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Embracing a brave new world

THEO PANAYIDES meets a start-up entrepreneur keen to take advantage of globalisation and our changing times

 

I first catch a glimpse of Demetrios Zoppos standing by the side of the road, outside the Weaving Mill in Nicosia where we’re due to meet for an hour-long interview. I’m on time, he’s a few minutes early. I know it must be him – there’s no-one else around – but I also know that he’s in his mid-40s (he was born in 1970) and the man on the pavement looks significantly younger, a thin man with a backpack and the air of a low-budget tourist. Seen up close, he’s greying at the temples – the Weaving Mill turns out to be closed, and we sit by the steps of Phaneromeni on a windy Thursday morning – but still has the lean, buzzy energy one associates with youth. The chin is sharp, the nose aquiline, the eyes recessed below prominent brows; the hair is lush and spiky, though his hairline is receding slightly. He talks so fast he sometimes swallows his words.

What keeps him looking sharp and alert? Physically speaking, there’s the fact that he doesn’t smoke, only drinks socially, and has been an athlete all his life – though these days he only does enough sport to keep fit, he says. (Moderation in all things, then? “Except stress and work,” he replies ruefully.) Psychologically speaking, there’s the fact that he deals in start-ups and entrepreneurship, keeping his mind supple and his thinking creative; feeling old is invariably the first step to growing old. And there’s something else as well, something intangible: London-based Demetrios is part of a social and business class who’ve essentially shaped the modern world, high-achieving technophiles and globalists who are dynamic, optimistic, highly educated, and usually rich. At one point he recalls his time at Harvard, where he did an MPA (Master of Public Administration): “People there are smart, and kind of worldly and interesting. What does Trump call them – ‘the liberal elite’…”

This much is public knowledge, available online if you care to Google his name: Demetrios was a co-founder of Onefinestay, a start-up providing an Airbnb service for high-end homes which, in April of last year, was bought by AccorHotels for at least $170 million (actually closer to $250 million). Obviously, that money didn’t all end up in his pocket. Not only were there four co-founders, but the company had also amassed a number of investors through six rounds of funding; indeed, he and his partners had initially approached Accor as a strategic investor, not with an eye to selling the company (but they wanted control, which meant buying out the other investors). Still, he concludes dryly, with a deal this big it’s fair to say that “everybody wins”.

Onefinestay has been the biggest success of his career so far – but it wasn’t a sure thing. Some ideas are so obviously brilliant that people look back and say ‘Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?’; Onefinestay isn’t one of those ideas. The notion of home owners renting out their beautiful homes to unknown visitors sounds rather dubious, especially at the top end of the market and especially in 2010, when not everyone booked online like they do now. “We launched with two pages of listings, of which half [the homes] were not available,” he recalls; Demetrios put his own Notting Hill abode on the brochure, to make up the numbers, and became “an itinerant refugee in London with my family” when it got snapped up. The venture appears to have been well-run: there was bespoke insurance for every property, guests were personally vetted by Onefinestay staff, a system was in place for making copies of house keys. On the other hand, none of the founders had much experience (Demetrios, with two other start-ups under his belt, was probably the veteran) – and it’s also true that, despite being so popular among venture capitalists, 90 per cent of start-ups don’t even make it to 18 months.

Then again, the point isn’t really that Onefinestay succeeded when it might’ve failed. The point is that Demetrios Zoppos tried to make it work, had “budgeted” (to use one of his words) for its possible failure, and, had it failed, would undoubtedly have tried something else. At one point he tells me of “this space I inhabit” – a space of “fast-world start-ups”, i.e. technology-backed start-ups; you don’t stand still for long in a ‘fast world’, and you may even crash and burn occasionally. Another of his favourite words is “step change”, meaning massive change, what might be called a paradigm shift. The world has witnessed a ‘step change’ in the past 30-40 years, viewed in terms of “things like economic progress, reduction of poverty, openness of trade… and that is massively correlated with open ideas, open trade. Openness in the world. And that wasn’t inevitable – that was active policy, and opening up the world through globalisation”. His own latest venture involves ‘step change’, in a smaller way – a work-in-progress called Klevio, which intends to “software-ise keys” and will allow you to open doors with your smartphone. After all, he reasons, keys haven’t really changed in 3,000 years; locks have improved but there hasn’t been a deep-down, radical transformation. “You do your banking now with smartphones, why would you not do access? If you think about it, there’s no reason for that.”

Is that true? Is there really “no reason” to resist such a change? This is the question of the age, of course, made more urgent by the likes of Brexit and Trump: at the moment, around half of voters seem to want more barriers, less globalisation and less radical change while the other half – led by the so-called “liberal elite” – are happy to embrace this brave new world. Take Klevio, for instance. Isn’t there something reassuring about a physical key, one you can hold in your hand and actually manipulate in the lock? Part of it might be down to what Demetrios calls “the Lego-isation of technology”: just as Lego used to be comprised of simple building blocks but is now festooned with bells and whistles that come ready-made, so the workings of technology have become less transparent. Kids nowadays “mess about with software where they don’t have to think of what’s under the bonnet… You don’t have to be an engineer to build software today, you can be a designer”. Back in his day, on the other hand – Nicosia in the mid-80s – the personal-computing revolution was just starting out. “I had my BBC Micro, and I was doing coding”.

He wasn’t a geek, the term didn’t really exist at the time – but “I think I have a practical bent; I like building stuff generally”. The family background was conducive to his later career path: his dad taught Business Studies while his mum was an entrepreneur who owned a leather-goods manufacturing business. She was also Russian (Demetrios, the middle of three boys, was born in Moscow, though he came to Cyprus as a baby) and very sporty, passing on her love of sports to her sons. He himself played football for the school team, as a goalkeeper, and represented Cyprus – at the Panhellenic Games – in athletics, specifically the javelin. What’s the secret to throwing the javelin? “Technique,” he replies. “Marginal gains. It’s a technical sport, so you have to spend a lot of time doing small incremental improvements. So patience is the key.”

That seems to be a pattern, I point out. After all, being a goalie requires patience too – and the same goes for coding, particularly in the 80s.

“It’s a good point,” he says, nodding briskly. “It’s a good point. You should be my psychoanalyst!”

Is it part of his character, though?

“It’s something I discovered in myself later. I was not aware I had patience – and in general I’d say that, if you asked me five, 10, 20 years ago whether I’m a patient guy, I would probably think I’m the opposite. I’m very impatient,” he adds, and I think of his buzzing energy and insanely-fast way of speaking, “I kind of get emotional too quickly – I have Cypriot traits, I guess! But I’ve learned about myself that I had more patience than I thought.

“Though I wouldn’t say it’s patience in the sit-quiet-in-the-corner way,” he adds quickly. “It’s more, sort of, tenacity. Keep trying something again and again until you find it. That kind of patience… I’m not very good at listening, I would say.”

So not patience in the sense of fatalism?

“Absolutely not! I’m anti-fatalist. I think you can shape your destiny. And I do believe in technology’s role to shape things as well. That’s why I guess I’m involved in this space.”

Gradually, a picture of his overall personality emerges: obviously intelligent (ironically, ‘Zoppos’ in Cypriot is a slang term meaning ‘bumpkin’ or ‘dunce’), patient in the sense of being systematic but impatient in the sense of being restless, a doer. Even-tempered in the bigger picture, pushy like an athlete in the day-by-day; calm under pressure, not so calm with minor annoyances (I suspect he doesn’t suffer fools gladly). He was never any trouble as a teenager, “I was generally, you know, knuckle down, work hard, do sport”. Not only was he in the military police during National Service, he was also a chauffeur to the top generals, probably the most responsible job a young soldier can have; even then, he was obviously reliable. Later on, he went from Cambridge to Cambridge – from the English university town (where he did Economics) to Cambridge, Massachusetts, having picked Harvard for his MPA because it was less academic and more about case studies “which appealed to my, I would say, default setting of being hands-on and pragmatic. I like to do stuff!”.

profile2 onefinestayIn a word, he’s a high achiever. The whole family are high achievers: his wife is a lawyer, his son (14) produces music and also trains with Southampton FC as a goalkeeper – following in the old man’s footsteps – his daughter (12 going on 16, he chuckles) “plays the trombone and she’s a table-tennis champ… The kids have busy lives”. I assume he’s had crises and low points (we don’t really talk about that), but in fact you could draw a straight line in Demetrios’ life from good schools to top universities to a high-paying job (three years as a management consultant with McKinsey in London) to his first successful start-up, a marketplace in air freight – once again bringing two sides together, in this case freight merchants and cargo airlines – called GFX. All this before he finally turned his hand to Onefinestay, at the age of nearly 40.

It’s no wonder he looks lean and youthful, standing on the pavement outside the Weaving Mill; he’s never succumbed to the sluggish thinking or sloppy lifestyle choices that tend to encourage middle-age creep. Then again, he’s never had time. Does he lead a high-achieving life in London, I ask light-heartedly, and he chuckles: “I’d say it’s busy, but when you say ‘high-achieving’ – I mean generally it’s not exciting, it’s actually hard work!”. He tries to relax, but it’s not always possible; when the company was being sold, for instance, “we worked day and night for months”. His life is “routinised”, without much leeway; there’s family and work, and that’s about it. “You try to keep things up,” he shrugs helplessly, “but would I say I have a very wide circle of friends, or a social circle? Probably not. That sort of takes the hit, yeah.”

So why not live in Cyprus instead? He’s never lost touch with the motherland – and of course we can all work online now, that’s the primary perk of technology. “I could equally see myself here or there,” he replies, a bit surprisingly; it’s just hard to up sticks and leave at the moment, especially with his kids so active – and of course Cyprus hasn’t quite signed up to the brave new world yet, especially in terms of technology. Demetrios recently invested in Plum, a personal-savings start-up being launched by a couple of young Cypriots in London; they couldn’t have launched it here, even with the various initiatives taking off at the moment. “It’s hard,” he admits diplomatically. “You need many ingredients to create an ecosystem of start-ups.”

Someday he’ll be back, perhaps – though he’ll never be wholly Cypriot or wholly British; the world (especially his world) has moved on from that kind of thinking. Isn’t it true, after all? Isn’t he part of the ‘liberal elite’? “Probably, yeah,” he replies with a smile. “I am in the – uh, crosshairs of Theresa May. I am one of the – what did she say? – people who are citizens of the world and citizens of nowhere. I am that. I’m a citizen of everywhere.”

Is that a problem?

Not for him, he replies with a shrug. “I don’t feel somehow less by not being racially pure or, you know, intellectually pure. That’s complete bollocks, basically – excuse my French. It’s nonsense. It’s absolute nonsense. But I do think that people who have, sort of, multiple views of the world tend to be more open-minded, therefore perhaps more creative in their thinking”. He glances at his phone, then looks unhappy: “Can I go? Because I’m already late by a quarter of an hour”. He heads off towards Onasagorou, a thin rangy man with a backpack.