I received a press release yesterday - one of many that get sent my way - and, as I always do, I read it. By the time I’d finished reading, I was frustrated. I slammed the lid of my laptop, yanked the charger from wall and tossed the whole thing across the room!
Most of the above is bullsh*t, as you can imagine, but my frustration was real. The press release I had just read was from a new PropTech startup. I’m not going to go into names, but it was offering an online property marketing platform with 360 degree photography and intelligent measurement tools.
About halfway through the press release it started sounding familiar, and by the end it was crystal clear: I’ve already been sent more-or-less this exact press release from a different PropTech company.
A different PropTech company which has already launched exactly the same product and service as this new PropTech company is now launching, as long as 18 months ago!
This new press release tells me that this new PropTech company can, through 360 photography, create a dollhouse version of any property. This dollhouse is designed to help with marketing.
Once again, that’s exactly what the existing PropTech company already offers. And what’s even more frustrating is that the existing PropTech company already copied the dollhouse idea from a third, even more well-established, PropTech company.
This means that one company created an innovation, a second company copied them, and now a third has copied them! WTF!
Why are we doing this? It’s brazen. The only thing that differentiates the three is the price: each company has undercut the last. With the undercutting of price, the level of quality has also dropped in a corresponding manner.
PropTech is about innovation. This is not innovation, this is imitation. The only hint of innovation is the price. Same product, but cheaper. Agents have already heard this sales pitch. Do they really want, or need, to hear it again?
Einstein once said: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. It’s a tempting comparison to make, but one that I’ll resist exploring in favour of using a different cultural icon.
I see the root of the problem as a lack of creativity beginning to creep into acceptance in certain corners of PropTech. Without creativity, there is no true innovation.
The work of Pablo Picasso, a true creative innovator, can be used to illustrate my argument. You can tell I have been reading while I have been away!
If you track Picasso’s career, spanning more than eight decades, you see a constant process of creative innovation, moving from his early works of classic Realism, to the creation of Cubism and beyond.
He completely changed the rules. Innovation, to Picasso, was everything. He didn’t create a style and stick with it, repeating it over and over again as many artists do. Compare three of his self portraits side-by-side and it’s obvious. From birth to death, Picasso never stopped innovating. His resulting legacy speaks for itself.
What has happened to this sort of impassioned creativity in PropTech? Why are we relying so much on imitation over innovation? Is it possible that we are approaching an innovation plateau?
Innovation plateau - are we concerned?
Technological innovation ebbs and flows, it always has and it always will. If we have indeed reached a plateau, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It might even be good for the industry.
Perhaps this plateau, and the imitation it is feeding, will act to drive-down the price of PropTech tools and services. If so, will this make the tech more accessible to more agents and potentially increase adoption across the industry? In turn, will this then result in a positive feedback loop of more tech being trialled and more tech being built to facilitate newer problems?
Whichever scenario occurs, we need to work hard to ensure that this period does not result in a race down to the lowest possible price at the expense of quality and creativity.
I hope that we can continue to progressing and not completely stall. The rate of innovation may slow, but it’s just so important that we keep trialling and testing new concepts and ideas.
Otherwise, all of the work we have collectively done so far will have accomplished little aside from creating a ‘new normal’. Just like the normal we relied on for all those decades before the digital transformation. We don’t need a new normal, we need constant evolution.
There is a school of innovation theory which teaches the concept of bending, blending, and braking.
A lot of the press releases I receive tell me that we’re entering a period of bending and blending existing ideas to deliver something slightly different or for a slightly lower price. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I hope it doesn’t last too long.
We must continue to search for the most creative thinkers and innovators our industry has to offer, the people who can break things and insist on great momentum in innovation. The alternative is watching this plateau slide down to a slump.
*James Dearsley is a leading PropTech influencer and commentator. You can follow him on Twitter here.