At a recent ULI South Carolina event, panelists representing three distinct segments of the real estate market looked at the role of technology as a force for innovation. Panelists included David Thomas, head of account management for Urbandoor; Justin VanLeuvan, sales director at Katerra; Marious Sjulsen, cofounder and chief investment officer of EquityMultiple; and Nina Magnesson, catalyst for citizenship and social innovation with software provider Boomtown.
BoomTown offers a software platform designed especially for real estate professionals to generate leads and provide relationship management capabilities. Urbandoor is a global marketplace for furnished, fully serviced apartments tailored for business travelers in need of short-term or extended accommodations. Katerra is a concept-to-design-to-build firm that seeks to eliminate the need for subcontractors and external suppliers by bringing all those services in-house. EquityMultiple uses a crowdsourcing technology model to engage investors and fund real estate projects, primarily in the sub–$40 million market.
Each panelist has a unique vantage point in the industry, and each of their companies had a different business model. Common threads included identifying an inefficiency or a problem in a certain part of the market, and then using technology to solve it.
Magnesson, who serves as BoomTown’s catalyst for citizenship and social innovation, said that company founders Grier Allen and Cooper Bane discovered that roughly 70 percent of real estate leads in the industry were not being responded to at all. She talked about a time when Allen, just starting in the business, would drop off Polaroids of available properties to the local newspaper for print. By using technology to reimagine the way that agents could generate leads, manage relationships, and list properties, Allen and Bane sought to get the industry “off clipboards, onto devices.” In so doing, they helped change the way agents did business.
“It’s not just doing what you do better than anyone else,” Magnesson said. “It’s doing it entirely differently. Disruption really means transformation.”
Urbandoor’s Thomas agreed, explaining that the idea for the company came about as a way to collapse the layers between the growing demand for short-term housing and the supply of inventory. Its founders knew they could leverage new technologies that streamlined the process for connecting those seeking full-service housing solutions to owners and developers with available product.
“People are willing to pay a premium on easy,” he said, citing consumer trends. Specifically, he mentioned Ikea’s recent purchase of Task Rabbit, the company that many of its customers were already hiring to help assemble their furniture purchases.
“We want to give our multifamily owners and operators access to a new renter type,” i.e., those who travel extensively for business and who seek that same kind of “turnkey, professionally managed” experience, with “all the right amenities,” he said.
The founders of Katerra set out to solve what they considered the biggest obstacles in the current construction industry: cost and time.
Panelist VanLeuvan acknowledged that Katerra’s mission was ambitious. “We set out to do things differently,” he said. “We want to control the entire process, from end to end, eliminating the need to make changes on site . . . or to rely on the subcontractor’s supply chain.”
Kattera’s team serves as the architect of record for a given project, and manages every step of the building process, from conception through procurement of materials to buildout.
“As a former broker, I understand the challenges for the owner and developer,” said VanLeuvan, noting this experience translated well to his role managing new projects in Katerra’s multifamily space. “We understand the total costs upfront and have found new ways to maximize efficiencies.”
He explained that Katerra manages roughly 60 percent–plus of the building and assembly in-house in its own “factory assembly” sites. This includes manufacturing or managing the sourcing for everything from wall panels to floor systems, roof trusses, windows, electrical boxes, and more. They then ship the entire assembly to the site for streamlined installation and finishing.
Katerra, which started roughly three years ago, has grown to a company of more than 3,500 employees, largely through acquisition. VanLeuvan said the company currently has 12 deals under construction, including a three-story, 24-unit walkup in Las Vegas that they expect to have completed—from start to finish—in just 90 days.
EquityMultiple’s cofounder Sjulsen also relied on the wisdom gained from his previous role in investment banking when he and his cofounder Charles Clinton set out to build their online investing firm.
Sjulsen and Clinton saw that many investment portfolios had little exposure to real estate, yet there was what Sjulsen called an “enormous appetite” for it.
“Coming from the investment banking side,” Sjulsen said, “we could see that there was no one focusing on small investors. We set out to focus on that space . . . and started connecting investors to smaller developers around the country.”
It was a challenge at first to earn the trust of investors, Sjulsen said, but with plenty of transparency and backing from some established names in the space, such as national commercial brokerage firm Mission Capital, EquityMultiple was able to build a solid reputation. They now average four to five deals per month, which he said is just the beginning.
“Once you demonstrate an ability to execute and deliver on the model,” he added, “there’s no shortage of investors. Eighty percent of the market is $40 million and below, and we like being in that space, though we wouldn’t turn down the larger deals.”
Sjulsen noted that his company “is seeing our disruption in real time. Millennials are quickly becoming accredited investors, and they want to be in charge of their own destiny.” Acknowledging that this group will “account for a massive influx of capital” into the online fundraising space over the next several years, Sjulsen said EquityMultiple will be there to respond to the need.
Magnesson concluded by asking panelists to share advice with ULI members—and potential disruptors—about staying current on technology and other forces for change. The consensus: staying connected in the industry is crucial. Going to conferences, talking to vendors, and networking with peers, they agreed, are some of the best ways to leverage new technology and seek new collaborations.
All four agreed that when it comes to thinking of new ways to do new things, it is important to stay the course, regardless of any resistance you may encounter.
Thomas made an observation in the context of Urbandoor, but it applied more universally in the context of the conversation. When it comes to “crafting something that never existed before . . . sometimes, until they feel it and see it, it’s hard for people to believe it.”