Month: May 2016

Asia's Pop up Platforms
Asia PacificRetail

Asia’s Pop Up Platforms: A Difficult Road Ahead

Pop up retail as a concept is here to stay and it works because it serves all parties. For consumers pop ups provide variety, for landlords they represent additional income and a point of difference, while for the pop up retailers themselves they offer a low risk, low cost platform to launch products and increase brand exposure.

From a proptech perspective, the immediate opportunity was seized in 2012 when a number of US/UK based platforms launched platforms best described as Airbnb for retail. Storefront (US) and We Are Pop Up (UK) were two of the big names in this space, raising $8.9m and $2.7m respectively. The concept was simple: find spaces willing to rent on a short term basis, whether whole shops or just a hanging rack or table, list them on a marketplace website and charge a small commission for making the introduction/executing the lease.

Asia joins the race in 2015

In mid-2015 there was nothing happening in Asia, then by the end of the year 3 almost identical platforms had launched. Popscout (HK), Spaces Genie (HK) and PopUp Angels (Singapore) were online with literally a handful of locations listed. The spaces were usually an empty gallery in a trendy part of town, but they have grown to include retail mall ‘casual leasing’ space (empty spaces usually used for events or sales).

The challenge for these platforms in Asia is that the retail scene is different from that in the West. Retail is dominated by shopping malls, whereas in cities like London and San Francisco there is a more dominant ‘high street’. Shopping malls have high rents and high set up costs (fit out design, construction, licenses etc) making quick turnaround pop ups more difficult. They are often owned by REITS which prefer a guaranteed, ongoing rental income with less concern about who the actual tenant is.

Street retail, on the other hand, is often owned by individual landlords who are more flexible and want to avoid an empty shop front. Good locations command daily foot traffic (unlike the 4th floor of an under-performing mall) making them better suited to pop ups wanting maximum exposure. There is also something more original and uniquely ‘pop up’ about unexpected spaces or street front retail.

The other challenge for these Asian platforms the pop up concept remains relatively immature here so it requires a high level of education. Running a pop up marketplace will require significant time to identify potential spaces, get access to the landlord then explain how the whole thing works. The head of leasing at Capitaland will get it, but the owner of a suburban coffee shop could take more convincing. Furthermore, companies like Storefront found that tenants typically want only the best locations with very high passing traffic. This reduces the number of potential sites.

Back in the West, both Storefront and We Are Pop Up announced they had ceased operations in early 2016. This suggests the scale needed to generate serious revenue was out of reach, even for funded pioneers in more conducive locations. This doesn’t bode well for their younger, Asian cousins. The chicken and the egg then, to scale quickly needs investment but VC backing only increases the pressure to grow more quickly.

 

Conclusion

The need remains to connect landlords with parties wanting space, but the potential to reach scale and generate significant revenue is questionable. If a platform is able to cover the whole of Asia, including China, it will become interesting. If you think about a brand owner sitting in Paris thinking, how can I test appetite for my brand in Asia? This could be the answer and there is value in that. But this raises the challenge faced by every tech startup in Asia. Acquiring the capital and resources to truly penetrate countries so different is a challenge only few have accomplished.

Blockchain in real estate
InterviewsUnited States

Ubitquity: Pioneering the blockchain in Real Estate

What does the blockchain mean and how does it relate to real estate? Blockchain is the decentralisation of data via a peer-to-peer network so that information is stored locally and authenticated between computers without the need for a central server. Information is highly encrypted and easy to search. For real estate, this has the potential to significantly reduce paperwork, fraud and documentation errors. This could lead to significant disruption and dislodgement of third party players such as escrow and title registries that exist to authenticate real estate records.

Blockchain is the technology behind Bitcoin which, while far from mainstream, has proved many doubters wrong and today is worth more than USD$450 / unit. As a virtual currency without any government or central bank legitimacy, bitcoin requires squeaky clean record keeping and audit trails in order to remain above reproach. This does not remove the risk of human error, but can confirm a record’s authenticity by verifying the time and date, contents and party making the submission (more on accuracy below).

Founded by a couple of early bitcoin miners (Bitcoin Mining? See video here), Ubitquity is one of the very few pioneers attempting to take this technology to the real estate industry. The team, based in Delaware, is currently looking to raise USD$650,00 with a pre-seed valuation of $3.3 million. We spoke to CEO Nathan Wosnack and CTO Christian Saucier:

What stage are you up to right now?

In November 2015 our fledging new start up took a laser focused approach and a full pivot as a company by building a singular SMB (Small-Medium Business) and Enterprise SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) blockchain real estate platform. From November 2015 onwards to the present time we’ve been involved in defining industry pain points and developing the code base for the Ubitquity platform. In early March of this year we celebrated the initial completion of our prototype, and have now started working with an organization adding large amounts of real estate land metadata as part of our “Test Group 1” prior to our initial alpha release of our platform for our customers. We anticipate the alpha to be available for our business customers this summer.

Who are your users? Individuals? Banks? Brokers?

We envision a layered approach to the adoption of this technology.  The early adopters are going to be parties with the most to gain from efficiency and reduced transaction costs.  Mortgage originators and title companies are natural first customer to focus on.  We also have enterprise level financial institutions interested in taking advantage of a custom, (albeit permissioned version) of our SaaS platform.

What are the key benefits to users?

The ensuing environment of real estate financing and title transfers has resulted in massive amounts of document errors and fraud, stemming from the unprecedented complexity of today’s housing industry and the historic defaults occurring during the 2008 housing crisis.

To streamline and address this costly problem going forward we’ve created a platform for recording every pertinent step of a real estate transaction, including permanent storage of key documents, through a simple / user-friendly and secure portal, which permanently records the transaction on the blockchain. Since problematic title transfer of ownership still causes innumerable financial and emotional hardships to citizens, financial institutions and municipalities, blockchain technology is not only desirable but vital for improving economic development.

Key features include: easy of use, peer-to-peer storage, secured by the blockchain (we use the Bitcoin blockchain via Colu but we’re also experimenting with permissioned blockchains for custom SaaS clients so we remain blockchain agnostic), real-world integration, increased transparency, reduced search time and reduced fraud.

Practically, how will people use it – is it only when transacting property or any other time?

When property transactions occur, having an immutable record keeping process to refer back to later will be invaluable. All documents associated with the transaction of a particular property can be linked to a Colored Coin. Public information is placed into the form fields and tied to the metadata of the token representing the property. This can and will be seen on the block explorer when referencing the specific property in question.

Here’s a real-world example. Consider the recent forest fires in northern Alberta, Canada and the subsequent evacuation of Fort McMurray. Imagine that was you. Think about how easy it would be to forget to bring critical documents, such as the deed to your house, in the rush to evacuate. Having that deed in the blockchain means the title to your house is secure. Insurance companies can get the information they need to reimburse you, and you have the peace of mind of having a verifiable backup too.

What is your ambition, big picture?

Our short term objectives are scaling up in use cases. And both getting end-users and strategic partnerships in order to resolve use cases like: errors in public record, unknown liens, illegal deeds, missing heirs, forgeries, repairs and maintenance history, major system upgrades and warranties – to name a few. We are keeping it simple by working to address real world problems based on customer pain points rather than trying to take on too much too early.

Our long-term objectives are to build out a system that will ideally have recognition and integration with county clerks, and integration / adoption by title companies within the United States and Canada. The goal is for Ubitquity to have wide-user adoption by both small and incumbent players within the mortgage industry as well.

Do you think you are too early? Does it need any government support?

We don’t believe we’re too early at all based on the feedback from enterprise financial institutions, press and investors. If you take a look at the natural evolution of the Bitcoin space and the areas in which non-financial applications of the blockchain have been used, the timing is perfect.

We are not advocating for people to skip the legally mandated step of recording title transfers in the manner prescribed by each municipality.  We are simply building a parallel platform that will quickly rival the currently existing antiquated structures in place today.  We see our system as a 21st century supplement, layering on top of – and eventually integrating with – the archaic (and centralized) one in use today. Our system will simply set a higher standard for document recording, accessibility and utility overall. The level of trusted accuracy, and ease of use, coupled with significant cost savings for parties involved will become a no brainer for all involved in the housing industry. Since the housing industry reaches every aspect of our daily lives, we are excited to be able to democratize and reduce costs associated with real estate transactions.

Do you need any other partners / institutions to support you to get off the ground

We’ve 100% bootstrapped our prototype and upcoming alpha release. In my eyes, the support we need is pilot users actively using the platform to continue the momentum. We currently have a number of companies interested in the platform and one company that is adding a significant amount of metadata to our system while helping us build features that are both required and scalable across the real estate industries, i.e. mortgage companies, title companies.

How complicated is the technology behind blockchain?

When people refer to the “blockchain”, they really mean a group of computers talking to one another while following certain rules.  That’s been done before, but Blockchain brings something new to the table: The group of computers can agree with one another without a central server. Not only can blockchain technology facilitate this consensus, but it also resists attempts to cheat it, manipulate it, or stop it. The math, algorithms, and formulas behind blockchain technology are very complex, but they have been known and used for a long time. Whenever you hear about Merkle trees, hashing functions, or public keys, these are all math-based concepts that have been around for many decades. Satoshi Nakamoto was able to bring these concepts together to create the first blockchain via Bitcoin.

How does blockchain account for human error?

Human error is inherent to humans. “To err is human; to forgive, divine” (Alexander Pope, “Essay on Criticism”). The value of an immutable record is in its continued recording of events as they occurred.

If a human does input an error, that human can easily input a correction, but a continuous record of that error and correction will remain.  This is important for multiple reasons. Firstly, the knowledge of that being the case will help make those humans more cautious in their original data input. Second, because of the ability to look back and see exactly when and who made any sort of changes to the record gives that record veracity.

So for example, if an error is corrected by the same person, same day, then we can clearly see it is simply human error being corrected. However, if we see that a different person ‘corrected’ a record in the future, possibly to benefit them in some way, it is easily traceable and would naturally discourage such actions.

Eventually, we can safely assume most ‘corrections’ will simply be that. Human error corrections.  There are many errors that occur now and there are ways to legally remedy those errors. In fact, there is even error and omission insurance required by title professionals and real estate agents specifically for harm caused due to human or malicious error.

But those ‘mistakes’, whether malicious or not, are much harder to source back to the original creator. At Ubitquity we envision a whole new profession evolving to fill this need.  A blockchain data entry clerk, trained in a standardized format to follow best practices and ensure proper record keeping. We also envision a future where our platform is so user friendly and streamlined that virtually anyone can create and/or add to their existing record and have that ‘asset’ not only exist on the blockchain, but be an ever-evolving repository of ‘added value’ to the real world property.

1280-singapore-smart-city
Asia Pacific

Proptech in Asia: an emerging story

Real estate technology in the Asia-Pacific, like the region itself, is fragmented and features countries at different stages of development. China and India are the whales, with massive populations making sure that any consumer facing platforms are highly valued by investors. Australia is the most sophisticated in terms of breadth and depth of business types. While South East Asia has massive potential, although often requires multi-country coverage to reach scale making it a highly challenging proposition.

Based in Singapore, Disrupt Property has a particular interest in this part of the world and predicts there is a lot to come over the next 5-10 years. So far the biggest successes have been copies of existing models, but it won’t be too long before some more innovative platforms emerge.

China and India: Whales in the bathtub

China and India are mind-blowing prospects when it comes to disruption in the property industry. With 1.4 and 1.2 billion people respectively, the potential scale of any consumer facing businesses dwarfs the US and UK which are enjoying so much activity in this space.

This fact is well known to investors. According to CB Insights, of the top 10 funded proptech companies globally (2011-2015), the top 2 were Chinese (Fangdd and Aiwujiwu), while no. 7 was India’s housing.com. The first US entrant on the list was redfin.com at no. 4 which raised roughly half of Fangdd. This speaks to the potential of these markets. VC funding doesn’t mean value has materialised, rather it is representative of their bet that it will.

India has got some interesting ‘copycat’ startups. NoBroker is the pin up fixed fee online agent. Livspace looks a lot like Houzz. While Propstak looks similar to Comptask, although its very strong founding team points out significant differences in the way they collect data. Whether they are direct copies or not we’re not sure, but it matters little. US proptech companies have so much ground to cover in their own country, that taking on India is unlikely to be in the 5 year plan. In that case, Indian entrepreneurs are bound to take the initiative and get a jump start.

Australia: 23 million people obsessed with property

The Australian dream is to own your own home. Previous Australian generations grew up in a house with a front and back yard, and held the assumption they would own their own one day. As the population grew and density swelled in major cities, apartment living has partially replaced that dream, but the obsession with property has done nothing but deepen.

This has extended to startups and Australia has a population size large enough to support them, plus a UK based legal and business system meaning that what can be done there can typically be replicated down under. As a result, most of the business models seen in the UK already exist in Australia. Online agents, agent comparison, crowd funding, P2P funding and 3D visualisation.

VC funding has so far been modest. Openagent.com.au has raised almost $7m while ratemyagent.com.au has raised $5m. Beyond that, the main game remains the big search portals domain.com.au and realestate.com.au.

Australia is in the midst of a fintech craze with even the national government introducing measures to stimulate startsups in the area. Given this, we expect to see significant progress of companies providing new ways to fund real estate transactions which would likely be readily welcomed by locals facing some of the highest home prices on the planet.

South East Asia: Singapore and beyond

Singapore is fast becoming the regional HQ for tech startups. Branded the Smart Nation by its own government, Singapore has all the factors conducive to starting a business. Great regulatory system, English language, low tax, super fast set up procedures and a highly educated workforce. Singaporeans also like their tech and love their mobiles. Every month sees another startup incubator, or innovation lab launched as well as a continuous stream of tech conferences and events.

Having said that, Singapore’s achillies heel as a startup location is its small population size (5.3m). Businesses needing scale may well test bed the concept in Singapore, but need to expand to its much larger neighbours such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in order to do so.

Two good examples of this are propertyguru (Singapore based) and iproperty (Malaysia based), direct competitors in the property search market. In 2015, Australia’s realestate.com.au purchased iProperty group valuing it at A750m while earlier in the year, propertyguru raised $129 in private equity to help it further expand and maintain its leadership position over its Kuala Lumpur based rival. Both companies operate throughout the region allowing them to gain sufficient scale.

Singapore, like Australia, has quickly developed a greater breadth of proptech companies over the last 12 months. Unsurprisingly, they replicate existing models from the US/UK suggesting there are enough enterprising Singaporeans wanting to do an Alibaba (ie. Recreate Amazon in Asia). In another big sign of progress, Capitaland (Singapore’s leading property developer) announced in May 2016 that had set up a S$15m startup fund.

As for countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand etc, so far we have witnessed a range of property search portals launched but have yet to see any breadth of product types giving the impression they remain very undeveloped markets. Of course, there will be a few dozen startups bubbling away in each country we have yet to hear of so this can and will change quickly.

Real Estate Agents
Residential

Real Estate Agents: 4 Strategies to Bullet Proof your Future in the Face of Disruptive Technology

Real estate agents worldwide need to face the future. Technology startups are targeting the home buying process, aiming to reduce transaction costs by moving the process online and at the same time potentially rendering the traditional real estate agent role redundant.

In April 2015, a PWC report on the future of the Australian workforce listed the top 20 jobs most at risk from technology over the next 20 years. Bookkeeper was no. 1 with a 97.5% probability of being automated, while real estate agent was no. 12 at 85.2%. The reason is simple: the role agents perform can largely be replicated online (just like the traditional stock broker).

Websites like https://www.solopro.com/ (US), https://www.emoov.co.uk/ (UK) and http://www.hello.com.au/ (Australia) all promise to help sell properties for a fixed fee. They arrange photos, floorplans, website listings and assist with documentation. All you need to do is handle inspections and final negotiations. As the difference between 2-3% of the sale price and a flat fee of a few hundred dollars is significant, these platforms are inevitably going to increase market share, putting pressure on the traditional agent model.

This doesn’t mean all agents will go out of business. There is a human side to real estate that is hard to replace. But the need to stand out becomes critical. As sellers weigh up the benefits of traditional agents versus their digital competitors, each individual agent’s value proposition will need to be crystal clear.

  1. Record and promote your results

The most persuasive argument in favour of a human agent is that your knowledge of the market and negotiation skills results in higher sales prices. So prove it. Become a data junkie by recording every sales price and how it compares to the area average and the set reserve price. Better yet, if an online platform is selling properties in your area start recording their sales prices so you can compare against them too.

Nothing is more powerful than being able to say to a potential seller ‘yes, I am more expensive than a website, but my results outperform the market and here is a summary to prove it.’

Google-backed https://www.homelight.com already ranks agents on their performance – time on property on market, time spent with client, sales price etc. Go up in the rankings and referrals come your way, go down and work starts to dry up. This is a sign of things to come so own your data, work on it if you need to and prove your worth.

2. Build your profile online

The book Reputation Economy (http://amzn.to/1QUDYVY) predicts a day where our online reputations will dictate our success and in many ways that day has already arrived. Two agents, one with an excellent profile on their company website, full Linkedin summary, some professional videos on youtube and even a personal website using something like https://branded.me/. This agent posts relevant articles on Linkedin demonstrating deep market knowledge with an eye on future trends and really understands their target market demographics by communicating with them online.

The second agent has achieved good success the normal way. Hustle: phone calls, working their lists, following up leads and hitting targets. They have a good profile on the company website but there is little other about them to be found online.

The other thing the first agent has done is identified agent comparison sites early as a fantastic opportunity. Sites like https://www.ratemyagent.com.au from Australia are like tripadvisor for real estate agents. We all know how tripadvisor has influenced the hotel booking process, and it is now no different for home sellers. You should aim to top the rankings. Treat every client like a hotel guest and get every client to rate you. The future importance of these sites cannot be underestimated.

Now think about the potential seller, focused on achieving the best possible price for their largest asset and desperate not to choose the wrong broker. Faced with these two agents, the decision is obvious based on 5 minutes of online research. Agent one is knowledgeable, tech savvy and has a large social media following they can leverage to sell the property, while agent two may have all the right credentials without the online proof to back it up.

3. Make real estate technology your business

The good news is that while some companies want to replace agents, there are even more companies trying to help them. This creates an opportunity to leverage new products to offer services the online sites can’t.

Homepass.com.au is a mobile app that significantly increases the productivity of the home inspection process. It checks people in/out, records their details, sends documents and tracks their visits. This helps you to approach the buyer with more targeted properties, increasing the chances of sale.

Upnest.com is a US based company allowing agents to compete to work with potential sellers. This is a lead creation platform which gives you access to pre-qualified buyers and sellers.

Curb Appeal (http://www.curbappeal.pics/) makes taking professional photos using your iphone possible. This can in turn help to reduce your costs, delivering savings you can either pass onto your clients or book as increased margin.

Sites like Disrupt Property track these startups making it easier to keep up to date with new products

4. Get International

There are a growing number of platforms allowing overseas buyers to access western markets. Juwai (http://www.juwai.com/) is a dominant one for Chinese buyers giving them access to Australia, the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and so on. It’s like Zoopla or RightMove but just for the Chinese. Listing your property is easy and most online agents focus on their domestic market portals so this is another route to show potential clients that you have access to more potential buyers so you are worth the commission.

It is still early days for the growing middle class of countries like Brazil, Indonesia, India and China in terms of overseas property so get yourself acquainted with these sites and you will be ready to ride the wave of cross-border investment.

The bottom line is that residential real estate is getting more competitive. It’s always been competitive but it’s been an even playing field between agents. Now, the internet has introduced a no frills version which will appeal to anyone who thinks they know the price of their home (that’s a lot of people). Traditional agents aren’t going anywhere, at least for a while, but their success will increasingly rely on being able to differentiate themselves. Ironically, it’s technology that allows them to do that.