Building a data-driven property industry

Building a data-driven property industry

Debbie Leo-Smith, head of product development at The Virtual Agent, and an ex-estate agent, believes that data analytics is about to drastically change the property industry over the next few years. Here’s why.

Property is one of the most lucrative industries in the world, and South Africa is no different. According to the Global Property Guide, South Africa was ranked as the 10th biggest real estate market in the world in the third quarter of 2014. It is something of an anomaly then that the real estate industry has been so slow to adopt digital strategies, compared to other industries.

Elsewhere, we can see how new technologies are significantly impacting businesses. From the way data analytics is revitalising the approach that retailers take with customers, to the disruptions that ride-sharing apps like Uber are having on the automotive industry, we’re living in a fast-evolving world. Thanks to the number of internet-connected devices, customers’ expectations are shifting, and moving into the digital space is becoming a competitive necessity for companies.

It’s inevitable that the real estate market will eventually feel the force of these game-changing technologies. One big change that is sure to make an impact on the market is the rise of data analytics. The property market has traditionally relied on manual information-gathering, but is now on the brink of a quantum leap forward in the way it manages data.

The power of data

Into this landscape comes The Virtual Agent, a web based application designed to unlock the potential of data analytics in the property industry providing a one-stop solution to run thier business. It couples a simple, user-friendly interface with a powerful backend algorithm, designed to bridge the gap between traditional realty and the digital world. In the course of 2016 a fully fledged app will be launched.

Technologies that combine big data with an intuitive user experience have the potential to dramatically increase the reach of the agent to the consumer. The real estate agencies of the future will have the business intelligence to better manage their staff productivity, database leads and staff churn more successfully. In the long-term, it could even eliminate the need for physical real estate offices, as agents and customers are able to complete all property transactions entirely online.

A number of major property groups have already signed up to The Virtual Agent, something which we believe signals a sea of change in the industry. It shows that realtors are open to potential disruptors, shifting the realty experience from the physical to the digital world. They have recognised that digital technologies can provide greater insight into rapidly changing consumer behaviour and are ready to make the leap.

These data-driven technologies have the potential to change more than just the efficiency of individual agents. They are disruptive precisely because of the broader implications on buyers, sellers and the economy.

The evolving consumer

We have already seen the change that online property websites have had on the way that customers engage with the realty market. Today’s customers are more proactive when buying and selling property, due to the ease at which they can find the information they need.

This is only set to continue. Consumers want an ever-expanding virtual user experience, immersing themselves into the property from the comfort of their home. Today, it might just be search engines, but the future could bring scenarios in which truly interactive virtual showrooms are the main way to view and buy property.

In the meantime, many realtors are bridging the digital divide by deploying Wi-Fi into their branches, show houses and sponsored locations. This allows them to connect with customers through rich digital content, while developing a deeper understanding of their property interests.

As the real estate market becomes more data-driven and efficient, we should see positive knock-on effects on the overall economy. Property valuations, compliance and urban planning are all areas that can be improved through data analytics, and we should see agents play an increasingly value-based role in these areas.

The Virtual Agent is just the beginning. With the speed at which digital technologies are advancing, we should expect to see a radically different – and improved – real estate industry over the next decade or so. It’s clear that property will never be the same again.

For more information on The Virtual Agent please contact our sales team:

031 538 4920

Australia, Johannesburg, New York. Harnessing the power of an international network

Australia, Johannesburg, New York. Harnessing the power of an international network

Howard Blake, Chairman of Blake Holdings, has built his business from a start-up in 1990 to a R350 million company by 2015. Passionate about digital disruption and its impact on building an international business, he owes the growth of his company to his ability to harness the international network he has built.

It’s one thing having to establish a reputable and trustworthy brand in the country of origin, but doing so on an international level is a daunting task, even for the most adept business owner.

Building sustainable business relationships in an international market often proves to be a tricky task, even for those with access to their own private jet and having the luxury to travel abroad every couple of weeks. Howard Blake has found ways to navigate these difficulties and has come out on top, having built a powerhouse international network that supports and believes in his business.

A challenging landscape

One of the biggest obstacles companies face when taking business international, is holding the attention of those you are trying to build connections with. In a world bombarded with products and solutions that are in direct competition with your own, it is hard to stand out from the crowd. “It is important to anticipate that the person you’re in contact with will do a digital look up on the brand, product and you, as a business owner. This is where honesty and a strong digital presence come into play,” Blake explains.

Unfortunately, in a world where social media has the power to make or break a business, a digital persona could mean the difference between a sustainable business relationship and a bad rap. If a business owner’s digital presence is impressively constructed and reaching thought leaders via the right channels, there is a strong possibility that the new contact will have more confidence to invest in the vision.

Business relationships are built on trust. That has always been the case. It is for this reason that owners need to be extremely careful how they market their product or solution while they network. Delivering on promises timeously and effectively will ensure that investors or possible resellers believe in the end goal.

Along with the product that is being offered, credible value is crucial. When approaching new markets, the fact that you are an unknown quantity can be overridden by a credible backing or recommendation. Your offering has to be well trusted on home turf before you can take it abroad. This talks to scalability and the safety of being able to address scale without roll out issues.

Connecting on the right platform

Blake has spent years building up his international contact list and nurturing these relationships, in order to establish the Blake Holdings brand on an international level. “We live in a digital age, so it is important to have a digital persona that people can trust and call upon for insight,” Blake explains, “This is best served on platforms like LinkedIn on a personal level and a web page on a product level.” These digital platforms serve as an avenue to connect the product with the overall vision, and to get that vision in front of the right people.

Heading abroad

Everyone needs to start somewhere. For Blake it was cold calling and a few key introductions. Attending international conventions is another great way to connect with possible stakeholders and like-minded people, but this can be tricky when a business is starting out.

Once the brand is established in its home country, business owners can start to investigate the possibility of taking the name to international conferences and conventions. “This is an essential part of your business if you’re hoping to diversify and grow internationally. Something I have been focusing on for the past 10 years,” Blake says. These opportunities are critical benchmarking opportunities to establish the international relevance of an offering and can determine whether or not these efforts are sustainable on an international level.

Ensuring international relevance is the next key step. Taking a business from a small startup in South Africa, to a thriving international metropolis requires forward thinking. Tailoring conversations and input to foreign markets will give a brand a voice, and with that voice comes buy in, trust and brand loyalty.

While social media platforms are an essential tool to stay top-of-mind and relevant, nothing beats a personal interaction between two like-minded business people. Using social media to share thoughts is a step in the right direction, but getting out there and building real human connections is vital to building a successful business, even in a largely digital world.It’s one thing having to establish a reputable and trustworthy brand in the country of origin, but doing so on an international level is a daunting task, even for the most adept business owner.Building sustainable business relationships in an international market often proves to be a tricky task, even for those with access to their own private jet and having the luxury to travel abroad every couple of weeks. Howard Blake has found ways to navigate these difficulties and has come out on top, having built a powerhouse international network that supports and believes in his business.


Digital economy/Big Brother : are you being watched?

Digital Economy or Big Brother in Disguise: are you being watched?

By Howard Blake, Chairman, Blake Holdings

Digital economy or Big Brother in disguise: are you being watched...In a world shaped by digital convergence, it is no longer realistic to expect a high level of privacy. If you consider just how connected the world has become, you realise that the digital economy doesn’t support anonymity.

I remember standing in a foreign hotel and agreeing to draconian Wi-Fi conditions, more than willing to entirely forgo my privacy to avoid massive mobile charges. I’m not unique, we all do it.

A world of analytics

In the era of big data, people would be ill-informed to assume that their digital activity is not being stored by service providers and that analytics is not being applied to their online activity.

But analytics can be beneficial to online users. For example, a browser that analyses your searches can curate the advertising content you see in accordance with your interests. For an avid traveller with little interest in gambling, this would mean more links to exciting holiday destinations and less to online casinos.

Socially speaking

We’re torn between wanting to share our lives on social media and at the same time wanting to protect our privacy. Take Facebook ‘check-ins’ for example, by utilising this location based feature you automatically give up your privacy and allow others to know your whereabouts, which in itself can also be a security risk.

Uber is a great example of an app-based service that is solely dependent on you sharing your location. The minute you set your pick-up location, this data is stored and can be used to tailor content specifically for you, based on your area.

What a hack!

There is no doubt that 2015 was a successful year for hackers. From government departments, dating sites and corporate enterprises, no one was safe. Does this mean that we must accept the facts and carry on? Or should we remove ourselves from this world entirely? Neither option is reasonable.

We all need to adjust our digital activities accordingly. Would you want to have a compromising email, dodgy web history or embarrassing picture displayed on a billboard? If the answer is no, you need to reconsider your online behaviour.

Big Brother is here. He has many faces. He could be in the form of analytics or security based algorithms. In this time of big data, we are all connected to the digital economy, whether consciously or unconsciously. We all need to be present, accountable and aware to keep ourselves safe.

Information Overload

Tips to avoid information overload

By Howard Blake, Chairman of Blake Holdings

The digital economy, combined with the speed at which digital convergence is developing, facilitates a level of connectivity that our forefathers would find difficult to fathom. The consequence of this has been the creation of a borderless society. We can now interact with anyone around the world via social media, using a variety of multimedia content, not limited by location, time or space.

However, with so much content being delivered to us across our computers, mobile devices and wearables on a daily basis, there is the danger of information overload. How do you begin to sift through the sheer volume of blogs, videos, news articles and much more, marching relentlessly across your feeds? This problem not only exists for the average person at home, but is also critical for businesses, as it affects working time and productivity.

Then there is the time and effort we thought we’d saved that goes into maintaining our social media personas. Thanks to the broad reach of social media, people have greater opportunities to engage with audiences that they never before contemplated reaching, but the admin involved with keeping up such networks can be overwhelming.

The first step to overcoming information overload is assessing your unique social media needs and focusing on how to best cater to them. For instance, corporates may be better served spending most of their time and effort on LinkedIn, while designers and photographers would benefit more from visual platforms like Instagram. It is often more effective to focus on the platform that fits your specific lifestyle and requirements, rather than trying to be the ruler of them all.

For anyone on a tight schedule, taking the time to read and update social media can be demanding. Everyone feels the pressure to maintain the We all need to develop a balance when it comes to living life in the real world and the one we live through social media. Part of this balance is ensuring your social media persona aligns closely with your real-life actions. It’s much easier to maintain a persona that closely represents yourself, than it is to keep up a façade that greatly embellishes, or totally misrepresents, who you are in real life.

One way to achieve balance includes setting aside dedicated times for social media administration. For businesses in particular, it’s critical to have a plan of action in place, such as a content plan, so that you have a clear strategy for scheduling social media posts for each day, week or month ahead.

What about sorting through the barrage of content that we continually experience? Living in the information age, we take in more information than ever before, and with that comes untold opportunities. However, we cannot escape the fact that much of the data flashing across our screens is often completely irrelevant to our goals.

Ultimately, it comes down to making new technologies work for you, rather than against you. Make sure to utilise apps and software that can sift through large amounts of data and deliver the relevant content straight to your screen. Data analytics and similar innovations are excellent weapons in battling information overload.

While the digital economy delivers incredible convenience, it also has the potential to rob us of our time, eventually leading to a burnout. The good news is, if used correctly, you can make digital technology and social media work to your advantage. By carefully choosing your level of exposure and managing it effectively, you can be sure that the virtual world will be your oyster.

How the car of the future is set to change society

car of the future

Full speed ahead: how the car of the future is set to change society 

Looking to predict the future? Your car might hold the answers. Howard Blake, Chairman of Blake Holdings and avowed petrolhead, discusses how new automotive technologies are driving convergence. 

Thought F1 was fast-paced? The speed of innovation in the automotive industry makes it look like a donkey cart race. The last few years have seen the development of disruptive new technologies that are set to change the face of society forever.

Ever since the first Ford Model T hit markets around the world, people have been obsessing about what the car of the future might look like. While the century since the Model T’s invention has brought plenty of changes to the automobile industry, the current crop of innovations represents a massive shift.

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), it became clear that the future of cars is less about horsepower and more about empowering drivers. Major motor manufacturers are seeking out ways to do this using connected technologies.

The car of the future will be smarter. It will be increasingly intuitive. It will be inter-connected. Imagine a world where cars are able to communicate with other cars, traffic lights, and parking bays. Imagine being able to access real-time updates on everything from the weather to the state of the road, all delivered straight to your dash. 

A car that can do all of the above has been the subject of science fiction for decades. It’s thanks to the increasing amount of digital convergence – wearables and smart devices in particular – that this is becoming a realistic option.

 The data-driven vehicle

The journey towards the self-driving car often grabs the headlines at CES, but there’s a lot of juicy stuff outside the bubble of driverless vehicle technology. Many of this year’s most exciting reveals at CES spoke to the internet of things (IoT) and the potential of converged technologies to radically change the way we work, live and drive. 

Take General Motors, which unveiled an app that allows your smartphone to interact with your vehicle. The app will allow drivers to start the car remotely, adjust the temperature and even park your vehicle automatically. None of these features are new in their own right, but the convergence aspect – having access to all of this from a single point – is groundbreaking.

This is just the start. As these technologies mature, we should see a wider system of integration, encompassing cities, infrastructure, insurance, and even retail. Connected cars are set to deliver a never-before-seen array of digital possibilities.

 Life changing and lifesaving technology

At CES this year, The DJI Developer Challenge put forward a challenge to developers, to create a drone-to-vehicle system in order to speed up emergency response procedures, in hopes of saving more lives. 

Other top showcases included Smartwheel, a steering wheel cover that monitors hands on the wheel to discourage texting while on the road, and BMW’s i8 Mirrorless concept, which uses a functional camera system, designed to completely replace side and rearview mirrors. 

While it is clear that smart technology, big data and IoT are the new ports of call for the automobile industry, it is interesting to note that the vast majority of these new technological advances are aimed at improving safety and driving comfort.

The Mercedes-Benz’s ‘me’ concept is the perfect example. By collecting data on a driver’s history, a car can customise its behavior to suit their lifestyle and habits. A car could suggest destinations, automatically correct for poor driving habits and more.

The wider world

So what does a converged society full of smarter, more user-friendly cars look like? Very different indeed. Cars make up such an important part of our lifestyles, that few aspects of society would not feel the change.

Just think of the impact that a connected car, able to navigate the most optimised routes and avoid traffic, would have on urban planning. In another scenario, it would be possible for the insurance industry to improve their premiums, based on data collected by their customers’ vehicles. Could we see whole industries develop out of autonomous vehicles, providing entertainment and marketing to a driver that no longer needs to drive?

Motoring is hardly the only industry that will drive these changes. You can see IoT’s impact across the rest of CES – where converged technologies are plentiful. But because automobile makers are so technologically innovative, it’s one of the industries that can best demonstrate the sheer disruptive power of convergence on society.

The beauty of convergence is that it opens up a universe of possibilities for innovation across all industries. Digital pioneers will be the ones who are best able to adapt to the new challenges and opportunities of this rapidly evolving society.

The race to make the most of these connected technologies is on. The question is, who will be in pole position?

Over 26 years of business, these are my achievements.

After last week’s introduction, I think it’s a good idea to address some of the statistics to which I alluded.

Firstly, this is not an account of activities that formed part of a corporate master plan. Rather this is how the journey unfolded and how each opportunity was maximised. Secondly, these posts are about sharing my experiences with a wider audience.

Over 26 years of business, these are some of my achievements:

17 companies founded,

7 being disruptive,

2 no longer trading,

3 being sold,

with the oldest, 26 years old,

and the youngest, a 6-month infant.

The common thread through all these endeavours is technology, combined with the curiosity and drive to harness the greatest potential of every opportunity.

So, having established some credentials, now it’s time to chat about some of these experiences. At first, selling clothing overruns was my only viable option. The clothing manufacturer extended me credit, negating the need for capital to purchase stock. This venture kept the wolf from the door, allowing work to commence on the bigger idea; a debt management business.

From the start, quality of service has been my ethos. If something was promised by Wednesday, it was delivered on Tuesday afternoon. Soon my customer base grew and the company was looking after bigger mandates.

Initial modest success lead to greater numbers and eventually, automation was needed to cope with what was a sequential and predictable process. The hard work was starting to pay off.

This would be the era of my first disruptive episode.

A Journey of Digital Disruption by Howard Blake

Howard Blake homeThe year was 1990 and the fax machine was the bleeding edge of technology. Without any apparent prospects and with many mouths to feed, Howard Blake was forced to start a business to take care of his young family. With no strategic plan, no market analysis and no financing, I was driven solely by necessity to make a success of this new gamble. So the journey began.

At first, business was rough. Sparse financing meant that my venture required instant cash flows and needed to reap an immediate profit for me to survive. But it was tough going and after a short stint selling clothing overruns, I decided to make a change.

And what a change it was! My business, assisting companies in the management of their debtor’s books, quickly grew from me working out of my kitchen, to a business that would eventually span three continents.

The aim of this blog will be to give the reader some insight into how this success unfolded. You may have noticed the earlier reference to the fax machine. This is relevant, as technology played a major role in the growth of my business interests. As we will see, I used technology and circumstance to disrupt the old order of business and produce new and better ways to achieve results. Yes, I used disruptive technology before it was the buzzword widely used today. There are new opportunities around every corner, as the world searches for better and more efficient ways to do things. Every day the old order of business is being disrupted by better ideas and more advanced technologies.

I am still disrupting and will continue to do so. On this blog, I intend to share these and other experiences with you.