Citiesense
InterviewsUnited States

Citiesense: New York City Neighbourhood Data Platform

The Disrupt Property database features a number of startups using technology to understand neighbourhood data, land parcels and unearth development opportunities. Citiesense is the most recent one we have discovered, currently in beta stage while it fine tunes its New York city focused platform. We got in touch with Co-Founder Starling Childs to understand their approach to unlocking city data.

What is the story behind citiesense?

The neighbourhood is a fundamental unit in the city planning and development process. However, analysing neighbourhoods and understanding the drivers behind economic performance of specific areas in cities remains a big challenge, for which there is no real solution – even in cities with a lot of available data, like New York City. Considering how much of the world’s population is moving to cities, forcing urban areas to change, in some cases, dramatically, neighbourhood communities simply can’t afford not to be more proactive and responsive to opportunities for local development going forward.

Decisions about where, what and when to build new buildings, improve infrastructure, or open new businesses are big decisions that impact cities at the neighbourhood scale. To help with these decisions, Citiesense is establishing a ‘Neighbourhood Knowledge Platform™’,  enabling cities to organise fresh information for the real estate industry, from the neighbourhood up, and drive development toward the best outcomes. The platform is currently being created and tested in partnership with several neighbourhood organisations in New York City that manage Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).

Who is the team behind it?

The team behind Citiesense has backgrounds in city planning, real estate development, and smart cities technology. Before starting Citiesense, I worked as a land use consultant and urban designer, helping neighbourhood communities around the world create plans for development. Carl has a background in real estate development and architecture. Volkan is a full-stack software engineer and was a former Code for America brigade captain. He joined Citiesense after getting to know me through working together at hackathons and early prototypes of their Neighborhood Knowledge Platform.

What is the business model?

Citiesense is a B2B SaaS platform. We have freemium features available to anyone interested in analysing specific areas or neighbourhoods in New York City and tracking the development activity in these areas in real time. We are also currently in the process of private beta testing our Neighbourhood Knowledge Platform™ with a subset of New York City’s local development organisations managing Business Improvement Districts.

What technology is the platform built on?

Our stack is built on Ruby on Rails on the backend and React on the frontend. We use Postgres as our database and the PostGIS extension for geospatial queries.

Who are you clients?

Our clients are neighbourhood organisations that manage Business Improvement Districts in New York City. Citiesense also provides services to municipal clients, including the City of Bridgeport, CT. These early adopters represent some of the most innovative neighbourhoods in the world.

How is this different to something like OppSites or Land Insight?

As a knowledge management platform for neighbourhoods, Citiesense offers services for organising and maintaining local information about cities. Citiesense is not a property search website. While some of the features of the platform can be used to search for specific properties in a city, the service is designed for neighbourhood-scale data analysis and information sharing, and this requires us to do things a differently than sites like Oppsites and Landinsight.io in particular. Our customers rely on Citiesense more for data management and analysis than for promoting or searching for specific properties.

What are your plans for expansion?

We’re focused on our private beta testing in New York City for 2017, however, we have early conversations started with several cities and neighbourhoods outside NYC interested in deploying the platform for their local communities. We will begin scaling geographically in 2018 and publicly launch the platform for the rest of country then.

Tell us about the Urban-X process / experience?

URBAN-X is an accelerator program in New York City that focuses on startups solving complex urban challenges and changing people’s lives in cities. We participated in the second cohort for the program. This culminated in a demo day a few weeks ago on May 4th. It was a great experience. It helped us strengthen our existing value proposition and focus on a long-term strategy for our platform’s growth and development. One of the most rewarding aspects of the program was, without a doubt, the people we connected with through it – including the other 7 amazing urban tech companies in our cohort.

The focus is on BIDs – how does this mean the information is different if the focus were on development opportunities?

Focusing on BIDs simply means providing services that serve the needs of these unique groups, specifically the local community organisations that manage BIDs. The information BIDs maintain about their areas in cities is similar to the information that a developer or broker might manage, but it goes deeper. BIDs make it there job to know all there is to know about a neighbourhood, which is something our platform helps them with by connecting their data with data from many fragmented government sources. Connecting BIDs to government data sources with a system that enables them to add their own insight, enables them to curate a higher resolution of local insights. They keep track of things like the status and details of real estate, whether vacant retail spaces or new businesses are opening up in the area, or the performance of streetscapes based on traffic counting sensors and surveying assets like bicycle racks, street lights and tree pits as well as tracking outstanding 311 complaints.

What stage are we at in terms of smart cities (in your opinion) and what are the biggest opportunities?

Smart cities are just beginning to become recognisable. The larger cities around the world have now adopted some degree of IoT infrastructure to track the performance of public services and utilities. These systems are all 1.0 for this, generally replacing legacy technologies that for many US cities are roughly a century old. Opportunities to optimise the delivery of infrastructure and utilities have been a sensible beachhead for smart cities technology. Going forward, we’re going to see a more integrated “user experience” approach to making a city ‘smart’, not only from utility sensors but from the interaction of people living and working in cities with their neighbourhoods. As far as we’re concerned, the real opportunities are going to be realised at the neighborhood-scale, where the impact of urban technology on civic society can be measured and shared more effectively, iterated on and adopted elsewhere.

We co-hosted the first Smart Districts Summit earlier this year to start a discourse about how this trend is emerging in New York City. This was the first of a series of events Citiesense is organizing in partnership with other urban tech companies at the Grand Central Tech Hub and the NYC Small Business Services agency to explore the role technology is having on walkable mixed-use neighborhoods in cities.  Stay tuned for our second event to talk more about Smart Districts later this year.

Blockchain and real estate
InterviewsUnited States

Ubitquity Interview: A 12 month update on blockchain and real estate

In May 2016, we interviewed Ubitquity founder Nathan Wosnack just as he was establishing one of the world’s first platforms for blockchain and real estate. Since then there has been a lot of industry hype on this topic so we sought out a 12 month update to get a sense of exactly how things are progressing in this space.

Tell us about your progress over the last 12 months?

Since we last spoke in May, Ubitquity has made significant progress both in the development of our SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) platform, but also in the business relationships we have formed.

The structural problem of title transfers continues to cause innumerable financial and emotional hardships for citizens, municipalities, and financial institutions. We strongly feel that blockchain technology is not only desirable, but vital for improving economic development as it will significantly reduce costs while creating new technically skilled jobs in the near future. More specifically, we have made progress in the following areas:

Platform development – In September 2016 (one year after registering our LLC) we launched our platform as a private alpha (v1.0). In February of this year we launched v1.1 with a few new features including an improved FAQ/Getting started menu and a public records/tab links so that public records from municipalities entered are automatically available. We also added provider-level DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) protection. We expect more announcements as we continue with our development with pilot users.

Traction – We have been working with various municipalities (both in the US and worldwide) to meet their ever increasing need for efficient record keeping, while simultaneously yielding significant cost savings and streamlining a costly and burdensome administrative process. This has included both public and stealth pilots. As of a few days ago, we’ve been asked to be part of a case study with Blockchain@UBC (University of British Columbia) using our Brazil pilot. Blockchain@UBC, which Ubitquity is an industry partner, was founded by Dr. Victoria L. Lemieux who was formerly with The World Bank and published a paper  “Trusting records: is Blockchain technology the answer?”.

Conferences – We’ve spoken at D10e in San Francisco, at MIT Center for Real Estate (Christian Saucier and Avi Spielman were on a panel), and our partner Marina Reznik did our first international speech in Abu Dhabi, UAE in December 2016. We were also privileged enough to be chosen as finalists in the 1776 & Smart Dubai Office Blockchain Challenge happening this May 29th-30th.

Overall how much has the blockchain landscape changed in the last 12 months?

We’re seeing technology companies in this space emerging that are not focused on developing around one particular blockchain anymore. Interestingly we’re see organizations looking at the benefits of platforms using interoperable UTXO-based blockchains like Bitcoin, Ethereum, Hyperledger, and MultiChain.

What else? The hype surrounding the ‘blockchain’ buzzword seems to have somewhat waned and companies continue to build both interesting and promising proof of concepts as well as early pilots and are receiving major funding by launching ICOs (Initial Coin Offering) as an alternative to traditional angel/VC equity fund raising for their ideas which has spawned a rush of innovative crowdfunding ideas that I believe may in fact be tenable. At the same time, I’m seeing individuals and companies building questionable so-called blockchain technology ‘solutions’ that may prove that distributed ledgers were not even a necessary component or even technically feasible or were/are simply an ICO scam.

From the real estate tech (‘RETech’) front, I’ve noticed more municipalities and companies in the title insurance and e-recording space being open to meeting blockchain real estate/mortgage companies for panel ‘blockchain 101’ discussions to help educate industry incumbents on the potential benefits of it.

These meetings with industry associations, some of which Ubitquity has participated in, have helped to counter a lot of the media perpetuated FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) about how blockchain technology will eliminate things like title insurance and many jobs in real estate. We believe that education and the waning hype, along with innovative entrepreneurial creativity will continuously combine to create new capabilities, leading to explosive growth over the long term.

Have any competitors of note emerged recently?

There have which I believe is a good sign we’re on the right track. Some of these competitors have announced pilots with municipalities like we have. Interestingly though, none of them that I’ve observed seem to be building a SaaS platform that focuses on B2B (Business-to-Business) with a focus on e-recording and title companies. Some competitors have focused on local municipalities and announced early-pilots, and interestingly at least two of the organizations have reached out to cooperate with Ubitquity. One of them we recently partnered with is called Bitland.

The other we’re in active talks with is ChromaWay. We are in contact to explore a partnership and other collaboration opportunities in an effort to help grow our organisations along with the blockchain and real estate ecosystem.  Perhaps also to become one of our infrastructure providers. We’re exploring this some more and being that Ubitquity is both blockchain and vendor agnostic, we’ve been happily having these conversations. It’s incredibly early in this niche space and I believe that aligning ourselves with the right partners early is the best way to innovate and gain the most traction. As they say these days: ‘collaboration is the new competition’.

Tell us about the pilot deal you are doing in Brazil?

We’ve partnered with the Cartório de Registro de Imóveis (Real Estate Registry Office) in Brazil to create the first ever pilot programme for the region’s official land records. Our belief is that it will bring greater accuracy and immutability to the data being handled by the land records office. We’re working to bring not just accuracy, and transparency, but also to ensure that we’re compliant and adhering to the best recording keeping practices within this municipality. The first pilot proper registered was a doctor’s home in the southern city of Pelotas (entered onto the Ubitquity Platform on 30 March). We’ve added more addresses since then including the rural municipality of Morro Redondo. In time we’ll have a platform that we hope completely replaces the centralized, siloed legacy systems that exist. Our pilot in Brazil is exciting as it is the first of its kind in the Americas.

How did the deal come about?

A gentleman by the name of Rafael Mezzari at the registry contacted us several months ago. Rafael did much of his own research and saw major potential that blockchain technology had for transparent record keeping and accuracy. Soon after our discussions, Rafael saw how much his bureau needed this, and since then we agreed to create an early pilot with expansion as we continue to develop out our platform to their specifications and needs.

Are there any other such deals globally?

Yes! We’re working on some stealth pilots right now. We’ve been exploring global opportunities in Canada and elsewhere, and I can tell you one of them we’re actively working on is in the United States (and we anticipate having news to share soon).

You said you are working on standardisation – what does that mean?

We’re participating in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Technical Committee 307 (ISO/TC307) on Blockchain and Distributed Ledgers in collaboration with the aforementioned Blockchain@UBC. Blockchain@UBC continues to lead the development of a terminology database, which supports international efforts to arrive at a common understanding of blockchain concepts and terms. The database will use the InterPARES Trust Terminology Database as the platform. You can learn more about this on their blog post from 4 May. With that said, ISO standards are just the beginning. We’re in discussions with the Property Records Industry Association (PRIA) among others in an effort to find ways to adhere to and form best practices and standards for blockchain and real estate. Ubitquity, our partners, and the Blockchain Real Estate Alliance that I’ve independently formed are on the forefront of such endeavours.

You are also working on a blockchain alliance – what’s the objective?

With the Blockchain Real Estate Alliance, our motto is “Working together to advance educational quality and enhance best practices within the blockchain and real estate industry.” I founded it and brought two highly capable and brilliant people to realize this vision. Jacob Robinson (a seasoned programmer who I mentioned recently joined Ubitquity) and Adrianna Mendez (B Libre Podcast and Bitcoin Beginner Box). As the months unfold, we plan to bring on industry members, hold events, and build out the alliance.

How is the capital raising going?

Good! We’re in serious talks with angel investors to help with our development and we’re expecting our new clients to help pay for our development. When we initially started, our feedback from VCs was to build out the platform more and get traction. Now that we have done this, we’ve been contacted by several firms and accredited investors who are interested in what we’re doing and are discussing ways to be involved. Once our funding is solidified, Disrupt Property will be the first to know!

StepLadder Affordability
EuropeInterviewsResidential

PropTech Affordability Startup: StepLadder

In a number of cities around the world, housing affordability is getting out of control. Hong Kong, Sydney, Vancouver and Auckland are regularly cited by the IMF as examples where the price-to-income ratio has reached dangerous heights. In my home town, Sydney, the average price is over 12 times earnings (A$84,600 v A$1,032,000) which is causing so much concern it has become a social crisis.

Governments are increasingly being forced to act, enforcing lending restrictions, removing investor tax breaks and looking at ways to increase supply. Now tech entrepreneurs are spotting the opportunity, with a handful of PropTech platforms launching to help first home buyers get into the market. Stepladder is a UK-based one, inspired by the South American system called ROSCAs where people pool their money so they can buy sooner. It’s a simple concept – 10 people each contribute 10% of their overall saving target each month. Each month the group generates 100% of a deposit for one of the people, allowing them to buy immediately. In this way, 9/10 people will get their deposit faster than they would had they been saving alone.

Founder Matthew Addison tells us his story:

While ROSCAs provided the inspiration, what was the moment you decided to create a business?

You’re right to point out that the seed for StepLadder was planted during my Master’s work at the University of Pennsylvania. If you spend time reading my thesis, you can see I was fascinated by ROSCAs, and in particular, the commercial scale opportunity in markets where these are absent.

The rains that helped the seed sprout were a near-continuous flood of press focused on the Generation Rent crisis. In the UK in 1981, 62% of 24-35 year olds owned their own home. Twenty years later, that figure was still 60%. But, by 2014, home ownership in the traditional first time buyer demographic cratered to only 36%.

I thought a disruptive private sector solution – importing a solution to this local problem – could make a difference. We know ROSCAs work – 70 countries worldwide have their own local names for them. I understand economically why they are an equilibrium solution to a particular market dynamic, which is present in the UK first time buyer market. Finally, I have the career-long financial sector expertise, product knowledge, and entrepreneurial sense of mission to bring ROSCAs across the chasm to the UK, and beyond.

What was the process of launching the platform – funding, programming, business planning, etc?

StepLadder’s history to March 2017 can be broken down into three phases: (1) due diligence and formulation; (2) structuring and funding; (3) launch and proof of concept.

First, the formulation of a ‘first time buyer solution’ business model around the core ROSCA intellectual property required understanding the market and testing that the market would be able to understand the StepLadder proposition. Focus groups and due diligence of the first time buyer marketplace were crucial at this stage.

Second, the detailed design of the StepLadder circle was both an iterative exercise based on market feedback and one where expert advice proved invaluable. We closely examined multiple dimensions for assembling the business plan: e.g. regulatory, legal, branding, and underwriting. We also secured the financial support of our ‘Proof of Concept’ investors.

Third, we entered the Proof of Concept stage when the “shop window” that is our site: joinStepLadder.com went live in November 2016. From this point, our focus has been marketing awareness and information exchange with prospective members.

How do you calculate the 45% savings? Presumably some people will get the money sooner, but some might get it later?

Mathematically, the expected draw from a uniform distribution is 50% of the draws remaining. That roughly represents the odds of an individual member being drawn for the property deposit in any given month. It is imperative to appreciate that even being drawn in the final period of the circle is no different to the alternative outcome of saving alone (except for minimal interest in a regulated, principal-guaranteed, high-street savings offering). Where a member in a 30-month StepLadder circle has a 1/30 chance of having to wait the full 2.5years, saving alone that probability is 100% — the lone saver will definitely have to wait that long!

Do you put the money in savings and does the system require the money to earn interest?

The fixed monthly contributions of members become the principal for the peer-to-peer lending underway. In other words, float is minimal. This is not a collective investment scheme, nor does it involve ‘investment returns’. Just the opposite – the power of the ROSCA is in the acceleration of capital formation for actual member use in making an asset purchase.

What is your business model?

We generate revenue from membership fees, mortgage facilitation, and transaction services. We intend for the membership fee to recoup administrative costs of operating the circle – and not as a source of profit for StepLadder.

Please note that the fixed monthly contributions that form the property deposit awards are always treated as client funds and are ring-fenced from StepLadder’s own operating resources.

Do people need to use the agents/advisors that pay you fees?

No, members are not tied to our transaction services partners. However, we believe our service partners will make attractive offers to our members. This is based on two, reinforcing factors: 1) group buying discounts and 2) quality referrals from our membership. We have evidence of this already in the promotions offered to Founder’s Circle members by our initial panel of services partners.

What are your plans for growth / can you take this abroad?

Thanks for the optimism! At the same time, our key focus is executing on delivery of our roll-out: first in Greater London and then throughout London and the UK is an unmatched global opportunity in scale, innovation, and urgency.

Medium-term, we also think there is a significant opportunity throughout the Anglo sphere (Ireland, Canada, Australia, and the US) and beyond. We are open to partnerships in order to accelerate this process.

Are there any other platforms in the UK or globally helping with this affordability issue?

There are a number of well-intentioned government programs aimed at this issue: shared ownership and Help-to-Buy ISAs in the UK, for example. Generally, these come with a number of conditions or restrictions. They are also subject to the vagaries of political priority.

There are also a number of deposit-finance schemes on offer from new and specialist lenders. I note that these can introduce tax, estate, and financing complexity to home ownership, which is not the case with StepLadder.

Ultimately, the real alternative is the Bank of Mom and Dad – but that’s not an option available to every qualified first time buyer. StepLadder is.

What is the technology behind the platform?

The platform has two main pieces (i) the public facing website and matching engine; and (ii) the private member environment with circle management.

The public facing site serves to facilitate the information exchange process and accelerate the match of a prospective member to a circle that fits their circumstances and goals. We have natural network effects as our pool of prospective members grows – this means matches occur faster while simultaneously our circle affinity scores rise. This is always done without sacrificing underwriting standards and why the first criteria remain credit and affordability tests.

In the private member environment, the functionality is focused on managing the circles’ progress, reporting and user-circle interaction. The whole circle management process is automated, including all cash flows and allocation. The UX is a simplified version of a marketplace lender interface, where we prioritise security, transparency, and community among the members of each circle.

Have you needed to jump any regulatory hurdles?

Absolutely. I have engaged with the Financial Conduct Authority since before incorporating StepLadder in March 2016. The first port of call in January 2016 was the FCA’s Innovation Hub. They have been great. Our ongoing dialogue with them culminated in a preliminary perimeter assessment that StepLadder’s business model conformed to Article 36H of the Regulated Activities Order – operating an electronic peer-to-peer platform.

I considered regulatory review so important from the outset that I retained both corporate counsel and regulatory consultancy before raising seed finance or bringing on any team members.

What do you think is the biggest concern someone might have in using the system?

That’s as easy to answer as it is important: trust. We are a new company offering an unfamiliar financial product. Moreover, our proposition is large ticket with a long(-ish) duration. We see ourselves as a path across a generational rift; however, that may sound too good to be true to a casual observer.

So, it’s StepLadder’s responsibility to earn trust. We started by thinking like a prospective member. Focus groups were among the first business activity we undertook, and we clocked-in nearly a dozen before putting up our first landing website. I consider 1:1 direct personal contact with prospective members essential to members deciding StepLadder is a suitable solution. I personally feel compelled to evangelize our message – so, I’m happy to engage with press, partners, and thought leaders about what StepLadder can do.

Optimise Agent Profiles
Asia PacificInterviews

Realtor Profiler: Optimising Real Estate Agent’s Online Profiles

Everyone who conducts business online knows how important content marketing is for online lead generation. However, perhaps due to property prices rising in recent years, the real estate industry has been slower to adopt content marketing techniques than other industries.

We sat down with Rod Smith, founder of the real estate profile automation platform, Realtor Profiler, to talk about his unique content marketing solution. Realtor Profiler is the world’s first rapid content generation service for real estate profiles. It lets real estate professionals, agencies, and portals transform their online presence in just minutes.

What’s the story behind Realtor Profiler?

Realtor Profiler really began in 2013 when I was looking for a house to rent in Australia. Like most people, I started searching for real estate agents to assess their qualifications and credibility.

I was surprised to find that most real estate agents’ LinkedIn and Portal profiles were incomplete and lacked key information. Instead of inspiring trust, most agents’ profiles felt like dead ends. So I asked a question that ultimately inspired the business: why aren’t real estate agents better utilising their online profiles?

I identified three key reasons:

  1. Time – real estate agents are often too busy to optimise their own profiles.
  2. Skills – most agents aren’t totally sure where to start or how to project themselves effectively online.
  3. Money – bespoke personal branding consultants are usually pricey (not to mention, they require agents’ time).

After three years in this space, my team has more than 30,000 hours of consulting experience and the largest capacity in the world. We’ve never stopped innovating and refining our processes.

Now, we’re launching an innovative content generation platform that makes it incredibly simple for real estate agents to transform their online profiles with unique, personalised, search-engine-optimised content. We offer live chat support as agents fill out our form, then we deliver fresh profiles within a business day.

Explain how the business works and what it does for agents?

We partner with portals and agencies, and also serve agents directly through our B2C site.

Agents spend 10-30 minutes filling out our optimisation form. From there, we craft profile content that fits specifically with any number of desired portals, and/or LinkedIn. In Australia, that’s five portals plus LinkedIn. In Southeast Asia, it’s currently three regional portals plus LinkedIn. The agents look more professional online, attract more listings, improve referral rates, receive more job offers, and save a lot of time (and money). For AUD$99, that’s amazing value for money and it really helps them to be more competitive online.

Our B2B partners also benefit from offering optimised profiles to their agents – stronger SEO presence, more online engagement, better metrics and more comprehensive agent services. Probably the biggest attraction is that we save our partners lots of time and money by quickly transforming their less-than-optimal agent profiles. Incomplete, lacklustre agent profiles are really a blight on portal and agency sites. We’ve got the quick cure.

Which platforms can you optimise?

There are really no limits. Currently, we can optimise the leading portals in the South East Asian and Australian markets. That includes the leading residential and commercial portals. We are talking with several smaller portals that see us as an opportunity to gain traction and compete. We are looking at North America later this year.

LinkedIn is also a big part of what we do. That’s getting more important with the acquisition by Microsoft, who are integrating LinkedIn with a number of their products like Outlook, Skype, MS Dynamics, and the rest of the MS Office suite. Junk LinkedIn profiles are getting less and less acceptable for professionals in any kind of sales role.

Agents who aren’t native English speakers are also really interested because we allow them to complete our form in their native language and then produce two versions of their profile – one in their native language and another version in perfect English. This has opened discussions with portals that have a country specific focus but want to attract foreign, English-speaking investors.

Do you also optimise profiles on agent rating websites?

We focus on portals and large agencies primarily, because they offer greater volume opportunities and we believe we are a better fit for their needs. Although we are open to possible partnership talks.

You didn’t have a background in real estate – what made you decide to focus on this sector?

I’ve been based in Asia for nearly 20 years and have started four companies focused on servicing niche markets in developed APAC countries. So I have have a lot of experience building solutions for competitive rates.

Speaking of real estate specifically, I actually did have some prior experience with the property market through a non-profit I founded in Cebu. Fair Go Sourcing helps single mothers who need a flexible way to earn and invest in their children. We connect them with property management agencies that need to transcribe property condition reports. Also, my family has always been active in the property market, so that’s also given me some insight into how things work in this sector.

I’ve learned by reading and engaging constantly with seasoned real estate and proptech professionals. Back in 2013 when I was looking for a home to rent and not really impressed with most agents’ online profiles, I delved into it. I’ve done a lot of research since then and I’m confident in my assessment and familiarity with the market dynamics.

Can you tell me how many clients you have / how the business is growing?

We launched a short test campaign in 2014 and saw over 30% month-on-month average growth. At the beginning we would spend 4-5 hours per agent. Since then, we’ve invested a lot of time in tech and content and now offer a more streamlined approach.

We have the capacity to serve 1,000 agents per day and hope to be hitting those numbers soon with a few large B2B partners rolling out. That’s more capacity than any other supplier, by far. We’ve already had over 30,000 hours of consulting experience and now have the ability to serve more agents in less time with much less overhead.

Do you have any competitors? (I was waiting to find a system like yours given the need for agents to manage online profiles)

At this stage there are no firms with our capacity or tech. We have spent 3 years focused on this one niche so we have a big head start and our location allows for us to service Asia, Oceania and Europe during daytime hours. We opened our first office in the United States last month.

What do you think is the future of real estate agents and how they will compete online? (given agent rating platforms, online agents, etc.)

Obviously, technology is helping, but also challenging and disrupting the way humans work. Real estate agents are not immune to this phenomenon. Your question actually underscores the importance of our solution because agents who have the ability to tackle novel situations, meet new market needs, empathise with their clients, and project and promote themselves as discerning, compassionate human beings will be the last to be replaced by virtual (machine) agents. Agents who do not adapt and brand themselves in this way may experience some uncomfortable pressure in the coming years.

What is the technology or skills that are behind your business?

We’d love to share, but we do guard our tech specs. I can say that we owe a great deal to our exceptional relationship with Vietnam’s most selective university, the Foreign Trade University, where we source most of our talent. Our staff are mainly young and excel at research and innovation, technical and research skills, problem solving, and customer service. These are what drive our product and underpin the quality of our live support.

We’re based in Hanoi, ranked this year by the World Economic Forum as the 8th most dynamic city in the world. Vietnam consistently ranks in the top 3 globally for outsourcing. The quality and availability of technical and English speaking staff here is amazing – both local and international talent.

Gig Economy Comes to Real Estate
Interviews

StealthForce: The Gig Economy comes to Real Estate

Real estate disruption has focused largely on how we market, search for, buy, operate and sell physical property. Now disruption is coming to people. The gig economy, best illustrated by short-term job websites Upwork and Freelancer, has now arrived in the real estate sector thanks to US-based startup StealthForce which promises ‘curated real estate talent on demand’.

Given the project based nature of real estate development and the need to up-size / downsize teams depending on deal flow, this is a logical step for the industry. While it’s early days for StealthForce, the platform has the potential to change the way large developers manage headcount and could open up a world of new possibilities for real estate professionals. We spoke to the team to find out more:

When did you launch and what was the process leading up to launch?

Our founder Poonam Mathis spent over 10 years in real estate prior to launching StealthForce in early 2016. The idea was a result of having felt a certain gap in expertise and insight while investing and doing business in real estate. We began by canvassing the universe of potential clients to confirm the size of the need. It turns out that based on feedback, real estate stakeholders large and small needed a more efficient way to access flexible expertise and support. The next step was to establish a basic site in order to outline the mission and invite consultants to join (as a way of testing demand from the other side of the two-sided marketplace, which is the consultants seeking gigs). That also proved fruitful. Thereafter, with a test base of interested clients and willing consultants, we raised some pre-seed money, and since then focused on really understanding our product market fit.

Tell us more about that gap in the market?

Poonam Mathis had worked early in her career after graduating Harvard, at GLG (Gerson Lehrman Group), where she was employee number 13 (they now have over 800, and are valued at over US 1 billion dollars), where she helped build their expert network; that’s where she understood the power of networks of professionals. Then she went into real estate, which was a lifelong passion and the family business. After graduate school at Wharton, she went into real estate, and worked on both ends of the investment spectrum: first working for a small developer who was understaffed like most and then working for a global real estate private equity firm which was staffed with expensive generalists. She noticed the gaps in talent were pervasive across the industry – and there was no efficient solution. So she decided to build a team to create one.

Can you help to explain the business model?

Put simply, clients order reports/deliverables or consultants, and we search our network. We invite the top matches confidentially to consider the project (outlined in a project brief). They opt-in or opt-out, based on availability and conflict checks. Some 60% of consultants are employed full-time, just moonlighting with StealthForce. The other 40% are independent, or between jobs, or very senior and semi-retired. If they opt-in, we curate the top 2 or 3 to deliver to the client, typically within 48 hours. They consider, call, interview, and select their preferred consultant, and launch the project. We track milestones, manage payments and get feedback from both parties along the way.

Here’s a useful summary video.

What is your typical client? (eg. large developer, boutique investor)?

Our clients are all real estate stakeholders. Small developers may use us for financial analyst support, mid-size funds may use us for quick appraisals or feasibility studies in new markets, corporate real estate teams may use us for outsourced talent to manage hiring, global organisations may use us for board placements or even for test-drives for permanent roles (to reduce turnover). Even accounting firms have used us for real estate specific CPA support during times of peak demand.

How long is the typical engagement?

Scoped projects can be as  short as 4 hours or as long as a year. Lately we are seeing a lot of roles with a 4 week time frame.

How do you manage conflicts between moonlighting and existing employers?

We send the consultant the Project Brief with the client name in advance of sharing any project information. Per the terms of their membership in our network, they agree not to accept any projects contrary to any other agreements (including employment agreements) to which they are a party. In addition, we can complete background checks and additional reviews based on client requests, or even omit consultants with connections to specific companies from our candidate list. Since we’re a tech-enabled platform, this is easy to do.

Are you operating globally or just in the US?

We are a global platform, with a core focus in the US. Another strong market for us is Asia.

How do you approach business development?

Various methods have been used, but word of mouth is always the best. In addition, we employ content marketing, referral programs, and direct outreach.

What is the technology behind the platform and how has the development side been?

Our CTO (former head of the Mortgage Marketplace at Trulia/Zillow) is working on our project management and consultant search system which is a version 2.0 of our current system, likely to be launched in Q2 2017. Later this year we anticipate building a proprietary matching system employing our own methods to make the process even faster and more precise.

What is the longer term vision for the business?

The long-term vision is about resourcing. The industry is inefficient, not just when it comes to talent and insight, but to make core components of real estate valuable. We aim to democratise the lack of transparency. Imagine how a level playing field would change the game.

What is the early feedback from clients?

Feedback is positive, and informative. What we have learned so far is that in concept, most potential clients can see a need for this sort of disruption to the human capital portion of the real estate investment equation. Where we need to get stronger is on productisation and the creation of urgency to tap into our resources. Sometimes its about relationship building, though, and we are always more than happy to do that. The better we understand our client, the more we can do for them, and for the industry, overall.

Construction Drone
ConstructionInterviews

DroneDeploy Interview: Construction Tech Tools for the Future

In August 2016, DroneDeploy raised US$20 million to continue its expansion as the world’s leading drone mapping platform. In the same year, the team launched an App Market, allowing 3rd party developers to create and launch apps for use on the existing DroneDeploy software. This marks a significant step for the drone industry, as it matures from being seen as a range of cool flying cameras, to a piece of hardware that can power all kinds of value added analysis and insight. We spoke to the DroneDeploy team at the end of what has been a big year:

What’s the story behind DroneDeploy?

DroneDeploy was founded in 2013 by three college friends from South Africa – Mike Winn (CEO), Jono Millin (CPO) and Nicholas Pilkington (CTO) – who were inspired by local poaching issues to create a product that could help anyone, anywhere, gain insight into particular landscapes from a bird’s eye view. The three realized that although drones were beginning to boom in popularity, the ability to harness the imagery and data they collected was limited. Thus began the shift to build the most popular cloud-based drone mapping and analytics software on the market today. Today, DroneDeploy is leveraged across a multitude of industries, including agriculture, construction, mining, inspection and surveying. Simple by design, DroneDeploy enables professional-grade imagery and analysis, 3D modeling and more from any drone on any device.

Your software can both fly the drone and turn drone images into data maps that you can then analyse (e.g. % of construction progress)?

That’s right! DroneDeploy takes geo-tagged imagery from any drone and uses a process called photogrammetry to process that imagery into high-resolution maps and 3D models. It’s simple to use – just upload your imagery to DroneDeploy’s cloud-based Map Engine, and then we send an email when the map is complete. From there, you can explore your map on any device, export data, share maps in real time, make annotations and perform other analysis.

DroneDeploy - Elevation map example

If you have a DJI drone, DroneDeploy can also fly the drone for you. Our mobile apps for iOS and Android automate launch, flight, image capture and landing for DJI drones – all you have to do is select the area you want to map and tap a button to launch the drone.

What are the range of data inputs/analytics you can apply to a construction site (size, volume, etc.)?

DroneDeploy provides standard tools to measure distance, area and volume that are part of the core offering, as well as specialised tools available in our App Market that can be installed in your account. Some of these specialised tools include integrations to Autodesk and Box, the ability to generate a reports of all map measurements, as well as 3D printing of drone models.

What are the most advanced or interesting ways you are seeing construction companies use drones?

There are many interesting use cases for the use of drones in construction. One such example is 3D printing – users can download data collected through DroneDeploy to create a 3D model or map, which can then, in turn, be sent to a 3D printer, anywhere in the world and at any time. Another interesting application of our software is virtual reality. Companies like Brasfield & Gorrie have been experimenting with using virtual reality in conjunction with DroneDeploy maps and imagery, to provide immediate virtual representation of a design or construction site to clients and design teams. This allows real-time discovery of potential safety hazards, prediction of installation efficiency, and can decrease the amount of boots on the ground, as these virtual maps can be accessed anywhere in the world with a VR headset.

Tell me about the App Market? What was the thinking behind it, and why does it work for clients/developers?

DroneDeploy has the largest data set in the industry. Currently, our users have mapped more than 8 million acres in 135 countries across so many different industries. By opening up our platform and creating the App Market, we’re extending the possibility of what you can do with drones. End users will now have access to more solutions directed at their specific industries and use cases. On the developer’s side, creating specific, niche apps is time consuming and requires a lot of work before it can prove value.

With the DroneDeploy App Market, developers can build on the DroneDeploy platform, eliminating much of the time needed to develop just that layer, and it allows users to install the app within the DroneDeploy interface, so they don’t have to worry about toggling between apps to gather their specific data or maps. It also gives developers access to tens of thousands of our users who are already using drones – an audience that they might not have access to otherwise.

Was construction always a target market? If not, how did it come about?

DroneDeploy focuses on solving key problems around commercial uses of drones for mapping – rather than focusing solely on a particular market. That’s part of why we launched the App Market – so that we can continue to strengthen our core offering while also enabling our users to access best-in-class industry-specific tools from our partners. That said, over the last year, construction has grown to become one of the most dominant industries when it comes to drone adoption and it’s become more of a focus for us.

A number of factors have helped drive the growth in adoption among construction companies. The release of Part 107 in the U.S. this August, making it easier for companies to operate drones in a compliant way. The last year has also seen improvements in hardware and software.  Not only is drone flight now safer and more reliable, but improvements in software have made it much easier for construction companies to use drones to generate accurate 3D point clouds, contour maps and other outputs that are useful for construction.

Have you looked at construction safety?

Safety is definitely a top priority for our construction users. Drones allow us to get a bird’s eye view of whatever it is we hope to map. Having this perspective can also help inspectors identify potential safety concerns that might not be able to be seen from the ground. Drones can also provide a safer alternative for certain types of data collection. Falls are the leading cause of death on construction sites. Thanks to drone imagery, there is now less of a need to send humans high up on ladders or into potentially dangerous areas just to perform visual inspection.

Could you do indoor construction (eg. floor-by-floor to measure progress)?

Today, drones are not generally used monitoring indoor construction – in part because indoor structures tend to interfere with the GPS data connection and it can be challenging to avoid indoor obstacles. Another factor to consider is that drones don’t necessarily provide as much of a benefit over traditional methods. If the ceiling is only 9 feet high, how much more will a drone be able to show you when compared to a human walking around with a camera or lidar? However, as sense-and-avoid capabilities improve on newer drone models we could potentially see more use cases for monitoring indoor construction.

What are your plans for expansion/new products?

The long-term success of the commercial drone industry requires greater cooperation, including software standards that are scalable for the enterprise. We are building capabilities today to empower tomorrow’s full-scale drone operations by partnering with other companies on building holistic drone solutions for business applications.

Singapore IoT Fund
Asia PacificInterviewsIoT

Singapore IoT Fund: Accelerating the next billion in Sensing Cities

Singapore based venture capital firm and accelerator, TNB Ventures (TNB) has launched TNB Aura Fund 1, the only hardware / software focused fund in the region with a mandate to invest in IoT, Robotics, Machine Learning/AI and AR/VR. With a mission to become the next generation venture capital platform, TNB was founded in 2016 with the coming together of two very active accelerators and one Series A VC. In 2017 TNB will launch TNB Aura Fund 1, a SGD$50 million investment vehicle, that includes co-investment by SPRING Singapore, the Singapore government agency responsible for helping Singapore enterprises grow.

TNB provides early stage startups with funding support in 2 ways:

  1. TNB Accelerator: 6-9 month acceleration program with S$40,000 investment per startup;
  2. TNB Aura Fund 1: provides funding support from Seed to Series A/B stages
    1. Seed Stage: funds between S$250,000 – 500,000 per investment (looking to invest in ~20-30 companies); and
    2. Series A/B: funds between S$1-3 million per investment (looking to invest in ~15-20 companies).

Beyond investment, TNB is assembling a strong ecosystem of partners to provide startups in its portfolio with strong technical support, access to top tier corporate partners and mentorship.

Managing Partner, Vicknesh R Pillay, explains more:

How did TNB get together?

The 3 partners came together having managed our own proprietary investment vehicles. I came from an investment banking and real estate background, having set up a real estate fund with German capital managing about €350 million. After exiting the fund in 2014, which led me to start investing in other companies, I came across Michael Yap, former Deputy CEO of the Media Development Authority, who was hugely involved in the development of Block 71 and Singapore’s startup ecosystem, and Kelvin Ong, CEO of FocusTech Ventures and Executive Director of the Holding Company for leading HDD component maker, Seksun Group.

Thus, we had complementary skills and as we started to form our thinking about a new venture, SPRING Singapore announced the Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Grant. We then created TNB, applied for the grant, and were one of only 7 VCs to be appointed as their specialised accelerator and receive funding.

So what is your investment approach?

We do not invest into e-commerce or marketplaces. Our thesis lies in the combination of hardware and software – the time is ripe for the intersection between the physical and digital. We invest into the hardware (sensors) and the software (where the IP and visualisation sits) knowing that by 2020 there will be >30 billion connected devices, and the size of the big data and AR/VR markets will be worth US$60 Billion and US$150 Billion respectively.

We felt there was a gap in Singapore to create a VC which supports its investments via a holistic approach, creating an ecosystem for success rather than just providing capital. We want to provide follow on capital, bring in corporate partners and even help with recruitment.

Another area of focus is that we provide access to corporates. If we find interesting startups we will introduce them to relevant corporate partners. For example, we would introduce a VR company to our travel partner Chan Brothers Group which has a lot of industry experience that can be leveraged to help the startup fine-tune its product.

We have also invested in this space by bringing on board PHDs in augmented reality and electronics engineering, and have our own talent management team which helps the startups with recruitment. It’s all about building the supporting infrastructure, so we are reinvesting management fees to create this ecosystem.

How do you access deal flow?

How do you access deal flow?

We are lucky to have Aura Group as our lead investor in the fund which helps to give deal flow from Australia. Plug and Play gives us access to the US, and Ruvento Ventures gives us access to Eastern Europe. Beyond that I would describe it as either natural or proactive deal flow:

  • Natural – being a co-investment partner of SPRING Singapore where we get a lot of deal flow. Secondly, we have deep roots with the research bodies in Singapore with A*Star, NTU and NUS. Finally, we have a good network of investors/VCs who refer deals to us as well.
  • Proactive deal flow – doing a global call such as this Sensing Cities Global Call & Accelerator Program 2016 to bring together a group of corporates with startups that are relevant to our investment thesis.

What is your strategy around corporates?

We want to provide corporates with a range of different options for their innovation objectives. Many of them spend millions of dollars to develop innovation strategies or they consider setting up internal investment funds. Our advice is to put a toe in the water via a platform like ours. For a sponsorship fee, they can get access to early-stage startups via the accelerator. Alternatively, they can invest in the fund (TNB Aura Fund1) and get access to everything we do. This doesn’t provide a full innovation strategy, but it complements it at a fraction of the price it costs to do it themselves.

As of now, our corporate partners include Chan Brothers Travel, Lignar Labs, A*Star, Temasek Polytechnic and Ngee Ann Polytechnic. We will soon be announcing partners in consulting and real estate.

What are you excited about in the property space?

Two areas:

AR/VR: We believe the way we view properties is going to completely change. Property sites will move from transactional to experiential, and there will be a lot of change in this space.

Estate Agents: There will always be a place for agents, but this will be reduced and the role will change to a service-centric role. It will be just like bankers who are paid a salary to assist you, rather than a commission on transaction.

What’s a good example of a successful exit your team has made?

One of our partners was a seed investor in Catapult Sports, a smart wearables company used by leading sports brands around the world. It listed on the ASX for a investment multiple of 15 times.

Finally, an update on the status of applications?

We have received >250 applicants for the Sensing Cities call, hoping to get 1,000 by 31 December when entries close.

Site1001
InterviewsIoTUnited States

Building Management Platform: Site 1001

Cloud-based building management platforms are growing in number, attempting to replace proprietary iBMS systems to create open source, ‘smart’ buildings. Site1001 recently raised US$5m Series A funding and is notable as a rare PropTech start up that began life inside a construction company, only to successfully spin out on its own. We talked to CEO Cleve Adams:

What’s behind the name?

Site 1001 began as a ‘skunkworks’ project inside of JE Dunn Construction, a leading general contractor based in Kansas City, Missouri. The company’s address is 1001 Locust Street, so we adopted the ‘Ten O One’ moniker as the company and product name.

Can you tell us a bit about the business model?

We believe that building operations is just beginning to undergo the same sort of technological disruption that industries like retail, transportation, travel and hospitality underwent in the past decade. Cheap sensors and new technologies are going to turn just about every building component from a boiler to a light bulb into a connected ‘thing.’ But since boilers and light bulbs still need to be managed, maintained and replaced, facilities managers, ready or not, are going to be taking on a quasi-IT role as well.

We also believe that facilities managers already have enough to do and adding ‘smart’ technology and IT troubleshooting to the list isn’t going to make the job any easier. So rather than forcing FM professionals to become IT guys, our business model is built on eliminating the IT altogether and letting them focus on facilities management. As such, Site 1001 is based on a ‘software as a service’ model – cloud-based and mobile first, so there’s nothing required beyond a mobile app or a web browser to use it. Moreover, because cloud technology lets us continuously update the platform, customers always have the latest and greatest features wherever they go and without any downtime. The Site 1001 pricing model is equally simple. One flat monthly fee gets every product feature and an unlimited number of users.

Your website says ‘No systems to setup, no special hardware, no IT guys’ – does that mean all building services like AHU, lifts, lighting, security can connect to the system regardless of their manufacturer?

Yes. The system is completely cloud-based and runs via an app or web-browser. We have technology partnerships with major building systems, MEP, and equipment manufacturers, as well as a growing stable of IoT and sensor manufacturers that lets us integrate it all into a single platform accessible from anywhere you and your smartphone go.

How many buildings is Site 1001 deployed on?

We have a dozen sites currently on the platform and we’re on track to be somewhere near 50 in 2017.

Given the emergence of building management platforms how does a building owner know what makes a good product?

Building owners should be focusing on a few key areas when deciding whether a product is right for them. First, does this make my job easier or more difficult? If a product is too complicated, difficult for people to use, or forces you to change the way you do business, it’s not a good product. Second, what’s the real cost of the system? That’s not just the base software cost, but setup and implementation costs and time frame, additional functionality, user licenses etc. If the real price isn’t clear, it’s almost impossible to know if you’re getting a decent return on your investment. Finally, building owners should ask will this system help my business be more profitable.

Most simply think of a building management system as a way to reduce total cost of ownership. But a well-designed, forward-looking system will also provide information that will help you uncover new business insights and revenue opportunities whether that’s through efficiencies that can be replicated in other locations, higher tenant lease rates and lower churn, or even the ability to generate new revenue sources via the building data you collect.

How have you approached the user interface side of the platform? Is this a place you have made a lot of effort?

When we first began designing the Site 1001 platform we understood facilities managers are constantly out and about doing their work, not parked at a desk looking at a computer. As such, we designed the product to be mobile first and desktop second, which is exactly the opposite of most other systems. If you look at our mobile interface you’ll see that it’s simple, with large buttons and text that’s easy to read, which makes it far simpler to use when you’re in a maintenance closet trying to pull up and read an O&M manual.

Further, we built the system around the concept of being location-based and combining visual elements like panoramic photos with hotspots and text-based elements like workorders and manuals to minimise the need to search for information. When a Site 1001 user walks into a room, the app on his phone knows where he is and brings up the asset information for that room. If he’s there to fix a drinking fountain, then he gets the information for that specific drinking fountain, not every drinking fountain in the building.

There’s literally hundreds of elements built into Site 1001 designed to leverage the sensors and systems built into smartphones and tablets – cameras, accelerometers, WiFi locationing, bluetooth proximity, and so on – to make it super simple to get the information a facilities manager needs when and where he needs it. That’s not something that FM systems originally designed for a computer and later ported to mobile can do.

Does the product allow for predictive building maintenance?

Site 1001 has features built in for predictive, preventative and corrective maintenance. That includes things like reminders for standard warranties and preventative maintenance, as well as alerting and real time notifications for unusual patterns or anomalous activity from building systems. So if, for example, you’ve got a chiller that’s operating normally but having unusual power cycling, you’ll get an alert regarding the cycling, a severity level and information on likely causes and proper corrective maintenance procedures. Some of the more interesting things we’re working on now leverage building sensors and IoT devices to perform some really cool smart building functions like autonomous activity such as a light bulb or air filter issuing its own replacement work order before it stops functioning.

When did you know you were ready to spin the business out of JE Dunn?

We began development back in 2011, but it wasn’t until our fourth or fifth customer a couple of years later that we realised Site 1001 was going to be much more than a system for managing the hand off from construction to building owner. As a general contractor, JE Dunn is involved with a building for the first couple of years of its life, but Site 1001 is going to be involved for the next 5, 10, or 20 years. Moreover, we were getting involved with other building and business systems like WiFi networks, ERP and real time asset locationing that was outside the JE Dunn wheelhouse. At that point we said “we need to spin out on our own.”

What was the capital raising process like? How was it dealing with funds compared to JE Dunn’s investment?

I’ve raised capital from Silicon Valley to Israel for half a dozen companies over the past 20 years and Site 1001’s was by far the best both in terms of investor interest and enthusiasm. JE Dunn actually led our Series A investment and we were able to bring in three other investment groups, all of whom are from the Kansas City area. As you may know, Kansas City, Missouri was the first city Google chose for its Google Fiber high speed internet project, and the city has a developed a vibrant investment and development community focused on technologies and innovations in smart cities, transportation, telecommunications and healthcare, as well as many others. There’s a lot of exciting startups coming out of KCMO.

What are your plans for growth?

Currently we’re focused on expanding our installed base here in North America. We just opened an office in Southern California and we are working on projects from Atlanta, Georgia to Portland, Oregon. We also just hired a new head of sales who came to us from IBM. Before landing with Site 1001, he headed Big Blue’s smarter cities and Watson IoT divisions for all of Europe, so once we’ve established our North American presence, we may be pursuing new opportunities over there.

Singapore PropTech
Asia PacificAsset Class

6 Signs Singapore’s real estate tech scene is on the rise

Singapore’s Property Guru is the dominant portal in this real estate obsessed nation. According to its own statistics, it commands more than 85% of all time spent on local portals and living here I would say that feels about right. The iProperty Group, which Australia’s REA Group acquired late last year for US$534m, can’t seem to make serious inroads with September 2016 traffic reaching 150,000 compared to Property Guru’s 1.5 million (according to www.similarweb.com).

Meanwhile, 99.co, which made waves here when it announced a fresh investment round of $1.6m in January 2015 (largely due to the participation of Facebook co-Founder Eduardo Saverin) promised a superior search experience based on a Google-like search. It has a more modern interface and an algorithm called ListRank which focuses on quality rather than sponsored listings, but the ultimate experience remains more or less the same – consumers are still sorting through listings advertised by Singapore’s 30,000 plus real estate agents.

So how much innovation is there in the Singapore real estate tech scene? Here are the top 6 reasons why things are about to get interesting:

Capitaland VC Fund

In June this year, one of Singapore’s leading property developers, Capitaland, established a SGD$100m fund to invest in real estate related start ups. Named C31 Ventures, $75m is mandated for global investments while $25m is earmarked locally. Of this, $10m was contributed by the National Research Foundation under its Early Stage Venture Fund.

The significance of this move is threefold. First, very few global developers have set aside this type of capital for tech start ups making Capitaland a first mover in this space. Second, as a developer and owner of retail, residential, office and hospitality projects, it will be interested in a very wide range of business models and will be able to provide its investments with access to its property portfolio giving them instant scale. Third, this sends a message to the local start up community which, in turn, should mean more founders moving into this space.

Government

Singapore’s objective to become a smart nation is well known and well on track when you look at examples like Jurong Lakes District, or a range of initiatives relating to public wifi, logistics and driverless cars. Specifically relating to property, the Minister for National Development was recently quoted as saying the industry needs to brace itself for Disruption so there is an awareness even at the highest levels that change is on the horizon.

On top of this, Singapore has declared its intention to become a FinTech hub, with the Monetary Authority of Singapore establishing a FinTech Innovation Hub, creating a regulatory sandbox for FinTech startups and sponsoring the inaugural FinTech Festival on 14 November 2016.

FinTech and parts of PropTech are interlinked. Crowdfunding or peer-2-peer lending for property is relate to both property and finance. Thus, for Singapore to become a leader in FinTech you can expect property related platforms will receive government blessing.

Orange Tee Agent Rankings

In February, Orange Tee, one of the leading residential brokers launched Singapore’s first agent rating platform called Agent Bank. Similar platforms, which operate like tripadvisor for real estate agents, are quickly gaining traction in the US, UK and Australia with Singapore seemingly a year or two behind this trend. In Australia, Westpac (one of the big four banks) recently invested in OpenAgent indicating how much they expect agent ratings to become part and parcel of how people transact residential property.

Online Agents

Online Agents promise to replace human agents, or at least substitute much of their role. For a fixed-fee rather than a commission, they provide professional photos and list them on the major portals and give you all the tools you need to sell your property.

This year both Snappy House and Direct Home have launched in Singapore. On top of that, ohmyhome specifically targets HDB (Housing and Development Board) owners, allowing over 80% of the population to trade their properties directly. While in their infancy, the online agent product has arrived and will undoubtedly appeal to the budget conscious end of market, and this segment will mature quickly in the next 24 months.

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality hit the mainstream when Property Guru launched a pop-up VR showroom at Raffles Place (CBD) earlier this year. This allowed people to walk into their truck and view condo showflats via VR googles and proved that VR can take property mobile.  Earlier this month, another developer Keppel incorporated VR into its show suites when it launched its Highline Residences condominium allowing prospective buyers to experience their apartments using Oculus Rift.

Both the government and property media have now taken notice and are keen to see more of this from developers. Thus, VR will quickly become another weapon in the marketing arsenal, augmenting the traditional show suite launch experience.

Startup Diversity

Most importantly perhaps, the range of real estate related startups is beginning to broaden, moving closer to what’s happening in other markets. In addition to property search, Singapore now has platforms ranging from home design and renovation (Qanvast) to property management (Pegaxis),  property investment research (DREA) to agent bidding (Yotcha), and Internet of Things such as air quality sensors (uHoo).

This diversity will continue to expand, both as the real estate tech scene gains exposure abroad and the local ecosystem matures. Even last week we saw the launch of a smart cities VC accelerator calling for start ups in the areas of VR, IoT, robotics, big data an AI.

Government, capital, talent and industry awareness – the necessary ingredients are coming together and Singapore’s real estate tech scene has begun to simmer.

Homely
Asia PacificInterviewsResidential

Homely: the Australian property portal setting new standards in UX design

Homely is one of our favourite Australian PropTech platforms. It combines property search with neighbourhood guides and agent ratings wrapped up in a beautifully designed, easy to navigate site. Jason Spencer, Co-Founder and CEO, explains why Homely’s success is no accident.

Two brothers in the real estate tech business?

We come from a very entrepreneurial family with a strong history in the Australian mortgage industry. Our family business, called Interstar, was a pioneer that helped introduce the concept of non-bank home loans in the 1990’s. While companies like Aussie, Wizard and RAMS were the retail brands, we were the wholesalers behind the scenes funding the mortgages for thousands of businesses. It was a very successful business, ultimately sold to the Challenger Group. Later we launched several other B2B technology businesses in the financial services space but this all changed for us in 2007 when we had the idea for StreetAdvisor.

What started StreetAdvisor and is still operating?

So StreetAdvisor is a business that actually started with a poor experience that I had with real estate. It dates back to 2007. I had been quite disappointed with our home or more in fact the street, it was noisy, lots of traffic and we really didn’t get along with the neighbours. I’m sure many can relate to disliking their street in some form. So we decided to build a website called StreetAdvisor.com.au that would be like Tripadvisor, but for streets and suburbs.

This quickly took off here in Australia and also in the USA and became the biggest community of its kind where people could talk about what its like to live somewhere. Eventually the community started to ask us to add homes for sale and we built homely.com.au on top of the original StreetAdvisor community launching in early 2014.

Give us a sense of your growth since launch?

We have seen fantastic growth over the first three years, traffic doubling every year and over 90% of all listings submitted nationally. We are on track to have at least 10 million people visit our site in the next 12 months and we have over 90% of all agents signed up to our service. It’s been a lot of hard work to get the business where it is today. We believe no other portal has grown at the rate we have in the first three years.

Why the emphasis on design?

Our design team will tell you it’s not just about design, its also about the user experience. With the maturing of the internet consumers are used to seeing beautiful things often so it often comes down to a sub-conscious level whether something is designed well or not. We want consumers not only to look at homely to see a beautiful real estate search, we also want them to have a well designed experience. When consumers line our search experience up alongside the competition it’s important they can tell and feel the difference. And we think our recent international multiple Webby nominations validate our work.

Why did you move into agent reviews when the main function of the site is property search? Was it monetization and was that always your plan?

We think reviews are a great way for agents to highlight their success, but more importantly consumers want to know as much as they can about who is representing their most important asset. It’s so important to be able to get more than just performance statistics and so late last year we launched our own agent review platform where vendors, buyers and landlords can review their experience.

We also worked with agents to ensure some level of validation of the person who is reviewing the agent. We see the problem with reviews on sites like Google is that anyone can write a review – competitors, trolls, the agent’s mum, you just don’t know and the agent often doesn’t know. So we don’t have anonymous reviews, we ask for the property address and we have a team of people doing moderation.  Reviews for us were never about monetisation, they are about transparency.

How do you think the industry is changing for agents with the growth of homely, openagent and ratemyagent?

Sites like ours and other ratings sites give agents so many ways to better promote themselves online backed up by qualitative content instead of just typical sales data. I know the industry is cautious about agent reviews but we believe with our 10 year experience in the reviews space we can protect the agent while still giving transparency to the consumer.

How ready are agents for the digital age and how prepared are they to pay to enhance their online reputation?

I think the majority are ready for the digital age, they really have no choice if they want to stay competitive. Of course we see some agents who really are too flat out selling homes to bother with online but most acknowledge that with vendors and home buyers doing the research online you need to be there. Providing they can see ongoing value, agents will be happy to continue to pay to promote themselves online.

How do you think homely has impacted the industry – eg. domain.com.au and realestate.com.au?

Homely has definitely pushed the mark in terms of building a beautiful product and we have shown agents that a free-to-list portal can work in Australia, that there there is an alternative to promote your home online. We tend not to think about the competition or what they think, our team is focused on creating something special and unique in the industry.

Have you received external funding or plan to raise it?

No external funding, all privately held.

Finally, any other exciting Australian real estate tech platforms you like? 

No response from me on this one, don’t wish to leave out any number of our current or future partners!