Necessity is the mother of invention. In the case of PropertyGuru, necessity came in the form of an eviction notice, served on co-founder Steve Melhuish over a decade ago in Singapore. The apartment unit his family was then renting was being sold, and he and his family had to move out – fast. Frustrated that even in the typically efficient city-state, information on property was still largely confined to newspapers, Melhuish began a decade-long transformation from a comic-book entrepreneur into an online-property mogul whose network now includes PropertyGuru.com.sg, CommercialGuru.com.sg, PropertyGuru.com.my, Rumah.com and DDProperty.com.
Today, PropertyGuru enjoys 104 million views and 14 million customers a month, 1.3 million listed properties and real-estate transactions valued at between US$8.8 billion to US$10.37 billion a year, equivalent to about 10 percent of all property transactions in the regions.
And it’s growing, too. In 2015, PropertyGuru received fresh capital infusions from investors amounting to S$175 million, and it has invested in a regional media organization, Property Report, that promises to expand its reach through various media platforms.
Here are the five lessons Melhuish learned along the way:
1. Take a leap of faith into the unknownA decade ago, Melhuish knew nothing about the property market in Singapore. He had relocated his family there just 18 months before. And while he was into start-ups, he was working with comic books – hardly a preparation for the real-estate industry.
All this did not deter him from establishing PropertyGuru. Being a property-seeker himself, Melhuish knew exactly the needs of potential customers and the gaps his site should fill.
In 2011, after two profitable years, PropertyGuru felt it was time to go into the rest of Southeast Asia, first to Malaysia (Fullhouse), then Thailand (DD Property) and Indonesia (Rumah). At that time, the start-up had 70 staff members, all stretched with the Singapore operations. Looking back, Melhuish said it might have been a mistake to tackle multiple markets suddenly. But the team learned, coped, and has sustained its operations in these four markets through subsequent partnerships with other organizations.
2. Find out what you don’t do well and bring in partnersMelhuish knew what he was good at: Front-end sales, marketing, business development, and financing. At the outset, he acknowledged that his co-founder, Jani Rautiainen, knew more about the platform and product of PropertyGuru. Rautiainen, however, was shuttling between India and Singapore during the week. The two found a way to work together despite this constraint.
Almost a decade later, in 2015, PropertyGuru bought into Ensign Media, which is based in Singapore but operating in Thailand. Ensign has Property Report, a luxury-property magazine with 70,000 readers, and publishes 100 online and offline feature stories a month. Ensign also hands out the prestigious Asia Property Awards.
PropertyGuru and Ensign will merge into a single corporate group under the $129-million deal, with the former to absorb all Ensign’s existing staff. The deal creates a partnership that supports regional branding across multiple platforms.
To ensure the new venture is shepherded in the right direction, Ensign CEO and founder Terry Blackburn stays, lending his expertise to the consolidated media entity.
3. Stay paranoidA dose of paranoia has allowed PropertyGuru to keep its competitors in check. For example, even before the site was launched, three other competitors – ST701, Mocca and iProperty – also launched. Melhuish and Rautiainen monitored these sites even as they were working on their own.
A decade later, the competition is stiffer. The playing field itself has expanded into the region. Competitors are huge, including NewsCorp and 99.co. Numerous other rivals have emerged and disappeared in the past ten years. Keen awareness of competitors’ movements “keeps us on our toes,” Melhuish said.
4. Be flexibleTo raise cash, PropertyGuru had earlier announced its plans for an initial public offering in 2016. In 2015, however, some S$175 million in fresh investments came from three groups: TPG, Emtek, and Square Peg Capital. TPG has similar investments in giants Airbnb and Uber. Emtek has interests in media, content, and technology, and is run by brothers Eddy and Fofo Sariaatmadja of Indonesia, advocates of “consumer-centric innovation.” Square Peg is a venture-capital firm with investments in Israel, Australia, the U.S., and Germany.
With plenty of cash, PropertyGuru has deferred its listing plans.
5. Be open to emerging trendsRecent years have given rise to new economic, media and tech trends and PropertyGuru is poised to ride them all.
The Asean Economic Community, for instance, has the potential to be the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2030. There will be increased cross-border movements of labor and capital, foreign investments, and thus, a greater-than-ever cross-border demand for property. PropertyGuru is seeking to bolster its brand across Southeast Asia, not just as an information broker but as a thought-influencer. Having a media arm helps it do that.
Finally, mobile technology has emerged, and more customers are actually accessing property information from mobile devices than from desktops. This is not lost on PropertyGuru, which has developed 15 applications, in three languages, for the four countries in which it operates. In fact, as traffic for PropertyGuru surged 28 percent in the past year, visits from mobile devices contributed to 52 percent of the total traffic.