The UK’s property portal market might just be the most interesting in the world. It has a massively dominant market leader under pressure from its customers, an agent-owned challenger and new portals and alternatives springing up all the time, some of whom are eschewing the traditional pay to advertise model. We thought we’d take a closer look at some of the challenger portals and see what makes them different and why they think they can take a slice of the market.
Today we bring you an interview with Homesearch CEO Giles Ellwood and COO Sam Hunter about their recently launched portal and the state of the industry.
OMP: How did you get into the challenger property portal game? Do you have a background in data, agency, or at another portal?
Giles: Back in 2004, I quit my job, sold my car, sold everything I had. After two years working for property developers, mainly selling off-plan out of the back of a cramped site office, I had an idea I wanted to pursue which was a local magazine publishing company. In three-years, the business grew rapidly, with sixty staff, three offices, and revenue of over £3 million (soon climbing to £7 million). We then specialised in lifestyle magazines, but the publications were 50% lifestyle and 50% property. All our readers wanted was property. What’s on the market, what it’s worth, and how it compares to their own home? These were the questions on every reader's mind.
It was, therefore, an easy decision for agents to advertise within the pages and that’s how my real relationships within the industry began. From there we evolved into more of a data marketing service through our other business “Address Intelligence” and Homesearch was the natural, granular evolution of that.
Sam: Like a lot of agents do, I got into the industry because my own first experience was so poor. Back home in Brisbane, my Mum sold her house in 2010. The best (and perhaps most PC) way I can describe him was that he was a bully. I thought, this guy’s just made a lot of money despite treating Mum so poorly, I could do better than that. And for the last 10 years that’s what I’ve been trying to do. I was successful selling in Brisbane before moving to London with my wife in 2015 for what was meant to be a two-year adventure.
The lack of market data and insight here really surprised me when I started. I had this idea than London was right up there with the centre of the property world and my early experiences didn’t match up to that.
When I asked how I could learn about the area I was then working in better, my colleagues pointed to a drawer containing the records of past sales and lettings for that branch alone. That was it. And it’s an all to common experience across the country. It dawned on me pretty quickly that, if you were to build a database where agents can understand everything about their property market, it would save people like me all of this frustration and time.
Fortunately from there, Giles and I were introduced and we haven’t really stopped working since.
How many hours do you put into this project per week?
We are literally on the phone at 7:30am every morning and will both be in bed whatsapping most evenings at 10pm. The 100 hours a week startup cliches are entirely true in our respect.
What is your company’s USP?
Homesearch is not ‘just another portal’. It is where anyone can go to find information about any property in the country, on or off the market. Where agents can take a single buyer enquiry and turn it into multiple instructions, and the buyer gets to know about any and all property that suits them.
Homesearch’s solution is not based on an archaic listing portal site model, where only property that is for sale sits indexed; and once a consumer finds a property, they go off the site to the agent to find out more. Any buyer (and soon to be tenant) can not only see what is currently on-market that suits their needs, but what else is likely to come on soon. And they can work with an agent to talk to those people ahead of time.
Same on the other side. A potential seller can see the statistics on likely buyers and work directly with an agent to contact them, all before the traditional process needs to kick off.
How many employees do you have?
What is your biggest challenge?
Time. We’ve been building the data and architecture behind Homesearch for three years but our public site has been designed, developed and released (beta only) in 100 days. What we’re testing now, and what agents are helping us develop is the tip of that iceberg. We have such a clear vision of how Homesearch can actually impact everyone in the market, and we want to bring that vision to life as fast as we can.
How do you build an audience? How do you view the importance of SEO, aggregators, SEM, social media?
To many it feels like we’ve ‘popped up overnight’ but since we came up with the initial idea of Homesearch back in 2017 we’ve been actively trying to add value to the industry and build long term relationships since. Social media has played a key role in that.
We have always used ‘invites’ as the main tool to scale the usership of the product. Outside of this strategy, we’ve formed relationships with the UK property industry trade press who have supported us in our growth by reporting on all our key milestones.
Our consumer marketing program will kick off in Q4 and we think we have some unique strategies on how we can gain a substantial following there quickly too.
Do you think that the ‘pay to advertise’ model on portals needs a rethink?
It depends what the ‘portal’ is offering. Anyone - agents, consumers or otherwise - will never shy away from paying for something they value.
The traditional portal idea and model hasn't changed in 20 years. We were told by our own industry back in March that because it hasn't changed but consumer (and Agent) expectations have, it doesn't serve either of them nearly as well as it could and should. We’re aiming to change that and evolve the property industry and experience.
What do you think the incumbent portals have got wrong?
We’ve experienced a number of growing pains over the last few months that have helped us empathise with these big portals more than we’ve had the opportunity to in the past.
It’s always easy to change direction as a smaller company. I think when you’re a market leader (or even in 2nd or 3rd place) the mindset is to maintain position rather than move further ahead. Our business will always be about improvement. If you stand still you stop serving. You stop serving and you die.
Why do you think we have seen a proliferation of startup portals and alternatives to the big 3 portals in the UK and perhaps not so much in other markets?
I think there’s a more tenuous relationship between portals and their Agent customers here in the UK than other markets. The US has various different MLSs and there’s a general angst against the likes of Zillow, Redfin etc. In Australia and New Zealand, it’s the vendors that pay for the portal costs, so there’s less of a cost vs. value debate.
The UK is unique in that portal costs are invariably high and fees are invariably low. It means the first thought for an agent, unfortunately right now, is always “what does it cost” not “what value will it bring”. We hope to change that and offering a place to list their stock for free is step one.
Is there room for all of the challenger portals in the market?
We know the guys behind a number of the other challenger portals well. They’re all working hard at their own pursuits and we all get along well enough to wish each other nothing but the best.
The good news is, because we’ve made the time and effort to have those conversations, some of us offer differing services. Financially, it’s certainly big enough for us all to survive, but I think only one or two will genuinely thrive, perhaps with one of the three incumbents consolidating their position further, and affect the real change we hope to and the industry desperately needs.