Month: August 2016

Commercial property online agent

Virtual Commercial: the world’s first online commercial property broker

The digital disruption facing the real estate industry has taken another step forward with the launch of what could be the world’s first commercial property online agent. Following in the footsteps of UK startups such as Purplebricks and eMoov, Virtual Commercial provides commercial property vendors with all the tools they need to sell online for as little as £300. Co-Founder and CEO, Andrew Vertes, tells us more:

Are you the world’s first online commercial agent? 

Yes, we believe Virtual Commercial is definitely the UK’s first, if not the world’s first, dedicated online commercial estate agent. We provide the tools and support of a traditional agent to allow anyone to sell or let their commercial property throughout England & Wales. All for a low, fixed cost with no commission fee charged.

Was this inspired by residential online agents?

Absolutely. Having worked in commercial property agency for many years, I had witnessed the way the internet was changing how commercial property was being marketed and searched for. At the same time, the rapid success of online residential agencies (eg. Yopa) proved that sellers are happy to take control of the process.

What type of properties do you target? Is it everything from the local grocery store to a large office building?

As this has been built from the ground up for commercial property, we are able to handle any type of commercial property or business disposal. Whether a sale or a letting and from your local high street shop through to a large multi-let office building, we can deal with every use and every type of disposal.

What do the traditional agents think of this?

As we are the first movers in this market, we believe we will be closely watched. Having met some senior individuals within the established traditional firms, the consensus is that they have been waiting for someone to make the move into this market and are surprised it has taken so long.

What is the background of you and the team?

I have worked in commercial property my whole life. I ran the commercial agency department and was a director of a successful central London property company. I then left and set up my own management and agency consultancy, then came up with this idea and realised I had to make it happen.

Andrew Vertes

Andrew Vertes, CEO and Co-Founder, Virtual Commercial

I spoke with a good friend Laurence Herzberg who had recently helped launch a property portal in the Balearic Islands to see what would be required to make this happen. He introduced me to our third co-founder Aron Maus, who also had experience with launching his own start up trading in precious metals.

What are the biggest challenges in growing the business?

We launched at the beginning of June, about the same time as Brexit. Without a doubt this has affected market confidence. We initially launched with a single sales model based on a 12 month term but we found prospective clients now have the concern of negativity surrounding commercial and the future. Understandably clients had concerns about paying for a fixed marketing term if the economy is about to plunge into a recession (although that has largely been seen to be unfounded). We have dealt with this by changing and improving our pricing options to include the following:

1. Unlimited marketing term
2. On-completion pack
3. 3 month marketing term

Do you have outside investment or are you planning to raise capital?

Yes, we were fortunate enough to raise investment for the business. I think our successful raise was really down to our team of co-founders, having a detailed business plan, financial forecasting and a working product. Because we believed in the concept we decided to self-fund the development of the platform prior to raising capital. This meant that investors could use our platform and see for themselves what we were building. We ended up getting investment from multiple investors at our target valuation. However, it was by no means easy.

What has the market response been like generally? Any surprises or as expected?

As mentioned, launching in the Brexit aftermath has been an unforeseen and surprising challenge. We initially launched with a flurry of enquiries from interested users, however, post Brexit, many previously interested parties are now questioning whether it is the right time to sell. Those users who have completed a purchase have been really positive about our website, support and the lead management process.

Do you think this is different in any way to the residential concept? (eg. vendors may see agents are more valuable for commercial assets?)

There are obviously similarities between the two but there are also significant differences and far more complications and challenges with commercial property, whether using a traditional estate agent or an on-line agent. However this is why we offer Agent Support for all our clients, should they have a question or need advice, we are here to help.

Can you give a case study of a property sold via the platform?

We have only been active a short while but one of our first clients is a critically acclaimed and award winning restaurant in a beautiful medieval town in Dunster, Somerset. The restaurant is Reeves Restaurant, the freehold sale of which includes a 40 cover restaurant, outside space and accommodation. The current owner had previously used a traditional estate agent to market the property but he found that the agent actually had very little involvement in the sale beyond listing the property on-line and interested parties preferred dealing directly with him rather than the agent. However, the agent still insisted on a traditionally large commission fee based on the sale value! As a result, he engaged Virtual Commercial to assist in the sale of his asset.

Workplace Engagement Platform

Office App: Workplace Engagement Platform co-founder Interview

As a successful graduate of Pilabs 3rd cohort (2016), UK startup Office App represents a new wave of workplace engagement platforms. Businesses large and small are exploring opportunities to engage employees, improve productivity and maximise staff satisfaction. Book a meeting room, receive local lunch specials or check if there are parking spots for your clients all via a single, flexible mobile app. Office App co-founder Thijs van der Burgt tells us more:

Tell me a bit about the team and why you decided to start Office App?

Office App is built from the belief that an office building can and should be more exciting, efficient and above all more fun. That is why we’ve created the only fully integrated office assistant for your mobile. The team includes:

  • Thijs: 7 years experience in Product Development with a focus on User Excellence
  • Teun: 5 years Strategy Consultancy at McKinsey  with a focus on Operational Excellence

Did you know much about workplaces / office buildings beforehand?

Although I have worked in office spaces, I didn’t actually know much about the spaces themselves. I’m a product developer, my partner has over 14 years of experience in real estate, and together we developed a product that is both helpful for facility managers and occupants.

What are you hoping to get out of the PiLabs experience?

When we started the business in Amsterdam, we knew we could build a successful business in our home market, but that it is not where the big opportunities lie. The European pinnacle of office life is the City in London, so in our process of researching that market and looking for ways in, we more or less stumbled upon PiLabs. At that point we had already realised we were going to need to step up our game if we were successfully going to penetrate the UK market. PiLabs is very well positioned to do so by helping us to get in front of the right people, sharpen our product offering and secure funding.

How much traction have you got with clients?

We are very excited to announce that we have on-boarded major clients like Dell, EY and the World Trade Center. All our clients are very happy with our added value and have either applied Office App in more offices since then or recommended us to other clients.

How do you on-board local deals? (ie. from local restaurants etc)? Is that a manual process?

Yes, it is a manual process. We are able to add a mobile shop for your local dry cleaner, car wash or florist. We offer these local retailers a shop in our marketplace within 1 hour, direct payment included.

Could you expand overseas? Eg. Singapore?

Yes, definitely. We have optimised our platform to scale easily and reliably – we don’t even have to be physically present to install Office App at any office around the world!

You’ve mentioned being sensor/IoT agnostic – can you tell us about any sensors you are already working with?

With our partners we are using PIR, vibration, temperature and magnetic sensors in different buildings. Mostly for parking, desk, meeting room availability and their occupancy rates. And with other partners we use wifi or beacon sensors. It depends on the clients wishes what technology we implement and how we offer this to the employee. For example, for one client we have sensors in table tennis and foosball tables to indicate if they are available.

What are your plans for raising capital?

We are looking for £500k investment for operations, sales and product development. Our growth is limited by the bandwidth of the company, not the interest from potential clients.

Are you planning to grow the team?

Yes we are hiring new sales people and looking for an additional iOS developer to strengthen our development team.

What has been the best part of the experience overall?

A big part of my job at Office App is that I’m in charge of product. In development, we focus on user experience and iterate on results in user engagement surveys. Seeing people more engaged and happy using Office App makes me proud of what I do.

Defect Inspection Technology

Snagr Interview: Defect Inspection Technology comes of age

Project management and construction relies heavily on processes and reporting to monitor progress and keep a wide range of stakeholders up to date. A number of technology platforms have advanced this space, although you are still likely to find excel at the heart of most site office reporting. Snagr is one of the most advanced, and client focused, defect inspection solutions available so we caught up with Managing Director, Mark Henderson, to understand more:

As a family business, there must be an interesting story behind Snagr?

The original idea came from my father Graham over dinner with an architect friend. They discussed the idea of plotting issues on plans. Devices in those days were either PDAs which proved to be cumbersome, slow and limited or windows ‘laptops without a lid’. Even the smaller, expensive ones that had a rear facing camera had no proper protection and needed a stylus. These devices got us started but we could not have progressed without the advent of the iPhone/iPad.

Did you or your father have a background in construction? If so, has the technology side been completely new to you?

Dad worked as a labourer in school and university holidays in the 70’s and loved construction. He also worked as a chippy, steel erector and roofer. He then studied architecture at the University of Liverpool but re-trained into computing 30 years ago. It all came full circle with the advent of SnagR. Graham’s extensive construction experience and my programming and UX Design background allowed us to create a compelling product without requiring outside investment. We were joined by Elizabeth (Mum) as head of Sales and my two brothers Nick as a software developer and James (with a PHD in Construction Management) heading the support team in Europe. Nick recently moved to Dubai to open our office there.

Was it originally born as a defect management system or something else?

Yes, the original version was purely for Defect Management. Capture on a mobile device, synchronise, publish and sign-off. We have always tried to engage with our clients and understand their needs. I must admit probably every great idea and function came from a feedback session with a client: ‘Can I do ‘x’ with the system?’ would be followed with ‘Hmm no not the way you want to do it, but it’s a bloody good idea, leave it with us!’. By being a tight-knit team of family programmers we were able to develop the technology quickly and release often. The system is now configurable for any data collection task which requires mobile devices. I think a better way to describe SnagR is Mobile Data Collection with Inspections and Issue management.

What are your plans for commissioning and safety?

We realised a few years ago that SnagR was perfect to be used by safety teams even in the same project it was being used for quality assurance. The data that needs to be captured is largely the same: take photo, assign to a team, categorise and track sign-off through a workflow. This year our clients have been winning awards for safety using SnagR including 6 awards from the Macau government and one from the Hong Kong government. We will be expanding the functionality of the core product to better suit safety team workflows and communication requirements, and are also now being used to record injuries and near-misses. The ability to report across projects globally is something unique to SnagR and allows our larger clients to profile where safety improvements can be made as part of company culture and policy efficiently.

Commissioning, Progress Reporting and Site Diaries are a personal passion of Dad’s. SnagR can be used for testing and commissioning in many different ways through checklists, inspections and progress reporting. We think that commissioning can be improved and made more efficient with better technology. Progress Reporting and Site Diaries are also something we want to make easier to capture, more accurate and useful.

It looks like you have expanded from the UK to Hong Kong and beyond… what has the overseas expansion been like (in terms of challenges, different cultures, clients etc)?

Expanding from the UK to HK and Dubai has been an exciting journey. Originally, we would go on overseas trade missions with the UKTI (UK Trade & Investment). We would go to Singapore, HK, Canada, Qatar, Dubai, Canada and South Africa. Our first major project in Hong Kong was the Tamar building and Peninsula Hotel refurbishment. As we had never taken outside investment we grew organically. The money from these projects was invested in supporting the projects with regular visits and the opportunity to try to develop the markets further. It was because we had many more projects in Hong Kong at the time that we ended up opening our first Asia office there and not Singapore.

We now have projects throughout Asia, with partners in Malaysia, Australia and Indonesia. As the Technical Director, when I moved to Hong Kong the software development came with me. Now all software development is done from Hong Kong. Expanding outside of the UK has helped us better understand the worldwide construction market. The software is now available in 8 languages with more being added. Projects in Hong Kong or with international clients use SnagR in a dual-language mode so that local sub-contractors and the client can all understand the data without the ongoing need for translation. At the beginning of 2016 we opened an office in Dubai – there are still a huge amount of large construction projects going on in the region so that office has grown rapidly.

Who are your key competitors?

There are other defect management solutions available in the market but nothing that really matches SnagR’s approach. We have over 3,000 active projects around the world and SnagR is designed to be a company wide solution helping larger clients and projects standardise their approach and look across their entire business for learning outcomes and improvements.

What is your business model?

SnagR is sold either per project or as an annual enterprise license. SnagR differs from most SAAS (software as a service) products in that we do not charge per user, instead we charge per project based on the construction value of the project. This means that users, data, drawings etc, everything is unlimited so that the sub-contractors, consultants and client users can all be issued with as many user accounts as required. We believe strongly that collaboration software like ours needs to be accessible to all stakeholders. The pricing structure is designed so that SnagR is used on all projects by default regardless of their size so that our clients can compare the performance and data collected across their whole business.

Typically, are new clients moving from completely paper based processes to cloud based, or are they already working with technologies then trying your product?

It depends, it’s not so much paper based processes we see anymore but normally something excel based. Lots of our larger clients have attempted to create defect management solutions in the past. The main problem with this approach is that mobile technology moves so fast that continual investment is required in order to keep up and support all the new device types and operating systems. SnagR does nothing else but invest and continually improve our product offering. New technological advances and changes in the industry, as well as new ideas that people have suggested elsewhere in the world are quickly added to the system and available to all of our clients.

The software industry is moving away from a swiss army knife approach towards apps that are specialised: the right tool for the right job that can talk to each other and can be integrated together to share data. On your phone you probably have a different app per social network, one for taking photos and other for ‘To Do’ lists and a Calendar app. We see this continuing so we work hard to keep SnagR being the best at mobile data collection, indexing data visually, analysing and reporting that data but also allowing clients to integrate with their other enterprise systems.

What are the biggest benefits your clients report – cost savings, time saving, improved quality?

I think the biggest benefits are speed, transparency, communication, standardisation and with that comes improved quality. There is a huge amount of reporting required in construction between all of the different stakeholders. Progress reporting back to the client, reporting issues to the sub-contractors etc. Site staff have to spend significant amounts of the week in the site office in front of a laptop compiling reports, trying to remember which photo was for what thing. SnagR removes all of that administration for issue management, safety, progress reporting, check-lists, inspections, handover, testing and commissioning plans, site diaries and much more. By the time you walk off-site and synchronise your data (the system works offline), the reporting and communication is automatic and you can analyse your data in real-time.

This saves time and money and more importantly improves safety and quality as your key people are able to spend more time out on-site solving problems instead of being behind a laptop compiling reports. A quantifiable example is our client Dragages working on the City of Dreams project in Macau. The 4 person safety team estimated they were spending around 18 hours collectively per week compiling reports of weekly statistics and safety findings. SnagR was able to completely eliminate the reporting requirement. We were able to recreate their standard report format so that the weekly report is automatically produced, available instantly but can also be created for any time period of the project duration. This same approach has now been rolled out for all Dragages projects in Hong Kong and Macau. This helped the team meet their KPI of spending 80% of their time out on-site as they now can concentrate on improving safety by quickly recording safety findings with photos using their mobile devices and signing these off through the system.

What do you think is the future of construction quality and safety in terms of new technology – ie. virtual reality, drones, IoT (Internet of Things)?

I think quality and safety will become more important in the future. More developed countries already take safety extremely seriously as the strengthening of health and safety laws, fines and the bad press that come with it have had a positive effect. In Asia, specifically some countries are still developing a ‘safety culture’. We are seeing international clients with projects in less developed countries demanding safety statistics and accident reporting. They won’t accept corners being cut and this is accelerating safety improvements. SnagR not only allows international safety practises to be imported and implemented more quickly, but also helps our international clients benchmark and feedback learning outcomes across their business more effectively. We see this being a major growth area in the next few years.

I think Virtual Reality can lower the cost of visualising a space which will improve quality and could be used to improve safety training. Drones are useful for remote surveying but are in their infancy in construction. IoT will make construction more complex with even minor components potentially requiring connected embedded sensors. Increased use of pre-fabrication could offset this complexity, but we will see.

Snagr includes a youtube tutorial series.