Continue riding the horse that brought you or move to something new?

Over my career, I’ve had the privilege of creating some really cool tools. I’ve built a headcount forecasting model that was accurate to within 2% over 4 years. I’ve built financial models that have made complicated numbers seem simple. I’ve designed business intelligence applications for more uses than I can remember. I’ve designed software, created websites, implemented tools, and learned more than a few client systems.

But there is one that always comes back to me as the one I loved most. It was one that I had spent a year designing, pitching internally and then finally getting off the ground and released to clients. I brought it out from nothing and made it something. Unfortunately, a year later I no longer had an influencer role with it.

Selfishly, I can look at the trajectory and feel like I could have done much better than those that inherited it after me. It wouldn’t have been hard. Then again, hindsight is always 20/20.

Fundamentally, technology is hard. Getting an idea into implementation is hard. Getting implementation complete is even harder. Getting a client to use it is even harder. Getting traction to need to scale and then scaling is hardest of all. Building online systems is simply one of the toughest things in business.

I say this because it’s worth managers understanding what makes things successful. Some concept of “the market” is great but doesn’t do anything on its own. An “outside expert” may not grasp the vision of what is needed. Changing teams to encourage new ideas sometimes only introduces bad ideas. Sometimes the best horse to ride is the one that got you there.

Why the blockchain won’t save CRE Tech

I’m a fan of altcoins, crypto currency, digital tokens, etc. Bitcoin, ether, litecoin, and their like have a new business model for how they work and what they can do for people and businesses. The blockchain itself has so many possibilities as to be maybe the biggest invention since the iPhone. You can find new articles every single day on applications for the blockchain – insurance, contracts, credit/loans, purchases, etc.

Adoption of the blockchain will slowly occur across many industries and use cases. But I suspect that it will not be taken too seriously in real estate for a long time.

Why? Because real estate brokerages are struggling to use such simple tools as SalesForce. Convincing them to move to a researchable, relatively open, standardized deal tracking system will be a Herculean task. The sharing of any information is a hurdle that too many in the industry are struggling with which is hampering even commonly used tech in other industries. Trying to move to a platform that makes everything theoretically researchable would be a difficult sell.

Maybe there will be a sea change in CRE (commercial real estate) but it isn’t likely in the next several years. The way money works in the industry will continue to hamper technology innovation and adoption. Until someone disrupts the commission model I have little confidence in radical innovation being adopted.

Real Estate Technology is a thing of the past. Long live Technology.

It’s funny, every time I evaluate “Real Estate Technology” I almost always come away thinking “this other [non-real estate] system does that better.” There are a few exceptions – work order/maintenance management, lease administration, room booking – but those prove the rule as they deal with things that only real estate encounters historically.

Ironically, the new FASB rules will soon mean lease administration systems move from being real estate systems to corporate enterprise systems. Why would an organization choose a system that can only manage real estate leases when they will need to track every lease in the company to the same level of detail? This will soon be driven by finance and HR instead of real estate.

Some of the systems that are often touted as being bleeding edge for real estate include site selection/labor analytics, transaction/project management, energy management/smart building, CRM, and workplace forecasting. These aren’t everything but they are pretty representative. If we take a look through them:

  • Site selection/labor analytics: This often gets put into the real estate bucket because it’s tied to the need to identify and select a new building. The reality is that the data used is largely publicly available and the analysis techniques are generic. The real owners of the need are operations who will be occupying the site that understand the type of office they require.
  • Transaction/Project Management: There really isn’t anything so unique here that it has to be a real estate first tool. Sure, some of the data that needs to be managed will be real estate specific but budget/capital management applies just as well to IT, supply chain and some other operations groups. Systems like Slack, Asana and many more are building project coordination platforms that can work for real estate as well as they work for anyone else.
  • Energy Management/Smart Building: Ultimately, carbon reporting is going to be owned outside of real estate at many organizations. This is one of those areas that real estate will always be a critical stakeholder but just as often won’t own the system/data themselves.
  • CRM: This one always drives me up a wall. Brokers view their data as their own. It makes sense given the incentive model for 90% of brokers out there. There’s a lot of money to be made and the level of differentiation between any two brokers is relatively small. Most of the business comes down to owning relationships. SalesForce and others have built industry standard CRMs that stand on their own for every industry except Real Estate. Eventually, that will change because real estate will adopt standard tools more and more. But until then this is the best example of why real estate “technology” is often backward.
  • Workplace Forecasting: On the surface, this is as straightforward real estate as it gets. If I need to calculate the amount of space I need and how the workplace should be designed, that’s what real estate is. But if you look above, as more and more of the data and decisions of real estate move to common platforms, this will as well. Workplace Forecasting is a perfect application of Big Data/AI decisions out of a corporate strategy team. The AI group would bring in forecasts around future revenue, the success of work-from-home/agile policies, cultural trends on space, and work requirements to come up with an ever evolving target of how much space a business or group needs in a market. This becomes a feed to the real estate team to develop a strategy to move from where things are today to where they need to be. But, here again, real estate is the stakeholder instead of the owner.

I’m bullish on the impact that technology is going to have on the real estate industry as a whole. I’m much less bullish on the ability of “real estate technology” companies to survive on their own in this niche. Any system they built will likely be applicable outside of the industry with a few tweaks and generalizations while finding a larger marketplace at the same time. This will squeeze the real estate specialized groups out over time.

It’s good to have a focus today on the niche because real estate is not well understood outside of the industry. The thinking and specialization may turn out something truly unique and special. But to date that hasn’t happened and I don’t see it happening.

For the next 5 to 10 years there will be a strong and robust market for these real estate specific solutions. It’s the longer term that looks bleak.

An update on my level of contentedness with iPhone (4 month review).

Earlier this year I was forced onto the iPhone from several years with Android. At the end of January, I gave my thoughts at the nearly 2-week mark. I’m now past 4 months and able to give a more complete review.

Verdict: I’d really like my Android back but I can live with this until the next pure Android flagship comes along.

What’s the Same between Android and iPhone?

One- Apps. All apps basically function the same between Android and iPhone. Inside of any given app I can barely tell the difference in which OS I’m in. This made the switch process surprisingly pain free and simple.

Two- Unlocking. iOS fingerprint security vs. Android fingerprint security is virtually identical at this point. Really easy to securely get into your device.

Three- Cameras. This may cause debate but I’m not big into photography and the iPhone camera seems just as good as my most recent Android cameras. I don’t use this a lot so I may be missing something but it’s all the same to me.

Four- Messaging. iMessage seems to be really good but is it really all that different from any other SMS app (other than in making bubbles blue or green to differentiate between your friends)? I don’t seem enough difference here to call it a benefit or deficiency. I don’t use FaceTime so that doesn’t even matter.

Five- Design/Hardware. This may cause debate as well but I like the designs of the Nexus 6p or Pixel as much as the iPhone. I also can’t tell a significant operational difference between them in terms of performance. I’m sure there is a difference, I just can’t perceive it at this point.

What’s Better About iPhone?

One- Home Button. I got addicted to using this really early in the process. It’s really convenient to press or double-press this and go somewhere else. It basically combines the Android home and window buttons together to simplify things. Is it absolutely necessary for the real estate it takes up? No. But it’s easy and convenient.

Two- Corporate Email. My company has pretty stringent policies on email integration with mobile devices. It took more than a few steps to get things working on my previous Android device. On iOS everything was a snap and works through the default mail app.

Three- System Updates. Apple is much better at making their updates available because of the control they have over their hardware and software environments.

Four-iOS + OSX Integration. I don’t have a Mac but my wife does. It seems like magic to watch her get notifications on her computer and have the two devices work together fairly seamlessly. That’s something I would like to have.

Five- Encryption. Apple encrypting the hard drive by default is standout. This is a great move for users that most won’t really detect. I really appreciate Apple doing this and it goes hand-in-hand with their system update process. It’s possible to do this on Android but it’s opt-in instead of default.

What’s Worse About iPhone?

One- Charging Time/Apple Accessories. Apple accessories suck. Their out-of-the-box wall charger is horrific. It feels cheap and it works much more poorly than accessories you can get from Amazon. But I don’t want to have to purchase accessories just to reach a good operational level for my phone.

Two- Notifications. Seriously, Android has had a highly functional, very good notification bar system for a long time now. Just copy it. There’s nothing worse that non-intelligent notifications that you have to go into the app to use. Sure, maybe force touch can do something with it but that’s not the most intuitive system.

Three- Search. Most of what I do on my phone is search for things. Apple’s search functionality is the worst. It doesn’t search the web by default. WHY?

Four- No app drawer. If I have 100 apps, on iOS I have to remember exactly where I stashed it away to get to it (or search for it through Apple’s stupid search feature). In Android, you can do either of those plus have an app drawer listing them all in alphabetical order. My memory is not good enough to find where I stashed that app I use once every three months.

Five- Siri. Siri is not even in the same ballpark as Google Now. It’s not even close. They aren’t comparable. You can’t even pretend that Siri is anywhere near Google Now in capability. Google Now’s integration with Gmail makes quite a bit of magic happen that Apple cannot replicate at all.

Six- Back Button. Apple doesn’t have a back button other than it will let you go one step back at the top left of any given app if you got there from another app. This is because they only have the one home button at the bottom of the device whereas Android uses the three software buttons. That Android back button is pure gold and I miss it.

Seven- No Microphone Jack. This one is just silly. Basically, you can’t charge your phone plus listen to music on headphones at the same time without purchasing a surprisingly expensive dongle accessory. But none of the dongles look or function similarly so be careful which you get. Then you have to keep track of the headphone adapter because the Apple headphones are utter crap and why would you buy headphones that only work on your one phone and none of your other devices? It just makes no sense whatsoever.

Eight- Calendar/Default Apps. iOS is solid but it’s really frustrating that you don’t have many options for email and calendar outside of what they make available. Those options that do exist in these areas don’t have the ability to fully integrate into the OS the way they can with Android. This just makes each option subpar even when they have superior capability.

Nine- Keyboard. Apple’s keyboard is the absolute worst. This isn’t even debateable. No swipe capability. Common keys (comma) is hidden on the second level. Poor predictive capabilities. Even when you install a strong keyboard app like Gboard, iOS doesn’t let it work everywhere within the OS environment. It’s really frustrating to type on when you are used to a keyboard that actually works.

Ten- No Widgets. Android is focused on surfacing information quickly and cleanly with as few button pushes as possible. Apple seems more focused on getting you to go into apps as often as possible. That’s how I would summarize the operational concept difference between the two OS’s and also the best explanation I can think of for Apple not allowing widgets to be used. In Android, my calendar widget was probably my most used screen.

In Summary

In summary, if you started out using iOS you probably disagree with me on a lot of these as you have either built your processes around Apple’s way of doing things or found easier solutions than I’ve encountered over these past 5 months.

I simply find Apple’s approach to be overbearing and “father knows best.” They want you to do things their way which makes it easier to get started and establish a working rhythm but difficult to improve upon. Android is open to lots of ways of accomplishing the same things which makes getting started more difficult but makes you more productive and efficient in the long run.

That’s my 2 cents.

I’m actually a fan of CRE Technology regardless of what it sounds like.

I’ve written a number of posts over the years discussing the state of CRE technology and, in hindsight, they may seem largely negative. I’ve talked about CRE Tech being stuck in the early 2000’s. About how there is no such thing as CRE Big Data. How it may not be possible to do CRE Technology right.

None of this means I’m not a big fan of technology’s impact on our industry. I’m a huge user of real estate systems such as LeaseHarbor and several proprietary systems. But more than that, general technology has a huge impact on everything that we do. Tools such as Skype, IFTTT, Wunderlist, Google Docs and many others are daily productivity enhancers. I also see huge potential for Slack and Github for a lot of what we do in our industry.

Our biggest weakness in CRE historically is our desire to silo communications and protect our data and networks. Most of the top tools in the industry still focus on the individual and controlling communications. Systems like Slack and the new Microsoft Teams will continue to urge us to break down our artificial communications barriers. Shared information makes people significantly more productive and makes our solutions significantly more robust.

It’s unfortunate that the way most money in our industry flow is through landlord paid commissions. That one single fact is what sets so much of everything else back. The ultimate disruptive tool will be the one that fixes the money flow.

Sometimes the technology you purchased doesn’t have a good ROI because you don’t have the ability to accurately measure the change.

ROI is a great measure for trying to gauge whether an investment is worth what you will be putting into it. A large, positive ROI implies that you’ll quickly and easily make your money back. Getting more out than you put in is the name of the game.

However, some investments are very difficult to measure return on investment. Putting in an enterprise grade finance system is more about avoiding costs associated with getting it wrong than on saving money tomorrow. Similarly, moving from a spreadsheet environment to an automated environment also is difficult to measure unless you can say for certain that there would be people cuts associated with the purchase.

New technology is often hard to calculate an ROI for because many of the benefits are expected to be productivity increases where people can spend less time on reports, checking numbers, inputting data, sharing spreadsheets, and explaining the process. Decreasing time spent on these non-value added functions give your team more time to focus on the part of the business that contributes increased value. The benefits are a step removed from the investment.

You’ll often see software companies touting the fact that their software pays for itself in 4 months or 12 months or 18 months. When you press them they will almost invariably fall back on the “productivity savings” theory and talk about how much less time people have to spend on data and process. It’s a false equivalency though because just as the benefits are a step removed, there often new support processes needed. New technology means better data and reports but that also means more time needed for delivering the reports and creating and socializing the new metrics. In the same way, getting a team to use new tools can take quite a bit of time investment as well.

Measurements require fixed starting and ending points to be accurate. Just as you can’t measure the length of the wind, you often can’t measure the ROI on a technology investment. Having a set of corporate guiding principles for when and why to invest can be a better method.

Are Dashboards technology or are they support for technology?

A good part of my career has been spent building, implementing, using, training others on and generally dealing with business intelligence and dashboards. I’m one of the biggest advocates you will find for having formal business intelligence practices in place for all areas of a corporation. The biggest reason for this is that dashboards and BI generally can fill the gap where other technology/data systems are not integrated – including the robust use of spreadsheets.

Recently I’ve encountered the argument that dashboards are not actually technology. The argument goes that BI and dashboards are more closely related to spreadsheets than to formalized technology systems. Essentially dashboards are a different class of tool and can be treated less formally than other systems.

On the surface, I’m surprisingly open to this argument because one of the main purposes of dashboards is to bring data from other places and into the open. The argument that greater flexibility and less formality around dashboards holds merit.

However, I ultimately have to come down against this theory for a simple reason: when dashboards are done correctly they quickly become the official source people go to for data. Anything that is seen as an official source of data (even if the data comes from somewhere else) must be treated with a degree of formality and consistency. No one would ever implement SAP with the idea that a 2% error rate in the reporting was appropriate – it needs to be to the penny. The same theory holds for a dashboard reporting SAP financial data – it must be just as accurate and consistent.

Treating dashboards as something other than formalized technology presents the increasing opportunity to casually handle the formal data reporting processes. For this reason, dashboards should always be treated like every other technology system. If it isn’t going to be right and consistent, why is it being implemented?