The Covid-19 pandemic has hastened the technological transformation of various sectors and Dubai’s property market has joined the bandwagon.
Cashing in on the need for change and operational efficiency among brokers in the industry, property technology platform Overwrite was set up in the UAE in the third quarter of last year. It allows property agents to automate the task of writing unique, search-optimised and informative property marketing descriptions.
“We automate what has thus far been a manual task. Real estate agents love networking, facilitating viewings for clients and closing deals. Most of them do not enjoy the administrative aspect of the job, which involves them writing property descriptions [while] sitting behind a computer,” says Ayman Alashkar, 42, founder and chief executive of Overwrite.
“By avoiding this unpleasant task, they can save time, reduce costs and focus on higher-value tasks.”
The start-up was self-funded by the founder, who began to carry out research and develop the concept in 2018 before taking it to market to test in the following year. Mr Alashkar established the company at the Dubai International Financial Centre in the middle of last year and it raised a token amount of $100,000 in a seed-funding round in the third quarter.
"We are now actively engaged with Dubai-based angel investors and ultra-high-net-worth investors to raise funding that is necessary for our global growth," Mr Alashkar, a Briton with a 20-year career in the corporate property market, tells The National.
“We aim to generate 12.5x times returns for investors who participate in this round over a five-year horizon.”
Four out of seven emirates in the UAE recorded property transactions worth Dh68.6 billion ($18.52bn) in the first quarter of this year, a sign that the market is bouncing back from a coronavirus-induced slowdown.
Various UAE brokers have signed up as customers on the PropTech platform in the past six months, including Espace Real Estate, Provident Real Estate, Luxury Property and Berkshire Hathaway Homes.
“We managed to reach 40 per cent of the approximately 2,400 brokers in the Dubai real estate market. We are auto-writing 20 per cent of published listing activity within the first 12 months of the prototype version going live. The size of our target market is growing, which is enabling our growth,” says Mr Alashkar, who has had stints at property advisory company Colliers International and Emirates NBD.
Besides writing new listings, agents can also use Overwrite to refresh existing listings. For a property agency, this efficiency can be applied at scale to eliminate human error and optimise human resources to focus on revenue generation.
“For years, I could not understand how some agencies advertised their properties so lackadaisically, using stale, often copy-paste marketing content. Their online listings are their digital ‘shop window’ to the world and yet so many of them are either poorly written, error-laden or utterly unengaging. Rather than attracting leads, they seemed to have the opposite effect,” says Mr Alashkar.
On average, a broker takes about 15 to 20 minutes to write a property description. Overwrite reduces that to one minute for a well-accustomed user. The start-up uses artificial intelligence with natural language processing to instantly auto-write more than 1.5 billion property marketing descriptions.
“One of the core features of Overwrite is engaging the reader and prompting a call to action. A user will be more inclined to call a broker who pays attention to detail in a property description than one who copy-pastes from a stale template. We help brokers generate more leads by differentiating their listing from others,” says Mr Alashkar.
Overwrite offers three enterprise subscription plans for small, medium and large property brokers.
The plans for small and medium-sized agencies are priced at $50 and $130 a month, respectively, while the top-tier plan for larger agencies costs $250 a month. The third plan gives agencies access to unlimited users and has been the most popular, according to Mr Alashkar.
An individual plan costs $10 a month. With a 12-month subscription, users are eligible to one free month of service. All users also receive a seven-day free trial.
“I am constantly on the lookout for new technology that can make the business more efficient. PropTech gives our people an opportunity to leverage their time in more lucrative directions. It can increase productivity and margins,” says John Lyons, managing director of Espace Real Estate.
“Overwrite is an example of how innovative tech can augment human resources and streamline daily processes within our agency.”
The start-up currently has three full-time employees and hires freelancers whenever their skills are required.
“[That is how] I have been able to launch a start-up on a bootstrap budget without incurring all the hard costs that can weigh on a new business”, says Mr Alashkar, who is an accredited AI for business implementation strategist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. He is also a mathematics graduate of Queen Mary College, University of London, and holds a master's degree in real estate investment and development from the University of Reading.
He plans to expand Overwrite to other established property markets globally, starting with the UK. The team will grow according to the start-up’s market penetration plan.
“I use Overwrite for all my listings. I was impressed with the variety and detail in the descriptions, which it generates for me,” says Sergo Sirbiladze, a leasing consultant with Espace Real Estate.
“I enter the key information about my listing and within seconds, I have a selection of property descriptions to choose from that capture all the selling points of the property. The language is really good; not the same as all the other listings you read, plus I do not need to check it for spelling mistakes, so it saves me time.”
Listing the challenges of setting up operations amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Alashkar says there are still some in the UAE property industry who are resistant to change.
“When you are doing something groundbreaking, that is a challenge.”
Another exciting challenge has been the integration of the product with different platforms, the entrepreneur says.
"But we continue to work and invest in that because it’s part of our key growth strategies," he says.
Q&A with Ayman Alashkar, chief executive and founder of Overwrite
What existing start-up do you wish you had started?
MailChimp. The email marketing platform is still privately owned and has addressed a problem that marketers were suffering from. I also wish had the foresight and skillset to develop Canva.com. It changed the way graphic design marketing is done and created cost efficiencies for businesses of all sizes across the world.
What have you learnt from launching your business?
That any entrepreneur performs no less than eight to 10 roles during the course of their start-up journey. We must develop skillsets to keep the business running efficiently. You have to learn on the go. We are not infallible, so you learn from mistakes.
If you had the chance to start all over again, what would you do differently?
Nothing; it is what it is. If I were to change my mistakes, it means I am not taking responsibility for them nor learning from them. I am happy at what stage the business is.
What is your next big dream?
I would like Overwrite to be the default tool that property agents use to create their marketing content worldwide. I want to own the first step of the residential property marketing process.
Where do you see yourself after 10 years?
I would love nothing more than being able to enjoy seeing my children grow up.
Who is your role model?
As a young man, I looked up to Richard Branson. Anyone who appreciates their good fortunes and gives back to humanity, whether through charitable donations or knowledge sharing, is worth making a role model.