When I first came to the UK, I was living in a tiny flat with five other people. I was educated, but washing dishes for a living. I did not care, the money was still better than what I got in Poland,” says Krystian Zajac, founder of Andrew Lucas.
As far as rags to riches stories go, Zajac’s is certainly up there. Arriving from Poland aged 24, with a wife back home and two children reliant on his success, he set to work building his empire from the ground up.
You get the impression he’s one of the so-called Sleepless Elite; a hard-working, diligent, tech junkie, thirsty for success at any cost. “My daughter worked it out a few weeks ago. I work about 90 hours a week,” he tells me, as we send the patient waitress away, lost in a tangential conversation about data privacy.
From living off of £10 a week in a cramped flat, in a little over a decade, Zajac is now at the top of the luxury home-tech market, and investing heavily in its future.
He arrived in the UK, qualified as an electronic engineer, in the wake of the dotcom boom, when computers were becoming more than a piece of clunky pale-greige furniture for word processing and playing minesweeper. Everyone had one, the problem was that no one knew how to properly use, and consequentially, fix them. Enter Zajac, who, operating out of his dining room in Temple Fortune, set up a repair business, gifted with a Hampstead postcode, which he used to project an image of affluence to appeal to wealthy customers.
Fixing lawyers’ computers below the going market rate was fairly stable, but never going to fulfil his urge to succeed. An offer from a friend though, was about to change the direction of his life.
The home automation industry in 2007 was embryonic, primitive by modern comparison, and very exclusive to the top end of the market. Aware of Zajac’s knowledge of computers, networks and engineering, an opportunity to automate the lighting of an office in Canary Wharf arose. The problem was, he had never done it before.
“I dropped everything – I spent countless hours, day and night, learning what had to be done, but within a week, I knew how to do everything. We did it, the client was happy, and the project was really successful. Immediately after that project, I decided to launch a separate division that would specialise in smart homes.”
After a calamitous first project where the funding dried up with the financial crisis in 2008, it was make or break for the new business. “We started specialising in a really premium market, because I realised that everyone is competing on price at the lower end. At the high end, price is not an issue, and until this day we really have no competition in London.”
One thing on my mind throughout is the name of the business, Andrew Lucas. But when I ask who he is, Zajac, behind a wry smile, chuckles, telling me “that’s something you won’t find out. I had to rebrand as our projects became bigger and bigger – we got teased by contractors for having a Polish name. Half of my employees don’t have a clue who he is, but if you do the due diligence, you’ll probably be able to figure it out.”
The company today is a many-headed hydra with projects around the globe for a clientele of multi-billionaires. The repertoire of installations under its belt range from a television that transforms into a work of art on a private island, to custom hand-made speakers for the biggest house in Switzerland. “The things we create are complex, entirely bespoke, and original – we build everything from scratch.” Andrew Lucas has won myriad awards for its designs over the last few years, but Zajac is hedging this very profitable business against his latest enterprise.
As we move on to the subject of virtual reality (VR), it becomes immediately clear that it’s Zajac’s raison d’etre. Born from the experience of customers not always sharing the final vision of a project with the designers, he wants to ensure both are on the same page throughout.
The VR software his team has created allows clients to visualise their project during the design stage. It’s an immersive experience, where you can traverse a virtual representation of your completed project: if you see a carpet or a table, colour scheme or kitchen worktop that you don’t like, you can flick through a selection of alternative options using the headset until you find one that you do.
Adorning a Samsung Gear headset in the middle of a busy restaurant in Bank, I’m immediately transported to an eerily-realistic virtual property, where I roam around changing the fittings to my personal taste, and adjusting the time of day according to the accurate position of the sun for the property. It’s certainly impressive, although I find the detachment a little disconcerting.
The VR project relies heavily on the proliferation of the virtual world. “Soon enough you’ll be able to touch the internet,” he says. As I snap back to reality from my virtual tour, we’re discussing the exponential growth of VR in recent years and whether it’s here to stay. Almost as if prompted, the patient waitress pops up and informs us that her son has the very same headset at home. Like smart home automation beforehand, Zajac is an early adopter of VR, and as the hardware becomes more accessible, the task now is to get others on board.
The initial strategy was to keep the platform in-house for Andrew Lucas “but very quickly we realised that there’s a whole niche that’s going to open up for architects, interior designers, developers – you name it. I’ve realised there’s an opportunity to do more than just design for our own customers. I don’t want us to be content creators – that’s not scalable, there’s no money in it for me.”
Zajac is in the process of “encouraging architects and designers to start producing content themselves using our platform, to collaborate with their customers,” and has so far had a good response.
Although the VR platform is off the ground running and making money, it’s really an investment in the future, supported by the main business. The next step will possibly involve splitting the business in two to attract seed investment, but nothing is set in stone as yet. “There’s lots of tax benefits of running a new start up, so in time we might be spinning the platform off as a separate entity – it’ll help to make the most of it, but if we do, it’ll only be when the time is right.”