Talking to Marc Vlessing, Pocket Living

A Life Well Lived

As part of our journey to re-define Wealth we are exploring what “A Life Well Lived” means: interviewing artists, entrepreneurs, explorers, and change-makers as they share their stories and ask “what is my life well lived?” Here, Marc Vlessing, founder and CEO of Pocket Living, talks to us about his business and what living well means to him.

Started by Marc and his business partner, Paul Harbard, in 2005, Pocket Living quietly began what many would call a housing market revolution in London. Pocket’s mission was simple; to develop compact, affordable and well-designed apartments for the ‘squeezed middle’. Specifically, middle earning Londoners living and working in the local boroughs, who would otherwise find it impossible to buy their first homes.

On Pocket Living

Pocket Living was set up just over 12 years ago by my business partner and myself to come up with a development solution for the housing needs of what we didn’t know then, but today call the squeezed middle.”

“It’s a starter home, it’s a compact home, it’s sold at a deep discount (at least 20% of the local market rate) to people on a particular income. And when they come to sell, they have to sell it to people who, like them, are eligible.”

On Launching the Business

“I set up Pocket Living because I sat down with a very large piece of A3 paper and on the left I wrote down all of the things I was interested in doing – and hopefully therefore not too bad at – and at the bottom I wrote down all of the things I really hated doing.”

“Out of that piece of introspection came two or three things that guided me towards setting up Pocket. The first was that having always dealt with large amounts of money, as a Banker first and then in the entertainment industries, I clearly had a facility – and took some pleasure in dealing with, capital markets and complex financial transactions.”

“The second was that I had never really bought this line that the world divides between creative geniuses and administrative competence, i.e. suits and non-suits. I’ve always thought that the best companies and the best teams are pretty indistinguishable and certainly that a good CEO should be capable of respecting the creative as much as the administrative.”

“I had really fallen in love with the built environment.”
“I think it is a particularly British problem, this rigid division […] you can be a Museum Director and a business person in America for example in a way that you can’t in the UK. [And] lastly, I had really fallen in love with the built environment, having presided over these wonderful theaters in the center of London.”

“There was also one area that my career had never managed to satisfy which I had actually studied – I went to the LSE and did a masters in international relations – and that was Politics. I am very passionate about politics. And so when you line up all of that, there was really nowhere else for me to go but to set up Pocket.”

On The Housing Market

“I think one of the problems that we have with the housing market – particularly in the Anglo Saxon model – is that it is seen as a means of accumulating and growing your capital base and I’m not sure housing is necessarily the right place to do as much of that as we seem to. If the accumulation of wealth through housing is the only way people can see to provide a decent pension for themselves late on in life, then it becomes very distortive. You get the kind of behaviour we are, in some ways, suffering from in the UK which is people not shifting houses because it’s their store of value.”
“Our relationship between wealth and housing in this country is subtly going to change over the next 25 years.”
“This idea that having the right house that will see you through 30-40 years of your life, is shifting dramatically, and instead that for different stages in your life there will be different types of houses that will be fit for purpose. If you can buy it then great, but if you have to rent it then that’s ok as well. So I do think that our relationship between wealth and housing in this country is subtly going to change over the next 25 years.”

“So I think the health question in relation to the housing market is a very interesting one. How much wealth should be tied up in housing, and I think what pocket is saying is that it’s less, than what people today believe to be necessary.”

On Fulfillment

“We’ve put our finger on a problem that everybody now recognises needs a solution, and Pocket seems to be the solution that people are increasingly talking about when it comes to the starter market, and that is incredibly satisfying. There is nothing more satisfying than for me to be able to say that.”

“What I am finding very interesting, challenging sometimes but intensely rewarding out of all of this is growing with the business […] and the satisfaction I am now getting from perfecting it. Ensuring the team is working as well as possible, that we are getting the best possible margins, that we are delivering what the brand tells us we should be delivering, […] do we go into the regions or international, and that’s terrific.”

On Living Well

“To say at the end of the working week that you have achieved something good.”
“Make sure there is a balance […] that nothing is allowed to dominate so much that it distorts everything else. To be able to say at the end of the working week that you have achieved something good, more than just for yourself. Hopefully for your employees, but actually for the world beyond. That you are leaving the place that you came to in a better position. That I think is the main driver for me. And that doesn’t mean that it’s a social enterprise you’re running, you can do that with lots of different companies. I think objective measurements against which you can test is whether or not ‘this thing matters’ and whether you are doing it better than others might be doing it.”

On Advice

“Innocence is bliss. You do need that innocence, that ability to ask the unaskable and to not put up with no for an answer. You need that because otherwise, you get depressed. There is a reason why nobody has done this before, because it’s difficult and you will meet lots of resistance along the way that you will have to overcome.”

“So rule number one for any entrepreneur is to make sure you have a fantastic partner because it’s a lonely business and you have to have that shoulder to lean on every now and again. And I think rule number two, for me, is never set up your own business because you think you are going to get rich off it or because you are completely in love with the thing that you want to see being a success.”
“I think you need to have decided that you cant work for anybody else and that you want to have control over your destiny.”
“I think to be a successful entrepreneur ultimately, is a lifestyle decision. I think you need to have decided that you cant work for anybody else and that you want to have control over your destiny, and to some extent, the company is a vehicle for that.”

“The last thing I would say is sure the thing you do come up with, has complete coherence and is a well formed, shaped thing. That when you look at it from every angle, it has integrity written all over it.”

On Wealth

“The concept of wealth in and of itself is an uninteresting one. How you manage it is interesting, and what you do with it is interesting. The accumulation of wealth for its own sake is a mind-numbingly boring activity. I’ve seen quite a few people pursuing the creation of wealth for their own purposes as an important goal, and I can quite honestly say that very few of them seem very happy doing that. So wealth in and of itself is not terribly interesting, but I am very interested in how you manage it, how you grow it, how you protect it, because I think doing that stuff well, is important.”

“I still drive the same old banger that I bought 16 years ago, I am reasonable frugal when it comes to how I go about spending my money and it’s never really been something that drives me. To go to work every day with a smile on my face, that’s a good life.”

You can find out more about Pocket Living and their upcoming projects by visiting their website.