Homing in on a tool for home buyers and sellers

TECHPRENEUR MICHAEL CHO
TECHPRENEUR MICHAEL CHO

Techpreneur Michael Cho believes that the man in the street should have the same access to housing market intelligence as the real estate agent - and for free.

That was the motivation that drove him to create UrbanZoom - an online artificial intelligence-enabled research portal that includes an auto-valuation tool and other useful transaction data designed to be user-friendly for home buyers and sellers in Singapore.

UrbanZoom is decidedly not a listing portal, since that space is saturated, with even the likes of Carousell Pro and Facebook Marketplace having entered the space. This makes it difficult to innovate, value add or compete on that front, he says.

Rather, one of the main things that UrbanZoom focuses on is its AI engine that automatically spins up a price prediction for a specific home based on its address by relying on more than two decades' worth of transactional data, and other macro-and micro-input variables.

The portal is the result of six months of data mining and combining various data sources with advanced machine learning techniques. Already in its two-month private beta period, it has chalked up more than $5 trillion worth of property searches.

It was Mr Cho's experience standing in the shoes of a property agent that gave him the idea for the business model that UrbanZoom could adopt. He realised that agents spend much more money marketing themselves through flier distribution and cold-calling than marketing actual properties on listing portals, because lead generation - the seeking out of their next customer - is crucial to their work.

GETTING EYEBALLS

So the business model is that we have this free research tool that ideally draws eyeballs of people interested in buying or selling homes. Guess what? These are the eyeballs that agents want when they distribute fliers and do cold-calling.

TECHPRENEUR MICHAEL CHO, on making UrbanZoom a lead generation tool for agents.

"So the business model is that we have this free research tool that ideally draws eyeballs of people interested in buying or selling homes. Guess what? These are the eyeballs that agents want when they distribute fliers and do cold-calling."

In other words, UrbanZoom can become a lead generation tool for agents. "If we have all the eyeballs, the agencies will come knocking on our door. That's why in my view right now, what we are really focused on as a first step is to ensure that we make a very good research tool that is free and something that people will use alongside all these listing portals."

The company now has an eight-strong team, including data scientists, software developers, product designers and real estate professionals. It has received its first seed round of funding from angel and institutional investors.

Mr Cho, who quit his investment career with an Abu Dhabi-based investment firm after a near-death experience in a plane crash, said he stepped into the uncertain world of entrepreneurship because the close shave became a stark reminder to him of what is really important.

And using technology to create something that helps people is where he thinks his calling might be for now.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2018, with the headline 'Homing in on a tool for home buyers and sellers'. Print Edition | Subscribe