like and what you want to do with your career. Our intern for example, was picking up the phone doing sales one day then the next day he was on operations then the next day we needed flyers… “oh but we haven’t actually got flyers yet so let’s design them together!” That’s marketing experience so suddenly you’re exposed to loads of roles and you think, ‘you know what? I really liked sales, I want to be a salesperson!’ We started having interns from month three and to be fair we keep getting them but it’s on an ad-hoc basis. So yes, you need to plan the company’s infrastructure for it.
ZV. Secondly, I guess you learn that you can pick up the phone and talk to someone but they’ll sign up after ten days for example. When you know that cycle you can plan ahead so you know that on the first day of the month you can get in touch with twenty people and then every two days I need to add more to that list because some will fall off…
And then in terms of external factors, Airbnb itself is growing really quickly which impacts us because once more people became aware of Airbnb more people became aware of us. By month eight we took on our first official employee who was in ops because the ops part was getting tiresome with just the two of us.
SC.SD. What were those initial days like emotionally?
ZV. Hmm…. I think it was liberating actually! My position could be bias though because my Dad is an entrepreneur and I spent two years doing an MBA where I’d say a quarter of my class wanted to be entrepreneurs as well. Spending time in that environment really fuelled that drive and hunger in me and when you have an idea that you love and I do love it – I truly believe in this idea and think it’s a service we truly need- it’s liberating!
There’s research by a psychologist that I can’t remember the name of (!) that I always think about where they interviewed old people about what they regret and most of them didn’t regret things they had done… most people regretted things that they didn’t do and that really stuck with me. In 2015, I was twenty-eight and I just thought I’ve got nothing to lose here. Worst case scenario, I’ll have a great story to tell and I’ll have a fantastic time trying to make it work. This will be a good story to share at ninety!
SC.SD. It really will! That’s the thing though isn’t it? The minute you decide to launch a business you’re instantly stepping out of your comfort zone. It could go either way – yes – but regardless it’s a great story to share…
ZV. Exactly! You meet so many interesting people along the way and the world is full of so many opportunities! I know friends that started something and didn’t succeed but then they met someone else and had another idea that worked so I encourage everyone to try so you get that good story to share when you’re ninety!
One of the things I’d also say to anyone wanting to start their own business is to surround yourself with other people who are also launching their own business…
SC.SD. That’s why I love what I’m doing so much!
ZV. Exactly! Obviously you know this but when you have people around you that think the same, they’re going through the same problems but also, you never know who that person may know or what they may know… When you grow as a business you realise you need other people’s brains just as much as you need your own because there’s pressure every day to perform and manage the various things that get thrown at you. At the beginning, perhaps you can do it yourself but if you do that over a long period of time, you get drained and decision making becomes slower….
SC.SD. It’s not sustainable…
ZV. Exactly. You have to, at some stage, reach out and collaborate.
SC.SD. Obviously the business is becoming more successful with every day that goes by but I presume it hasn’t been plain sailing… have you had real low moments along the way?
ZV. For sure!
SC.SD. Let’s discuss..!
ZV. Ok! It’s not a low per-say but there have definitely been times where I’ve had to give everything to the business. Our first Christmas in 2015 for example – when it was just me and Alex- my parents were in town and I didn’t spend much time with them. There was a lot of, “sorry someone called, I need to go and sort it out” and luckily they were understanding but I’m not sure how long I could get away with that if it kept happening.
Another thing, of course, is that you need to learn how to control your emotions. It’s a service business and I want my clients to have the best service they can have but sometimes we don’t fulfil our promise. It’s an unfortunate thing but it happens and sometimes we lose clients because of that. I always feel sad and angry and frustrated too and obviously in the long run, because of this empathy I’m hoping it means our business will improve but at the time it’s hard…
SC.SD. But you’re learning from every mistake along the way?
ZV. Exactly. There are definitely moments where I’ve felt low because I’ve disappointed someone and you can’t help but think, ‘what if the same thing happens tomorrow?’ but we roll up our sleeves and just go in and fix things. It’s a struggle for a lot of service-led businesses.
SC.SD. And I guess knowing that the responsibility ultimately lies on your shoulders must be daunting?
ZV. Absolutely! We take pride in the brand we’ve created, we want people to trust us so when it doesn’t go right, we take it to heart.
SC.SD. You said you roll your sleeves up… how do you pick yourself up from it and move on? And on the contrary, how do you know when enough is enough for the day and that you need to walk away?
ZV. I recommend meditating! You don’t need half an hour, you just need five minutes to be quiet and close your eyes. But in those moments you also need to remind yourself why you started- it’s easy to forget in the moment.
Ultimately I believe in the team, I believe in Alex and I believe in myself. You have to have that belief that our business is a good business. We did something wrong, yes, but we’ll fix it and we’ll work together to find out how we can prevent this from ever happening again. In the long run that mistake will be a blessing and yes those low days require more work and more hours but it pays off. You just have to keep reminding yourself of that!
SC.SD. Definitely. What about the highs… Any moments that stand out where you’ve been really proud of yourself and what you’ve created?
ZV. Absolutely! One of our biggest achievements was raising the first seed round of funding which happened in October 2016. We started floating the idea of fundraising in January that year so it was a long process and finally after months of pitching and meetings we got a VC to invest in that seed round. That was definitely a moment of pride!
SC.SD. I’m not surprised! Were you the one pitching?
ZV. We used to switch! If Alex pitched I’d answer the questions, if I pitched he would but we always turned up together. They’d say, “so where’s the company?” and we’d say, “right here, this is it!” Usually in seed rounds, a lot of investors just want to get to know the founders because yes, they’re buying into the business model but they’re also buying into the people. They want to see that you work together well, that you gel, that you share the same vision and work ethic. Their investment showed that we had a business model that people can buy into so that gave us more confidence.
The second moment of pride was probably when we expanded to Edinburgh, Manchester and Brighton in Q1 2017. I did a lot of that work… finding local partners like the linen companies and cleaning companies in each city and sorting those contracts out and training the sales team to be able to make sales from London and sign up clients in those cities, so that felt good!
SC.SD. I bet! Let’s talk about how you funded Pass the Keys more in those early days. When it was just you and Alex in the library, you obviously built the website etc… Even though you can do that reasonably cheaply, it all adds up so how did you fund it in the early stages? Am I right in thinking you were once in banking?
ZV. I was in banking from twenty-one to twenty-five. I started as a stock analyst for HSBC and then I moved to the bond market on the buy-side and it was definitely an amazing time to be in finance as the market was going crazy! But I think I was lucky because it also meant that I had some savings…
SC.SD. Perks of working in finance!
ZV. Exactly! And that allowed me to not earn anything in the beginning of Pass the Keys – it was all self-funded. It didn’t cost a lot though. There were some legal and accounting costs but we really tried to keep it to the minimum and we spent cleverly. Like I said, we did the website ourselves…
SC.SD. I think people often over complicate what goes in to setting up a business when in reality, with things like a website, you can just log on to Google and learn how to make one yourself.
ZV. Exactly and with things like SEO and Google Ads, read some documents, watch a YouTube video, spend a few hours learning what it is and then you slowly learn the ropes. There are so many start-up events that you can go along to now and learn these things too. Utilise all of those free resources.
SC.SD. What made you seek external investment?
ZV. Some founders don’t want to raise investment because they want to protect their equity stake and that’s fine but Alex and I want to be global. We want to have a Pass the Keys in France, in Peru, everywhere!
SC.SD. And it’s been that case from day one?
ZV. Absolutely and that means we need a lot of the core things like tech to be really strong and that requires money unfortunately. Also, ‘global’ means we need an extensive network so when we raised money, we were thinking that the VC could also be a Partner. They’d have connections, they’d have expertise and they’d be the ones to challenge us, and keep us accountable. I think it’s good when you’re ambitious to have that.
Also, I think for us the potential was so big with this that we needed to raise money so we could invest in areas and stay at the front ahead of the competition.
SC.SD. A background in banking and your MBA must have prepared you in many ways for raising investment so what advice would you give to someone who doesn’t have that background… I’m thinking in terms of the preparation and not being intimidated by what’s involved…
ZV. Very good question! I’m trying to not just tell you, “don’t be scared” because that’s rubbish advice!
I would say that you can’t run a business without knowing the three basic things in accounting: your P&L, your balance sheets and your cash flow status. It doesn’t matter what your background is, during the process you must know where your cash is going, you must know what you’re getting in return for it and you must know what your revenue is, and how to control that. Assuming that when you’re ready to raise investment you’re fully aware of those three things, it gives you the confidence that when a potential investor asks you things, like, “why did you invest in that? How will that impact your revenue? Did you get more clients out of it?”… you can answer the questions and that automatically gives you more confidence. The more scary part I suppose is when the questions become more future related: “What is your strategy? How would you plan to market that? Tell me more about your competitors and how are they doing?” Those questions require more research and I think some people struggle with that but you tackle it by practicing your pitch.
I recommend going to pitching events. See how people pitch, the kinds of questions they get asked and imagine if it was you, could you answer those questions about your business?
SC.SD. That’s such good advice!
ZV. Thanks! I also think it’s worth knowing that raising funds is a long process so it’s a ‘practise over time’ thing. Oh and another thing is to not be scared to say, “I don’t have an answer to that right now. I can email you the answer by the end of the day though…”
SC.SD. As opposed to bluffing on the spot?!
ZV. Exactly! So much is going on in your head that it might not come out the way you want it to!
SC.SD. I think you’ve broken that down so well, thank you! What’s it like working with Alex?
ZV. Well first and foremost we were friends before we went into business! I don’t know how important that is but I feel like it is because when you’re friends, I genuinely want him to succeed and he genuinely wants me to succeed so it helps with tackling varying opinions because you know that even if you disagree on something, deep down you share the best interests so it allows you to be more open-minded and honest.
You can start a business on your own, of course you can, but having Alex made me realise that there’s things he’s better at than me and there’s things that I’m better at than him and we compliment each other. Alex is a wizard on Excel, he’s a big thinker, he was at McKinsey before this and they really trained his thinking in terms of how to structure things so that’s something he’s better at than me. I really enjoy learning from him and knowing I have a good support there! And then on the other hand, I enjoy talking to people more than he does so I’m naturally better than sales…
SC.SD. Did you know this though before you went into business or has it been something you’ve learnt about each other along the way?
ZV. Interestingly, we never had that conversation!
SC.SD. You just naturally fell into those roles?
ZV. Yes! I wish there was a co-founder questionnaire that you could answer to see if you were compatible!
SC.SD. Haha! And in your low points, is it Alex that you turn to?
ZV. My parents are very core in my support network and I have amazing girlfriends! I’ll tell you what- having amazing girlfriends is probably linked with how long we live! I think it’s so important for female founders to have that.
Because Alex and I spend so much time together in the office, naturally we don’t feel like we need to spend as much time outside work. It’s not even because you don’t want to, we just don’t need to because we catch up over lunch or in the office! I try and catch up with my friends but I save all of that for the weekend because I don’t have time in the week.
SC.SD. What hours are we talking?
ZV. I show up about 9am and then stay till about 7/ 7.30/ 8pm. I guess it just depends on the intensity of what we’ve got on at the time. If I do stay until 8pm, my brain is rather dead so I just go home.
SC.SD. And you have weekends?
ZV. I do now yes! In the beginning, no, but even now, I make myself available if anyone needs me.
SC.SD. That’s understandable! Moving on then, if you had to describe yourself as a business women what are you like?
ZV. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of myself as a business woman until you told me I am! I like to think I’m ambitious…
SC.SD. That’s obvious!
ZV. Haha! I like to think I’m inclusive; I like sharing ideas and listening to others but I think because I’m slightly extrovert I need that. There’s definitely open-mindedness in the company so if anyone shares their idea, we’ll talk about it. I’m not sure what else… I really want to start giving back to. `One of my dear friends thinks 10% of what you earn belongs to the world. The world has created circumstances for you whether you were born into a stable country or have parents that were willing to support you or you were lucky to have a good education… it’s circumstantial so you owe it to the world to give something back to help other people that aren’t as fortunate. I’d love to do that when I’m in a position to.
SC.SD. I love that. Do you see yourself as successful now? What’s the end goal?
ZV. Hmm… As a start-up we’ve been doing quite well I suppose but success is funny! It’s sort of like a destination but not! If you ask me, “do I feel successful?” I’d probably say, “relatively speaking, yes” but can I see an end picture where I think, ‘success reached? Tick!’ …It’s difficult. We do have a goal that by 2020 we’ll be in a certain number of countries but beyond that it’s something that we’ll have to revisit. It’s hard to have a ten year plan as a start-up… you kind of have one-two year plans and just see what happens during the execution for that plan!
SC.SD. When you say you want to be in X number of countries by 2020, how much is money the motivation that’s driving that?
ZV. There’s definitely some of that. People that start their own business should be driven by how much they can earn too but it’s also about the experience. I was proud of expanding to Edinburgh etc… I learnt so much so if we were to expand to California say, I’d learn so much more. It’s partly money but also this thing about being ninety years old with stories to tell drives me too!
SC.SD. I have a feeling you’re going to have some good ones! Last question then, what’s your favourite quote and why?
ZV. I don’t know who said it but it’s that, “most things you regret are the things you don’t do!” I’m not telling you to go and jump off a bridge, it’s obviously within reason but when you’re ninety the small things in life are trivial. You’ll remember the key moments and hopefully those key moments are the things you’re going to be grateful for…
You often hear people describe the first few months of launching their business as uncertain or scary or in many cases both – I know I’ve felt like that at certain points over the past six months – but the fact that Zoe found the initial days liberating, only proves that she’s a natural entrepreneur born to do this, more.
From her refusal to shy away from tasks that intimidate her, her advice on adjusting your body language if you want an instant confidence boost and her invaluable step-by-step breakdown of what securing VC involves; so much of this interview stands out in my mind. But it was Zoe’s refreshing willingness to voice out loud that she wants her business to go global – without showing any signs of hesitation or apology for wanting that to be so – that will stick with me long after I post this on Sunday, most.
As Reece Witherspoon so aptly put back in 2015, “ambition is not a dirty word. It’s just believing in yourself and your own abilities…” and Zoe, in my opinion, personifies that quote to a T.
Driven by a determination to make a life for herself that is void of regret, the stories this woman has to share at thirty are pretty incredible as they stand.
I can only imagine how inspiring they’ll be sixty years from today.
Want to join She can. She did. at ‘The midweek mingle’ on 4th April? Tickets available here.