How business apartments can lead you into the Dragons’ Den
The motto for Ergon’s 2019 “Beer, Bytes & Beats” summer party was “A connected world: working together to boost value creation”. Anja Graf, CEO and Chairwoman of VISIONAPARTMENTS, on modest beginnings, the hurdles on the path to success, and the importance of working with the right partners.
It’s almost 20 years since Anja Graf started using conveniently located apartments to accommodate models arriving from abroad for photoshoots in Switzerland, rather than block-booking hotel rooms. Sourcing such lodgings was initially quite a challenge.
The first “business apartments” emerged during a lull in demand for office space in Zurich. Graf managed to convince the owners of these premises that her business idea of making them habitable by fitting them with a bathroom and kitchen was viable, and so her company was born. Word got round quickly – and soon big-hitters like ABB were making enquiries.
From creating glorified youth hostels with a loft-living vibe, the concept evolved to include the first apartment block. As Graf remembers, the property boom was yet to get into top gear and banks were easily persuaded into providing finance.
Finding the right business partners
Everyone only wants to work with the best, of course, “but you often don’t know that in advance,” points out Graf. As she explained at a Credit Suisse “Chairwoman’s Table” event, this is precisely why she doesn’t have a board of directors: “One doesn’t know if the people on such a board can genuinely be trusted.” Trust is critical in the property business in particular, she continues, along with speed and freedom of choice. Finding a good property but first having to present it to a board of directors for approval might all take too long, and the opportunity might be lost.
Anja Graf has nonetheless been lucky with her business partners – including the bank ready to finance a business idea that, back when she was taking her baby steps in commerce, was innovative and unusual. Further down the road, her company encountered similarly reliable partners without whom her success would not have been possible. “Selecting the right partners is essential and bolsters your confidence. And, in the end, both sides usually benefit from a collaboration,” says Graf.
“For young entrepreneurs especially, it is essential to keep trying until you achieve your goals.”
Constant adaptation on the road to international success
After Zurich, Anja Graf began expanding her business abroad, initially into the German-speaking areas of Europe. This was followed by a further move into Poland, and the company now runs a support centre with 90 staff in Warsaw, bringing a whole new culture, language and jurisdiction into the mix. This meant that the company’s culture, communications and processes had to be re-imagined, re-designed and professionalised. Once English had been established as the lingua franca throughout the group, the foundations for further expansion had been laid.
How VISIONAPARTMENTS digitalised
A company with an international footprint needs tools that allow information to flow, and it was Graf herself who set about finding a solution on this front. Her ultimate aim here was that it should be possible for one system, or software suite, to take care of simple, routine tasks so that staff were required only for “intelligent” jobs where they could add value.
Developing such a system requires a lot of time, however – not to mention expertise – and this is precisely why it is essential to have experienced partners on board. With Ergon’s involvement, the company worked intensively on the solution they built, and Graf has no doubt that digitalised work processes will make many things easier. Expansion into Poland has been just one of the developments facilitated by this system.
From young entrepreneur to investor
VISIONAPARTMENTS and Graf have been continuing this expansion drive and the firm is now one of the world’s leading real estate businesses. Anja Graf has since become an investor herself and has even appeared on the Swiss version of the “Dragons’ Den” TV show. She feels in her element amongst nascent firms and startups, and salutes the entrepreneurial spirit of the company founders. A programme like “Dragons’ Den” can raise awareness of what it means to take the initiative and inspire young and old alike to set up their own businesses.
Anja Graf on the crucial importance of a global network, and an encouragement to young entrepreneurs to always believe in their vision.