For property search portal OnTheMarket PLC (LON:OTMP), the current financial year was to be an inflexion point.

Prior to coronavirus, it was slated to break-even and ready to challenge the incumbents Rightmove and Zoopla.

The traffic to the site was up 49% year on year and lead generation had grown to a point where it was more than punching its weight against the big boys.

While chief executive Clive Beattie admits the lockdown has “put the brakes on”, it could turn out to be a catalyst for change that will ultimately benefit OnTheMarket.

A groundswell of negativity towards Rightmove’s pricing has only been amplified by the outbreak, which has seen estate agents struggle financially.

On that basis, OnTheMarket’s low-cost proposition has resonance and is therefore backed by its agents.

“It has really crystallised in our customers’ minds the differences in the portals,” confirms Clive Beattie, the company’s chief financial officer (CFO) and acting chief executive.

Set up in 2015 to challenge the current duopoly (one might even say monopoly with the seeming retreat of Zoopla), the business was conceived as a ‘mutual’ whereby the estate agents would have a stake in the group.

While it is now listed on the stock market, it is 65%-owned by more than 3,000 agent shareholders operating around 6,000 branches.

And like any growth business, it has had its share of setbacks as anyone who has followed the OnTheMarket story will know.

That said, the results for January 31, which were published last week, reveal a company at a watershed moment.

Striking from a commercial viewpoint was the 49% rise in traffic to 237mln views and the 75% rise in leads per advertiser to 96.

That latter figure had risen to 126 by the end of January, which at that point was a record month for site activity at 30mln views.

Beattie is currently on a virtual investor roadshow and expects to receive a lot of questions over cash burn.

The results revealed the company had £8.8mln in the bank, excluding deferred creditor payments of £2.3mln.

Based on last year’s performance, that would provide the business with just over a year’s funding, although it should be noted most of the cash burn was in the first half and had reduced by the year-end.

However, Beattie and the team have some levers they can pull, have trimmed costs and used the government’s furlough scheme.

Weathering the storm

So they are confident they can weather the COVID-19 storm.

One of those levers – and it pulled on it early – was marketing spend.

And it has been educational to see the performance of the business without hundreds of thousands a month being invested in attracting would-be buyers to the site.

Interest has come back since the lifting of restrictions around house viewings on May 11, Beattie reports – and with a vengeance.

“Last week was a bumper week for leads and included a 20% rise on pre-COVID levels,” he reveals.

“So, to achieve that level on a very limited advertising spend means we do have a site now that is engaging the consumer and the consumer is returning. The portal is now of a scale and functioning as a portal should.”

Indeed, scale is everything as is being able to offer and demonstrate value in the form of leads.

Key to the ongoing success of OnTheMarket will be its ability to convert estate agents on free or discounted rates to the full-price contracts.

As more agents start paying higher fees, so revenues will grow, while there should, at some point be a flip to profitability and cash generation.

When this will happen is anyone’s guess. The firm has withdrawn its guidance like many other companies at this time so opaque is the outlook given the potential for a coronavirus second wave.

And, of course, we don’t know just how acute the recession will be – though we know it is coming.

An emerging challenger

However, Beattie is confident that when normal service is resumed, OnTheMarket will emerge as a challenger to the dominance of Rightmove, which generates profit margins of 74%.

OnTheMarket is adding services such as an automated lettings service that it hopes will make it indispensable to its client base. And it will look to add more of these innovations to its offering.

Last year was strong operationally and while COVID-19 has presented significant challenges OnTheMarket has taken actions to be in a position to weather the storm.

The vision is to be the ‘portal of choice for agent customers and property-seekers alike’.

At that point, and as an operationally geared business, OnTheMarket should have a momentum of its own, growing as it gains speed whatever the backdrop.