Buying a home is the most expensive purchase most people ever make, and likely the most challenging one as well. It calls for the skills and knowledge to navigate a thicket of legal, regulatory, and financial requirements, which can often vary with when and where the sale is occurring. While there are many books and short courses to help individuals run this gauntlet, most people have traditionally depended on the expertise of real estate agents to complete the task.
And in today’s digital environment where growing numbers of consumers turn to their computers before making many kinds of purchases, the look and feel of real estate transactions has become dramatically different. Agents remain a vital part of the process, but the prospective homeowners now have a distinctly different relationship with them, one that is mediated by a powerful assortment of tools available online.
In Canada, one of the most influential developers of such tools has been Toronto-based Zoocasa. This innovative real estate service firm has taken several years to find its niche within the established real estate sector, but has thrived since it was acquired by entrepreneur Lauren Haw and her investors in 2015. Their vision, which is shared by the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP), has created what Haw regards as a disruptive strategy to make this purchasing experience smoother and more seamless for everyone involved.
“We are happily a part of the real estate industry, we’re just trying to be innovators on the technology side,” she says. “From that first click online all the way through to closing, you’ve got technology enabled so it’s easier, faster, and makes more sense. Above all, we appreciate what’s so good about the industry, including the important advisory function of agents, who would be impossible to replace.”
Agents are among those Zoocasa has brought on to build their business over the last two years, and financial support from NRC IRAP has also allowed the firm to acquire the best technology available.
"This support from NRC IRAP allowed us to stretch and hire long before we could have,” says Haw, who adds that she has been even more grateful for the advice she has received from one of the program’s Industrial Technology Advisors (ITA). John Shannon, an ITA who had worked with Haw a few years earlier when she was engaged in another online start-up, offered her some valuable insight as she was considering how to approach the purchase of Zoocasa from its previous owner.
“We provided significant advisory services during the negotiations for the acquisition,” he explains. “As a result, they were well placed, they won a competitive bid.”
“This support from NRC IRAP allowed us to stretch and hire long before we could have.”
For her part, Haw regards Shannon’s input as nothing less than a crucial element of success: “John enabled us to bring a more mature decision-making process to the table.”
She adds that the resulting success also gave her and her colleagues the confidence to frame a long-term plan for Zoocasa, which has grown from five team members in 2015 to more than 50 in 2017. Their operations have so far concentrated in the Greater Toronto area, but as the business model has been refined, Haw is looking to replicate it in other major markets across the country.
In the meantime Haw and others in Zoocasa will continue to welcome any insights or recommendations from Shannon and NRC IRAP, which have proven to be such an invaluable resource for this venture’s growth and promise.
“We are there not only to discuss technologies,” concludes Shannon. “We serve as mentors and coaches, which creates this huge relationship of trust. It allows us to explore every aspect of an enterprise’s potential and that is so important.”
As an outstanding example of the sometimes unanticipated value that relationship can bring to the very human side of any up-and-coming Canadian enterprise, Haw recalls Shannon’s advice to her when she became pregnant with her first child about a year after acquiring Zoocasa. He suggested that this logistical challenge was in fact a golden opportunity for her to learn how to delegate her work role within the company, something many entrepreneurs are unwilling to do, even when it becomes a problem for growing the firm. This advice helped her cultivate a critical skill at an early stage in the life of the company, she observes, which put the whole company further ahead.
“John helped me redesign operating structures and correctly advised that my time away would highlight the need for delegation, which might otherwise have remained a hidden issue,” she says.