Dar­ius Che­ung’s 99.co has brought mod­ern tech­nol­ogy and ef­fi­ciency to Sin­ga­pore’s real es­tate mar­ket

Sin­ga­pore’s real es­tate mar­ket was a vex­ing ob­sta­cle to nav­i­gate un­til Dar­ius Che­ung, CEO and co-founder of the coun­try’s home­grown hous­ing web­site 99.co, helped trans­form the mar­ket with a user-fo­cused ap­proach to home hunt­ing

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - WORDS BY JANELLE RETKA PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY ELISABETTA ZAVOLI

ITwas some­where be­tween the 15th and 20th house hunt of his life that Dar­ius Che­ung got fed up with the in­ef­fi­cien­cies of Sin­ga­pore's real es­tate mar­ket.

“It's al­ways been a painful ex­pe­ri­ence look­ing for some­thing to rent,” he says, adding that, as a land­lord who had in­vested in prop­erty over the years, he had a glimpse into both sides of the leas­ing process. “I just re­alised that the en­tire mar­ket­place was ex­tremely in­ef­fi­cient.”

It was 2014. Prop­er­tyGuru and iProp­erty were dom­i­nat­ing the lo­cal real es­tate mar­ket and had ef­fec­tively moved apart­ment and house clas­si­fieds from print news­pa­pers to on­line data­bases.

“But es­sen­tially it was still a list of ads,” says Che­ung, now co-founder and CEO of 99.co, a Sin­ga­pore-based hous­ing web­site that has taken com­mand of roughly half of the in­dus­try in the four years since its launch. “There was no real way to search through [them], to lo­cate them on a map, to just put the user ex­pe­ri­ence around it, which is not re­ally rocket sci­ence be­cause Airbnb had done it. Many other plat­forms have done it in terms of us­ing map tech­nol­ogy and other tech­nol­ogy to make a much better search ex­pe­ri­ence.”

To­day, 99.co func­tions much like the Airbnb of Sin­ga­pore prop­erty. Se­lect ‘for sale' or ‘for rent' and search by way of dis­trict, nearby school or tran­sit sta­tion, for ex­am­ple, and a map of list­ings ap­pears. Prices and de­tails such as the year the build­ing was con­structed and the square me­trage are dis­played, as well as con­tact de­tails for real es­tate agents and how re­spon­sive they are. The site also pro­vides in­for­ma­tion on sur­round­ing prop­erty trans­ac­tions for price com­par­i­son.

“If I knew that the next-door neigh­bour has just paid a mil­lion bucks for his prop­erty, then pay­ing a mil­lion bucks for mine is kind of rea­son­able. You just ad­just

a lit­tle bit by say­ing: ‘OK, my view is better or worse,' but at least you get some an­chors, some bench­marks, to know what is cor­rect pric­ing.”

It's these bench­marks that Che­ung says had been miss­ing from the mar­ket­place pre­vi­ously.

“Pric­ing is just one part of the in­for­ma­tion,” the 37-year-old adds. “We in­clude many other bits of in­for­ma­tion like the land ti­tle and the sur­round­ings and what's be­ing con­structed and how far this is from the schools around it.”

Che­ung, who was born in Hong Kong and moved to Sin­ga­pore as a child, grad­u­ated from the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore (NUS) with an en­gi­neer­ing de­gree and ran with it to the startup world, where he and two other co-founders built a mo­bile se­cu­rity app called tenCube. He grew the com­pany for five years and then sold it off to US anti-virus firm McAfee, work­ing there for a fur­ther two years to help with the tran­si­tion. While tenCube was help­ing peo­ple in their day-to-day lives, Che­ung was left dis­sat­is­fied by the dis­con­nect be­tween him and his clients.

“We never met a sin­gle cus­tomer. We never talked to a sin­gle user. I think it's hard to imag­ine how the soft­ware has ac­tu­ally changed peo­ple's lives,” he says. “If we're do­ing our job, they're not even aware the soft­ware ex­ists. So I wanted to do the com­plete op­po­site of this.”

Hav­ing be­come frus­trated by the hous­ing mar­ket, Che­ung re­alised this was an op­por­tu­nity to make a vis­i­ble im­pact.

From an NUS in­cu­ba­tion lab in 2014, Che­ung and three friends from pre­vi­ous projects be­gan work­ing to­gether to build up the 99.co web­site us­ing ex­ist­ing tech re­sources and fund­ing from their own pock­ets. They scoured a govern­ment regis­tra­tion list of real es­tate pro­fes­sion­als and con­vinced roughly 250 agents, each with an av­er­age port­fo­lio of 20 apart­ments for lease, to post prop­er­ties on their startup web­site. As the team gath­ered list­ings – which real es­tate agents pay the com­pany to post – they si­mul­ta­ne­ously had to “act as po­lice”, min­ing agents' ad­verts to en­sure they were not ex­ag­ger­ated or mis­lead­ing.

Within six months, 99.co went live with 5,000 apart­ment list­ings. The Sin­ga­pore hous­ing mar­ket had be­gun its slip into a three-year slump – and the tim­ing couldn't have been better.

“That was ac­tu­ally a very good thing for us,” Che­ung says. “In a very heated mar­ket, prop­er­ties get sold very quickly.”

With fewer prop­er­ties avail­able dur­ing a “heated mar­ket”, de­mand in­creases and there is less op­por­tu­nity to take time weigh­ing out op­tions. In a slow mar­ket such as the re­cent slump, how­ever, prop­er­ties re­main on the mar­ket for longer and grow in num­ber, mak­ing it harder for agents to land a sale quickly. This also means more op­por­tu­nity for po­ten­tial ten­ants to con­sider their

“We take a very prag­matic ap­proach, where we build what the user needs. It doesn’t have to be rocket sci­ence”

op­tions – and gives them more rea­son to do so, Che­ung says, since there is a wider range of prop­er­ties to se­lect from. His com­pany serves to fa­cil­i­tate this process.

Shortly af­ter the web­site's launch, the com­pany added its ‘Mandy' fea­ture, a chat win­dow that con­nects users to real cus­tomer ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tives – in­clud­ing the staff mem­ber it was named af­ter – as well as help­ful ar­ti­cles about mar­ket trends. Che­ung added this so users could feel better pre­pared for what comes af­ter mak­ing a short­list of op­tions from 99.co list­ings, such as nav­i­gat­ing prop­erty vis­its and ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Hav­ing es­tab­lished it­self in Sin­ga­pore, about a year and a half ago 99.co ex­panded into In­done­sia, a key mar­ket in the re­gion due to its vast pop­u­la­tion of 261 mil­lion peo­ple. The hous­ing mar­ket there is much less ma­ture than in Sin­ga­pore, Che­ung says, with ques­tions about mort­gages – from how to as­sess if one is af­ford­able, to the process of get­ting ap­proved for one – front and cen­tre in con­sumers' minds rather than the more nu­anced data points sought by Sin­ga­porean users.

Che­ung 's 99.co part­nered with own­ers of new de­vel­op­ments – of which there are about 80 at any one time in the greater Jakarta area alone – rather than agents, to build an edi­tion of the site tai­lored to In­done­sia. One of the key features is a hous­ing cal­cu­la­tor for users to de­ter­mine what they can af­ford.

This ap­proach is the root of Che­ung's success with 99.co, he says: find out what the client needs and keep the so­lu­tion sim­ple.

“We take a very prag­matic ap­proach, where we build what the user needs. If it's cal­cu­la­tors, we build cal­cu­la­tors. It doesn't have to be rocket sci­ence,” says Che­ung. The com­pany ac­quired lead­ing In­done­sian real es­tate plat­form Ur­banIndo ear­lier this year to in­cor­po­rate lo­cal real es­tate port­fo­lios into the 99.co brand.

Over its four-year life­span, 99.co has raised roughly $10 mil­lion in seed fund­ing from in­vestors and built up a cat­a­logue of 150,000 homes and apart­ments to rent or buy. Che­ung likes to think of 99.co as a house­hold name that he sees as a worthy com­peti­tor of Prop­er­tyGuru, with which it shares Sin­ga­pore's prop­erty mar­ket about 50/50. Across Sin­ga­pore and In­done­sia, this com­pany that started with four brains now em­ploys 120 peo­ple. In the next five to seven years, its goal is to be­come the largest prop­erty tech com­pany in South­east Asia.

“We thought Sin­ga­pore [real es­tate] was bad, but it's much worse in many other coun­tries,” Che­ung says, pointing to fake list­ings and un­reg­is­tered real es­tate agents that pro­lif­er­ate in other parts of the re­gion.

Che­ung sees a chance to con­tinue help­ing peo­ple with an im­por­tant life task: “I'm just grate­ful for the op­por­tu­nity to be at this time and this place with this skillset and the re­sources to build some­thing use­ful for the world. That's an op­por­tu­nity that I think not a lot of peo­ple have.”

Dar­ius Che­ung's lap­top at his rented home in JakartaChe­ung's hous­ing web­site 99.co is de­signed to stream­line the hous­ing hunt across South­east Asia

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