Nikos Iatrou (MSc Property Valuation and Law, 2006) quit his 9-5 for a real estate job with a difference – luxury holiday villas Maera Villas in Mykonos, and a sideline of cold-pressed juices. We sat down for a chat about how it all came about.
Tell me about your time at Cass!
I came to Cass in 2005 to do a Masters in what was then Property Valuation and Law with George Herd. I intended to go in to commercial real estate. I really enjoyed the course, but to be honest I didn’t really know what I signed up for!
The law side was super challenging, but it was a great course – it certainly had its tricky moments! The content was very useful and I used a lot of it at work straight after; it wasn’t cheap to do but I felt it was money well spent, and I believe I’ve got a good return on my investment.
I’ve only got good memories from Cass and I still have many friends and work contacts from my time studying.
Where did you go next?
Right after finishing my degree I joined a real estate firm in the West End called Savoy Stewart, and it was really useful that I already had a good network of contacts from Cass that I could use straight away. I went with the aim of becoming a RICS Chartered Surveyor. I stayed for two years and qualified as MRICS. But I soon realised I don’t really enjoy a desk job, working 9-5 every day and that whole working format. And this is really where my story begins!
What gave you the idea for holiday villas?
As part of my final piece of coursework for the degree, I had actually done a project about the development of a holiday villa in Greece, so you can see I was already interested in things further afield.
How did you end up in Mykonos?
After qualifying as MRICS and some world travelling I decided to get into villa properties and hospitality in Greece – Greece has had a fraught time of things, but from a real estate point of view it is very interesting – I applied the principle that I learned from Cass to opportunistically find a good opportunity with potential.
I found Mykonos – I looked at others too – but here I went and looked all over seeking a builder or a developer in a difficult spot who I could buy property from to rent out.
What happened next?
I found the ideal properties and bought them and began to reconfigure them, as well as doing the marketing and promotion. Then when people started showing up I was also responsible for the hospitality side of the business. This was summer 2015.
The houses are really cool and brand new, and in the main one we did lots of additions, like a really cool secret disco built in to the rocks, and a custom-built hot tub.
I looked to improve the properties in many ways – something I learned at Cass is to find your angle and add value to your real estate investments. The summer went very well, we had quite a few bookings and everyone was astounded by the accommodation. This summer it’s looking like it will be even crazier as more people get to hear of our villas.
Do you have any other projects?
I also set up a side company in Mykonos, a small-scale cold pressed juice company. I was living in New York for a while when the craze was really taking off there – you know, green juices for health, and cold pressing to keep more nutrients. So I put two and two together and decided to try it in Mykonos. It’s both a place where healthier-minded people go for a holiday as well as somewhere where people might overindulge and want to detox the next day.
Last summer I did an official one-month pilot to see how it went, and it was pretty cool actually, and we got lots of social media buzz. We offered the juices to yoga instructors, who sent us their clients, and through this we got to some Instagram celebrities who were staying on the island and it quickly became a big deal. In the end it went on for 2 months and we didn’t do any marketing and didn’t have a point of sale, it was all very successful and we’re certainly going to launch properly this summer.
Do you have more villas in the pipeline?
Yes we are actually in the process of doing up some new ones we recently bought so we have some new villas to add to the portfolio. I’ve also been asked to take over some other properties as well. Currently there are 9 villas now, with a few more to add, all similar in that they are high-value luxury accommodation.
Do you do all this alone?
Last year I had three people working with me, all from the US actually, and it was a great experience for the whole team. We lived together for four months and they all went off after – so I’m looking to recruit people to fill their positions. If you’re interested – contact the alumni team or find me on instagram @maeravillas.
Were there any unexpected challenges or problems?
Oh yes – what to pick!
Greek bureaucracy is very difficult to plan and deal with. In the end I got support from local tax and accounting (never my strong point) specialists and also I tried to actively understand the basics.
Dealing with the villa’s clients can be tricky at times. People are very particular on holiday; we always had the attitude that we can accommodate any request – but that led to a few difficult situations with people requesting unreasonable things, like one group who wanted a full meal prepared by a top chef within an hour’s notice – we scrambled but we managed to get it done.
With the juices we had a whole other set of problems! For example, you might not always be able to get all the ingredients so you have to find the right substitutes. Fine-tuning the recipes took a long time until we were happy with the taste basics and nutritional level. And from a business point of view it was a challenge to come up with a recipe that was not unprofitable at base cost. There were tons of marketing challenges too, because we were working on a tiny shoestring budget. Getting the Instagram celebrities involved came as a result of our initiative to have brand ambassadors, who were the local yoga and pilates instructors who we gave commission to for referrals.
Also, lack of sleep! I had about three hours a night for about three months!
What one thing would you like to go back and tell yourself when you were starting out?
I’d definitely arrange better accommodation for myself and my team. It was a smallish place and the lack of space and close proximity could cause a few fractious moments. Also sleeping pills!
What’s next for you?
The Villas we currently have are on a high-end scale and I want to expand and get more if the right opportunity is there. In Mykonos and Greece in general, the problems may have stabilised but they are still there so I’m working hard to find ways to safeguard against any volatility.
Also, from my experience in our summer accommodation I realised that summer-long rental properties are in short supply for seasonal workers. I’m now in negotiation for a plot of land away from the commercial areas, to develop small (2 person) units for people working in Mykonos in the summer. Again my Cass learning has come in handy here – I’ve already secured a rental guarantee from a landlord for five years, ensuring a good initial yield.
The other problem to solve, is what do I do in the winter? This winter I’m going travelling but in general I’m trying to find other stuff to do. I’m also looking at small refurbs of London properties, as I’ve got friends who have been doing that sort of thing for a while.
Finally, it’s the quick fire question round!
What’s your favourite place in London? Hyde Park
Your favourite holiday destination? Mykonos
Your must-check-every day website? BBC Football, especially Tottenham Hotspur’s page
Your dream travel destination? I’m actually about to start doing it now – Nepal before I go back to Mykonos, get all spiritual and relaxed
Cheese or chocolate? *big sigh* I like both! Chocolate!
Check out the villas at www.maeravillas.com/ and find Nikos on instagram @maeravillas.