South African student accommodation marketplace DigsConnect began life as a passion product, but has since grown into a fully-fledged business with more than 50,000 rooms listed on its platform.
Co-founder Alexandria Procter was on the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) back in 2015, with all off-campus students falling under her jurisdiction.
“The biggest issue I was dealing with was matching up students looking for accommodation and landlords looking for tenants,” Procter told Disrupt Africa. “So DigsConnect actually started as an Excel spreadsheet where I was manually linking students with landlords! It wasn’t a sustainable system, and so I decided to build a basic platform so people could connect directly with each other.”
DigsConnect was born, but it remained a sideline project for Procter as she finished her undergraduate degree and moved into postgraduate. But a few days into her postgraduate it became clear she could not do both.
“DigsConnect was gaining traction quickly and it became apparent that I was on to something. I spoke to my student advisor about it at length, and he was really the one who encouraged me to take the leap and launch it as a startup,” she said.
That she did, joining forces with fellow SRC member and friend Greg Keal, with Brendan Ardagh joining the team shortly after. Now, it seems like the right move, with DigsConnect growing from 2,000 listed rooms to more than 50,000 in less than six months.
The student accommodation marketplace allows landlords, estate agents and property managers to post their property listings on the platform, be they rooms in apartments or houses, granny flats, or entire private residencies with thousands of beds. Students can search and filter through these listings to find accommodation that suits their needs, and also find other students to live with.
“That’s the core of what we do – we centralise all types of student accommodation in one place, so that if you’re coming from Port Elizabeth and going to UCT, you can just go onto DigsConnect to find the perfect digs close to your campus, book and pay for it, match up and meet your roommate – all before even leaving home,” Procter said.
The team is also piloting a new called the “Virtual Res”, with the idea being to create an inclusive online social living community for students. Each Virtual Res is specific to a university or college, with students are automatically added to their varsity’s platform when they log in with their university email address.
“On there, they’ll be able to find digs mates that are registered at the same institution as them, organise lifts to campus, join digs’ with their classmates and share living expenses, find private res’ where we’ve negotiated discount deals, and a lot more. It’s about making things safer, more efficient, more inclusive and promoting a fun and memorable varsity experience,” said Procter.
She said DigsConnect started as a direct response to the massive disconnect between landlords and students in South Africa.
“We wanted to provide an easy-to-use way of linking the two and providing tonnes of value outside of the typical classifieds-style listing page in the form of our internal messaging, viewing booker, and soon entire property management system, payment system and ride-sharing, all through our website,” Procter said.
“We are disrupting a market dominated by the old players who haven’t done anything to design for this niche. Our background in student leadership structures and our willingness to do things differently has allowed us to shake up a market that seems to never have been explored as an entire market of its own before.”
The self-funded startup has partnered with a number of large brands on marketing campaigns at universities, allowing it to market on a large-scale but low-budget basis, and Procter said she has been delighted with uptake.
“We meet with students and landlords every week to chat about the pain points and investigate what we can do better to solve their issues in the management of and searching for student accommodation,” she said.
Digs Connect has listings in every major university city or town nationwide, but its Cape Town base means that has been the focus of its operations.
“However, we’ve put a lot of effort into our expansion and so we also have a strong presence in Stellenbosch, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Potchefstroom, Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown. Wherever there’s an institute of higher education and students, we want to be offering our accommodation service for the benefit of the students, parents, the institutions and all the homeowners in the area,” Procter said.
The startup has thus far been focused on growth, and so has not been charging any of its users.
“We hadn’t planned to charge them any time soon, but we reached a point where landlords kept asking us if they could pay to advertise on our site that it seemed a bit silly to keep saying “no” to them. It is, and always will be, free to list on DigsConnect. We’re fundamentally value-focused, and we’re prioritising creating a phenomenal product that adds immense value to people’s lives. We believe that money follows value. Product market fit is essential, and until we’ve nailed done a flawless product, we won’t be charging,” Procter said.
Ultimately, however, the plan is for landlords and students to manage their rent via DigsConnect.
“This will mean that students pay via DigsConnect, and we take a small commission on that. We’re working closely with our users to figure out what a fair rate would be. It’s super important for us that our users help us design our system and processes with their input and feedback,” said Procter.