Barry Bridges says the average person spends more time researching an eBay purchase than a property they are buying. He hopes to end this "utter lunacy" by making it easier to be informed, than not.
His website, Property Detective, provides information on property and the surrounding area, to help buyers with their due diligence.
In an exclusive interview, Barry shares his thoughts on property and the amazing things you can do with data:
What is the problem you are addressing?
It's very simple really. In the UK, on a £ per minute basis, the average person spends more time researching an eBay purchase than a property transaction. It's utter lunacy, when you think about it like that.
And your current solution to this?
We help people conduct better due diligence.
Propertydetective.com is the result of pulling together a wide range of data., and then doing smart things with that data to tackle what we refer to as Donald Rumsfeld's "unknown unknowns".
The site provides qualitative answers about the things that would affect someone's enjoyment when they live there, looking at issues like noise, nuisance, flight paths and more.
We are licensing our data and powering other portals for the insights we offer. However our main traffic is from consumers.
Where did the journey begin?
Our launch was just before the Olympics, so we've been going for 3 years and kept ourselves below the radar. We were finalists at London Seedcamp 2012, which seems a long time ago.
What's the size of your customer base?
We have 50,000 registered users, who spend 45 minutes per session on average looking at 7-8 property reports. The site maintains a high registration rate as well, just over 30%.
We haven't been doing any advertising, but we're about to ramp up our spend there.
Who do you consider your most potent competition?
To be honest with you, I think we're taking a fairly unusual and unique angle. Most people do property search, rather than property research.
I actually feel the MySociety types, who help consumers with tools like FixMyStreet and Mapumental, are our closest competitors. And portals that appear to do structured data in the search.
Speaking of structured data, what do you think of FindProperly?
I think it's a pretty smart example of what the market needs. That said, we've been doing price per sq ft for over a year in an automated fashion.
People tend to make home-moving decisions based on pre-determined knowledge or expectations of an area. If FindProperly can be more transparent than Rightmove and Zoopla, then good luck to them.
The only concern I have is they're aligning their revenue model with estate agents. It's not a bad thing to do, but it limits your role as a pro-buyer or pro-tenant voice. I'll be watching their growth with interest.
Any challenges that you foresee?
The biggest challenge comes from accessibility of data. If you look at Locatable and others, most use open data.
We use very little open data; most of our sources are commercial data or data we've acquired through lobbying and Freedom of Information requests (FOIs).
In some ways Property Detective is a little bit ahead of the curve in that regard: there’s lots of data we want to make use of, but the data we want is attitudinally difficult for government departments to release. Open Data is all about releasing data for free; we don’t mind paying for data, but it would be good to have consistency across Government departments about pricing and contractual terms.
There’s also still a lot of reluctance to get data out there. For example, the Valuation Office Agency hold the council tax banding data. An individual can only challenge their property's banding within 6 months of moving in. The VOA won't release that data under OGL, but if they did there would be lots of innovation around it. We could empower better service in many areas.
What other commercial data do you take in?
Property Detective is a licensed partner of Ordnance Survey. We use their data as a foundation, and then layer lots of different data sets on top.
Currently we have over 300 data sets like Ofsted, the Department of Education, and we're the only site that shows independent schools.
We're not just London, or England, but pretty much the whole UK.
Using mechanical turk and FOIs to find interesting and novel data sets, I am manually curating data. The mix of all those together provide the quality of Property Detective's answers.
A good examples is flight path information. 8 sets of data go into our insights on this. We then tested it on the ground (or should that be 'in the air'). It was fun standing at the end of a Gatwick Airport runway with a noise meter.
Who is on the founding team and what have they done prior?
I founded Property Detective with Jack Waley-Cohen and George Palmer, both of whom are friends.
Jack runs a translation agency but these days is more heavily involved with What3Words.com. George is a senior ruby developer. We've closed another round of funding which will help us scale the team to 8 people.
Jack and I run pub quizzes together as Jack has been involved in various TV game shows <Jack's website shows he has been VERY involved in game shows>. It's a good founding team and we all get on really well.
Do you receive any outside help? If so, in what form?
Very little, most of the stuff we do is in house.
I come up with algorithms and source the data. We use researchers from time to time.
We are advised by some decent people, like Jalin Somaiya, Head of Special Projects at Google and some high profile people at some of the major portals and data PLCs. They help us to understand our relationship with the traditional property industry, like surveyors and agents. And of course they help us shape our revenue model.
About your commercial model: what do you charge?
We make money in three ways:
License our data to third parties, like estate agents who want local property information on their website. Or developers who want local area demographics. And Local authorities. This use extends beyond property, like for hotels who want to take on our noise information or how close they are to local amenities. We also license data to other start-ups who want us to take the pain out of location data for them.
Freemium model for consumer, charging for full reports. Although at the moment the full reports are currently free, but when we were charging the site was converting users quite well, at around 3%+. We want to scale the user base and try and keep it free for consumers; that's the ideal plan.
Longer term, we are capturing a lot of data on why people choose property and what they like about it. This is worth a lot to utilities for marketing and strategic planning.
Is there anything about the product we've not covered?
Our view is that we're heading towards more of a data+content business, like MoneySavingExpert but for property.
For example, it's important to understand if you move to an area where there is poor Vodafone signal, we can show that you would be better off on Orange. But we can only do this if we're independent.
So if we are not making money, but seen as a consumer champion, that is fine by us. We're driven (and were founded) on an ideology: we want to genuinely change the way people think about property. When you read stories in the news about people spending more time deciding what breed of dog to buy than which property to move to, you realise the world has gone mad.
Have you taken investment? If so, what are the details?
The company has taken £1m in three chunks of investment, with the biggest chunk most recently. Without naming names, investors include high profile names in property and founders of national agency chains.
We have enough money to get us beyond profitability and into scale; we believe this is the last funding round we will need. Hopefully we can give our investors a return in the form of an acquisition.
Have you had any offers to be acquired?
There have been a few expressions of interest previously from lots of different players: portal, data providers, estate agents. Some of them will mature into a potential acquisition in the future.
We are building a company because we believe there is a need for someone to be on the buyer and renters side. It is a information asymmetric market, where everyone is on the side of the vendor.
Of course we're open to offers, but at the same time I feel we have an important public service role and it would be a shame to see that remit disappear, which an acquisition would probably result in.
We like being the smaller independent player focused on due diligence in the property search
Any future features planned?
A lot of wow functionality where we answer things that are interesting or fun.
For example, we've built a smart database of the soil type across the UK and orientation of your property. From the sun aspect, soil type and drainage details we can tell you what can grow in your garden.
Property Detective can also tell you whether you will get a seat on the train to work, depending on where you are on the commuter belt.
The little things that add up.
How does this really help people?
One of the issues that I found was personal. I live outside of the M25. It's an urban location, but I can't get a takeaway to my house. It's quite annoying to drive to takeaway or gym. There are not many places you could put a pin on a map and be so far from a gym.
That's why we built this, to inform on the assumptions you make about where you live, that turn out not to be true. Often you discover details that bug you once you've lived somewhere. Hopefully we can inform on all those 'unknown unknowns' before you choose to live there.
What's next for you?
In the short term, I'm recruiting for a head of data role. With the sheer volume of data, I need someone to manage this outside of the tech team. We've advertised in places like Escape the City and are just in the middle of interviews from the positive response.
Medium term, we're really pushing the B2B side of things. And of course expanding the data sets so we are not dependent on core data like schools. We want to be the authority on a street or neighbourhood.
We also want Property Detective to be a no-brainer part of the conveyancing due diligence process, so we're integrating with the property search code over the next 3-6 months and trying to make us a more 'official' conveyancing resource.
Here's a sneak peek of what's next for Property Detective:
Is there anything you need to help at this stage of your business? Do you want to seal a partnership that you currently don't have?
We're quite lucky to have been around for quite some time. The property industry is quite small, everyone knows everyone, so we're planning an API in the near future, which will be exciting for partnerships. Otherwise knuckling down with the work load. If others want to make use of our data though, please do get in touch.
What do you currently find interesting in your industry?
We're part of a movement. There's a definite groundswell. Ultimately, lots of people are doing cool things, and we can to facilitate them; it just takes people to talk to each other.
I would like to see a lot more people and companies working together. So much innovation and smart people, it's a shame to see everyone taking the own corners of the universe. PropTech has traditionally had very little innovation, but I think the capacity is there.
I do think we're in for quite a turbulent few years in the industry; Agents' Mutual is a great example of the potential disruption on the horizon. We're poised to support that innovation.
If you could wave a magic wand to make one person do something for you, who would it be and what would they do?
I'd like to change a consumer's attitude to buying a house.
It's utter madness, such a huge proportion act utterly irrationally. As a society, when we encounter a completely ludicrous asking price, we don't look at each other and say, "I'm not paying that". That's why we have rising house prices. Because there is a minority who can afford more, it makes everyone else compete irrationally. I would make people pause, reflect and be thoughtful and careful. A longer term magic wand.
I feel like I'm in a bad nightmare, at times. Our housing market is totally insane. I genuinely fear for my two young children growing up. How will they be able to afford a home?
If your company becomes wildly successful overnight and you become impossibly wealthy, what would you do next?
I’m more motivated by social change than by money. More motivated by building something that changes attitudes to things that are ridiculous.
I don’t consider myself an entrepreneur or part of the ‘tech scene' and if Property Detective was wildly successful I don’t think I’d go on to found another business without reason. I like solving problems that I encounter, not creating problems that need solving.
If I made my millions doing this then I’d probably give myself a pat on the back and head off to St Lucia with my wife and children. I think I owe it to them for their support.
Suppose you one day IPO, what would you state in the prospectus as the biggest risk to your business?
People don't care. People are quite content, even if we're the right thing to do, people don't think logically. The biggest risk is that Property Detective is the best product that people don't want to use.
We're reliant on attitudinal change. The fact that 1 in 8 properties are sold without the buyer actually viewing the property illustrated just what we're up against. It's a big battle, but I'm confident we'll win.