By Jack Stubbs
In the current era of commercial real estate tech, companies are continually striving to implement technology into their operating strategies. Engrain, a company founded in 2010 and based in Denver, is a real estate technology company that looks to optimize the leasing and sales process in the residential market with visualization software.
We recently spoke with Aaron Batte, President of the SightMap product at Engrain, about the company and the services it looks to bring to the industry, as well as what lies ahead for the evolving commercial and residential real estate markets.
What can you tell me about Engrain (where and when the company was founded, current objectives of the company, etc.)?
Our mission is to transform the way people find, lease and manage property. Our clients currently use products like SightMap and TouchTour to engage prospective residents and analyze operating performances, but we envision our data map visualization technology to soon be engaged in other industries like hospitality, storage and retail.
Our clients include Greystar, LMC, Lincoln Property Company, Pinnacle, The Irvine Company, UDR, AvalonBay Communities, Shea Apartments, The Bozzuto Group and many others.
What are some of the day-to-day services that the platform provides its users, and how is Engrain looking to change the way that users search for and choose their home?
SightMap is an interactive mapping application that can be added to any website and allows users to search visually for available apartments within a property or community.
The application is integrated with a property owner or manager’s property management system (e.g. Yardi, RealPage, Entrata, MRI, etc) to visually highlight units that meet a user’s search criteria and showcases those units in a clean and mobile responsive interface.
Engrain works across a wide variety of product types including multifamily, senior living, student housing and commercial assets—how does the company look to ensure that the technology behind the platform scales effectively across these different property types?
The underlying mapping technology, UnitMap, is a Maps-as-a-Service platform that is simple in its design and incredibly flexible. The maps themselves are a data simulacrum of the physical space they represent—in other words, the maps are simply maps, they don’t know or care what data joined with or what visualization they show in any given use case. It is when these maps are called into a software application and combined with unit level data that the magic happens.
In this case, it is the SightMap application that is consuming the maps and the magic is in merging the maps with customer data, pricing and availability specifically, which is coming directly from an API integration to the customer’s Property Management System. Because the maps are indexed and stored in the cloud and delivered over a web services model, the platform is infinitely scalable—in theory, any physical space in existence could become a map file.
What can you tell me about the company’s recent announcement of the SightMap feature (and integration with ILS sites)? How does this step represent a new chapter for the platform’s evolution?
This is a very significant advancement for the both the SightMap product and the customers who use SightMap now and in the future. When a website visitor interacts with the maps on a property site, we see a dramatic increase in engagement. The map user stays on the website longer, looks at more units, is more likely to click to apply for a lease online for a unit they find though the map, and perhaps most importantly, they are significantly more likely to complete that application.
The significance of the ILS integration is that we can now take that boosted level of engagement and introduce it much further up towards the top of the sales funnel, where prospective renters are typically in a much earlier phase of their research and consideration.
What this means is that through the SightMap integration with ILSs, we are creating a significantly more sales-ready lead for the ILS to deliver to their property management customers, and we are accelerating the lead to lease cycle by compressing the sales funnel. This brings new efficiency to the lead flow process and continuity to the renter’s experience ultimately resulting in long-term value for all parties—including the renter!
More generally, how do you think technology is changing the was that people search for and ultimately choose their home? In your view, how has this element of the residential market changed over the last 2 to 3 years, and what do you think lies ahead for the residential sector?
Technology has dramatically improved the experience of searching for and renting an apartment. From beginning with a Google search to narrowing down on a specific unit with SightMap, technology has cut days and weeks off what used to be a time consuming, tedious and often unpleasant undertaking.
When someone is looking for a new apartment or condo they are looking to satisfy four key elements: Location, Availability, Price, and Unit Location. Google owns the first element, SightMap owns the other three.
We’ve all heard it, location, location, location. Location is undeniably the most important element of a renter’s search. The geographical area where a person is going to live may be dictated by work, family, friends or lifestyle, but the simple fact is they will rent in proximity to a defined target area.
This first and most important criteria can almost always be solved by a simple Google search.
A renter’s move is almost always the result of a major life change: the end of a current lease, the sale of a home, a relocation or another event with a fixed timeline. Even more important than price is finding an apartment that is available at the time you need to make a move.
SightMap is directly connected to the property’s management system and can show the prospective renter real-time availability of units that meet their needs.
If an apartment isn’t in a renter’s budget, they most likely won’t consider the property. While research shows us that renters will often stretch above what they perceive to be affordable, price is an undeniable determining factor in a renter’s decision-making process.
In the big picture, unit location may seem relatively trivial to a property manager, but in reality unit location holds the key to closing the gap that exists in the renter’s journey. There are a multitude of reasons why a renter may be attracted to a particular floor and unit location, and these can easily impact an “on the fence” decision-maker. SightMap solves this fourth and final key element for the renter by visually showcasing the available units within the context of an interactive property map.
Specifically, what changes have you seen when it comes to the leasing, sales and touring process?
Most owners and operators are laser-focused on growing NOI (Net Operating Income), which means keeping operating expenses as low as possible including investment in new technology. What we have seen, though, is tat when technology like SightMap can show a demonstrable increase in operational efficiency and actually save money in both the short- and long-term, property managers will welcome it into their technology stack. This goes for any leasing, sales and touring technology. It’s all about proving the strategic value.
How have you seen clients—property managers, owners, prospective tenants/renters—responding to these technology-driven changes in the industry? Is the increasingly widespread application and integration and adoption of technology now a necessity more so than a preference for those looking to stay ahead of the curve?
It’s no secret that the real estate industry is notoriously behind the curve as it relates to technology investment and adoption. But, we believe we are seeing a shift with the influx of new realtech/proptech flooding into the market and the capital behind these companies. Owners and managers will be forced to integrate.
As it relates to the users, they are hungry for technology. They interact everyday with technology in other areas of their lives that make is simpler to collaborate, interact, search, shop and buy. The message is clear—renters want to engage digitally and properties that give it to them are creating competitive advantage.
While technology does allow more convenience on some levels in terms of the way that people engage with properties remotely, surely no digital experience can replace the experience of actually occupying a physical space ‘in the flesh’? What are some of the challenges involved in helping users to bridge this gap?
There will always be some people who want to see a space in person before making a decision to rent, and it’s understandable. In fact, many major multifamily owner and operator groups are developing technology solutions to allow prospective renters to self-tour properties through a combination of smart locks, mobile phones, and applications like SightMap.
That said, we believe there are generations of people from baby boomers to millennials who are tech-savvy. People have been conditioned to expect ‘1-click’ immediate gratification, where a visit online can result in a box of goods shipped to you the next day, all without having to leave your home.
There is a massive cohort of the American population that do not want to visit the dealership to buy a car, meet with a banker to open an account, or interact with a check-out clerk to buy their groceries. This is the Amazon generation, and the want to search for, find and lease apartments is the same way they shop for vacations and home goods.
Is there anything in particular that concerns you about the rapid rate at which technology is changing the real estate industry, one traditionally based on interpersonal interaction and relationships?
Technology has always existed in real estate. We tend to think of it today as advancements in digital platforms, tools and automation, but the truth is [that] technology has coexisted with real estate since the beginning. We believe that technology is here to help us, to unlock unknown efficiencies, streamline business processes, coordinate billions of simultaneous activities, provide security, and ultimately improve our human lives.
There is certainly always a downside to tech (philosophers and science fiction writers have debated this ad absurdum), and realtech is no different. But we think that a symbiotic relationship exists, and that the real estate industry adapts to the technology the same way, technology adapts to serve the needs of those in real estate.