Kylie Davis: (00:02)
Welcome to the PropTech Podcast. It's Kylie Davis here, and I'm delighted to be your host as we explore the brave new world, where technology and real estate collide. I passionately believe we need to grow and create a sense of community between the innovators and real estate agents, and sharing our stories is a great way to do that. The aim of each episode is to introduce listeners to a PropTech innovator who is pushing the boundaries of what's possible, and to explore the issues and challenges raised by the tech and how they can create amazing property experiences.
Kylie Davis: (00:36)
This episode is one for the commercial real estate agents out there, in particular in the retail space. My guest in this episode is Simon Fonteyn, Managing Director of LeaseInfo, which specialises in retail space data. They have a new product called Accurate, which extracts retail lease data from contracts, and structures it so that it's completely searchable, removing the need to laboriously search through contracts manually. It's tech they've developed with the CSIRO. So, here to tell us all about it, Simon Fonteyn. Welcome to the PropTech Podcast.
Simon Fonteyn: (01:11)
Thank you. Pleasure to be here.
Kylie Davis: (01:13)
Yeah, it's great to have you here. So Simon, tell us what your elevator pitch is.
Simon Fonteyn: (01:19)
Well Kylie, I guess I've been in the property sector for a long time, specifically commercial. Originally, I created LeaseInfo Group to level the playing field between landlords and tenants. The business has grown exponentially from there. Given COVID, we've developed also a multitude of products which helps tenants and landlords, and we've moved into a space which could probably be described as the digitization of commercial leases. This has really been necessitated by a number of factors. One of them is people working more and more online. There's also a global accounting standard change called IFRS 16, which requires leases to be capitalised on your balance sheet, which requires the data from leases to be talking to computers. So, it is called creating structured data. I guess the bottom line is, we're trying to create a platform to help people manage, digitise and do the negotiations all in one spot.
Kylie Davis: (02:51)
Simon, tell me about Accurate this new product that you've developed.
Simon Fonteyn: (02:56)
Sure. Accurate is a joint between us and CSIRO's Data61. We've created the first machine learning algorithms that automate the reading of commercial leases and puts the data from leases, bookmarks it from where it is in the document, and creates a link to a searchable database. So, the problem it solves is that, data extraction from leases is laborious, time consuming, error prone, and if gotten wrong, costs a lot of money in terms of miscalculations. It's also very difficult to manage a portfolio if all your leases are in a drawer in hard copy. So, it creates a structured data set out of unstructured information.
Kylie Davis: (04:01)
Simon, my background's in the residential space rather than commercial, and you said before that in commercial, you need to basically have the... In the residential space, you would fill in a form and you would put that number in as to what the amount was. How is it different in commercial?
Simon Fonteyn: (04:17)
Well, there's a few differences. The lease contracts in commercial are much more complex than residential. So, they deal with a multitude of factors.
Kylie Davis: (04:29)
And much less standardised, I imagine too?
Simon Fonteyn: (04:32)
Exactly. So, they're much less homogeneous. Residential contracts aren't required to go on balance sheet, because they're typically less than one year. So, it's really more than one year, is where leases have to be capitalised. So, there are significant differences between residential and commercial. Also, it's much more difficult to create this product for commercial because, there are so many different types of leases in commercial. There's retail, office, industrial, self storage, potentially hotels as well. So, there's a multitude of different lease types.
Kylie Davis: (05:21)
Right, okay. Understood. Thank you. Thanks for explaining that. So, why are these issues problems in the industry right now?
Simon Fonteyn: (05:30)
Well, the IFRS 16, which is a global accounting standard, which came in January 19, sort of started this process. However, COVID-19 has accelerated it, because a lot of teams are now working from home or they're working between home and office. A lot of the actual information about the lease is contained in hard copy PDFs, or they might be even contained in a drawer somewhere. It's very hard for teams to manage their information if it's not in a searchable database, and it's not actually talking to other systems. If you think about it in retail at least, rent is your second largest component. A lot of managers are forever going back to their lease documents, and creating, trying to find out what their obligations are. Particularly around COVID, there's all these sorts of obligations. It's extraordinary times.
Simon Fonteyn: (06:31)
So, not having that information in a structured format is creating a lot of problems for the managers. So, that's what we're seeing quite an uptake in interest in the Accurate platform, inline with the broad digitization mandate, which is not just in our industry, but in a lot of industries.
Kylie Davis: (06:53)
Right. So, how does it work? You upload the lease in and the bot will scan it and start to suck the data out, or?
Simon Fonteyn: (07:05)
Yeah, correct. So, you can bulk upload. You bulk upload, you can do it one at a time or you can do it over time. It basically uses the AI to process the key information. It puts it in a pane that shows, ready for someone to approve. The beauty about it is, it takes the information and bookmarks where it found it, so it's very easy to verify. Once it's locked in, that position is forever locked, so that you can cross-reference to databases, you can bring up snippets and searches. So, it creates a really easy and nice summary.
Simon Fonteyn: (07:52)
It manages also what they call the parent-child relationship in the leases. In commercial, as opposed to residential, there's quite a lot of complexity. So, you may have several documents involved in a lease. You might have an agreement to lease, a lease, a fit out deed of variation. All these documents combined form your total agreement. So, it really manages that complexity.
Simon Fonteyn: (08:25)
The other module that we've just created, which was a real game changer for a lot of our clients is, we have also added something called an invoice checker. So, it scans the invoice in PDF, takes the amount that the landlord or the tenant is saying that they have to pay, and compares it against the contract. So, you have the ability to verify against contract on a continual basis. That's very cool because, it just saves a lot of time and solves this problem of errors being raised. You would be surprised how many errors there are in commercial real estate. It's phenomenal.
Kylie Davis: (09:12)
I can only imagine. So, that's extremely cool. I guess it's a great use of the AI too.
Simon Fonteyn: (09:21)
Yeah, it is. The AI is the one area that we're in is called natural language processing, which is probably the most difficult of all types of AI. They talk about bots, and they're talking about facial recognition, natural language processing is really the most difficult part, because it's very new. So, we've been working very hard with the CSIRO. It's taken us a long time to get this right. But once it's right, the opportunities are enormous, in terms of saving time. There's also so many other things that you can do. Like, there's opportunities to link to voice recognition like Siri. You can ask for, "Show me all the leases that are between X and Y." So, there's lots of opportunities to use that data, as well as using the metadata that you actually collect on trends and information about where the market's going. So, there's really a lot of opportunity to create further products, once you've got a good core product.
Kylie Davis: (10:38)
Yeah, cool. So, is there much natural language though in a commercial lease or is it all very legalese?
Simon Fonteyn: (10:45)
Well, that's just the term they use. It's for the broad natural. There's no natural language, but that's just what they use.
Kylie Davis: (10:54)
Yeah, no, I'm just joking. A big hey to all the lawyers out there. So, tell me a little bit about how you guys are found... It's interesting that you're launching this product as we're coming through COVID because, COVID and locked down has really hit the retail industry hard. We're not allowed to go shopping at all. It's like one of... We're not really supposed to be gathering anywhere. So what's that been like?
Simon Fonteyn: (11:28)
Well, it's been challenging. The whole business, which is the retail data business, has been affected because a lot of... There's less retailers around. So, it has been challenging. I guess we didn't launch it now, we've already launched it. We launched the product in end of 2018, so it's got quite a few clients already on it. However, yeah, it's a challenging environment at the moment. We are seeing an uptight from other users, not just retail. So, childcare is definitely an area of interest, medical, non-retail, anything with a commercial lease is a target market for us.
Simon Fonteyn: (12:23)
But, the core business, which is retail, yeah, it's definitely challenging. However, having said that, the bigger clients are actually the ones that need this the most, because they've got so many leases to process. Being able to manage it, particularly remotely, is becoming increasingly important for these retailers. So, we say there's definitely an opportunity. You know the old saying, "Never waste a crisis?"
Kylie Davis: (12:59)
Simon Fonteyn: (13:00)
So, we're seeing this as an opportunity which should accelerate if anything, demand for this product.
Kylie Davis: (13:10)
I imagine too that, if I'm a retailer, I'd really want to be using a product like this so that I can make sure I'm not being overcharged or to work out what my rights are inside my contract quickly, that I can go to my landlord or my agent with, to negotiate. Would that be correct?
Simon Fonteyn: (13:31)
Certainly. Also, to get making sure that your lease management system, your property management system, is billing the right amounts. That whole ecosystem ball is predicated on having the right information.
Kylie Davis: (13:47)
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Kylie Davis: (14:57)
So, how big is the market for it? Are your clients landlords or are your clients property managers or both?
Simon Fonteyn: (15:04)
We work with both. Yeah, we have both. Well, we have more tenants than landlords, as you'd expect because there are more. We work with both and they're both using this system. One is the mirror of the other. How big is the market? Well, the market for commercial in Australia is significant. That includes office, industrial or retail. You can also add in other special types of uses, medical, self-storage, hotels. It's a significant market. We don't have any natural competitors in this space in Australia. So, we sort of have got... Really, the market is wide open. There are players internationally who do this, but they haven't entered the Australian yet. So, we saw it as a really good opportunity to penetrate the market, and have that first mover advantage. That's what we're working on.
Kylie Davis: (16:17)
Okay. So, is there opportunity for you guys overseas as well, like for exporting?
Simon Fonteyn: (16:21)
Yeah, there definitely is. We already have a couple of international clients on it. Believe it or not, we've got a client in Fiji. So, as long as the lease is in English, we can work with any type of lease that's in English. We've got a few clients who've got sites in Singapore and New Zealand, Hong Kong. So, we've experimented with those leases, it all works. So yeah, there's definitely a good market for it. But, our strategy is really to work on the Australian market first, and really make sure that we're the leader in that space before we start going overseas. So, it's really, let's get the domestic market sorted first, and then we will move after that.
Kylie Davis: (17:22)
Okay. So, tell me a little... What's the business model? Is it subscription or is it per property or what's the-
Simon Fonteyn: (17:27)
The business model is software as a service. So, it's a subscription model based upon the number of sites that you load. It's got volume breaks for the more you load that the unit price comes down, but it's really software as a service, because there is a service component to it. We do offer various levels of service. We have like the Gold Standard Service, where we do all the checking and inputting and making sure that's all right, right down to like what we call Bronze, where the client does everything themselves. They're responsible for checking and uploading. We have our own software developers, we have our own service teams. We have office in Sydney and office in Melbourne and in the Philippines as well.
Kylie Davis: (18:21)
Fantastic. What was it like to work with the CSIRO? How did that come about?
Simon Fonteyn: (18:27)
It came about when we got a grant from the government, under what's called SME Kickstart. So, we got a grant to explore building like a prototype. Our biggest challenge running a data business is exactly what our clients face. We need to extract information from leases, and put it in a database. So, need grew from our own internal need. Then clients were coming to us and saying, "Can you provide this service? This is something that we need ourselves." So, we started to experiment with different technologies about how we could automate this process. Then, we discovered that there is a grant available, so we applied for it. We built a prototype, and we received the grant.
Simon Fonteyn: (19:22)
Then, the federal government put us into this programme which requires a research organisation, and you can pick the research organisation. We picked the CSIRO Data61, because they were the best in machine learning or natural language processing. So, they have an expertise in that area. That's how it all started, working with Data61. We've also received other grants from the federal government, we've received money from the state government. We won two awards. So, we've received substantial grant money to build the algorithm, on top of the R&D funds that we got.
Simon Fonteyn: (20:13)
So, there's been significant government help, which is fantastic. I've found the process... We've really learned a lot. We approached it in a way that was much more from an old school software background, to effectively learn the rules of working with AI. It hasn't been without its challenges. Well, we've certainly learnt a lot, and we've come out the other end with a product, which I'm really proud of. So, it's really cutting edge. So yeah, it's been good.
Kylie Davis: (20:57)
Tell me a little bit about... You've used mostly grant money, plus your own R&D funds to grow the business or to expand the product.
Simon Fonteyn: (21:08)
Yeah. Well, we've used a combination of all those. We've used the R&D grant, the grant money, free cash from our existing business, a bit director's money. So, it's all been self-funded to date.
Kylie Davis: (21:25)
What would your advice be to other PropTechs out there who are thinking of going after grants? What are your tips?
Simon Fonteyn: (21:32)
I think it'd be, the CSIRO and the SME Connect sector is really undervalued and not really used. I think there's huge opportunities for SMEs and other PropTech players to really make these... Avail themselves of what's out there, because, there's a lot. There's so many opportunities too. The world's full of problems, which need to be sorted. There's so many technologies available, and so many great ideas from experts who run their own business. They're usually running... They're really experts and they know how to solve problems, but they may not know how to solve it using the latest technologies. This is where that nexus between experts, the government and also research scientists can come in.
Simon Fonteyn: (22:32)
So, my advice is to really look around, make yourself... Research what brands are available. There's a lot of grants available. If you can't do it yourself, get a consultant. There are lots of consultants out there. But really, look at what's available, because there's a lot of money available. So yeah, I thoroughly recommend it.
Kylie Davis: (22:56)
Fantastic. Tell me a little bit about the history of LeaseInfo. How long have you been going for?
Simon Fonteyn: (23:02)
Well, LeaseInfo started in 2005. So, it's an old established business.
Kylie Davis: (23:08)
Simon Fonteyn: (23:09)
Yeah. So, we've been around for a long time. We've had experience in commercialising products before, we just didn't have experience in commercialising AI. But, the process of commercialization is effectively the same. It's exactly the same process. Build an MVP, do you're split testing, beta testing, AB. So, it's the same cycle it's just using different technologies. So in 2005, we started LeaseInfo. I had a background in commercial real estate, saw the need for transparency in the retail market and started it on my own. I did have a VC partner initially, after that it didn't work out. So, we bought that back, and we've been going online since then. Really bootstrapping it.
Simon Fonteyn: (24:12)
It hasn't been easy, but there's definitely advantages and disadvantages of bootstrapping. The main advantage of bootstrapping is that you can keep control, and you can really protect your equity. The downside of bootstrapping is, it takes a lot longer, and you really are looking for either patent capital or you're looking at owner funded investment, because it's not something that you can do quickly. So, I guess it's the old way of building a business as opposed to the modern way, which uses equity and private capital and VC, et cetera. So, it's sort of worked for me, but there's swings and roundabouts, I guess.
Kylie Davis: (25:13)
Yeah, no. I think there's pros and cons to every way that you do it. Certainly Nathan and I, my co-founder, we bootstrapped as best we could, which made it a lot easier when it came time to sell, because we didn't have a lot of... There was only the two of us on the share register. So, there's pros and cons with both ways. What has been some of the... What's been the growth trajectory of LeaseInfo? What are some of the highlights or things, the key learnings that you've had at a couple of stages that made you go, "Whoa, okay. Let's course correct there."
Simon Fonteyn: (25:49)
That's a good question. The sector that we're reading is very dynamic. So retail by and large, from 2005 up until say 2008, we had a really good run. So, we were growing very, very quickly. Then the GFC hit, and that really... For two years, we got no growth whatsoever.
Simon Fonteyn: (26:27)
So, I guess that was our first lesson, that you grow, but then you can hit a situation like now, where is an external shock, and you have to basically pivot. The GFC was our first pivot point, where we really started to diversify our income. So, we couldn't just rely on one income source, so we started to diversify our income, diversify our client base, refine our business model. So, that was I guess the first big aha moment is, "Hey, there's external shocks that happened." I guess a lot of the time in small business, you tend to ride the bumps and you feel the bumps a lot more when there's a massive shock like this.
Simon Fonteyn: (27:34)
The second thing I've learned is, if you're a business, you need to have a certain level of liquidity. You can't just be running on working capital that doesn't exist. So, you need to have a certain level of liquidity to be able to handle shocks.
Kylie Davis: (27:58)
Simon Fonteyn: (28:00)
I guess that's another factor that I've learned. Probably the thing that I... Well, let's just keep going with the story. After 2009, actually retail rebound and started to rebound strongly. Again, there was another growth phase, and we started to grow again. We changed a bit of our business model to capture other types of growth. We had an opportunity to pivot away from a certain technology that we built, and that was probably one of my big regrets, that we didn't do it when we had the opportunity to. So, we've stuck with the same technology, because it's a big call to do a rewrite. I guess one of the lessons is, when you choose a technology platform, you really need to choose carefully, and choose really what... Really think it through because, it's not just the technology, but it's more about who can support it, what sort of programmers are around. That sounds like an obvious thing, but-
Kylie Davis: (29:24)
Well, not when you go back there. Look, it's stuff that's obvious in 2020, looking back what? Three or five years. But I know even from my time at CoreLogic, big legacy platforms everywhere, but everyone had legacy platforms, because legacy was the way that you built stuff until the cloud turned up. Wasn't it?
Simon Fonteyn: (29:42)
Yeah. It's much harder to recreate stuff when you've got a legacy system. It takes a lot of courage to go, "Hold on, I'm going to really bite the bullet here and re-invest," but it does lead to problems over time.
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Kylie Davis: (31:11)
Simon, tell me about some of the big changes you've seen in the commercial real estate industry over that time. What are some of the three or four things that you've seen change as commercial real estate and retail real estate has or hasn't moved towards better technology?
Simon Fonteyn: (31:34)
Well, let's talk about retail, because I'll talk about retail first. Retail has already been in a structural change for, I believe for the last decade. The obvious changes are the rise of online or Omni channel. That's been probably one of the biggest changes. Starting in the turn of the decade in 2010, you might've had like 4% or less of sales online. Fast forward to 2020, and you're now in the mid-teens, of online penetration. So, that's been a major change.
Simon Fonteyn: (32:17)
We've also seen a lot of international retailers coming to the Australian market and they've pinched a lot of market share off your local. So, if you think about the Zaras, Uniqlos, Pop Shoppe. Then, there's been a few entrants that have failed when they've come here, for example, Provenue, Debenhams, there's been a lot of change in the way the dynamics of the industry have evolved.
Simon Fonteyn: (32:47)
On the supply side, you've had shopping centres really expanding their footprint significantly. They've outstripped demand by every year. So, you've got a situation where supply has started to get ahead of demand. We've also had aggressive rental growth demand by the landlords. So, there's been a lot of structural and cyclical changes in the retail industry, which has to some extent helped us, because people are scrutinising their rents more and more. So, keeping up with that has been a significant challenge. But, I guess that's our existence. That's the reason we exist.
Simon Fonteyn: (33:32)
The office side, we don't really do that much on of the market side. There are players, like for example you mentioned CoreLogic, they have a platform that does the ERP data, the commercial leasing side. Industrial, we've done that a little bit. So, our main focus has been, in terms of data, has been on the retail side, and that's where we're known for. Going forward though, there's significant structural changes. I've mentioned retail. The structural changes are increasing at an increasing rate. There was already turbulence pre-COVID, that's pretty much being exacerbated by this pandemic. So, it's really been an inflexion point. The market's changing and significantly correcting.
Simon Fonteyn: (34:36)
Office, I expect to also have significant corrections, just by the way that businesses are adjusting to their workflow at work force management. That's impacting on the demand for office space. I say that as a forever changed model, that the demand for office is going to change. I guess one of the big winners will probably be industrial, with logistics as a result of more transactions done online and fulfilment centres to meet that demand. So, there're structural winners and losers, as a result of this COVID period. But, the property industry at the moment is, and will be forever changed as a result, not just here but globally.
Kylie Davis: (35:34)
Yeah. In terms of our shopping centres, how do you think they're going to change as we come through this? Obviously, we're going to see a lot more vacancies for an extended period, I imagine?
Simon Fonteyn: (35:51)
Well, there're so many... There's different, for example the anchors, the traditional anchors of shopping centres, are already starting to indicate they're closing. Think about Target, they've already announced now wholesale closures. You've got the issue of the department stores. In America, there's been several that have filed for Chapter 11, and they probably may or may not come back. In Australia, there's Myer and BJ's, which have very challenged business models, and what happens to that space. Then, you have a whole lot of specialty stores, which have challenged business models. So fashion, parts of maybe the food sector. So, there's a lot of restructuring that needs to happen as a result of this.
Simon Fonteyn: (36:48)
So, vacancies I think will be one issue, but a resetting of rents is really going to be very, very critical, because as I mentioned, rents have been running ahead of retail sales growth for the last decade. So, corrections there are inevitable. Leasing contracts, leasing structures, the footprints of retailers, how much space do they need in a post-COVID world, with Omni channel and with their supply chains being affected. So, the whole retail model is affected right from supply chain up to storefront.
Kylie Davis: (37:37)
Yeah. So, what does that mean that the future looks like for your business, for LeaseInfo and Accurate?
Simon Fonteyn: (37:45)
Well, I guess we've learned from the past that we need to continue to diversify. So, this is really a strategy to have... We've now got four I guess pillars of our business. We've got the lease data, which provides the information on what's happening in the market. We've got the Accurate system, which digitises the lease, we have a lease management software platform called My Portfolio, which basically manages the leases, does your critical date reminders, manages your IFRS16 or lease accounting. So, we have that module. The last module is the consulting and the valuation work, which we continue to do.
Simon Fonteyn: (38:30)
So, I guess we're well diversified in terms of our business, and the four counteract each other. I think the future for us looks like, there's going to be significant opportunities with with Accurate. Accurate and My Portfolio are going to be the growth engines of our business, and also opportunities for expansion into other markets, and as you mentioned, expansion overseas. All that is predicated on the ability for a business like ours to execute. So, execution risk is actually very, very challenging, particularly when you've got a business like ours which has got multi-disciplines. So, you've really got to be able to not only have great technology, but you've got to execute really, really well. You need a really diversified skill base to do it.
Simon Fonteyn: (39:49)
In our business, we've got tech people, we've got lease experts, we've got lease accounting experts, and we've also got valuers and property consultants. So, putting that all together, and a multidisciplinary team, that all works together. It's I guess our biggest challenge to make that all come together. There's great opportunities, but it's sort of a new world order of blending different skills together into one product.
Kylie Davis: (40:26)
Yeah. I guess collaboration across different expertise areas is one of the key challenges that we all face in any kind of business at the moment, because we're moving away from that single discipline area.
Simon Fonteyn: (40:45)
Absolutely, we are. We're moving away to collaboration, and it's getting more difficult to do remotely. So, it's challenging.
Kylie Davis: (40:56)
Yeah. Well look, Simon, it's been absolutely fascinating to talk to you about the commercial space. I guess one of the things I'm hearing though, is that in the face of all of this challenge and the impact of COVID, certainly both commercial tenants and commercial landlords are really going to need to be extracting as much data out of their contracts and keeping on top of their contracts as much as they can. So, best of luck with LeaseInfo, and Accurate.
Simon Fonteyn: (41:30)
Thank you so much. It's been an honour. I'll let you know. I'll keep you posted.
Kylie Davis: (41:38)
Sounds great. We'll put some links to your businesses in the show notes, so people can reach out to you.
Simon Fonteyn: (41:47)
Yeah, fantastic. Thank you so much.
Kylie Davis: (41:49)
Great. Thanks for your time. That was Simon Fonteyn from LeaseInfo, talking about Accurate. It's one of our first commercial real estate innovations that we've had on the show, and I'd love to feature more. So if you're in the space, reach out and let me know what you're working on. Commercial rental contracts are a lot more bespoke than the residential space. So, it's great to see an innovation that allows the pertinent information to be pulled out quickly and repackaged into structured data. As you all know, I do love structured data and its power to help our businesses make better decisions.
Kylie Davis: (42:23)
With COVID-19 hitting the retail sector particularly hard, I can imagine that this is a valuable innovation for those retailers negotiating with landlords, while it'll also help landlords manage their contracts more accurately and fairly. So now, if you have enjoyed this episode of the PropTech Podcast, we would love you to tell your friends or drop me a line either via email at Kylie@realcontent.guru, on LinkedIn or my Facebook page. You can follow this podcast on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple iTunes, and about five other platforms.
Kylie Davis: (42:59)
I'd like to thank my audio support, Charlie Hollins, and the fabulous Jules Scidero, and our sponsors Smidge Wines because everyone deserves Smidge, Direct Connect, making moving easy and HomePrezzo, now part of ActivePipe, turning your data into amazing marketing content. If you'd like to find out more about the Australian PropTech industry, join the PropTech Association Australia, there's links to all of our supporters in the show notes. Thanks everyone. Until next week, keep on propteching.
Content marketing strategist, researcher, journalist and presenter specialising in the real estate industry. I'm passionate about proptech, digital disruption and all things property, big data, leadership and entrepreneurial ideas, have an MBA and specialise in social and digital media content creation and automation.