Being the most densely populated country in the world, Bangladesh naturally becomes ripe for real estate business. Emerging Markets Property Group (EMPG) or its Bangladeshi incarnation bproperty.com must have sensed that too, as it has been busy building up the largest online property listing portal in the country for the last eighteen (18) months.
As an e-commerce real estate business bproperty.com caters to the needs of those seeking real estate services, with a commitment to make house-hunting and renting/buying easier than ever. It offers an easy platform for property content to be viewed and researched online and to engage with bproperty to buy, rent or sell a property. bproperty.com is part of the Emerging Markets Property Group (EMPG) which also owns other market leading property portals in Asia and the Middle East.
The Global CFO of bproperty.com Mark Nosworthy visited Dhaka in May and we got an opportunity to sit down him at bpropety’s office at Nikunja. Here is the full interview for our readers:
FINTECH: Could you start by talking about your global credentials as a company and about your origin?
MN: Sure. bproperty has been in existence now for around 18 months and is part of a much wider group that deals with online property portals in emerging markets. We’ve built a number of these businesses within emerging markets before, where the industry and the ecosystem didn’t exist. So, you more or less have to develop the systems, the technology and the teams, and develop the online industry for real estate in order to execute our business model. So, from a credentials perspective, we actually view ourselves as very strong in this space.
The market is at a very interesting point. The way properties are transacted in Bangladesh is very traditional with landlords and owners renting and selling their properties via traditional methods.
An online ecosystem doesn’t really exist and we see that as an opportunity. We intend to use technology as an enabler, which is what we have done in other emerging markets. So, we feel well-placed to deliver on the plan over the course of the next five years.
FINTECH: Tell us about the other markets where you operate. How does that compare to your experience in Bangladesh? Is it more difficult here compared to those regions?
MN: We have operations in Pakistan and UAE. It is more difficult in Bangladesh given that the infrastructure is lacking. As I said, things happen at a very individual level here and there aren’t many enablers or helpers when it comes to renting or buying a property. On the new development side, you do see a good mix of developers but there is still room for very large-scale developers, as you see in the UAE with Emaar as example.
We see this as an opportunity for us to help develop an online property market place in Bangladesh and the way in which we feel we can do that is through using technology to enable that process. So, we have created a property portal that allows consumers to access the information and the content on property listings within Bangladesh, without having to have conversations with multiple people. Consumers can get the necessary information and when they are ready to transact, we can help facilitate in a way that is far more efficient.
We have done this it in other territories, but the challenge in Bangladesh is that we have had to focus on the infrastructure first and that’s what we have been doing in the last 18 months. We have been working on creating quality content and listing information and building relationships that allow us to help the potential customers out there.
FINTECH: So, given that the infrastructure is not there how do you go about building up the business in a way that is feasible and cost-effective?
MN: We definitely understand that this requires investment and commitment from the group in order to develop the infrastructure here. But the lack of infrastructure doesn’t mean people aren’t renting or buying/selling properties. So, it’s happening today, regardless of whether the infrastructure is traditional or otherwise. We believe we can, as we have done in other territories, facilitate a better process – a more efficient process – to connect the buyer with the seller.
We also believe we can help make the process more transparent by being in the middle and this provides more security for both, the buyer and the seller. For the sellers, we are also putting buyers right in front of them. They don’t have to look around too much to market their properties because we do that for them. So, we see a win-win solution here and we definitely feel that since the market metrics exist within this ecosystem, we just need to provide some structure to getting the online real estate marketplace moving.
FINTECH: Even after building the database and creating a portal you have to carry out a lot of your work offline, for example accessing land records kept by the government which are not digital. How much of an obstacle is this?
MN: In most western countries the process isn’t done all entirely online either. So, if we looked at it from a Western angle, like what you have in the UK for example, the transaction still gets finished offline in those places. What we see is that technology is being used as the enabler to start and manage the transaction. There will always need to be a human element. You can’t get away from that; these are big transactions.
Someone selling a property or buying one is carrying out a big transaction and if you want to be included in the process it requires trust. Trust gets built when you are face-to-face with people. So, I think there will always need to be an offline element. It’s just that the journey can be enabled and streamlined through technology. That is through the use of the online site, the e-commerce portal that enable the consumer to access the information. The site provides information about the area and property itself as well as the price point; and the users can see photos without having to physically spend time looking at those properties in-person. They can have a conversation with us and we can further facilitate.
There is always going to be an offline element in terms of signing paper work, registering the documentation with the government authority etc. to ensure that everything is done legally. But that exists in any territory, whether in Bangladesh, the UK, or the US.
FINTECH: Every digital platform and digitized infrastructure has to worry about the security aspect. That is as important as running the business successfully. Particularly, in light of the recent ransomware attack on such a massive scale security has become the most important question for online platforms and databases and the organizations that make use of them. So, what is your approach to security?
MN: We are no different. We take security very seriously and we have a very strong security team within the group that manages this aspect for us. So, we are no different and we invest in this heavily. We are very aware that any e-commerce business, whether in Bangladesh or elsewhere needs to ensure that the use of the platform and use of the technology is done in a secure way.
While the investment is there and will we will continue to invest, on bproperty.com, there isn’t that much information from a personal perspective in any case. So, from a personal security perspective there is very little information that is shared and we even add layers of security on that. We have been in the ecommerce space for a while and we totally understand that whenever you are dealing with the internet, it has to be done in a secure way.
FINTECH: How do you envision reaching your consumer base? Is it going to be through the traditional routes of advertisements? Do you think that the usability and advantages of the service itself will eventually attract consumers? And how do you overcome the inherent lack of trust in your target market here in using technology instead of the traditional routes?
MN: In terms of marketing we believe in taking a holistic approach. We are an online business, so, of course, we are going to advertise online. We already do, we already generate leads and we already generate customers through online sources. So, that is already happening.
We will be building our marketing offline through traditional means as well, because a lot of our role at the moment is market education. This is because the market is still a nascent one and education is going to play a critical role in helping it mature. And you are right, there is a lack of trust. In any type of transaction whether it’s the buyer or the seller, there are always trust issues, you can say more like a win-lose type of conversation that goes on. We feel it should not be that, it can be a win-win conversation if the trust is there. We are becoming the bridge between buyers and sellers. As I said earlier, we want to make the process transparent to both parties and this will help build trust. Also, if this can be done in a clean, well-observed environment, it should help the market evolve. As people start seeing and recognizing this, the service will be sought as opposed to being pushed through marketing by us. So, yes, in the long run we see this attracting customers on it’s own in the future. In the meantime, we will continue to market, to help the users and the industry understand what this is all about.
Just to be clear, Bangladesh is no different than the market education that went on into any other industry. Whether it is India ten years ago, Europe 50 years ago; they had to go through education phases because these relationships didn’t exist. And like I said, Bangladesh is no different. It’s just a little bit later than other countries however technology nowadays, through the use of smartphones and computers, is being accepted at a very rapid pace, so it should speed up the process. However, there is no substitute for time and effort.
FINTECH: When do you think you might be able to reach a position where you will be regarded as the most efficient and trustworthy real estate agent in Bangladesh, which you say you aim to do?
MN: We feel that we are in a leading position right now. We are the biggest online property portal in Bangladesh. We are growing too. We are growing every week, in terms of property listings, customers we are speaking to and help end-clients. We haven’t actually set a time limit how long it will take to build that trust. Maybe it’s next week, maybe it’s next year, or five years from now.
What we are committed to is building e-commerce and building a market leading property portal in Bangladesh, helping to be the forerunners for developing this in this territory. We know the challenges from other countries and we are facing some of those exact same challenges in this country. So, we know what to expect but we haven’t set a time limit on it and we are fully committed to delivering the market leading property portal for Bangladesh.
FINTECH: You must have been part of the planning and strategies that were done from outside. What is your personal impression now that you are visiting the country physically?
MN: I am very excited about the opportunity. I have spent the last two days in the field in Dhaka. We have got a base in Chittagong. We have got a walk-in Centre in Bashundhara. So, having spent two days in the filed in Bangladesh this week, I am very excited about the opportunity and the potentials for bproperty and this region. It might take a little bit of time to get there though we remain very committed and confident.
We also recognize that education in the market for all parties is needed here, and that is something we are committed to also. The message we need to be getting across is that technology is the enabler for improving processes and it’s not something to be worried about. It actually makes things easier. We have gone through this education in other territories. So, I’m looking forward to working through the challenges and enjoying the success when we get there.
FINTECH: Do you plan to expand to other countries in the South-East Asian region?
MN: At the moment we don’t. We are just fully committed to Bangladesh.
FINTECH: Thanks very much for your time
MN: No problem at all