In 2017, while trying to help their retired parents get their finances in order, Mina Radhakrishnan and Ruwin Perera found something off. They’d been paying a huge amount of money in fees to a property management firm for the past 20 years. Yet, the property managers were constantly being replaced, sometimes with no notice, and their parents weren’t getting any real value for their money. Seeing this and followed by the lengthy processes of selling their home in San Francisco, Mina and Ruwin founded :Different, a Sydney based property tech startup. Its mission is simple: offer a better experience for property owners and renters.
The origins of :Different
“How can we make this process better? How can we make people feel better at the end of a transaction? We wanted to make something that made people feel good,” says Mina, recalling the questions she and Ruwin bounced off each other after helping their parents with their properties. It was from these questions that they decided to take the plunge to become entrepreneurs. But this wasn’t uncharted territory for either of them. Prior to founding :Different, they had already built impressive careers in technology.
Mina began her career at Goldman Sachs in the early 2000s building Blackberry apps, which were cutting edge at the time. From here she went onto work at Google as a member of its Associate Product Management programme. She would go on to work at a few startups before landing in Uber. Becoming its 20th employee and 1st product manager, Mina had a front-row seat as Uber went from being an alternative to taxis to the transportation behemoth it is today. Prior to founding :Different, she held various advisory roles at many startup investment firms such as Redpoint Ventures, Cowboy Ventures, and Airtasker, while mentoring several startups.
Ruwin began his career at Xerox Global Services, where he led business process outsourcing and automation projects for several Australian companies. Afterwards, he was a consultant with the Boston Consulting Group and would go on to join Google. Becoming a Principal in Google’s Global Business Strategy team, Ruwin led the competitive intelligence function and drove strategic projects across the internet giants business. Before founding :Different, he was a Principal at SoftBank, analysing potential investments and supported its global portfolio of companies on business improvement initiatives.
From these experiences building great products and working with startups, the duo didn’t want to create something purely for the sake of it. Both Ruwin and Mina were driven to build a product that brought real value to users. Hence, they sat down with several property owners, property managers, and tenants, to understand their pain points and address them. Once they felt confident their idea could deliver value, :Different was born in 2017 to improve the property management experience.
Starting off with a small team in Sydney and another in Colombo based in Hatch, the property tech startup has grown considerably. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, :Different successfully raised a $7.1 million Series A round of funding. It was led by PieLAB alongside AirTree, Spring Capital and Warburton Group. “I fundamentally don’t think of ourselves as a real estate company that does tech. We’re a tech company that does real estate. For every real estate professional we hire, we have 2 software engineers,” is how Ruwin describes themselves.
How :Different is reshaping property management in Australia
It’s no secret that real estate is the largest asset class in the world, trumping the value of all stocks and bonds combined. Australians are also well-known for their obsession with homeownership, with over 2 million owning an investment property. 80% of these owners rely on property managers. Yet, the industry NPS (Net Promoter Score), the metric measuring customer satisfaction, is as low as -38. So despite there being a massive market, customer satisfaction is abysmally low.
This phenomenon can largely be attributed to resistance to change. Over the past 2 decades, technology has disrupted and reshaped entire industries. Yet, when it comes to property management, things have hardly changed in decades. Paperwork is done manually. Property managers are overworked, with some having to manage up to 100 properties. Owners suffer from a lack of transparency, with percentage-based fees meaning different owners and charged different prices for the exact same service.
“We know that it takes no more effort or resources to manage a $600/week property than it does a $1,200/week property,” explains Mina. This is why :Different charges a flat $100/month fee to manage a property of any size. Still, this is merely scratching the surface of :Different’s efforts. By combining expert property managers with technology, the startup aims to make the owner and tenant experience seamless while offering full-service property management with a transparent price tag.
The most visible examples of :Different’s tech-driven approach to property management are it’s dedicated apps for owners and tenants. These respective apps allow both parties to access the information that they need while allowing them to resolve issues instantly. Over the past year, the company has also expanded its range of products to address the challenges of COVID-19. A notable example being 3D virtual inspections of properties.
Explaining the philosophy behind their products, Mina states, “For most Australians, their home is their most important asset. Whether you’re an owner or you’re renting, it’s a place of refuge. We want to remove the common pain points property owners and renters face, which can only be done with people who care, and technology that streamlines processes.”
COVID-19 and the future of property technology
While raising its Series A round of funding, :Different was exposed to several external challenges. Due to the pandemic, the company was exposed to an under-pressure property market. Tenants struggled to pay their rent and owners their mortgages. At the same time, Australia experienced one of its worst stock market falls. Thankfully for :Different, the resilience of its business model became evident at this time. “Our business model allowed us to offer property management services for a flat fee of $100 a month which, for a vast majority of customers looking to tighten their belts, was helping them save a lot of money,” explains Mina.
Social distancing measures also hampered the company’s day-to-day operations. Many tasks such as key collections and open homes could no longer be conducted in-person. Leveraging their technical expertise, :Different came up with a range of digital solutions to tackle these issues. Mina confidently states that this was a relatively easy challenge to conquer, “Because our tech has been central to the way we’ve done property management from day one, we’d already had digital processes in place for various tasks like tenant applications and maintenance requests.”
As with many other industries, the pandemic has shone a light on issues that were bubbling underneath the surface. The lack of transparency and inefficient communication has continuously caused pain for every stakeholder in the property management industry. On the flip side, the pandemic has also shown how technology can tackle these issues. Mina believes that the future of property management is having a single place to manage your properties. No more searching your inbox or random text messages.
This digital shift doesn’t mean property managers are going to be out of a job. Rather, the role of technology would be to help them offer a better customer experience. In fact, the human element is inseparable from property management. As Mina puts it, “Property is a very personal thing – you’re often dealing with someone’s most prized possession, so balancing tech with people to get the best out of both provides the optimal outcome for everyone.”
Making the “assistant for the home” a reality
After closing its Series A round, :Different focused on investing in the right people to join its ranks towards improving property management. With this focus, the company has tripled in size over the past year. Looking at the state of the team, Mina shared, “With people in Sri Lanka managing people in Australia, and vice versa, we’re leveraging the expertise of the best engineers in both offices in our journey to build a global product company with a global team.”
The company is now poised to expand its footprint in Australia. In 2021, :Different aims to expand into new cities including Perth and Canberra. At the same time, it’s committed to building its existing presence in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and the Gold Coast, with more than $1 billion worth of properties under management. As it moves in this direction, :Different will be leveraging the talents of its global team to provide exceptional customer service.
In closing, Mina shares a valuable lesson for startups, “It’s only with happy customers that we will be able to grow. We need to earn the right to deliver home services to other customers beyond property management. Our focus is first and foremost delivering great property management and building good customer relationships. All else flows naturally from that.”