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PropTech Today: Do’s & don’ts of market transformation - CBRE, Avison Young

My article last week has sparked some really great engagement, which I’m delighted about! 

Thank you to everyone who commented or dropped me an email, let’s hope this next instalment prompts a similar level of conversation. 

This week, the do and don’t of market transformation I’ll be looking at are: ‘do engage’, ‘don’t downplay’. 
Do engage with PropTech 


This one might seem simple, but it requires proactive action on the part of property professionals. It’s not good enough to sit back and wait for people to approach you, we must all reach out and engage.

I’m not saying that there isn’t potential value in having people come to you with their ideas, but to rely on this alone means you’re relying on others to decide what is and is not of value to your business. Don’t put your fate in someone else’s hands like this, nobody knows your needs like you do.

Instead, create a wish list of innovation. What sort of problems does your business need to solve? Can technology help you do so?

My colleague, Will Darbyshire, recently published an interview with Thomas Herr, head of digital innovation at CBRE. During the course of what is a long, in-depth interview, Thomas describes CBRE’s approach to innovation:

“...we generate use-cases and problem statements internally and they are proving really helpful. Rather than be bombarded with anyone and everyone from PropTech, we can be the ones to make contact with those we really want to speak to.”

As I keep saying, and I’m aware it might get boring, technology’s impact of real estate is not a maybe, it’s not an option, it’s a foregone conclusion. 

That’s why anyone who fails to proactively engage with tech providers is acting out of either naivety or arrogance, neither of which are good. 

PropTech companies have received a bit of stick recently for being poor marketeers, bad at expressing their practical value to property professionals. 

This could be seen as an engagement problem - yes, PropTech companies may be bad at explaining their value to professionals - but perhaps real estate professionals are expecting too much. In some cases, might their general scepticism lead them to reject PropTech offerings without fully acknowledging them?

Expecting a tech provider to understand the market as well as a 30-year professional does is unreasonable.

Just as a tech provider can’t be surprised when a property person doesn’t understand tech as well as they do. It requires collaboration, an open mind and, most of all, enthusiastic engagement from both sides.

For one great and recent example of overcoming this knowledge gap, we can look towards Avison Young (recently merged with GVA).

It has adopted what can informally be called an ‘in-house entrepreneur’ approach, which sees representatives from tech startups working in close harmony with real estate folk to the mutual benefit of both. 

I spoke very briefly Avison Young’s head of future proofing, Rupert Parker, to find out how it works... 

“Avison Young wanted to be on the front foot of tech development. It’s all very well adopting existing tech, but half the time that tech isn’t quite right, so we like to be able to find product market fit with the startup.”

“From the Avison Young side of things, we are able to introduce technology to the client that we are very au fait with, and that we’ve helped to develop.”

“From the startup perspective - they get advice on product market fit, they get to sit alongside industry experts and bounce questions of them whenever they like. It’s a very harmonious way of working and brings in a new form of ‘t-shirt’ culture to a very corporate environment.” 

“It’s gone down very well at Avison Young, so now we’re rolling out the programme globally.”

It’s important to note, too, that engagement has to travel in many different directions, not just between real estate professionals and technology providers. 

I wrote last week about Alison Platt’s leadership failures at Countrywide - she was, individually, striving for radical innovation but she failed to bring her colleagues and shareholders along for the ride. She failed to engage internally and therefore never enjoyed the full backing of the company. 

Thomas Herr told Will Darbyshire about another form of vital engagement - clients. 

“...clients are not always happy to be used as guinea pigs, they don’t want to have to use imperfect products or tools. For a company like CBRE, where our clients’ success is far more important than our own, it’s vital for us to make them feel more comfortable and have trust in the value of innovation, have trust in the process.”

In order to successfully drive towards innovation, all key stakeholders must be ready to join the journey, fully committed. 

The clients, the end users, must be made to understand the process and realise how they play a vital role in engaging with market transformation. 

All of the above comes with one big caveat; failure is very likely. And that brings us to our ‘don’t’ for this week.

Don’t downplay your attempts to change

Downplaying attempts at change is a common occurrence in the real estate world, but, thankfully, it’s slowly becoming a thing of the past. 

Still, though, too many of us are overly coy when talking about our attempts to embrace innovation, especially if those attempts have misfired or failed.

Traditionally, failure is not something to broadcast, let alone be proud of speaking about in the public domain. Not anymore.

In today’s business world, thanks largely to the chilled-out frat guy vibes of Silicon Valley, failure is seen as a badge of honour. Why? Because it proves you’re trying to do something that no one else has ever tried to do or even thought of doing before. 

If we think about it logically, the trailblazers of innovation have never succeeded perfectly on the first attempt. I doubt, for example, that Edison nailed the lightbulb first time around. And Steve Jobs didn’t simply pull the iPod out of his...well, you know.  So, why should we expect anything else from real estate?

In the same interview mentioned above, Thomas Herr speaks about CBRE’s attitude towards trying, failing, and trying again:

“It takes...energy, effort, and resources to develop something...then, after all that, you can still find out that it doesn’t really work and you have to be brave enough to kill it.”

“In general, patience with innovation is essential. But, at the same time, the world is moving so quickly around you. This means that one thing we are always working hard on is understanding how to be more agile.”

Agility is really important, here. Attempts to innovate will not always work out as we hope, but, whenever any sort of failure occurs, it’s vital that we maintain the energy and agility to either realign, pivot, or steer the ship in a new direction. 

In my opinion, these instances of falling down, getting up and brushing yourself off should be stories we openly share with others in the industry. 

It might seem like a weakness, to talk about our failures, but it’s not. It’s the people who are refusing to try anything at all, rejecting transformation of all kinds, that should feel uneasy about admitting so. That’s why these are the people who rarely speak up in public forums; when they do, it’s to deride the efforts of others.

I think it’s also important to note that sharing our attempts to innovate does not, as some might think, give our competitors dangerous inside knowledge of business ideas and future plans. Technology is not concerned with exclusivity, more with creating positive change for all.

Through the process of consolidation, the multitude of tech solutions currently on offer will shrink down and we will, by and large, all be left using the same tools, platforms, and solutions. 

So, while at the moment many think of technology as a competitive edge, this will not be possible for long.

The agents that, for example, started using email first, no longer benefit from their early adoption. It’s not a case of looking for a short-term advantage, but long-term sustainability. 

It makes sense, then, that short-term failures are not the end of the world; the end of the world would be to do what Countrywide did upon initial failure and pivot ‘back to basics’. 

The final point I want to mention is that many property professionals keep being told how technology is going to usurp humans, and that this is one good reason for choosing not to fully engage. The truth is very different, though. 

Once this period of maturation concludes, or at least reaches its next phase, we will realise once again that it’s the people who matter more than anything. Thomas Herr, once again, explains:

“I am certain that, as technology democratises the real estate industry [and] makes everything more equal…the human being only becomes more important...Who is the better negotiator? Who is better at keeping the seller calm in the build up to signing the papers?” 

So, to conclude: make every attempt to engage with all of your key stakeholders and discuss technology in-depth, aware always that it’s about sustainability as well as differentiation. 

Then, put those discussions into action and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, start to analyse why and then try again! 

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


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