Gavl’s Joel Smith on his tech start-up’s recent success, bringing real estate into digital age


In his former career, Melbourne entrepreneur Joel Smith played AFL with Hawthorn Football Club. Today, he is the CEO of Gavl, a digital tech start-up transforming the way people engage in what is arguably their favourite pastime outside of sport: real estate.

Launched in October 2016, Gavl is an app-based platform that lets users watch auctions live – or on demand – from mobile devices, anywhere in the world. There are also plans to roll-out the ability for users to remotely make bids on real estate, later this year.

The start-up is buoyed by a $2.5 million investment from Geoff Harris (Flight Centre co-founder, Boost Juice seed investor and ex-VP of Hawthorn Football Club) and his son Brad Harris (Sporting Globe Bar and Grill, co-founder).

To date, more than 150 real estate agencies from both metro and regional areas in Australia and New Zealand, have used the platform to launch their auctions into the digital realm. On top of the positive response from agents, Gavl has enjoyed almost 1,000,000 auction video views plus thousands of app downloads in 13 countries.

Smith spoke to Dynamic Business about the problems Gavl solves for its stakeholders, the importance of perfecting the experience for live bidders, and his transition from sportsman to business professional.

Dynamic Business: What is the Gavl origin story?

Smith: A colleague of mine, Leith Donaldson, was looking at live streaming for a completely unrelated business we were working in together.  At the same time, he was in house hunting mode. Frustrated that the auctions he wanted to attend frequently clashed, and that he couldn’t be in multiple places at once, he questioned why no one was live streaming them for prospective buyers. This was a light bulb moment and the more we delved into the idea of a purpose-built live streaming real estate platform, the more potential we saw. I went on to co-found Gavl with Leith, who is also the head of product development. We now have a team of 20 staff during the week across operations, sales, marketing and product development, but we ramp up to as many as 50 additional staff on a Saturday to deliver the broadcasts of all our auctions.

Dynamic Business: How does the platform work?

Smith: Gavl takes curb-side real estate auctions – traditionally seen by a dozen or so people onsite – and gives them a digital presence, so they can be viewed by potentially thousands of property buyers. The app is free to download for prospective buyers, who can search for auctions on the app in nearly 10 ways – including by price, auction status or suburb. They can also look at the bidding history of properties that have already gone under the hammer.

The app has been designed so that real estate agencies can film their own auction. It’s as simple and straightforward as putting a smartphone on a tripod, loading the app, and pressing two buttons to begin streaming the action. We’re currently filming all auctions on behalf of our agents – in time, however, agents may start still filming themselves. Real estate agencies are charged a fee to have an auction streamed – some choose to pass this on to the vendor, others absorb the cost.

We’ll be rolling out a significant feature – live bidding– in the coming months. This will allow consumers to communicate bids to the agent or auctioneer via the app’s dashboard while they watch the live stream. We expect this feature will have a significant impact in terms of number of people able to bid at an auction. Overseas and interstate buyers as well as people using buyer’s advocates and those who just can’t be in two places at once – they will all have a lot more flexibility in how and from where they can bid.  We’re also looking to incorporate features such as digital contract signing, a currency converter, bidding history analytics and facilitating deposit payments.

Dynamic Business: What is the USP for stakeholders?

Smith: Gavl allows vendors, i.e. property sellers, to have their auctions seen by a wider audience – with more eyeballs on an auction, there’s a greater chance of having more bidders and, therefore, higher sales returns.

For prospective buyers, the platform is a way to avoid ‘auction fatigue’, induced by months of house hunting and research, by allowing them to watch and bid on an auction without having to physically be there.

Meanwhile, the platform is a great promotional tool for real estate agencies because it enables them to broadcast one of their major services, the auction, to a larger audience. They see the bigger picture: the more buyers interacting with the properties they are selling, the greater the potential return for vendors and the commission they receive. In turn, this helps agencies win more vendor listings.

Dynamic Business: What have been the major challenges?

Smith: From a product point of view, the main challenge with Gavl has been getting the latency – i.e. the lag between the live auction and when it is viewed by app users – down to one second. We’ve been successful but it took us around 12 months, with the help of developer expertise from all over the world. There was significant R&D plus trial and error. With other live streaming platforms – for instance, the AFL Live app or Facebook live – being a few seconds behind the live event isn’t a major issue. For someone remotely watching – and potentially bidding at – an auction, it is absolutely imperative that what they are watching is in real time.

From an operational perspective, the challenge was onboarding clients and consumers onto the platform. It’s the old chicken and egg dilemma – we need auctions from real estate agents to attract the consumers, but when selling the platform to agents, having a user base makes it more attractive.

Dynamic Business: What drew investors to Gavl?

Smith: Fundamentally, it was that the business makes sense. In most other industries around the world, buyers and seller are able to transact digitally – and it’s time for real estate to follow suit. It’s Australia’s favourite past-time outside of sport, which you can watch live on TV, tablets and phones. We’re all curious about what XYZ property sold for down the street, or in the suburb we want to move to, so making auctions accessible to people across multiple platforms is logical. We’re trying to present people with content they are interested in the right format at the right time.

Geoff has a background in bricks and mortar businesses, like Flight Centre, which have gone through digital transformations. I think he can see the potential for digital transformation in the real estate industry and what Gavl has to offer all stakeholders within the industry, by bringing auctions into the digital world.

A lot of Geoff’s business nous is instilled in Brad – so they have similar objectives when looking at business ventures. Brad also has a keen interest in real estate and the way digital platforms are changing the way we interact and do business – so Gavl was a real natural fit for him.

Geoff and Brad both sit on our board. They are heavily involved from a strategic point of view, and offer a lot of guidance and support to the executive team.

Dynamic Business: Do you have plans to expand overseas?

NZ is a natural extension for us. The rest of the world run auctions slightly differently but there are obviously huge markets in the UK and US, for instance, to potentially target. At some point, we think we’ll need additional investment but not necessarily additional investors.

Dynamic Business: Was it easy switching careers?

Even during my football days, I had a passion and interest in commercial business. I especially enjoy blue sky, creative thinking and bringing business ideas to life. When my sporting career ended in 2007 it was easy to transition to business and focus on the business opportunities I’d been fostering. I’ve been involved in multiple start-ups ranging from thoroughbred (racehorse breeding, training and sales), recruitment, education and now technology and real estate. GAVL has grown so quickly and to such a size that it’s become impossible to juggle multiple businesses. While I’m now predominantly focused on Gavl, I’m still involved in a labour hire/recruitment business called CMR Personnel.