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PropTech Today: The biggest mistake you can make is to do nothing

This line is one that I use a lot in my speeches and presentations, often as part of the final slide.

I do so because I find it a useful way of summarising the ways in which businesses should be taking the necessary steps towards embracing digital transformation.

In other words, I’m telling the audience, even if you don’t agree with everything I’ve said today, the worst thing you can do is remain inactive.


Last year, I wrote a whole series looking at the ways of implementing the Do’s and Don’ts of digital transformation in real estate, and this idea of doing nothing came up then, too.

I was once told, many moons ago by now, that I would make a good leader because I make decisive decisions. Whether those decisions were right or wrong didn’t seem to matter to my Chairman at the time, it was the fact that I was being proactive and proved unafraid to try things.

My Chairman’s name was Jim. He was the closest I have ever come to having a mentor in my business career. He taught me many things, the main one being how to treat others, especially those that work for you. Jim, sadly, passed away this week which has left me in a reflective mood, thinking a lot about his attitude towards certain things.

Jim was a famed procrastinator, sometimes to his benefit but more often to his detriment. That really was where I hopefully helped him and made some of the tough decisions as the businesses went through the challenges of the 2007 recession - the overseas property market, which Jim was largely focused on (mainly in Spain), was hit first. People looked after their domestic property first before considering any investments abroad.

The economic downturn meant we were forced to innovate. But I am not sure we really did enough at the time - in hindsight, there was so much exciting stuff we could have been doing.

One reason for our not taking advantage of the opportunities was definitely a fear of failure. In some cases, we weren’t agile enough to make changes. We also watched closely as others trialled new initiatives and, in most cases failed. We would smile, we would laugh even (I remember one TV advert which included a parody including Pedro the Spanish builder - it was all well and good for our UK mentalities but they managed to annoy all Spanish builders in the process which took them years to recover from).

However, we would also be sitting their scratching our heads as other companies got bigger in a recession hit industry. One that was doomed to fail. We couldn’t understand it. They were making great strides when we weren’t. We were the market leader and had been for decades. These were small companies that were suddenly hitting their stride when they really shouldn’t have been.

In hindsight, I realise they were continually challenging themselves to try new initiatives and trial new technologies. Whilst some obviously didn’t work, others succeeded and led to increased sales.

Moving to my modern day world, I want to tell you the story of one UK Estate Agent. One of the big ones. No names mentioned.

Two years ago, as consultants, my business partner and I were asked to do some work with them. This company then proceeded to have two long calls where we laid out all that was wrong with the sector, telling them, in the process, just what they could do about it and start to excel.

It starts with the top, we would say, get the C-Suite involved, make it their decision. It involves understanding your competitors, your consumers, your data, your innovation strategy and, perhaps most importantly, your values.

It didn’t stop there. They then wanted us to come in, for free, and deliver a workshop to their teams. It was at this point we declined. Despite being a well-known UK (and global) brand, we had plenty of work on and politely said this would need to be a paid exercise.

Perhaps most importantly, however, we asked for a directive from board level. We weren’t interested in getting involved unless they were going to be present and engaged in the topic.

We waited for a response. None came.

Fast-forward two years and I read with interest a tweet from a very well respected global speaker and consultant on real estate technology:

“Some large technology firms are complete idiots” was the general tone, only with much more colourful language than I am allowed to publish here.

Questioning him privately, I asked for more information given my previous experiences. It was the same company, asking the same things but just two years on. They were no further forward, no organisation, no leadership, no buy-in, still expecting everything for free.

The biggest mistake is doing nothing. Companies around them were being active and progressing well with various innovation-led strategies.  Yet these guys are yet to even enter the education phase.

At around the same time of the example above, my colleague and I went to speak to a commercial brokerage firm. They were at nearly the same level. All they had done was to create an Innovation Board which was made up of people from all over the organisation including the CEO - though he wasn’t chairing which was important.

We did one session with this brokerage firm. The CEO came out, thanked us and then stated that he probably needed to fire some of his board given what we were saying. We didn’t disagree.

I’m reflecting now also on my recent judging for the UK PropTech Association. They are just about to have the UK PropTech Awards, honouring the very best in the PropTech and property industries.

My point here though is that this same brokerage firm are all over the UKPA awards shortlists. They were making huge strides in terms of both their attitudes to technology adoption and also the implementation and trials of different technologies.

One company obviously had to buy in from the top, were educating their staff, were willing to try new things and ultimately had a vision of what they needed to do to prepare for their future. The other had none of this.

One had a CEO who was very prepared to make forward-thinking decisions. One who was aware he was making decisions for his predecessor and rather than simply bolstering his own tenure.

The other company was almost seeing this next phase of technology adoption as an after thought. There was no engagement, no vision and no planning.

To conclude, the two year time frame is also quite pertinent here, as well. It was Bill Gates who slightly adapted a theory known as Amara’s law that you overestimate change in the short term but you underestimate it in the long term. Mr. Gates put some time frames of “You overestimate change in two years but underestimate it in ten years”.

These two examples really set what is possible to do, and perhaps more importantly, not do, in two years. However, like compound interest, you will never catch up those early investments as they just keep paying back more and more over the next decade.

The biggest mistake you can make is doing nothing.

*James Dearsley is a leading PropTech influencer and commentator, and is co-founder of PropTech platform Unissu. You can follow James on Twitter here.

  • Rob Brady

    Great piece James. 'Exploration is the engine that drives innovation. Innovation drives economic growth. So let's all go exploring.'

  • Andrew Stanton PROPTECH-PR A Consultancy for Proptech Founders

    James I totally agree with you; companies who stand still wither, often companies who would most benefit from your expertise feel want you to 'perform' like a novelty act, rather than embracing the opportunity to make their company more profitable, and the Proptech revolution is all around and is an undeniable force for the future.

    So, it is not a case of deciding to be part of it - all agents are part of it - they just need to decide if they are going to welcome in the technology and strategy that exists, or build the barricades and hope that it will be business as usual.

    Perhaps, the biggest point you make is - just do something - as you can always tweak the decision later, the biggest mistake as a certain large corporate agency is finding, is to give out soundbites that they have a three-year plan, and the plan is to change nothing and hunker down in a bunker.


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