Sean Woolley is the Founder and CEO of Cloud Nine Spain, a real estate agency specialised in finding the right properties for international buyers in and around Marbella in the South of Spain. For over 20 years he’s been helping people to find a Spanish property for holidays, retirement or to relocate to and he even wrote a book to guide people through the process. Sean has been able to lead his business through the 2008 financial crisis, used innovation and technology to stand out in a highly competitive market and succeed despite the travel restrictions caused by COVID stopping their clients being able to visit in person. His story is full of insights for any CEO dreaming big.
A business built on a passion for property
Sean is originally from Cheshire in the UK and had a successful career in the legal profession. However, on the side he was always dabbling with the property market in the UK and Spain, buying and selling many properties while working and running a consultancy business in the UK. He was always able to turn a profit, thanks to his eye for details and instinct for how to make the best out of a property.
Sean and his partner fell in love with Spain when holidaying there and bought their first property in on the Costa del Sol in 2000. So, when he sold his UK business in the same year, the couple decided to escape to the sunny South of Spain for a change of pace and a new life. The original plan was to take early retirement, but Sean quickly realised that he had too much time on my hands and not enough money to retire, so started to look around for options.
He saw that the passion for property, which had seen him make impressive returns as a side-line, could be the perfect career in Spain. So, he started to work part-time for one of the leading real estate agencies on the Costa del Sol.
The property market was booming, and he thought there were so many opportunities to do things better and his entrepreneurial spirit got the better of him. He saw the potential of online marketing to stand out from the very crowded market and capitalise on the large volume of international buyers who wanted a slice of the Spanish dream and just couldn’t resist going it alone.
In 2001 Sean established Cloud Nine Spain as a boutique property company effectively using online marketing when very few others were, and more than 20 years on, they’re still going strong.
The benefits and pitfalls of being an early adopter
Back in 2001, it was possible to write web content, publish it and become #1 on Google for key search phrases almost overnight. This gave Cloud Nine Spain a huge competitive advantage over their fellow agents in the early days and their online presence was bringing in quality leads every day.
Of course, as the world became web-savvy, the real estate industry also got onboard with the trend and having a strong online presence became more competitive. However, as they were already ahead of the curve and knew the power of this tool, they went one stage further by partnering with a property portal that, due to the volume of content on its site, could pretty much guarantee page 1 positions across the board.
This soon became their primary route to market, but like many things, this major strength also had the potential to be a threat to their business. What would happen if the portal one day decided they preferred to use another agent? That would have equated to 80% of their revenue being stripped away.
To counter this and to protect their income stream, Sean invested in establishing their own Spanish property portal, which served them well for a number of years until the global financial crash ensued in 2008.
Weathering the 2008 financial crisis
The global recession affected almost every business, but Sean realised that where there is distress there is also opportunity, and whilst the market was lacking buyers, it certainly wasn’t short of sellers. Prices came under pressure and supply exceeded demand, which led to it becoming an investors’ market, driven by those buyers keen to snap up bargains and bank repossessed properties at knock-down prices.
Their business had to change during this time, but they were able to re-work the marketing to appeal to this new type of buyer. Revenues were down, margins were lower, but they were able to stay in the game during this brutal period.
Sean wasn’t afraid to make a change to stay afloat and quickly reduced many fixed costs and created greater financial incentives for staff. This meant that only the best agents stayed and it became a question of ‘survival of the fittest’. It was a very tough time for business owners and employees, but making these changes enabled Sean to protect the integrity of the business and hang on in there during this time, ready and able to capitalise when the market finally recovered.
He believes that the changes they made during that recession have served them well over the years since, and enabled them to adapt to the recent challenges of Brexit and COVID. Being a lean, nimble business enables them to react quickly to changing market conditions. They’re not tied into unwieldy long-term commitments with suppliers, they can use Google as a ‘tap’, turning it on and off with a moment’s notice if needs be, or turning up the heat if there was a noticeable opportunity in certain sectors, audiences or locations.
He explains, “Looking back, the business never felt ‘bloated’ or self-indulgent. We were prudent and simply worked harder than ever before to find new ways of earning revenue.
This approach remains the same to this day and when the world changed during COVID, we were able to quickly adapt and we managed to close several high-value deals over this period without a single physical viewing – a great example of how being responsive to customers’ demands and embracing technology to sell properties is just as true today as it was back in 2001.”
Staying one step ahead of the rest
They have always strived to remain RELEVANT in their market, being one of the first to take advantage of the opportunities presented by online marketing and still being one of the leading online agents today. As 90% of potential buyers try to find overseas properties online, Sean knows that Cloud Nine Spain must be at the forefront of that marketing channel. That’s why they’ve invested in their website and have a strong presence on social media, with active channels on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
As an agency predominantly aimed at property buyers, they shook up the industry by leading the move for 60%/40% commission splits in favour of agents with the buyer, not the seller. Some agents met the move with stern resistance, but the vast majority of listing agents now recognise the importance of offering attractive terms to collaborators, especially in a MLS market where properties are often listed by more than one agency, enabling buyer agents to have a choice of who to work with.
More recently, they were one of the very first agencies to use video in their marketing. During the last 20 years, buyer behaviour has changed and the ways in which buyers absorb information has moved from phone calls to email to WhatsApp and now to video and so businesses need to follow suit.
Sean uses video in two distinct ways. Firstly, they post general content on YouTube and other social channels in the form of value-added guides, commentary and opinion. Potential buyers who are looking at a foreign country are information hungry and have lots of doubts and questions. Videos are a great way to provide this information and answer those questions in a format that they can consume whenever they want and wherever they are. They produce monthly Spanish property market update videos and also create Costa del Sol area guide videos so people can see and get a sense of the different areas to help them choose. They also interview other experts with useful and interesting things to say and of course have videos of properties too.
Using video in this way helps their brand, because buyers feel like they know Sean before they get in touch and have decided they like his style and approach. This creates a loyalty to him and his brand, which increases conversion.
The second way they use video is for communication, particularly important because their clients come from all over the world. They communicate directly with prospective clients via video messages and have video meetings on platforms like Zoom, Skype and even WhatsApp video calls, as it’s the next-best way to create rapport in the absence of meeting face-to-face.
Sean says that it’s surprised everyone just how close you can get to the feeling of meeting someone in person in this way. Once you have that relationship, then emails and WhatsApp messages work well, but the initial contact and regular catchups via a video call make a big difference in how the client feels about the company and keeps them with you until the end.
What’s new and what’s next
Sean has noticed that COVID has changed a lot of things, including the kind of people that are wanting to buy properties in Spain. The pressures on income and travel caused by COVID were not felt as much by the company owners or entrepreneurs who don’t need to fly on low-cost airlines and have the flexibility to work from wherever in the world they want.
Many of these people have shifted their perspective and want to live somewhere with an incredible lifestyle, a vibrant international resident community and of course great all year-round weather and Marbella really ticks all these boxes. The HNW and UHNW buyers have always loved this area, but COVID has triggered a higher volume of these individuals looking to put down roots. They’re buying bigger and more expensive properties with the view to spending more time here and often bringing the family here to live full time.
Since COVID, Cloud Nine Spain has been dealing with many more buyers looking for properties in the €5-20 million category. These buyers are very different from the buyers they had 20 years ago, when the average budget was €200,000 and over the last two years Sean’s been learning a lot about what these buyers expect and their unique pressure points and commitments.
They expect a company to handle everything for them and so he’s had to think about relocation and visa issues, staffing needs and everything they want to make this property feel like home. These clients want to feel they are being treated differently and don’t want a one-size-fits-all service.
As you can see from the rest of Sean’s story, he always tries to grasp an opportunity when he sees it, and he isn’t afraid to change and pivot to meet a need. This has led him to create and launch a new property brand, Marbella Private Office.
Cloud Nine Spain will still continue working hard for buyers from €200,000 to €5 million, but Marbella Private Office will take care of those buyers who are interested in those unique and very high value properties from €5 million and above.
Separating out these buyers and having a dedicated team to look after them ensures that their needs will be met and they can receive a highly individualised service. Sean has handpicked a team of professionals with business backgrounds, experienced with dealing with CEOs and business leaders, as well as having real estate experience.
Last, but not least, Sean has just launched a new sky villa concept in Marbella. Inspired by a shortage of flat and wide plots, combined with an increase in demand for low-maintenance and eco-friendly villas, this new concept will enable buyers to have stunning, state of the art properties, in beautiful locations where they weren’t previously able to build.
Their first project is Villa Malibu, located in Monte Mayor, Benahavís. Situated on an elevated, sloping plot within the estate, Villa Malibu has been designed to integrate seamlessly into its environment of cork oaks, pine forests and green valleys, while offering stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea. The home will feature one main level accommodating the living area, 4 bedrooms, office space, a roof terrace and spectacular wrap-around terrace with heated swimming pool with double infinity edge.
Their building team are pioneering an eco-building system that can be built quickly, while offering an A rated energy efficiency level. The unique construction system means that most of their designs can be built within 12-15 months or even less.
With Marbella Private Office, Marbella Sky Villas and Cloud Nine Spain, Sean Woolley certainly has his hands full, but he’s very excited to see how this new chapter of his business journey will play out.