In our latest Member’s Spotlight Interview, we interviewed Andrew Lloyd, Managing Director of Search Acumen, a company re-engineering the search process, using their in depth knowledge of conveyancing and progressive technology to deliver the essential data in a simple way.
Andrew shares his insight into how the industry has changed since he started working in the industry over 18 years ago, how blockchain will change the future of transactions, and offers some advice to startups…
As someone who has over 18 years of experience working in the online property information/data sector, I imagine you have witnessed first-hand the impact of technology in the industry. How has the industry changed during your career?
That’s a big question. The industry has changed A LOT. Over that period we’ve seen the advent of traditional databases and disparate data/information spread over many providers and many sources, collected on a one-by-one basis essentially using postal request. The only way you could find information about a property was to write letters and ask individuals. Over that long period technology has evolved and the use of the internet has grown massively, resulting in the transfer of data/information from paper records in filing cabinets to datasets accessed online via API’s. This has created huge opportunities and operational efficiencies.
We’ve gone from conveyancers, or anyone interested in property, having to write cheques and letters to get individual property data – to using intermediaries and third party services, or direct connectivity to data providers such as Land Registry, and being able to pay online to access data in real time.
Now there’s a next wave of change coming in the form of data interpretation, due to advancements in technology such as machine learning. We can take datasets and turn them into meaningful analytics. We’re moving away from per property interest, and starting to look at how we can use the full datasets to provide more real time analytics and make better decisions. I believe this will lead to more of a focus towards the consumer and less towards intermediaries.
Search Acumen work closely with data providers such as Ordnance Survey and Land Registry, supporting initiatives to release more data. Could you provide an insight into these initiatives?
The government and public sector data providers hold a wealth of property related information. However, these organisations have always been quite slow to change and see the benefits of adopting modern ways of working, and this has resulted in missed opportunities and competitive products coming to market which are not as accurate or reliable as those from the authoritative providers. A good example of this is the advent of new mapping products such as Google Maps, which I suspect has over taken as the most commonly used mapping product.
This initial reluctance of government to be bold and respond quickly to advancements in technology, has led to some very real challenges. That said, lessons have been learned, and these organisations do now realise the need to engage with technology providers and share data/information to enable businesses to innovate and benefit the economy. This is evident by the formation of the Geospatial Commission and the work that Land Registry is doing to engage with the market and release more datasets. There’s much more openness to making this data available for free or lowering the costs or barriers to using the data, which will ensure that these definitive datasets are not replaced by substitutes. I think that’s also true across the wider government which is very positive for the UK economy generally, because we have to remember that we are competing globally. Now it’s not a case of, “Do you live in London, or Birmingham, or Manchester,” it’s a question of “do you live in Singapore, Dubai, Mumbai, London, or New York?” and “Where are you going to invest your pounds, or dollars, or Euros in a global market?” If we make it simple, then the property market over here will continue to be productive in attracting inward investment. If we make it difficult, then we will lose that opportunity to other countries and that’s something that I think the highest levels of government are realising.
Search Acumen aren’t shy when it comes to innovation. Can you provide some insight into your next big development?
Well when we decided to come back and do this again after originally managing, and running Search Flow for 12 years, it was because we recognised that there was an opportunity to use the rapidly developing technology and access to data, to change the way that we transact in information over the coming decade. So, our focus has always been to build a simple and efficient property search company with the intent of using that to fund the developments for the new data products that we see being the future. Business is doing well, and we’re heavily re-investing the money we’re making now into developing these real time, data-driven products and services that enable people who work in real estate, particularly in the area of home buying and selling. Whether you’re an investor, property manager, an estate agent, or a conveyancer, or even a lender, you can now make investment decisions or purchase decisions in more real time using quality data.
We are also aligning with initiatives from Land Registry and the Geospatial Commission to release the right products or the right data-driven services to feed each of those markets. We just recently launched the search of the National Polygon Service which is taking Land Registry’s datasets and putting them into real-time documents so that conveyancers and commercial real estate, can rapidly assess developing products to projects, and conduct rapid size assessment. This will enable them to provide their clients real time feedback right at the beginning of the project. We’ll be looking to further build on that over the next few years as more and more quality data becomes available.
Having worked with the property for many years, have you seen a shift in attitudes towards technology?
Do I think the attitudes of people working in property have changed? No, I don’t. It’s a market that hasn’t changed because it hasn’t needed to. You’re talking about a property sector with a classic supply and demand structure where there’s not enough of whichever resource we’re talking about, housing, rental, commercial property – unlike other markets where you’ve got incredible competition (e.g. high street retail versus online). The whole housing sector has not had that massive competitive drive to improve. You can see that in any market where you’ve got shortage of supply. This is the reason why we haven’t seen huge innovation in housing and property markets over the last 18 years. Companies can make good profits, and money doing what they do today.
I’ve been involved in at least six/seven industry initiatives, from the Land Registry’s chain metrics to the home information packs (HIPs). There’s been lots of attempts internally to try and change home buying and selling, and so far, none of them have worked. So, the question is, “Well, what’s different now then? we still have that supply and demand problem that still exists, so what’s going to change?”
Firstly, for the first time we have significant new technologies that are being developed outside of the property sector – machine learning/AI, blockchain which have the ability to provide large, analytical, trusted, transaction platforms.
Secondly, we have international competition. The supply and demand equation will be altered by a worldwide scale. Rather than just looking at the UK market which is what these initiatives have done historically, you’re suddenly looking at a wider market. Other countries that aren’t necessarily constrained in the way that the UK is, will start to develop these new technologies, and therefore, we will be competing for investment with people who are adopting machine learning and blockchain. This is what will drive rapid adoption. The one thing that UK is good at is jumping on board quickly when opportunities present themselves – we’re very business-driven.
For many of the big commercial real estate firms, the attitudes are different because they are global. They work in global markets and work for global clients, whom expect them to be engaged in new technologies such as machine learning, and concepts such as tokenized property investment. So, I do think we’re starting to see a shift, and not necessarily just through technology – technology is an enabler. The driver is always the market forces and the market forces are becoming global.
Where do you think the industry is headed in the next two to five years?
I think we will see the first blockchain-enabled transactions in the UK, within five years. I think we’ll see the advent of property log books, and the long-term storage on a per property basis. I think lenders will start to engage with their consumers providing property specific mortgage offers much early in the process, because they’ve got better access to property data. I think we’ll see the first tokenization of property – funding of property through tokenization or property as an investment through tokenization. And I think we will see the advent of blockchain, and providing the government follows through with their data strategy, all of this could be enabled through UK businesses and through the UK sector.
Social media is also going to continue to change how we communicate. Email is essentially dead – it just doesn’t know it yet. We’re starting to communicate, and share information via real time applications, encrypted file sharing, and so on. And so, the concept of a letter by mail will be electronically is becoming less and less relevant. My kids have an email account but they’ve never looked at it, because they share everything they do through WhatsApp and Instagram. The younger generation will want to take that experience into their adult life.
The fuel for all this change is going to be the continued release of data. There’s a reason they refer to data as the new oil, because this is the fuel that will drive a lot of what’s happening around this market.
As someone that has grown a start-up into a market leader, what advice would you give to other start-ups and what would you say has been the most important factors to your success so far?
It’s not about the technology, it’s about the market. Particularly if you’re running a proper tech business. People get too excited about the technology, and don’t invest enough of their time in understanding the market, the market dynamics and the customers. Whatever it is you’re intending to build, you have to sell it to someone. And that someone has to be delighted with the product or service that you’ve created, and you need more than one (in those cases). You have to build your business model around the market that you are going to be trading in, and the customers to whom you’re going to be selling your products and services. Innovation is exciting, but utterly irrelevant if nobody’s going to buy it. There have been a number of start-ups and competitors that we’ve seen over the years that have made that mistake, and that’s part of the reason that’s so many start-ups fail.
Secondly, I would advise being financially savvy. Cash is king. You’ve got to have a business that can generate sales off the back of that market knowledge and cash flow at a pace that’s akin to the rate at which you can grow your business. You have to be financial viable, otherwise, at some point, you will run out of funding, and you haven’t built something that A, people want to invest in, or B, you can sustain. Those two areas tend to be what most start-up companies ignore, because they’re excited about the technology or the opportunity. Sometimes they stumble across it by accident, sometimes they learn it just in time and change their plans, but many don’t. Many get stuck in that, and end up with a failed business. Not because the idea or the technology didn’t work, but because they didn’t work out whom they were going to sell it to, or for how much, and what their market was. It’s such a fundamental part of running a business. Do that first, and then decide what you’re going to build or create that’s going to change that market.