A year on from stepping down as COO of Airtasker, the online job-posting platform he co-founded in 2012, Jonathan Lui has re-entered the startup game with Soho, which is being dubbed “LinkedIn for property”.
With Soho – a property discovery and management app launched in Australia and Singapore, this week, Lui said he is seeking to “create a more open and accessible network to service the burgeoning Australian and Singapore real estate markets”; however, he has plans to expand Soho into other real estate markets, commencing next year. According to a press release, Soho enables owners and agents to create and manage online property profiles, with the option of allowing potential buyers and renters to reach of for details via in-app messaging. Properties can also be advertised as For Sale/Auction or For Rent, albeit without advertising fees.
Lui spoke with Dynamic Business about his new startup, which he said he kick-started with a $1 million capital raise in May, as well as the lessons he learnt from running Airtasker with Tim Fung.
DB: What pain point(s) motivated you to launch Soho?
Lui: I had been on both sides of the real estate market (buying, selling) for the two years before my wife and I relocated from Sydney to Singapore. After giving it serious thought, I realised that the ability to reach out and engage with properties was a key issue to marketplace liquidity in the property industry.
On the buying side, we were consistently missing out due to always being underbidders to higher offers, and I was on the verge of proactively door knocking to try and secure a property without sitting around and waiting for them to ‘hit the market’.
On the seller side, I saw this first hand where buyers were flooding through the door but all except one of those buyers would go home empty, only to wait again for the next property to hit the market and compete over.
I decided to dig deeper and conduct market research across both Australia and Singapore, and found that the same scenario existed; 51% of 1000+ homeowners we surveyed in Australia wanted to make their properties visible online to field interest from potential buyers. In Singapore, this was even higher at 71%, but current platforms only accommodate for committed to sale or rent properties coming online. However, if buyers could actually proactively reach out freely and seamlessly, this would make a decision to accept an offer much easier and give everyone involved what they want.
DB: What excites you the most about your new venture?
Lui: The exciting thing is that we have never truly seen what a liquid property market looks like, as we have been artificially held back by ‘pay to list’ advertising models and never had the tools to reach out at any time using technology. While the initial challenge may start with the purchase itself, the opportunity is much, much bigger than the 4-week window once every 10.5 years that you buy or sell a property, extending into your ongoing management of your largest investment whether you decide to live there or rent it out.
DB: What lessons learnt from Airtasker are you applying?
Lui: One thing I have always focused on is designing elegant solutions and bringing these to market at the right time. My view on an elegant solution is one that doesn’t necessarily mean a quick, cheap or simple product, but a perfect balance of all of these factors in just the right amounts, including just being the ‘right time’. It may be a simple or complex product, but ultimately, you are building for the end user who will tell you exactly what they want to see.
DB: Is ‘going solo’ different to being a co-founder?
Lui: Every business is different, but I think every entrepreneur can benefit by building a solid support network around themselves to maintain a balanced perspective and gather advice whenever it is needed. This can be in the form of co-founders, advisers, friends and colleagues.
In Airtasker’s case, this was my mate and co-founder Tim who was my friend since uni and colleague at amaysim. In Soho’s case, this network is the support network of investors, advisors, fellow entrepreneurs and colleagues that I have built up over the past few years and I’m looking forward to the challenge.
DB: What big ambitions do you have for Soho?
Lui: Technology’s role in society today is typically to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and it’s no different with the property industry.
Property is the largest asset class in the world worth $217T dollars, and more than $6T of that is residential property in Australia (which is worth more than 3 times the value of the ASX). But this asset class essentially has minimal online presence besides what we see turning over every 12 months in the year (approximately 4-5% of property market).
Our ambition is to evolve this industry into a truly online market in the same way that LinkedIn turned the professional industry into a fluid network of employers, recruiters and candidates. It’s an ambitious goal, but we believe the time is right for a property app that can span across the entire property lifecycle and even across countries.