Are realtors too valuable to be disrupted by technology?￼
Tens of billions of venture capital dollars go into proptech every year. But realtors remain critical middlemen for most consumers. Is this just the way it will always be? Here’s a look at how tech is changing residential real estate – and how it’s not.
The tech industry repeatedly sees itself as a disruptor — particularly of industries with inefficient models with unnecessary costs baked in.
Why shouldn’t real estate be a prime target for tech?
As Forbes notes:
“Real estate is the only mammoth-size market remaining in which middlemen (brokers/agents) have complete control of the process. The operative members of the transaction (buyers/sellers) are withheld from direct communication and limited in resources and transparency. They are at the mercy of the middlemen in a world where other industries are constantly being refreshed, redesigned, and automated.”
Still, Canadian (and American) realtors are, to date, disruption resistant. Canadian realtors extract billions in value every year for their work. This is just how real estate works in this country, but it is kind of odd. Especially because Canada’s housing crisis is exactly that: a crisis.
Canada needs to build 3.5 million extra homes by 2030 to ensure affordable housing for everyone living in the country. That’s on top of the expected build out of 2.3 million homes that are currently planned.
That’s a shocking number when you consider the United States, with ten times the population, is short a relatively modest 6.5 million homes.
This housing gap means some version of the following story is happening in Canada basically every single week:
A seller wants to put their home on the market. They sign with a realtor who shares data on how to price the property, photographs it, lists it on MLS and advertises it. Depending on the seller, the realtor may provide significant guidance on the process of selling a home. People tend to get nervous when they’re selling their single biggest asset.
Still, the whole process can be over in a matter of weeks — a win for sellers, presumably. Well, sort of.
This process can be efficient in a hot market, but it also leaves many sellers with an odd taste in their mouths as they watch their realtor and their buyer’s realtor walk away with commissions of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of their dollars.
So, why hasn’t tech made more headway in bleeding out these seemingly unnecessary costs for buyers and sellers?
It’s not for a lack of new models, innovation, and capital spending. Investors allocated more than $32 billion USD into proptech companies in 2021. (‘Proptech’ just means technology solutions that enable the buying and selling of residential and commercial real estate). By 2028, the global proptech market is expected to reach $64.3 billion USD.
The investment is there. But so are the realtors. So, what changes are happening?
Proptech platforms are creating more informed buyers and sellers
Consumers are seeing the results of the money that has poured into proptech over the last decade. During the home-buying frenzy that followed a certain pandemic, many buyers toured properties virtually, and made buying decisions without ever being inside the place they’d soon call home.
But that’s just the latest evolution of real estate technology for consumers. Much of the first wave of proptech has already become second nature for many of us. We all have access to powerful, data-driven tools and platforms to aid us when it’s time to buy or sell.
Just a few examples:
- Zillow is a one-stop digital marketplace that serves home buyers and sellers, as well as renters and landlords. It goes well beyond MLS, with deep resources and functionality like property valuation estimates. It’s the largest real estate website in the U.S. with over 60 million monthly views – and it’s increasingly popular in Canada.
- Redfin is a real estate brokerage that offers lower than standard brokerage fees for its agents to sell residential homes. The company operates in both Canada and the U.S.
- Trulia is similar to Zillow but offers additional functionality like crime maps by area, neighborhood profiles, and estimated monthly property upkeep costs. Trulia was acquired by Zillow in 2014 but continues to run as a separate platform.
- Bōde is a Canadian platform that enables sellers to list their properties for free. Then they market the listing on platforms like Zillow and MLS. When a buyer and seller connect, Bōde facilitates the sale of the home and charges a 1% fee (up to a maximum of $10,000) on the final sale price. No realtor is involved.
While consumers love platforms like these and are doing more research on their own, they still gravitate to realtors when it comes time to sell or buy. A recent CBC article noted that:
“While specific numbers are hard to come by, all indications suggest that private sales make up a tiny sliver of overall real estate deals in Canada. For example, For Sale By Owner recently had some 116 listings in all of Ontario, while some mid-sized cities in the province showed more than 1,000 on MLS.”
Change is coming for everyone – from buyers to sellers to realtors
Still, the forecasts suggest this initial wave of proptech innovation may lead to more significant changes in the years to come.
A much-quoted Oxford University study from 2013 found that “automation is projected to replace 50% of all current jobs in the next two decades. The same study predicts automation is 86% likely to replace traditional “real estate sales agents” and 97% likely to replace “real estate brokers”.” By late 2020, technology had replaced over 60 million jobs in the U.S. alone, with the World Economic Forum predicting tens of millions more to come, with fully 50% of jobs done by machines by 2025.
It’s clear that the rate of automation isn’t exactly slowing down.
Blockchain, the distributed ledger that promises to destroy unnecessary middlemen across industries, offers the potential ability to reduce the need for realtors, through its ability to protect against fraudulent activity through decentralized smart contracts.
But widespread adoption of blockchain technology hasn’t happened in any major industry, much less a massive asset class like real estate. And blockchain alone doesn’t eliminate the need for home buyers and sellers to get expert counsel from someone during a transaction.
And AI has promise and potential, sure. It can already do things with data that no human can. But buyers and sellers seem to consistently value empathy, human interaction, negotiation skills, and a realtor’s personalized knowledge of a community or property type. This is especially true when someone is making the life-altering choice to buy or sell a house. If it was your house, would you want the robot or the person?
So far, most Canadians are choosing the person. (The same is even true with another major life purchase, as we’ve recently reported.)
But there are more changes afoot.
Think back to that theoretical seller that sees their house sold in days and in return sacrifices tens of thousands of dollars in commissions. Is that a good deal for them? Maybe not.
That insight is at the root of Bid My Listing, a new startup from entrepreneur Matt Proman and real estate bigwig Josh Altman.
Bid My Listing enables sellers to solicit bids from realtors to list their house. As Proman told Entrepreneur.com:
“I had a lot of agents knocking on my door, leaving their business cards that they wanted to represent me in the transaction.”
Proman thought his Long Island home would move quickly and signed a six-month exclusive listing agreement with an agent. “I waited and waited and waited,” he said. “And I watched two other houses sell on my block.”
“I said, ‘I will never, for any of my other houses, give my listing away for free. The next time the agents have to put their money where their mouth is and have skin in the game.
So, while realtors may exist long into Canada’s real estate future, tech may eventually create major changes in their roles and how they’re compensated. They’re likely to find themselves having to adapt to a changing landscape where buyers and sellers want more value for the commissions they pay on a real estate transaction.
If they’re willing to pay them at all.
DX Journal covers the impact of digital transformation (DX) initiatives worldwide across multiple industries.
How to build company culture in a scale-up
Culture is no small thing, and according to Virtual Gurus founder and CEO Bobbie Racette, communication — and even getting uncomfortable — is key.
Anyone can type out a vision, mission statement, and outline some core values. But Bobbie Racette, the founder and CEO of Virtual Gurus, took things one step further: she made sure it was posted at the entrance to the company’s office with messages of inclusion and acceptance.
She says those messages are a central part of the company culture, which she sees as a shared belief in acceptance that unites the approximately 50 people working in the company’s headquarters.
But even with such a visible statement, she struggled to maintain a company-wide focus as the start-up grew and expanded.
“Even though the pandemic was still 300 percent, year over growth, we broke internally,” said Racette. “Because our culture was just a mess.”
For Racette, it required her to realize she couldn’t just instill that culture and stress its importance to her leadership team, hoping it would trickle down. She couldn’t just put it on a wall. She had to model those beliefs and bring them directly to all of her employees.
And she had to listen.
So, what really is culture?
The struggle of building and maintaining culture through rapid growth isn’t rare. The start-up world is littered with companies that lost their way.
Culture is no small thing. It’s the foundation of a business and helps guide decisions — from the big to the mundane. If the focus is sharp and the will is there, it will help guide who is hired and how they fit into the larger team.
It’s not about what the office looks like, or free lunches and abundant snacks — the sort of perk-heavy, laid-back office that has come to be associated with tech startups. The atmosphere of a place is not the core of what it means to work there.
Finding and nurturing that core is particularly important for Racette and Virtual Gurus, which provides companies with remote workers on everything from social media to accounting, and focuses on providing employment for underrepresented communities.
“I realized I had to pull back some of the perks and then push the values and I had to essentially retrain everybody to think, ‘wait, if I’m gonna get the perks, I gotta live with the mission, vision, and values, not the other way around,’” said Racette.
The culture she wanted at the company prioritizes inclusiveness, but also innovation, agility, and positivity. Racette realized it was critical to screen out those who didn’t buy in or could be toxic to the kind of workplace she needed for her company.
“I truly believe that in order to get comfortable, you have to get uncomfortable first. So our entire company had to go through an uncomfortable moment,” she said.
And those values she’s so determined to nurture are personal and hard-earned.
“I have lived through the barriers of being an Indigenous woman, a queer Indigenous woman, who has tattoos and… can’t get a job,” she said at the recent mesh conference in Calgary.
How do you maintain culture through growth or scale-up?
When Racette started the company in 2016, maintaining that culture was easy.
She was the only employee.
Then came funding rounds and growth. More employees in the office, but also more and more virtual assistants — over 1,000 at last count — spread across North America.
“You can run a company all day long, but when you’re scaling, you have to pivot left, right, and center all the time,” Racette told mesh conference attendees.
“And so when you pivot, you have to take your whole company and pivot with you, and when you’re doing that you have to keep the culture during that.”
Screening out those elements toxic to the culture at Virtual Gurus was an important step. Research has shown that toxic culture is a big driver of what’s been dubbed “the Great Resignation.”
Racette also followed the advice from organizations and other businesses when it comes to managing growth and culture — from hiring to setting targets and ensuring she is accountable for both change and cultural stability.
Communication, she said in a recent interview, was key.
“I send out weekly CEO updates by email, and then we’ll have all-hands meetings twice a month, and I host those,” said Racette. “So I’m very communicative about why and how the culture is changing.”
Central to that communication is allowing staff to offer feedback, listening closely to what they’re saying — and not being afraid of criticism. She now does what she calls a daily “lion hunt,” going through the office and checking in with employees.
She also says there has been an increased focus on all of the virtual assistants who form the backbone of the company, but who can’t be there in person for her walks around the office. The company has created a virtual hub to maintain those connections, providing incentives and perks, while also emphasizing the importance of the company values and mission.
“We don’t just treat them like a number,” Racette said.
But like those words written at the entrance to the company office, it takes more than spelling it out and carrying on.
“You can talk about it all day long, it’s actioning it,” said Racette. “And that’s one thing I’ve noticed with us is we were talking about the culture, but we weren’t actually actioning it.”
And, of course, incentives work too. Racette says employee bonuses worth four to eight percent of their salary now hinge on whether they follow the company values.
How has work culture changed over time?
Contemporary workplaces, and certainly startups, are a different beast than the offices of old. They are nimble and often more flexible. And unlike many formal offices, there’s no dress code at Virtual Gurus.
But it’s also about how company’s measure and value work — something that can have a profound impact on culture.
“I think it’s changed from being activity and action-driven to being more outcomes-focused,” said Racette.
At her office, employees aren’t judged for showing up late, or engaging in more activities that don’t necessarily lead to the right kind of results. If it takes five hours for someone to do all their work, then so be it.
Racette wants her staff to be accepting of those around them, and to be adaptable in the face of constant change. In order to get there, it only makes sense to put that same faith in her employees, leading down to nurture that all-important culture.
“You can’t fix your culture or have a good culture unless people have a psychologically safe space to work,” she said.
Stepping off an elevator and seeing a wall plastered with good intentions is one thing, but walking into an office where employees are all committed to goals based on those shared values is another, more successful thing altogether.
Rising costs, work-life balance among top mental health stressors for Canadian entrepreneurs
A look at BDC’s latest survey results on mental health challenges for Canadian entrepreneurs.
Have you recently gone into business for yourself? BDC’s latest survey indicates a higher likelihood of you facing some mental health challenges.
And you’re more likely to seek professional help if you’re a:
- Younger business owner
- Business owner with 20+ employees
- Business owner in the arts, entertainment, and recreation fields
- Startup business owner
While men and older business owners were less likely to seek professional health, that doesn’t necessarily equal fewer mental health challenges.
Indeed, BDC’s latest survey on 1,500 Canadian SME business owners and mental health illuminates a concerning 45% increase in Canadian business owners facing mental health challenges (compared to 38% last year).
Here are some more highlights from the report:
More Canadian entrepreneurs feel tired and depressed, with fewer seeking help
The survey responses show that 67% of entrepreneurs felt tired and low-energy at least once a week. Similarly, nearly 50% felt depressed and like they didn’t accomplish everything they would have liked to.
“Entrepreneurs often comment that it feels lonely at the top and rarely speak candidly about organizational and personal challenges,” said Hassel Aviles, co-founder of Not 9 to 5.
While certain groups are more likely to seek support than others, the survey still only shows about a third (35%) of respondents actually sought mental health support.
And the hesitation isn’t a matter of pride. The top barrier to seeking help was the high costs of mental health services, with uncertainty and discomfort discussing things following close behind.
“I currently pay out-of-pocket for a private therapist,” said one anonymous survey respondent. “I am very grateful for that, and I click with my therapist well, but it typically costs me $200- $400 per month. This is a hard expense to tend to in the current economic situation.”
Inflation and work-life balance are top stressors
The survey showed that 54% of entrepreneurs cited inflation and work-life balance as top stressors. The two go hand-in-hand, since rising costs fuel longer hours to make ends meet. Notably, work-life balance was a more sought-after support to mitigate the stress, followed by better access to mental health resources.
“Inflation rates and other factors are affecting their businesses in ways that are harder to control, leaving many entrepreneurs resorting to working even longer hours just to stay afloat,” said Annie Marsolais, CMO at BDC.
Small business owners are just as mentally strained as medium business owners
You might assume these findings apply more to “bigger” business owners with 20+ employees. But the survey profile indicates that 88% of respondents have under 20 employees, with 56% having under five employees.
“As individuals, we can’t control the rates of inflation and the stress it may cause,” said Aviles. “But we can learn to manage our reactions to that stress. Learning how to do this is an opportunity to create separation between who we are and the work we do, which is healthy, and supports the work-life balance entrepreneurs are seeking to achieve.”
Read BDC’s full survey results.
Veronica Ott is a freelance writer and digital marketer with a specialization in finance and business. As a CPA with experience in the industry, she’s able to provide unique insight into various monetary, financial and economic topics. When Veronica isn’t writing, you can find her watching the latest films!
9 in 10 small businesses use tech platforms—here are the most common types
Small businesses looking to reach potential customers, streamline sales systems, and manage payroll are increasingly turning to technology to optimize their operations. Over 90% of U.S. small businesses use at least one technology platform for their operations and growth, according to a 2022 survey from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many small businesses to close, and those that survived the worst of the economic downturn then faced supply chain disruptions, staff shortages, and inflation. The survey found 86% of small business owners said technology helped their businesses survive the pandemic, especially as more businesses moved online and employees started working remotely.
Investing the time and energy to follow technology trends and learn how to implement new platforms can pay off for companies by automating parts of their operations and bringing them new insights into their potential and current customers. For small businesses, technology provides opportunities to expand capacity and simplify workflows.
Nextiva identified the top types of tech platforms small businesses used in the wake of the pandemic, based on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey data. The survey included 1,755 owners of businesses with fewer than 250 employees, and not in the agricultural sector.
Tada Images // Shutterstock
#4. Point-of-sale tools (tie)
– Share of small businesses utilizing this platform type: 36%
Technology can help small businesses in processing sales. Tools like Block—formerly known as Square, Clover, and Toast—allow businesses to accept credit card payments from anywhere employees and customers can use a smartphone. This offers a more flexible alternative to the traditional cash register system. Point-of-sale technology was particularly helpful to restaurants early in the pandemic by allowing diners to order and pay for their food by phone, with limited contact with servers. In addition to accepting payments, some point-of-sale systems also help track inventory, run daily sales reports, and manage customer loyalty rewards.
monticello // Shutterstock
#4. Productivity tools (tie)
– Share of small businesses utilizing this platform type: 36%
A significant share of small businesses use technology to boost productivity. With the growing popularity of remote work, small businesses are looking for new ways to stay connected to employees who may be physically apart. Tools like Google Workspace and Slack help streamline internal communications and collaboration among employees. Common features of this type of technology include instant messaging, document sharing that allows for collaborative editing, project management systems, and meeting scheduling. Another aspect of productivity is time management, including tools for time tracking and monitoring employees’ output.
Wachiwit // Shutterstock
#3. Marketing platforms
– Share of small businesses utilizing this platform type: 41%
Digital marketing opens up new possibilities for small businesses to reach prospective customers. Tools like Google Ads and Facebook Boost give businesses the ability to run targeted marketing campaigns that rely on demographic data and are tailored to the company’s goals. This removes the burden on business owners to guess who their best customers are and how to reach them. Incorporating technology in marketing also results in detailed insights on who responds to each ad and what problems they’re trying to solve, which can inform future marketing efforts. Many digital marketing tools are relatively cheap compared to large print ads or billboards.
Thamyris Salgueiro // Shutterstock
#2. Accounting software
– Share of small businesses utilizing this platform type: 56%
Accounting software like QuickBooks and NetSuite gives small businesses the capacity to perform essential accounting and financial management functions. These tools create systems for sending invoices, tracking revenue and expenses, processing e-commerce, and running payroll, among other features. Without incorporating technology for these functions, businesses would need to hire staff specialized in bookkeeping, IT, and tax policy—a much more expensive proposition than paying for software. Technology also allows for the automation of certain accounting functions, like sending reminders for unpaid invoices or subscription billing. Another potential benefit is the ability to integrate accounting information with long-term planning that incorporates projections for supply chain and production.
TZIDO SUN // Shutterstock
#1. Social media accounts
– Share of small businesses utilizing this platform type: 66%
The most common form of technology used by small businesses is social media. Tied closely to marketing platforms, social media allows businesses to communicate directly with customers and prospective customers. For businesses, social media fosters a sense of community, builds trust in a brand, and grows demand for products or services. Some of the most popular social media platforms are Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter. Each platform has a unique user demographic and content presentation style, so businesses can choose a social media platform that allows them to connect with their customer base.
Data reporting by Paxtyn Merten. Story editing by Jeff Inglis. Copy editing by Paris Close. Photo selection by Clarese Moller.
This story originally appeared on Nextiva and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.
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