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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 31, 2018 2 months ago

Two tech-infused real estate firms capitalize on lucrative industry shift

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PropLogix and Offrs.com aim to be at the forefront of the industry.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

The top executive at PropLogix, a lien search and real estate services firm, has a simple, yet stunningly seismic goal.

“We want to be the first tech unicorn to come out of Sarasota,” says Jesse Biter, CEO and operating partner of PropLogix, which has 170 employees and did $11.85 million in revenue last year.    

In Silicon Valley tech parlance, a unicorn is a company with at least a $1 billion valuation. While that rarefied status is, at a minimum, several years away, Biter has the entrepreneurial chops to pull off a major success with PropLogix, which he projects will hit $22 million in revenue this year. For one, he’s done it before, in auto software, when he built HomeNet Automotive into a multimillion-dollar business, then sold itin 2011 to AutoTrader.com.  

But even more relevant now, PropLogix is one of two Sarasota-Bradenton area companies poised to capitalize on some significant shifts and consolidations in residential real estate. The other company is offrs.com, a predictive analytics firm that has grown from garage-based startup to 40 employees in five years. “There are a lot of companies (in real estate) that see a lot of value in what we do,” says offrs.com founder Mark Dickson. “We’ve hit an inflection point. We are like a wound spring.”  

Mark Dickson founded Sarasota-based offrs.com.

One key is buyers and sellers, state several studies, including the 2018 Emerging Trends in Real Estate report from PwC and the Urban Land Institute, seek to get more done with less people. Software and technology advancements present opportunities for nimble companies to handle multiple parts of a transaction — not one person for title, one for mortgage, etc. as is usual.

That’s why PropLogix and Offrs.com — unconnected other than being in real estate — are racing to hire software developers and build, test and improve a variety of systems. PropLogix has some 25 developers, mostly working on new products. Offrs.com has a team eight developers — one-fifth of its payroll.

“We are taking a holistic approach to this industry,” says Biter. He looks at the industry like a dartboard, he adds, with rings out from the middle representing potential market share for PropLogix if it’s successful. “We want to be disruptive in this space.”  

Multiple ways

Dickson depends on disruption, too.

Offrs.com’s way there is through using reams of data to predict when a homeowner will want to list a home for sale — gold to a real estate broker.

The company’s proprietary algorithm — Ph.Ds. helped create it — looks at dozens of variables that impact home listings, from loan-to-value ratios to a pending divorce to the age of the youngest child in the home. It charges a monthly fee for the software, working with more than 5,000 real estate agents nationwide and some of the largest brands in the business.  

A onetime real estate broker with two degrees from Georgetown, Dickson, 35, co-founded the company, in the garage of his east Manatee County home, with area tech entrepreneur Rich Swier. Dickson brought the real estate side to the business, while Swier, who now oversees the HuB, a startup incubator in Sarasota, worked the math algorithms. The pair, says Dickson, have self-funded the company, with an investment into the millions. They don’t have any outside investors. (Swier previously ran a different version of the HuB with Biter, who isn’t part of offrs.com.)

For straight-up predictions offrs.com is a major hit, says Dickson, scoring a 74% success rate. The firm has translated that, he adds, into a 200% compound annual growth rate in sales. He declines to disclose specific figures. The company has moved offices a few times to keep up with the growth, and now operates out the former Golden Apple Dinner Theatre in downtown Sarasota, just off Main Street.

While more a slow roll than an epiphany, Dickson says the company has come to realize how valuable its analytics and analysis tools can be to others in real estate. That can be anything connected to the sale of a house — mortgages, titles, movers. Says Dickson: “We want to have more than one way to monetize our database.”

A key lesson along the way, says Dickson, is to ensure customer service doesn’t lag the software’s capabilities. “We can only win on efficiency and best-in-class products,” says Dickson, which, he adds, requires a customer support team high in empathy and responsiveness. The company recently hired several support personnel, and now has eight people on the team, including a former nurse and hospitality employee.

Another challenge, says Dickson, will be to market offrs.com to a new audience without diluting its real estate and Realtor base. The company is adding outside sales agents, and recently implemented a new customer relationship management system to address that issue.

Like PropLogix and some other tech firms in the region, offrs.com emphasizes corporate culture, both as a perk and a recruiting tool, wrapped with a work hard-play hard bow. “We don’t have hours and we don’t have a dress code,” Dickson says. “But we do have high expectations, and we expect those expectations to be met.”

‘We’ve hit an inflection point. We are like a wound spring.’ Mark Dickson

Logical move

PropLogix, like offrs.com, got its start with a narrow, albeit somewhat dry, focus: to help clients find fees, liens or assessments on properties.

Sarasota lawyers Evan Berlin and Jamie Ebling founded the firm in 2012. They sought a uniform way to search city or county finance and permit departments and other government offices for the liens, not finding a strong outside vender to do the work.

Biter, friends with Berlin and Ebling, and a client, bought the firm in October 2014. Since then it has gone from 10 employees, 1,000 searches a month and less than $5 million a year in sales to its current size. The company is based in south Manatee County, leasing space in the headquarters facility of Medallion Home.  

The PropLogix model is mostly transaction for fees. But Biter says the company will need to shift to a software as a service model to capture the outer rings of the real estate dartboard, in his vision.

Biter, 42, hopes to launch the new PropLogix software product, in a beta version, by March 1. He quips that he’s locked up his developer team in a room until then. “They have a heavy financial incentive to get it done early,” Biter adds.

Like offrs.com, a core PropLogix challenge is to find top developers, lure them to town and get them to stay at the company. Biter says he spends a good deal of his time personally recruiting software developers, mostly on LinkedIn. The company recently plucked one developer from North Carolina. But hiring continues to be an obstacle. “Every company seems to be hiring developers,” says Biter.  

‘Happy people’

In two other similarities to offrs.com, PropLogix has a keen focus on customer service and, internally, corporate culture. On the former, exceeding customer expectations is a core value, and plays a role in employee evaluations and bonuses.

Treatment of people is another core value at PropLogix. That includes things like an employee stock ownership program, better-than-market salaries and good benefits. It also includes some more unusual nuggets — such as encouraging employees to go to glassdoor.com, the popular anonymous employee portal, to review PropLogix, good or bad. “We look at what’s on there,” says Biter of the firm’s top management team, “and by understanding it, we can begin to make changes if we need to.”

The company also utilizes officevibe, another anonymous user-generated website that creates polls and surveys to gauge employee engagement and opinions. The PropLogix corporate culture is so important to Biter he recently set two goals for his human resource staff — win Florida Trend magazine’s best place to work award in 2019, and duplicate that feat in Inc. magazine in 2020.

While company culture is a strong recruiting tool, says Biter, it’s also a bit more personal. “I really just enjoy being around happy people,” says Biter. “After selling HomeNet, I basically never had to work again. I want to enjoy my days and the way I spend my time, otherwise it’s not worth it to me. I get more joy in seeing people happy than I do trying to save every penny.”

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