What a big week for PropTech! With the very first MIPIM PropTech conference, taking place in Paris today and tomorrow, comes a milestone moment in recognition of technology’s sprawling presence at all property conferences around the world.
Now that we’ve arrived here, with an enormous dedicated technology event, hosted by one of the world’s most established and respected real estate organisations, surely the debate can be put to bed once and for all; technology is indeed good and vital for the future success of the property industry.
I’ll talk more about MIPIM next week, I’m sure, but for now I want to talk about an article which caught my eye this week, an interview with my old boss, Pete Rollings, now a non-executive director at Viewber.
Viewber’s work is something I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about in this column at length, so I thought I should dig a little deeper, and report my thoughts back to you.
Pete Rollings has me to thank for everything he has!
First, a word about Pete Rollings. As managing director of Foxtons between 1997 and 2005, Pete was my boss during my time as an agent. He was instrumental in Foxtons’ rapid growth, and then went on to acquire Marsh & Parsons before selling it a decade later for a cool £53 million.
Pete will always have a special place in my heart as the man responsible for giving me my biggest ever b******ing. He dealt with it like a father. There was no shouting, just the classic “I’m very disappointed in you James. This isn’t what I came to expect of you.”
I was young and deserved it, and it certainly led me to avoid it happening ever again! What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I guess. So thank you, Pete.
I have, however, found a useful technique for dealing with those cold sweats I still wake up in, and that’s to remember that Pete owes me an enormous debt of gratitude, probably too big to ever fulfill, for I seem to remember it was me who first introduced him to Viewber (Ed Mead, founder of Viewber - if you are reading this, I will ignore all suggestions of it being a prior relationship thing!) during a presentation I delivered at the Sunday Times Awards event.
I might be remembering it wrong, but, if not, I think we can all agree that Pete owes me everything and that’s how I sleep at night.
For interest, I was presenting on my recommended PropTech companies, one of which was Viewber. The others included Eyespy360, a virtual tour platform for estate agents, and Staysafe, an app to keep lone workers safe; all companies I still like to this day.
A new age of property viewings
Today, Pete is a non-executive director and significant shareholder at Viewber, the property viewings outsourcing platform founded by Ed Mead.
“[Viewber] is growing at a phenomenal rate,” said Pete. “I’m pretty much there as a sounding board. We’ve been on a number of fascinating pitches together which has been both fun and rewarding and it’s exciting being involved in a growing business again.”
Viewber works from the simple philosophy that for agents more viewings equals more revenue. It’s true, and viewings are a particularly idiosyncratic issue for the industry.
The times which are most convenient for clients to view properties, evenings and weekends, are the least convenient for agents. Because of this, many viewing opportunities are missed, and the attempts to carry out those out-of-hours viewings that do take place cost a lot of money in weekend staff.
In order to address this issue once and for all, Viewber is tapping into the gig economy, made famous by the likes of Uber and Deliveroo, to create a ‘vast on-demand workforce’ so that agents can ‘offer a 24/7 viewing service commitment to clients, take on distant property [they] might not have thought [they] could service previously, and make more money’.
It’s a great idea. Clients are increasingly expectant that business and services providers go above and beyond to make their experiences as convenient and effortless as possible. This is never more true than when it comes to viewing potential homes.
Agents simply can’t refuse to arrange viewings at weekends for instance, because if they do, they’re likely to miss the opportunity of a sale. But they also can’t afford or sustain a 24/7 service. By signing up to Viewber, agents can outsource viewings to trusted people, essentially freelancers, who will handle it all for you, ‘an extra pair of hands there to help make you more money’.
Agents can outsource weekend viewings, overflow viewings, long-distance viewings, and Viewber will even organise an open house anywhere in the UK.
This idea of ‘anywhere in the UK’ is important to dwell on for a second: it’s not terribly unusual for valuation requests through The ValPal Network, for instance, to come from outside of an agent’s usual area. Without the likes of Viewber, these are essentially wasted enquiries, but now, thanks to gig economy outsourcing, geography is less of an obstacle. For agents, this creates entirely new paradigms of potential revenue generation.
My one concern
‘We open doors, you close deals’ says Viewber, and I agree that it’s a brilliant way of solving a terrible pain point. However, there’s one concern I can’t shake: it’s such a simple business model, nothing complex, nothing wildy expensive to build, and so it is fairly easy for someone to copy.
If that someone happens to have huge influence and endless resources, mentioning no names at all, there is a real chance that Viewber could be eclipsed.
Now, I appreciate that this isn’t going to be news to either Pete nor Ed, and they may well have a plan in place, but it’s an interesting thing to discuss. For what it’s worth, it’s my view that a clear focus should be put on scaling, expanding, and growing.
The name of Viewber needs to have as much brand awareness and positive user-reviews as possible. They’ve done the really hard bit - found a beautifully simple solution to real problem - now they need to secure their market position as quickly as possible.
That, of course, raises the possible question of a future merger or application, but that’s entirely dependant on the stakeholders’ vision for the company. If they keep doing what they’re doing and ramp up the growth, there’s real opportunity for Viewber to become an essential element of the agent’s toolbox.
As for my recurring nightmare, that’s just something I’ll have to learn to live with.
*James Dearsley is a leading PropTech influencer and commentator. You can follow him on Twitter here.