OpenHouse.AI: Disrupting Real Estate through Transparency
How does technology alter an industry that is heavily regulated, with strong checks and balances and where information is heavily guarded? The real estate industry is comprised mainly of independent realtors, unified under brokerage houses and a nationwide real estate association. Within the confines of this oligopoly are rules to protect its players and ensure the market maintains dependence on the structure that has been defined for decades.
In the meantime, the market has emerged into an on-demand economy that has been driven by information. Today home buyers’ increasing access to information allows them, in some ways, to circumvent the agent. The need for instant gratification and knowledge to find the best value at the lowest cost is slowly evolving this industry. How real estate succeeds in the next decade will fully rely on the changing habits of the home buyer, with an acquiescence to slowly dismantling this market structure to improve buyer access to information, while creating new sources of value.
One start-up based in Calgary and Toronto is paving the way for this disruption and is challenging the players: the realtors and the home buyers to think differently about these transactions. OpenHouse.AI is a cloud-based data and feature rich web platform for residential real-estate that empowers buyers and sellers to make better and faster real estate decisions through clarity and transparency.
Founded by Will Zhang and Yanky Li, these young entrepreneurs are truly unravelling what has been a very traditional model and creating a platform where free information significantly changes the game.
All Roads Lead to OpenHouse.AI
Will Zhang worked in R&D for over 12 years. He graduated with a Masters in Software Engineering from France and worked in technology spanning several industry sectors including utility, finance, telecom and accounting. When he graduated business school at NYU, he experienced an “awakening” that changed the way he started to think.
I wanted to work on something more significant in life and help people more directly to create a positive social impact beyond a paycheck and early retirement. I always feel I have to change to stay the same and be true to myself. Being an entrepreneur was perfect for me
Yanky Li was always an entrepreneur at heart, always selling things to family, friends and classmates at a young age. He remembers in elementary school when he bred and sold hamsters and made some decent money with the transactions happening at school and the inventory carried in a plastic tofu container. Over the years he spent his professional career in business and technology. Through consulting and project management roles, he continuously looked for solutions and was expected to think on his feet. Working for others and living their dreams was less satisfying. Yanky wanted to live his own dream. The vision of OpenHouse.AI is to connect people, while the company delivers the insight.
For Will, the idea for this platform germinated through his experience. In his career he was fortunate to witness the freeing of information that would create a much wider impact than any one individual. Applications created under the open source movement, particularly in the machine learning community, have made significant strides. Wikipedia founded with an idea that “every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge” leverages the power of community and trust to sustain itself. One day, Will was hanging out with a friend, also working in advanced analytical research and both came to the realization they could apply their skills to help the average home buyer make one of the most important decisions of their lives.
After my daughter was born, my wife and I were looking at an open house. I met the owner. He started walking us through his home and talked about the renovations and upgrades he put into the house [Much of this information wasn’t in the real estate listing]. This was a great buying experience for us. I wish I had more of those. It was then I conceived of a product that connects the homeowner with the realtor to create a better experience in the buying journey. I shared this idea with Yanky, my longtime friend: We build a product that allows people to contribute information. Then we deploy technology to aggregate and analyze the information and open the data to any company or third party that wants to consume it.
For Yanky, it was an opportunity to make an impact in the world:
I’ve come to a point where I’ve acquired a lot of experience and I wanted to take that to the next level and impact people’s lives. I’ve gone door to door and heard people’s stories [and we understand their pain points]. We’re at a time when technology is pervasive and costs are shrinking and startups are trying to help people by leveraging technology. We don’t have a real estate background so we go into this asking: how should this be working?
How do you Change Mindsets?
How do you tell the real estate brokers, who have always been the industry guardians of truth that freeing this information will not put their jobs in peril? The founders are on a mission to create a positive impact for everyone. When the technology is created in the right way and is deployed correctly, it can empower people. For the realtor, technology can provide valuable insight. The human connection is also very important. In real estate, relationship is imperative. These experiences drive more business. OpenHouse.AI will provide the realtor with more meaningful insights that allows him/her to better understand the community to enhance these relationships. With the advent of Big Data, information from everywhere allows technologies to garner incremental insight that provides more value to the users. While agents have the information, ready access to real-time, relevant information have remained elusive. If realtors had better information, they could provide better service to their clients. As per Will:
We are creating a trust platform that is unbiased and will make information readily available.
Yanky agrees. At a recent interview with a brokerage house, they spent an inordinate amount of time compiling reports and doing research. If they had the capability to access the data instantly, they could concentrate on doing what they do best: developing great relationships and showing people the right homes. For the buyer, the goal is to enable them to make more educated decisions and to ensure those decisions are effective. For the seller, he/she may evaluate different ways of selling. Do they stage? Do they renovate? At what price do they sell? OpenHouse.AI will connect the seller to the market through the data so they can optimize their selling decisions. Opening this information to everyone creates a transparency, which in turn, fosters a much-needed trust among the stakeholders.
The Dichotomy of Freeing Information in the Midst of Data Protection
As AI starts to prevail, there is a fear and caution about the collection, security, and processing of user data. The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that went into effect May 25th also points to the need to scrutinize how the data is compiled to generate context about individuals and their propensities. Will introduces their value of empowerment:
- To empower people to make decisions using AI
- To empower people by giving them control about what information the platform has access to and what information will be shared with others.
They are firm believers of the “people’s data”. People have different comfort levels of sharing their information. Give them the choice to share the data they are comfortable sharing e.g. personal information. In many instances, they are likely to share their buying preferences like home features, neighbourhood requirements, i.e. the type of information that allows the platform to create insights for others. As per Yanky,
The contributions from the whole benefits individuals when they need it.
Will adds that AI will influence cost savings and will be a significant profit driver and impact jobs. However, he doesn’t believe it will eliminate or replace humans. It will liberate people to think differently and his company is poised to enable and validate this as it manifests over time. Empowering people to control their data means ensuring privacy is functionally embedded into all layers in the platform. When a seller wants to list the home, they have the option to hide any information they don’t want revealed on the website. They can also opt out of the information used for analysis. As an aggregator of data, OpenHouse.AI’s design philosophy is to communicate to the users what they’ll gain at every step of their journey.
Privacy is a right. Users need to have that in order to have trust in your systems.
Does this philosophy of connecting people, making better decisions, making money and acquiescing to people’s privacy– all coexist in one system? Yanky is emphatic this is possible. The key is to constantly learn from the market and iterate and provide a platform that optimizes the community experience and provides the value and trust to keep it running. Yanky noted they were at the True North Conference where they actively participated in the refinement of the Declaration of Tech for Good. They of course signed it themselves as well. The premise of this declaration is articulated from the organizers:
With new and advancing technologies today there’s an opportunity to take a step back and discuss how to use technology thoughtfully. As Canada makes a name for itself on the global tech stage, we believe we’re well positioned to hold these important conversations. ~ Steve Currie, Chief Innovation Officer, Communitech.
Canadian business leaders and their organizations are ideally positioned to ensure the technologies they develop and use function ethically, inclusively, and equitably in pursuit of ‘good’ outcomes for all. ~ Peter Barr, Managing Partner, Waterloo and Western Ontario Region, Deloitte.
This is an important step, not only in communicating OpenHouse.Ai values, but also in ensuring this is functionally translated throughout the platform.
The Age of Disruption and a View into the Next Decade
Will is concerned about the massive deployment of AI and envisions how it will disrupt people’s daily lives. But the opportunities to improve people’s lives through technology to create solutions for the impending food crisis, incidence of disease and a looming energy crisis shows significant promise. At the same time, technology can massively reduce the cost of basic living and improve everyone’s well-being.
For Yanky, he envisions the tech community having more say in policy as innovation ramps up. There is currently a lag with policy and regulation in trying to keep up with technology and the best way to alleviate this risk is to give technology a seat at the table with business and government regulators. It will force government to be lock in step with market changes and consumer preferences. Technology has the ability to minimize society’s wealth disparity, by allowing business and technology companies to use data more ethically. As with the advent of social media where Joe Public was given a megaphone, AI has the ability to unleash information that is in the hands of everyone. This inevitability will require accountability at all levers: the user, the business, the system and the government. OpenHouse.AI: When will these doors open? As per Will,
The plan is to beta test in Calgary, AB first to ensure a product market fit. There is no rush. We want to ensure there is a value among the buyer, seller and real estate professionals. We understand it takes time. We know the implications of how this can disrupt so we really need to build it right. Once it’s released, we will keep improving and launch one city at a time.
Staying true to their values with the goal of making the platform useful is paramount. Prioritizing the goal to create an economic and societal impact vs. monetization will keep OpenHouse.AI on the road less taken towards sustainability. For Will, he will keep listening to the market, learning and updating the platform and by his own words, “keep changing to stay true" to himself.
Will Zhang has spent the last decade in advanced technology in operations research, product commercialization, technology consulting, and R&D organization design. With both a Masters in Business Analytics and Software Engineering degrees, he has spearheaded technology initiatives within utility, finance, energy and accounting sectors both in Europe and North America.
Yanky Li has spent almost all of his career working balancing business with technology. As a Chartered Professional Accountant and a Project Management Professional, Yanky has led many successful projects from across the world where he leveraged technology to design solutions for business problems. He has always been an entrepreneur at heart and is driven by creating an impact for people and an advocate for inclusive social change.