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A Career with Range: How a Designer Turned Property Manager Started a Flourishing Short Term Rentals Business
Sometimes you know it’s time for a change before you know what that change will be.
Jen Clark’s career change came 20 years into a successful graphic design career when she realised she needed more room to move. Now, she’s a successful property manager, running her flourishing short term rentals business, Ranges Escapes, in the Macedon Ranges area.
We spoke to Jen in one of her beautiful, airy properties in Kyneton about tree changes, the ebbs and flows of small business, and backing yourself.
When the grass really is greener
When Jen and her family moved from inner Melbourne to country Victoria in late 2018, the newfound green space and fresh air sparked a realisation.
After 20 years in the industry, graphic design suddenly felt stale.
Bound to a desk for nine or more hours each day, Jen was feeling the “mental and physical toll.”
“I felt like all I was doing was getting up in the morning, going to a desk and doing my thing, packing up at night and going to bed – and doing the same thing over and over again,” she says.
I felt like all I was doing was getting up in the morning, going to a desk and doing my thing… and going to bed. Doing the same thing over and over again.
While Jen loved the creative process of graphic design, it can be quite a solitary, technical role where you’re always “on the tools”.
She craved something with more balance and variety: a flexible job where she could work with people, and one that gave her room to move during her workday.
Initially, she had no idea what that change would be. She was amid an excellent tourist destination, and briefly considered working in a bar – but it didn’t feel quite right.
How a podcast changed everything
Jen was making the long drive home one night from her inner-Melbourne design agency. Then, in a “fortuitous move,” she tried out a new podcast called My Airbnb Empire.
The podcast centred on building an Airbnb business, while also discussing renovating, flipping houses, and working with women. Something clicked.
“I could definitely do that,” Jen thought to herself. She had the people skills, the interest in hospitality, and the marketing experience to make it happen.
Her cross-section of skills put her in good stead. And she had a broad set of business skills from running her own studio.
Instead of specialising in one narrow area, Jen had worked in a variety of roles and environments – from big corporations to universities, digital agencies, and a decade at the helm of her design practice.
Inspired, she got in touch with the podcaster, Bernadette Jansen, who introduced her to the idea of renting and subletting a property – and Jen never looked back.
She and her partner sunk their savings into this new venture, and Ranges Escapes was born.
“We took a big risk,” she reflects. “It was pretty crazy, in retrospect.” She had no guarantees that it would work – or generate any income at all.
Jen had started a business before, but this time was different; now she had a small son to support. But her background in small business had taught her to expect the ebbs and flows. She knew she could make it work.
Becoming a Property Manager
Jen found variety, connection and creative fulfilment in property management for short term rentals.
Setting up the properties is much like a design project – an exercise in bringing together many different elements to create a cohesive whole; only you’re the client.
It’s a dream for the creatively inclined, as the whole business revolves around beautiful spaces in which people want to spend time. They need to be habitable, enjoyable and stylish.
Jen spends two weeks pulling together an entirely new space from scratch, sourcing secondhand furniture and local art. She dots every I and crosses every T, choosing everything from the wine glasses to the cushions and the books on the shelf.
Designing an experience
When the first guest arrives, everything needs to be perfect.
“People book our property based on photos on the website… every single time we have to make sure that it’s spot on.”
And when every guest after that arrives, it has to be “like nobody has ever been here before”.
“It’s experience design,” says Jen. “We have a saying in this industry that the first ten minutes are paramount.”
To design the experience, you must get into your guests’ heads, walking through what they are likely to do. Then, says Jen, “you design it in response to that.”
Guests arriving on Friday night after work might turn up in the dark and cold. Here’s Jen’s exercise in guest empathy:
Getting out of the car
Is the doormat clean and welcoming? Is the porch light on? Can they see lamps lit inside the house?
Opening the front door
Are the lights on? Has the heater been on for long enough beforehand?
They may want to use the bathrooms – are they spotless and sparkling? They might crack open a bottle of wine, is there an opener and wine glasses handy?
We have a saying in this industry that the first 10 minutes are paramount.
Going Big Picture
Jen says she has enjoyed stepping back from the detail-oriented life of a designer, which she could find “gruelling” at times, being a big-picture person.
Though the start of any business venture can be stressful, managing the properties has become much easier as Ranges Escapes has scaled up and processes improved.
She’s even made detailed business plans, something she never did for her design practice.
She says a systematic approach to business administration has helped her to scale-up effectively and make better decisions.
Collaboration is key
For Jen, there’s still a fair chunk of the business stuff that doesn’t come naturally, like accounting tax. She encourages people not to be intimidated by the steep learning curve, and to acknowledge you can’t do everything.
The key is knowing when to delegate and outsource. “It’s all about finding partners and collaborators that you can really rely on, that are subject matter experts.”
For instance, Jen suggests finding a great accountant, and perhaps a marketing person or social media manager, so you can play to your strengths.
Sometimes it can be tricky to know when it’s worth outsourcing a part of your business. Jen says to keep an open mind, and “trust the fact that you’ll know when the time is right to make that investment.”
When it comes down to it, a successful property rental business (or any business) relies on your relationships.
She stresses that the key is “knowing who are the most important players, and making sure you nurture them.”
How does property management work? (Click through to view).
Keep an open mind and trust the fact that you’lll know when the time is right to make that investment.
Paying it forward
One of the things you’d notice while staying in one of Jen’s rentals is the food bank donation box in the corner of the kitchen or living room.
Guests can donate excess or unused food bought during their stay, which Jen then donates to a local charity.
Jen says a key challenge in starting the rentals business has been balancing her social conscience. It may not register on the radar for many companies, but giving back has always been one of her core concerns in business.
In her design practice, she did regular pro-bono work for nonprofits and charities.
Her business philosophy was “wanting to do good work for people who are doing good.”
In a short term rental business, things are less clear cut. Jen wracked her brains for ways to give back to the community and figured out a few creative approaches.
There’s the food donation box, sponsoring events, and providing accommodation for the Otis Foundation, who organise retreats for women with breast cancer.
And when the bushfires struck earlier this year, Jen orchestrated an auction that sold $3500 worth of art. Proceeds went to the bushfire disaster funds and the local artists. “It was a win-win,” she reflects.
In the spirit of paying it forward, Jen also now hosts a podcast herself, called Hosting with Heart. Her guests share their stories and experiences, to foster connection and demystify the industry.
She hopes that this will make it less indtimiating for people who would like to break in, but aren’t sure how.
She says she’d like to eventually set up a platform that can connect people with what they need to get started with property management and the short term rentals industry.
Big things ahead
Jen thinks that, given the chance to do things again, she wouldn’t change a thing.
“I’ve really enjoyed my career,” she says. She says she’s learned to be a lot more self-forgiving, and “embrace the stuff that goes wrong as learning.”
And what does the future bring?
Jen has plans to grow the business from three properties to ten by the end of the year.
And she’s already on a roll – with the fourth opening in Tarradale for mid-March.
“I went into it approaching the 1st year like an apprenticeship, thinking: I’m gonna learn heaps and probably fail heaps.”
“I’m ready to have a red-hot crack at it,” she laughs. “Once we get to the ten-property-mark, it will be easier to scale up.”
“It’ll be interesting to have this conversation with you in two or three years time.”
In many parts of regional Victoria, tourist areas are under-serviced for accommodation. It’s the perfect time to start a small business of your own in the tourism and accommodation industry.
You never know where your next step could lead you.
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