If you’d said proptech a decade ago, people would’ve probably thought you’d failed to stifle a sneeze. At the time, the consensus was that the property sector simply didn’t need to adopt new technology. “Traditionally, investing in properties wasn’t rocket science,” says Dominic Wilson, co-founder and managing general partner at Pi Labs, the proptech VC firm. “If you’d invested in properties you’d probably have received a good return on investment without having to do very much.” However, thanks to decades of increasing legislative pressure and the recession of 2008, the market has now found itself in desperate need of disruption. “In a less stable environment you must be nimbler and more lateral in your thinking,” Wilson says. “That’s why technology has presented itself as such a great opportunity.” And together with his co-founders at Pi Labs, he’s actively supporting the startups at the forefront of the proptech revolution.
Wilson himself was perfectly placed to spearhead the movement. “My background is 100% in real estate,” he says. Since graduating from Oxford with a legal degree in 2003, Wilson has clocked time working with real-estate giants like AEW Europe and Savills. And it was in the course of his years in the industry – during which he also acquired an MBA – that it dawned on him how much the property sector needed to change. “I realised that the next 25 years would be defined by technology,” he says. “It was very exciting.”
Equally important as his hunches about the sector was the fact that he knew the perfect person to enable him to act on them: Faisal Butt, co-founder of Spire Ventures, the VC firm. “I’d met him when I did my MBA,” Wilson says. “We kept in contact afterwards and talked about different projects we’d like to do together.” The opportunity came a few years later when Butt and Mary Criebardis Singh, who at the time was an independent startup consultant, asked if he’d like to be part of the VC firm for early-stage proptech startups they were launching. “I really liked their vision,” Wilson says. With him onboard, in 2015 the trio launched Pi Labs – short for Property Innovation Labs.
While later funds would attract considerably bigger investments, the trio started out by raising a $1m fund. “It was tiny because we only needed to test our hypothesis,” Wilson says. And the test-run quickly proved a massive success: one of the first ten startups Pi Labs invested in was Airsorted, the London-based Airbnb-management-service startup that has since expanded to Australia. Following the first fund, people really started to pay attention to Pi Labs. “We were inundated by interesting startups from everywhere from the US to Australia who couldn’t find the core expertise that we offered in their countries,” Wilson says. “Of the back of it we launched a second $10m fund and next summer we plan to go even bigger with our next fund.”
But to benefit from the money and guidance of Pi Labs, entrepreneurs must impress Wilson and his co-founders. “We are looking for ideas and technology that will make a big change in the real-estate market,” he says. If you’re a founder with a scalable idea on how to use technology to truly transform the industry – from improving the supply chain and financing of a building to how it will be sold and used by consumers – then chances are that Pi Labs wants to hear from you. “But if you’ve just created a glorified marketing tool where the fundamental transactions remain offline, then we’re not going to be interested because, at the end of the day, that’s just a sexy website,” Wilson says.
However, while demonstrating both a great idea and business acumen will go a long way, Wilson warns that entrepreneurs will still get rejected if they’re not nice. “I’ve had people come in to the office and be incredibly rude to my colleagues, which has just killed their chances there and then,” Wilson says. “We’re investing in teams we’ll spend a lot of time with and life is just too short to spend it with rude people.” But this isn’t just a personal qualm: it’s also a professional one. “In order to be long-lasting you need every key stakeholder – from VCs and angel investors to consultants and entrepreneurs – to behave in a sustainable way because having a bad reputation will chop you off at the knees,” Wilson says.
And given that the interest in the proptech market is only set to rise, being friendly is a rather reasonable price to pay to be part of this thriving ecosystem.