Villa Plus is the UK’s leading tech-enabled luxury accommodation specialist, currently on the cusp of massive European expansion.
In this edition of our ‘Where to Work’ series, we speak with a number of folks from Villa Plus, the UK’s leading villa holiday provider. Since 1986, the boutique firm has steadily grown to become a household name in the UK for curated villa holidays in Europe. With gorgeous hand-picked properties across Southern Europe, each with its own private pool, on-site concierge teams, and a host of other advantages, they’ve been the obvious choice for holidaymakers in the UK and Europe for decades.
For the first time in their history, the bespoke holiday veterans are expanding into 35 new markets by the end of this year and are actively hiring developers to support the transition.
Interviewing a number of folks from within the organisation, across their UK and India locations, we sought to understand their over three-and-a-half decade journey – from being one of more than one hundred players in the villa rental space when they first started out, to just one of two today.
Here’s our deep dive into the unique dynamics that makes Villa Plus an established company with a startup vibe, how their Agile approach to work fosters openness, rapid growth and continuous learning, the secrets behind their empowering and supportive culture, best-in-class benefits and much more.
The Story Thus Far
“In the ‘80s, you would have found us in the classified ads section of the Sunday Times newspaper and given us a ring. We’d then snail-mail you a physical brochure and take things from there. Things have changed quite a bit”, laughs Director and Owner, Raj Mavani.
Today, they’re one of the most advanced accommodation providers around with a state-of-the-art tech stack and development teams across the globe.
They’re also one of the largest players in the luxury villa segment today. “When I joined the business in 1996, we had 33 units in the Algarve. In 2020, that number was over 1800 across 18 destinations in Europe”, says Raj.
With per-week ticket sizes ranging from between 2,500 and 14,000 GBP, the curated accommodation company averages around 45,000 to 50,000 weeks per year, all booked and paid for in advance, sometimes up to a year ahead for their most exclusive properties.
“We’ve come a long way from having just those few dozen properties in the Algarve. Our main competitor today is Booking.com, valued at around 100 billion dollars. While we may not be able to compete with them in their reach or as a brand, we can with the way we treat our people. We have a flat structure and phenomenal people – all from these larger companies. No managers, everyone’s a worker, and we pay better than the big companies”, he says with a smile.
“Three decades in and we’re just getting started. By the end of 2022, we will be in 30 to 35 countries across Europe and our addressable market will be about 520 million potential customers. It’s currently 68 million – as we have, thus far, only been selling to the UK market.
Everything’s going to change and we need the right people to take us into this new paradigm.”
Agility at Villa Plus
Possibly the single most important step in Villa Plus’ transformation from a conventional travel provider to the technology-centric company they are today was the creation of their software division in 2004. They provide mission-critical software solutions to help Villa Plus reach its business goals. Their core focus is on constantly progressing VillaPlus.com and its associated systems to new technology frontiers, and continuously identifying opportunities to build new software systems that deliver value to customers.
Their current hiring drive will bolster their team’s capabilities in time for the upcoming expansion.
Simantini Borkar, Head of Development, has been with the firm since 2018 and has overseen their transformation to an Agile development methodology – a key factor in their recent growth and performance improvements. “Apart from the obvious structural and efficiency benefits of Agile, it’s the ability to inspect and adapt on an everyday basis, the culture of constant learning and growth, and an acceptance of failing fast that makes this approach truly valuable. Done well, it creates a mindset of high performance and inclusive growth across the board.
When I first joined Villa Plus, this transformation was in its infancy, and we used to employ a function-based structure which led to the creation of knowledge silos where a few individuals had too much power. There was also a lot of bureaucracy that created unnecessary obstacles in achieving our objectives. Now, we have evolved into a much flatter and more empowering structure which is beneficial at every level – right from the owners to our developers on the ground. We have a culture that supports communication across all levels. Suggestions for how we can do better can come from anyone in the organisation, regardless of seniority.
It is, of course, an ongoing journey, there’s no destination. We can always learn and be better and that’s what we’re committed to doing as a brand.”
Simantini also explained how the transformation has brought the UK and India teams closer together. “In the past, there used to be a certain gap in comfort and communication between our various teams between the UK and India. There was a sense of separation that led to a lack of quality interaction that was suboptimal for the smooth flow of ideas and effective collaboration. I’m happy to say that, today, we’ve made huge strides in working collaboratively across all regions and business activities with the end goal of delivering the highest quality of service and experience to our customers. This way, there is a frictionless exchange of ideas, methodologies and feedback, which creates a healthy and supportive culture.”
Their Agile way of working has also led to high levels of autonomy for developers in all of their engineering teams. “Our teams are cross-functional and self-organised. Each team is responsible for the end-to-end development, testing and deployment and this allows for huge learnings and measurable growth. We have also adopted a pair programming practice, which allows for mentorship to take place every sprint, and this fosters learning and development for younger developers.
In essence, we are a lean organisation that strongly believes in decentralised decision making and zero red tape.”
On the Tech, One-Week Sprints and the Road Ahead
With over 15 years at Villa Plus’ India office, Senior Developer Arti Jeurkar is one of the company’s veterans who has been there throughout. Primarily responsible for the Villa Plus website, she’s been involved in every stage of their many revisions over the years and is also a key player in readying the platform for the new markets they’re poised to enter.
“It’s been a rollercoaster”, she laughs. “We started out all those years ago with a very basic ASP.NET model but soon migrated to a .NET MVC. Then, as mobile computing took off, we were at one point running three websites simultaneously – for desktop, mobile and tablet use. That soon turned into a nightmare because every change and new feature had to be implemented on each site simultaneously, so we learnt about responsive websites, Bootstrap and created one adaptive platform. There was also the iterative shift from on-premise servers to Azure for our website and supporting applications. So, it has certainly been a long journey to arrive at where we are today with our singular responsive, fully cloud-hosted platform with all its various sub-sites and suite of applications. Crucially, the website now supports localisation which will allow us to move into these new markets.”
For the expansion, the lion’s share of the work on the software front will be in communicating the brand’s story and offerings into over 30 new languages, of which 17 have been completed.
In terms of challenges, Arti explains that the shift from their previous function-based Waterfall model to their current Agile way of working was the most significant. “We were used to a more leisurely delivery schedule in the past where we had two to three months to deliver a new feature. When we made the shift to Agility, the organisation took the decision to adopt a one-week sprint approach that was honestly very difficult to adapt to in the beginning. With time, however, and our post-sprint retrospectives, we got more comfortable with the new way of working and our productivity increased enormously. Today, especially with what’s ahead of us, I’m happy we made the effort to transition.”
Another empowering change that the teams in India have instituted is pair programming, especially for new joiners and younger developers. “Rather than a conventional training period, we find that it’s better for new members to partner with an existing developer and participate in the work. This way, they learn our ways and get a feel for the work directly and not through some hypothetical training situation. We also shift pairs frequently so there is a constant exchange of ideas and interactions between all of our teams both in India and the UK. I think it’s very powerful for both new joiners as well as for those of us who have been with the organisation for a long time because our new developers often teach us new ways of doing things and bring fresh perspectives to the table. It’s a win-win.”
A key alteration to the Villa Plus way of working going forward is the change of model from commitment-based, where villa owners would sign up with the company for an entire season, to the new hybrid model that provides more flexibility and new offerings such as boutique hotels to holidaymakers. The latter also allows Villa Plus to share its sizable inventory with channel partners like Booking.com and Airbnb, opening up additional revenue streams.
Working out of the brand’s UK headquarters, Senior Developer Jakub Gaborski has been with Villa Plus for two years. He outlined how the merging of teams across India and the UK allowed for these new changes to occur, and the culture of openness, lack of hierarchy and the flow of ideas that resulted from it. “We recently merged with Cosmos, Arti’s team in India, so now we’re one team across locations. Developer-wise we’re all on the same level, with just Simantini as our head, then the CTO and business owner. It almost feels like a lightweight startup, despite them being around for thirty-six years. There isn’t a lot of bureaucracy like in most other organisations, which was a very pleasant surprise. Having such a direct line of communication with your higher-ups is very beneficial for a developer. The ability to share an idea with them directly is quite refreshing and provides for excellent learning opportunities.”
Who Fits the Bill?
“We believe in simplicity and software craftsmanship. Our product life cycles are long and our solutions need to be simple and easy for every developer, current and future, to understand and be able to work with. So these are important characteristics that we look for when we interview candidates. A mindset of openness and growth is also highly desirable. As technology is always changing, we need our developers to be able to evolve and adapt as readily as we do as an organisation. The right mindset is far more important than in-depth experience in every technology because the latter can be taught”, says Simantini.
Subhash Nair, Senior HRBP, explains their One Team model of working since transforming to Agile and outlines the breadth of ownership and buy-in required from the engineers who work with them. “Our teams are small and wholly involved from the beginning to the end of any task or project they initiate.“
Reiterating Simantini’s message, he says, “Our belief system is to stick to the basics and keep things as simple as possible. Real simplification is actually profoundly complicated!” (laughs)
“We actively encourage our teams to keep processes to the bare minimum. For example, if something can be done through direct communication, choose that over lengthy email threads every time. Don’t get lost in the endless loop of unnecessary process.”
“At the end of the day, we evaluate all candidates against the 3 fundamental values of our organisation – the quality of their work; a dedication to continuous improvement; and a mindset of constant learning.”
The Geektrust Effect
“Geektrust has been our best bet at finding the right people for us. They’ve outperformed all other partners, mostly because talent approaches Geektrust rather than the other way around. The reason so many such interactions are successful is that once they’ve passed your coding challenge we know their suitability immediately. They come with unit test cases prepared, follow the right principles, write clean code, and have the mindset we’re looking for. The hit ratio with Geektrust is far better than anywhere else, in our experience”, says Subhash.
Why Work With Villa Plus?
The reasons are three-fold, according to Subhash. “One, for our engaging, immersive and progressive work environment; two, timing, we’re on the verge of huge growth and this would be the right time to come aboard; and, three, we’re flexible by design, our people are not made to fit into rigid and unrelenting structures, both from a process standpoint and from where the individual would like to work from.
We were already working in a hybrid manner prior to the pandemic and ensured that our employees’ personal circumstances are taken into consideration. For instance, parents with kids at home or people who need to spend a few days a week in different geographical locations will have their circumstances factored into the work dynamic. We’re least bothered about the location from where you work with us – we only ask that you’re sincere about your reasons and that the work you deliver is of high quality.”
Raj weighs in on the financials, “In terms of compensation, we’re the best in the industry – no question. Why? It’s simple, we’re a highly established boutique brand with a loyal customer base who have been with us for decades. We operate exclusively in the luxury segments of Southern European holidays, so our ticket sizes are high, with an average spend of 3000 GBP per customer per week.
Additionally, we’ve intentionally kept our team size small thus far – preferring quality over quantity. This puts us in an advantageous position compared to our much larger competitors whose workforces are in the hundreds or thousands. By choosing the route of fewer, highly talented people, everyone gets a larger slice of the pie.”
At the height of the pandemic in 2021, while other players were letting go of staff or applying for the British-government-aided furlough scheme, they instead revised salaries thrice in a single year. “The revisions weren’t small either. For mid and junior-level developers, their increases were in the range of 35-40%. We wanted to reward their faith in us, without them having to ask. We have a policy of frequently reviewing roles and responsibilities, finding out what the market is paying, and offering them revisions as a surprise. Also, these increases are calculated on their gross earnings, not their basic.
It’s our way to thank them for their dedication and excellence in everything they do as part of our organisation. They work hard for us, so we ensure that their efforts are rewarded – it’s as simple as that.”
Want to join the Villa Plus team at their UK office?
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