The Innovation Conversation is a series of Q&A sessions between the real estate technology industry's top leaders and MetaProp NYC Co-Founder and Managing Director Aaron Block. Topics include thoughts on the future of property and technology, corporate innovation activities, and executive development in the real estate technology space.
WHAT ARE YOUR DAY-TO-DAY RESPONSIBILITIES IN YOUR ORGANIZATION?
I lead product management and design for Capital One’s commercial banking digital innovation team. That means building new products and helping bankers think like startups. We have two products in the hopper and a laundry list of great ideas, so the building side tends to take precedence. Day to day, my job feels like helping run a couple of startups: pitching, coffee, stand-ups, coffee, recruiting, coffee, white boarding, coffee…
DESCRIBE HOW YOU BECAME INTERESTED IN REAL ESTATE TECHNOLOGY AND INNOVATION.
Real estate tech is interesting to me because it’s hard: much more complex than other fintech segments. And I’m attracted to complexity. But I fell ass backward into it. Having studied Chinese, I was completely unqualified to do this work when I started my career. I didn't even own a computer in college. But I somehow found myself leading product development at Reis in the late 90’s. As far as innovation goes, I guess I’m dumb enough to risk repeated career suicide, and smart enough to work with brilliant people.
HOW IS TODAY’S REAL ESTATE TECHNOLOGY DIFFERENT FROM WHEN YOU STARTED YOUR CAREER?
In 1998, when I started at Reis they were shipping data to customers on CD-ROMS in manilla envelopes. Since then, real estate tech has moved forward at a very uneven pace. Residential and property management are far along—transparent, efficient and highly competitive. But despite the emergence of forward-thinking startups (like CompStak), CRE remains an opaque market. And real estate transactions of all kinds are shockingly inefficient. I blame that mostly on a fragmented technology landscape, populated by a lot of startups that for the most part think very narrowly about their product. If anyone had the vision and execution skill that Google, Uber, Amazon or Bloomberg have, we’d be in a different place today.
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT INNOVATION AND TECHNOLOGY-DRIVEN INITIATIVE IN YOUR ORGANIZATION TODAY?
CRE is a big part of our business and one of our primary areas for tech innovation. As a technology and information-driven company, Capital One is betting on big data in CRE and a lot of different areas. But I think our most important initiative is team building. We just opened a new innovation lab in the Flatiron, we are ramping up recruiting, and we are investing heavily in training and development.
WHAT DO YOU DO TO STAY ON TOP OF CUTTING EDGE TRENDS AND DEVELOPMENTS IN REAL ESTATE TECHNOLOGY?
I follow the usual blogs, but I prefer face time with startups, our CRE relationship managers, and our customers. I also attend demos and go to events when time permits. Our digital strategy team and commercial venture team are continually scanning the startup space; they help with connectivity.
AS A MENTOR, WHAT IS THE #1 VALUE YOU BRING TO A HIGH-GROWTH REAL ESTATE TECH START-UP?
Two things really matter: 1) putting your effort into the right things in the right order and 2) keeping a balanced, cross-functional team running effectively. I’m excellent at prioritization, painfully honest, and a generalist in business, tech and design. Separately, I understand the capital markets and lending side of this business. People forget that real estate is a capital intensive financial service. It’s about transactions and investments. There is inherently limited growth potential outside those areas.
WHO HAVE BEEN YOUR MOST IMPORTANT MENTORS AND WHY?
My wife and coworkers, hands down. They are all smart, and they see me more clearly than I see myself. I've never had a formal mentor. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the idea of being a mentor either. You may want to think twice about assigning me to be one.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE BUSINESS BOOK?
I guess "Good to Great" by Jim Collins, but I’m not a big fan of business books. I prefer design and technology books like "The Design of Everyday Things" by Don Norman, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" by Eric Raymond, “The Mythical Man Month” by Fred Brooks and “User Story Mapping” by Jeff Patton.
WHAT IS ONE INTERESTING THING ABOUT YOU THAT MOST PEOPLE DON’T ALREADY KNOW?
I enjoy hand-to-hand combat and incredibly loud, heavy punk rock. You really wouldn't guess either by looking at me.