technology

The Top 7 ReTech Publishers and the Entrepreneurs Behind the Curtains

The real estate tech industry is establishing some authoritative publishers, bloggers and thought leaders.  People always ask Zach, Clelia and me how to find more information about cutting edge real estate technologies.  So, here is a short list of sources who obsess about real estate tech and like to share their expertise.

The Top 7 ReTech Publishers and the Entrepreneurs Behind the Curtains

1) Inman News - Brad Inman created the gold standard residential and broker tech-centric publication.  Professional journalists going deep on both coasts.

2) Duke Long  - Duke Long lives up to his nickname as “The Godfather” of commercial real estate tech.  He’s a pioneer and opinionated thought leader who is a dear friend to most in the industry.  Duke also uses his massive network to periodically publish a number of useful “top lists,” including:

   a) Top 75 CRETech Companies

   b) Top 150 CRE People

   c) Top 10 Most Influential Online CRE People

3) CRE.tech - Travis Barrington’s latest publication is a late entrant into the dedicated real estate tech news space but Travis’ serious publishing chops position him as the institutional source for useful CRE tech news.

TheNewsFunnel - Media and tech entrepreneur Michael Beckerman aggregates great tech news from around the country and also creates tons of content in-house.  Best of all, he and his killer team regularly share the love to a huge list of followers.

RE:Tech - Entrepreneur Ash Zandieh was one of the first champions of real estate tech in NY and his research is widely cited in the media.

CRE // Tech - Corporate real estate bigwig Pierce Neinken’s labor of love not only hosts some of the biggest industry gatherings but it also regularly publishes amazing research reports for the CRETech community.

Metaprop NYC - Real estate technology’s most prolific angel investor Zach Aarons co-founded NYC’s real estate tech accelerator and the industry’s #1 seed fund in 2015.  His frequent musings on the MetaProp NYC blog are both provocative and insightful.

Utility Billing and Invoicing Technology: The Next Frontier?

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Any retail landlord will tell you that he or she has three main priorities: getting paid on time, keeping the retail space looking fabulous, and keeping tenants happy.  True retail landlord nirvana occurs when all three of these tasks are accomplished in unison at all times.

However, we don’t live in a perfect world and although everyone tries their best, things are bound to happen: pipes burst, sidewalks crack, tenants miss payments, landlords bill incorrectly.  So, given that we live in an imperfect world, is there a way to use software to make tenant interactions with landlords more frictionless?  I believe there is and the place to start is with simple utility billing.

Many landlords across the country operate their retail spaces under Triple Net (NNN) leases.  This means that the tenant is responsible for paying all expenses in addition to their base rent: this includes operating expenses, property taxes, utilities, and other miscellaneous expenses associated with the property.

As landlords, we typically pay these expenses up front so we don’t get hit with any late payment fines from governments or local utility providers, and then we have the task of figuring out which tenant owes which portion of these bills.  When utilities are sub-metered, like electricity, this process is easy.  Tenants receive a separate bill each month that they are responsible for paying.

Conversely, many utilities like condenser water are not sub-metered and the landlord is responsible for figuring out each tenant’s pro rata share of the total payment and then billing it out to the tenant.  This takes time and energy every month.  In many cases, large national retailers contract out with third party vendors to handle their utility bills.  Cass Utility Information Systems is a leader in this field and contracts with many large retailers. 

So, sometimes a very small utility bill can become a very large time suck for many different people.  The bill is seen by at least four parties: the utility, the landlord, the retail tenant, and the third party utility vendor.  With different people at all of these companies, often times bills can slip through the cracks or get lost while they move through this process.

Although I haven’t found it yet, I believe there is a software program out there that can fix this problem and save everyone including landlords, retailers, or vendors both time and money.  If it doesn’t exist yet then someone should build it as soon as possible and let the team at MetaProp NYC help take it to market. 

Enterprise software platforms like SageYardiMRI, and Realpage make it easier for landlords to create dynamic invoices for tenants so that all categories of bills including rent, operating expenses, utilities, and other expenses can be included on one invoice.  This is a huge innovation and saves landlords and tenants lots of time (and ultimately money) not having to sift through a plethora of different invoices every month for the same property.

That said, what I propose takes the billing process one step further.  There should be a software solution that through natural language processing can scan a utility bill, instantly calculate a retail tenant’s pro rata share of that bill, and then automatically generate an invoice to send to the tenant.  With a click of a button upon receiving a bill from a utility provider, a landlord will know how much each tenant owes for each utility for that month.  Also with one click, the landlord will be able to invoice the tenant the correct amount.

On the tenant side, this type of process can save time and money as well.  With this level of dynamic invoicing, there is no reason why a landlord couldn’t automatically generate two separate invoices: one invoice would have every expense that is billed to the tenant including rent and operating expense, and the other invoices would include just the utilities that the third party vendor was responsible for paying.  This way, instead of waiting weeks before the third party vendor even receives the invoice, they could receive it almost instantly, just minutes after the utility company generates it.

While this is certainly not the most glamorous part of real estate, getting paid and keeping tenants happy is arguably the most important part of real estate.  While real estate technology continues to innovate in areas like leasing, marketing, property management, and financing, we need more innovation in areas like retail utility billing.  This will save landlords and tenants alike both time and money, and provide everyone with piece of mind and potential retail landlord nirvana. 

Technology to Play Big Role In Potential Tenant ID

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As mixed-use developers in America’s key gateway cities, retail is a huge part of our business.  At Millennium Partners, we typically sell residential condominiums on top of retail stores in the same building.  When we develop in transitional neighborhoods, retail and residential have a symbiotic relationship: the retail helps to enliven the neighborhood for the residents while the residents serve as patrons and shoppers at the retail stores.

Retail leases for our developments are usually signed before the residential condominiums have been completely sold.  Therefore, we often don’t know what type of retail the future residents will want below them because we don’t yet know who those residents will be.  When we look to lease retail space we have two primary goals: maximizing NOI for the asset and working with a tenant who will benefit the residents and the neighborhood as a whole.  Over the years our company has become pretty experienced at finding this balance and we have been fortunate enough to work with some of the best retail brokers in the business like Gene Spiegelman, Kazuko Morgan, and their teams at Cushman & Wakefield.

However, no matter how good your team is, there is always room for improvement in potential tenant identification.  Currently, retail trade shows like ICSC help developers and landlords keep their pulse on which tenants are in the market for new space.  It is helpful for us to understand questions like: Which retailers are expanding store count?  Which foreign retailers are looking to expand into the United States?  Which suburban retailers are looking to expand to urban environments?  Which tenants are doing well financially and can afford to pay the rents we want to charge?

I believe that over the next five years technology will play a more significant role in potential tenant identification than ever before.  Through big data platforms, landlords and brokers will be able to identify which tenants are looking to expand to new markets and what kind of rental rates they are looking to pay within each market.  Through online crowdsourcing techniques, landlords and brokers will be able to obtain feedback from local residents and community members about exactly what kind of retail they want in their neighborhood without having to implement costly and time-consuming surveys.  Offline trade shows like ICSC will expand their online presence to such a degree where landlords and brokers can “network” with potential tenants in an online setting as well as a physical convention center in Las Vegas or New York.

We are looking forward to seeing these new technologies materialize, as they will assist us greatly in continuing to enliven neighborhoods across the country.    

How To Turn Pain Into Gain

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When professionals in various industries approach me about starting companies, I almost always ask them to engage in a simple exercise.  I ask them what the most frustrating thing they did at work was and if software could fix that problem or at least make it less frustrating.  The answers usually run the gamut from, “yes, software could fix my problem and I want to build it” to “no, it’s still too esoteric a problem to benefit from software” and everything in between.  When someone wants to build software to solve a particular pain point that they have experienced at work, that’s when my eyes light up.

As an investor, I practice something similar to this method.  My friend Paige Craig of Arena Ventures has written extensively about what he calls the “hunting” method for finding great startups.  His approach is “imagining future solutions and then focusing my time on finding founders who fit within those theses”.  Now Paige is a very successful generalist investor and has myriad interests.  He is able to imagine these types of scenarios across different industries.  This is a difficult skill to master.  However, for mere mortal investors, I suggest engaging in the “hunting” method to find companies that address (and hopefully solve) unique pain points that you have encountered in your day to day business life.  

One day several years ago, I was sitting in my office minding my own business when I noticed that everyone was tense.  My office is typically a pretty quiet place but on this day people were pissed and I wanted to know why.  I found out that a subcontractor’s bid for a very important building material had come in significantly higher than we expected and caught us all off guard.  I felt bad for my colleagues for a while but then decided to see if there was a way to use software to provide greater transparency and efficiency to the construction bidding process. The workflow had been done for centuries with paper and pencil and only recently integrated what I would call “disorganized email solutions”. 

I put on my Paige Craig hat and decided to do some “hunting”.  I scoured the web to see if I could find some software that general and sub contractors could use to simplify and streamline the bidding process, and thus save money for developers in the long run.  I struck out, found nothing, and got back to work on whatever other project I had in front of me that day. 

Later that very evening I was bored and trolling Angel List.  I have found a few startups in my portfolio by just looking on Angel List, and then cold emailing those companies, but not many.  Nonetheless, I like to see what people are investing in and what cool companies are coming out so I visit the site almost daily.  Most of the time it’s easiest to see startups that are trending.  However, for some reason a company called BuildingConnected popped up on my feed.  The company was solving EXACTLY the problem I had experienced first hand at work that day.  It seemed too good to be true. 

I asked for an intro on Angel List and the founder, Dustin DeVan, replied to me within seconds.  Within 15 minutes we were on the phone chatting.  I liked him and the fact that he had extensive experience in the construction industry as well as a team of talented technologists building the platform.  I was sold!  He asked me if I wanted to see the product before cutting a check and in one of my gutsiest (or stupidest) moves ever as an angel I said, “I don’t need to see a product.  The fact that you HAVE A PRODUCT puts you leaps and bounds above everyone else in an industry that desperately needs it”.  I signed papers for the round that night.

Dustin has become a good friend, a mentor at MetaProp NYC, and a pillar of the nascent construction tech community since then.  He has signed up many contractors to use his platform and they just love it.  I continue to be incredibly excited about what BuildingConnected is doing because it is solving discreet, very painful pain points that developers and contractors experience across the world on a daily basis.  So, if you are looking to find a potential investment, look to turn your own pain into gain.  Happy hunting!

Basement Tech

If you are a landlord, there is something going on in your sub cellar.  Don’t worry.  It’s here to help.  I call it basement tech.  This is one of the areas of real estate tech that interests me most right now.  As a landlord, you want to have as much information as you can about what is going on in the building and the basement is where all the vital organs of the building typically reside; so you want to make sure that everything is copacetic with both your equipment and your team.  Until very recently, no one really used much software or hardware to track what was actually happening in a building...this has begun to change.

There are now software platforms and connected devices that can give property managers, engineers, and landlords a much better idea about how things are going below grade.  For example, software platforms like Ravti can help you manage HVAC procurement and maintenance.  LogCheck can help your property managers and engineers keep track of daily maintenance on equipment.  Senseware and other connected building sensor platforms can help you learn where the bulk of your energy output occurs and software like Aquicore can help you track and manage that energy output.  SiteCompli can tell you when you have an elevator inspection coming up, or something in the cellar that you need to fix and have re-inspected for compliance. Managed by Q can ensure that basements are spic and span and well managed.  These components serve to enhance what is the heart and mind of any building: the basement.

We are now entering an era where all of these platforms will begin to collaborate and talk to each other through a series of APIs (hopefully).  Within a few years a landlord will be able to open one dashboard and understand virtually everything that’s going on in the sub cellar of buildings.  Software will provide up to date readings on how equipment is doing and what needs to be fixed.  Predictive analytics will let you know when it’s time to upgrade equipment before the machines break down.    

Within ten years buildings themselves will be connected to technology in completely new ways. Sensors and connected devices will ultimately become woven into the curtain wall of newly constructed buildings.  This will enable tenants and landlords to save immense amounts of money on energy output.  A completely connected building would be able to sense motion and heat, sending signals about which parts of a building were more occupied than others, informing the HVAC solution whether to blow hot or cold air to different parts of the building.  Energy savings would be immense because you would only cool or heat a specific area of a building that needed it, no “zones” as they exist today would be necessary.  New connected HVAC solutions like Keen Home are now working to make this type of technology a reality.  

When people ask me what my strategy is for investing in real estate technology, I jokingly tell people that I want to own the basement of every building.  Since I can’t go around buying physical basements, I might as well invest in the future of what every basement will be using in five years.   If you control the heart and mind of something, you can control everything.  Although I am happy investing in software that helps the top of the building, I believe that the real money is to be found below grade...kind of like gold and oil.   

Why is Airbnb Worth $24 Billion and What Does it Mean?

The recent announcement that Airbnb was raising a new round of financing at a $24 billion valuation left many people outside the start-up and technology communities scratching their heads.  In fact, some of my friends in the real estate and hospitality communities emailed me when the news broke thinking that the press must have made a mistake and missed a decimal place somewhere.  They just couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that a real estate company with no tangible real estate assets could command that kind of valuation from investors.  How does a platform for sharing real estate demand a much higher revenue multiple than a company that owns real estate?

I am not going to bother opining on the exact revenue multiple that Airbnb should have.  I am certainly happy that they are worth $24 billion (two of my investments, Localmind and Fondu, were both acquired early on by Airbnb).  However, I will let the far more sophisticated growth equity investors doing the deal set the valuation for me.  I am happy to be along for the ride. 

Nonetheless, I can say this with certainty: the fact that experienced, late-stage investors are willing to place such a growth premium on Airbnb shows that we are in the midst of a tectonic paradigm shift in the real estate industry.  Moreover, I believe that we are only in the third inning of a nine inning ball game.  The crux of this paradigm shift exists in how people conceive and inhabit physical space, and how people are able to maximize the efficiency and financial opportunity of that space, driving prices down for “tenants” while simultaneously creating more profit for “landlords.” 

This may seem like a contradiction but it’s not: when space is used more frequently and more efficiently, landlords can earn more money while charging less money to tenants.  This is the “holy grail” solution that exists when you merge collaborative consumption, on-demand services, and the shared economy with real estate.  This is the genius of Airbnb and it has galvanized an entire industry in its wake.  People can take unused real estate and turn it into occupied real estate.

In the olden days, the perception of space was rather rigid.  People lived in houses, tenements, or apartments, and they worked in office buildings, factories, or stores.  When they traveled, they would stay in hotels or hostels.  Airbnb was the first company to flip the script on this model, and more change is coming.  Because of technology, social networking, on-demand services, and collaborative consumption, all of these spaces can be used by people when they need them

Imagine a world where you can use a specific type of space only when you need it and you can pay for it by the hour or by the day?  This was the major innovation of Airbnb.  People thought to themselves: “I am going away for the weekend and no one is going to be in my apartment.  Why don’t I earn some money and rent it out?”

Now, this type of thinking is getting applied to other asset classes within the real estate spectrum.  For example, if you are only in an office for a few hours a week, why not book a Breather instead of getting standard lease on an office space? (Full disclosure: Breather is a portfolio company) Schools are vacant from 5 PM-6 AM.  Why not have dinner parties and other events in schools provided people are respectful and responsible?  Why can’t a hotel turn into an office building during the day, and vice versa?  When no one is in our conference room at work why can’t I rent it to others for an hour to have a meeting (i.e. using LiquidSpace)?  I only use my vacuum twice per week.  What good is it doing sitting in my closet when it can be cleaning someone else’s home or office and potentially earning me some money?  The list goes on and on.

An old saying in the real estate business is that land is a great investment because they aren’t making any more of it.  Today, this rings more true than ever with real estate prices skyrocketing and people getting priced out of places where they have lived for years.  However, although the earth isn’t making more land, people are beginning to think about how they use physical space in different ways.  Instead of conceiving of space as an owned or leased quantity, they are beginning to think of it as a shared quantity.  This shift will ultimately prove the most financially viable solution to solving the affordable housing crisis, ensuring that people have reasonably priced places to start small businesses, and providing people with the ability to travel and expand their cultural views on a shoestring budget.

So, in summary, I don’t have any idea what Airbnb should be worth.  What I do know is that the investors who are valuing it at $24 billion, whether consciously or not, are recognizing Airbnb as the initial catalyst for the largest disruption in the history of the real estate industry since the invention of the skyscraper in Chicago at the end of the 19th Century.  At MetaProp NYC, it is part of our job to educate the entrenched real estate industry about this seismic shift and show them that they don’t have to resist it.  We can also educate the technologists and startup community about how to approach people in the real estate community and explain the new ecosystem in relevant, appropriate terms.  No one has to go into hand-to-hand combat.  In fact, if done correctly, everyone can create additional economic and social value in this new ecosystem.  It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.

Why Did We Start MetaProp NYC?

It’s clear that 2015 was the right time to launch a real estate technology accelerator in New York City. 

Steve Schlafman from RRE Ventures once asked if I thought 2012 would have been a better time to do it.  I pondered that question for a while and realized it probably would have been a financial windfall to work with the crop of high growth real estate tech start-ups that three years ago were just starting out (VTS, Hightower, Managed by Q, Compstak, Floored, Compass, Honest Buildings, SiteCompli, The Square Foot, Nestio, Reonomy, etc.).  All of these companies, and many more successful NYC based real estate tech companies, germinated at this time and we could have had the opportunity to accelerate a few of them.  Now, the best of those companies have gone on to raise substantial financing rounds and are building very successful businesses. 

After some reflection, I would argue that a world class real estate tech accelerator would not have been possible in 2012 and, furthermore, is only possible in 2015.  For a domain specific accelerator to work, you need a few things to coalesce.   First, you need technological talent.  Second, you need capital.  Third, you need mentors.  Fourth, your portfolio companies need customers and clients.  Finally, you need more mature start-ups in the ecosystem.

In 2012, one definitely could have put together the talent and capital but not a large base of clients and mentors.  The industry was simply too nascent.  Landlords worked with software for property management (Yardi, Timberline, and MRI, etc.) but used very little innovative software for leasing management, compliance, HVAC, marketing, or construction management. 

In 2015, not only do you have landlords learning more about software, they are clamoring for it.  Dave Eisenberg from Floored mentioned to me on a panel that a massive business breakthrough for him was initially suggested by a client.  The fact that a real estate professional is that in the weeds with a technology product is a massive shift for the industry.  This shift has been brought about by a meaningful dialogue for the first time commencing between software developers and clients in this industry. 

In 2015 you also have mentors who have been through that dialogue.  They now intimately know the dos and don’ts of selling software to landlords, marketing software, hiring, raising money, and many other critical business building concepts. 

We assembled an all star team of mentors and corporate partners (including Zillow Group, Warburg Realty, DLA Piper, EisnerAmper and The News Funnel) to launch MetaProp NYC because we thought that this was a unique opportunity in time to bring together new founders, old founders, clients, and financiers together to accelerate businesses.  While the industry has matured quite a bit in NYC from 2012-2015, we believe that the software disruption of real estate is just beginning and will continue to push forward into the next decade as technology changes the entire process of building, leasing, and operating a building from top to bottom.