Ghent’s upscaling is shaking the real estate market to its foundations

(© Arthur Josh)

Property portal websites like Zimmo or Immoweb are nothing new under the sun. But a complete data platform with which buyers, real estate agents and even banks and universities have all the information at their fingertips to make informed decisions? Belgium could only dream of that. Until Vincent Verlee, along with co-founders Lorenz Bogaert, Toon Coppens and Nicolas Van Eenaeme, unleashed Realo on the Belgian real estate landscape in 2015. “For the second year in a row, we are seeing our revenue and customer base double.”

An impenetrable jumble

Vincent Verlee (39) and his friends found the gap in the property market themselves matches. “Our search for a home was one big frustration,” says the managing director of the Ghent scale-up. “You have to make a life-changing decision in such a short time. You make an offer and then take out a loan that you are committed to for the rest of your life. Even if you don’t actually know anything about the house, prisonersthe neighborhood around it and so on.” The founders of Realo felt that this had to change, whereupon they developed their own data platform completely in-house. “We wanted all the relevant information to be as accessible as possible so that buyers could at least make an informed decision.”

Getting hold of that information was until then impossible, we hear. “In countries such as the Netherlands or the USA, you have lists in the land register that indicate exactly who bought which home, when and at what price,” explains Verlee. “This is not the case in Belgium. As a potential buyer, you are dependent on the seller’s goodwill.” Things are also different in the UK, the manager continues. “An appraiser is required who takes the sales of other homes in the area as a starting point. So he really needs that information.”

On the one hand, Belgium is more conservative in providing this information. On the other hand, we often lag a bit behind other countries in terms of technology

Whether there is no information available in Belgium at all? “Yes,” Verlee replies. “There are aggregated data sources. Via Statbel, for example, you can find the average prices per municipality. Unfortunately, that information is too rough to form a definitive picture.” According to Verlee, the reason for the difference with the other countries is twofold. “On the one hand, Belgium is more conservative in terms of providing that information. On the other hand, we often lag a little behind other countries in terms of technology.”

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Founding CEO Vincent Verlee (© Arthur Joos)

Idea machine in heart and soul

The Gent entrepreneur is not ready for his trial run with Realo. With his master’s degree in Civil Engineering in computer science in his pocket, in 2009 he started working as a Core Engineer at his first start-up: the social network Netlog. A hijacker on the coast then forced the team to act quickly, Verlee tells us. “Netlog became very big, but with the arrival of Facebook in Europe we felt we had to take a different approach. We had to build something new,” he says.

I am not the person who likes to work in very large companies with tons of people. I am a person who likes to have an influence in the company

And then it happened. “As Director of Engineering, I was one of the founders of the dating site Twoo. There we only had to deal with large amounts of data and matchmaking”, Verlee looks back. Twoo was bought in 2013 by Meetic, part of the Match Group, which also includes the dating app Tinder,” he adds. But that didn’t stop the team’s idea engine, either. “The company under whose wings we operated, Massive Media, was already busy building other startups at the time,” Verlee continues. “Together with them, we then looked at which problem we wanted to address this time. Many ideas stem from things you would like to see solved yourself.”

For Verlee, this meant the natural growth towards entrepreneurship. “It’s in you or not,” he adds. “I’m not the kind of person who likes to work in very large companies with tons of people. I am a person who likes to have an influence in the company. And if you get to develop things that people use and that make a difference… well, that’s satisfying,” he laughs.

Unintended counterproductive effect

The emergence of Realo can be read as a success story, but the first chapters were quite bleak. “Our go-to-market wasn’t right in the beginning,” Verlee admits. “When we launched the platform in 2015, we entered a fairly conservative real estate market. The average age of real estate agents was relatively high and the market was saturated. In short: The climate was not ideal for making a difference as a new player.” And that’s exactly what Realo turned out to be playing tricks on.

Due to the aggressive approach, we had created a negative image of our company, which was definitely not our intention. Reversing that perception was a real challenge

In response, we went to market very aggressively. Thanks to our collaboration with De Persgroep, we could count on a lot of media attention. Only because of this aggressive approach have we created a negative image of our company”, admits the co-initiator. “That was not our intention. We really had to rethink and examine what went wrong. Why did this happen? So what is the public looking for? How do we position ourselves? It was a real challenge to reverse the negative image.

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Realo’s founding team (© Arthur Joos)

The hard lesson has helped the team make today’s big growth a reality. “In the beginning, we assumed that someone is currently looking for a home. Then you actually become a portal website for real estate, of which there are already so many in Belgium. Over time, we noticed that it wasn’t the housing supply that made the difference, but the data itself. So we shifted our focus there. We want to show that our products are made to make informed decisions, not to replace people with computers, as people thought,’ says the data enthusiast.

Data for real estate agents

The doubling in revenue and customers that Realo experienced in 2022 for the second year in a row owes the company to another not insignificant shift. “We are now focusing more on real estate agents,” explains Verlee. “At first they didn’t know us as a data player. We spoke to them to see how their work could be made even more efficient.”

The co-founder paints a telling picture. “Brokers used to list manually to know their market. They often value homes based on experience and feel. ‘I know the market,’ they said. Only their interns didn’t, for example, so they spent a lot of time training.” That’s no longer the case, according to Verlee. “Our tool makes it very easy to create their estimate report. The information is no longer in Excel to be lost. They have the data at their fingertips and can make adjustments immediately thanks to the archive. On that way real estate agents and experts can make their work much easier.”

How does the data platform keep its finger on the pulse today? “Thanks to internal feedback loops”, it reads. “When a home is sold, we look at how far we were from it, for example. Our platform runs on a self-learning model that processes new inputs based on feedback on the one hand and reality on the other. It is updated every quarter, so we can keep up with everything very quickly.”

And there is more. Because in addition to real estate agents, banks and universities such as those in Leuven, Ghent and Antwerp now also use Realo’s data. “Banks and insurance companies have all the information at hand to make a mortgage or to underwrite insurance,” says Verlee. “And universities now have access to all the data to support theses and doctoral research and to model neighbourhoods, such as the upgraded Dok Noord in Ghent.”

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(© Arthur Joos)

Be flexible to grow

Scaling up a business often comes with growing pains. And it was no different with Realo, says the former Netlog engineer. “We have expanded our team with more data-driven people. This expansion creates a kind of chaos that you as an employee have to deal with. Suddenly a new structure is integrated, your way of working changes, you have to use a different CRM system and a new communication system, you name it. It’s small things that can cause a lot of frustration if you don’t handle it properly as an employer.”

Dealing with these changes requires a certain attitude, notes Verlee. “I don’t think that people who stick to habits and patterns belong in a start-up or scale-up. They usually don’t thrive there.”

Admit to your team that you are not holy and do not know everything. You want to involve them in the decision-making process. Or find a happy medium in it where you also listen to them and that way you all grow together

The growth phase is a continuous learning process”, confesses the managing director. “I also learn every day. That makes it fun and challenging. You constantly wonder if you are making the right decision.What does he think is the solution? “Admit to your team that you’re not holy and don’t know everything. You want to involve them in the decision-making process. Or find a happy medium in that where you listen to them too, and that way you all grow with them .”

It is therefore no surprise that Verlee fears that his people would no longer agree with Realo’s vision. “That’s what I call maintenance mode: people who just do their job and no longer think along with the company. I think that can be a danger when you get bigger and there are too many layers in your business where people hear your decisions through. We consciously pay close attention to getting everyone on board.”

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Vincent Verlee (© Arthur Joos)

First stone to international success

The future? It could become international for Realo, Verlee does not hide his ambitions. “Remember, we’ve had several global websites before that. Belgium is sometimes a bit too limited for our team. It’s in our nature to look at the opportunities across the border.”

Although the scale-up does not happen overnight. “We do it step by step. We are now collecting the necessary information about the various countries and building the platform. Here and there we have already realized small sales as a first test. Which helps us to reveal the differences with Belgium and to make adjustments where necessary.”

Belgium is sometimes a bit too limited for our team. It is up to us to look at the opportunities across the border

Do these plans also extend beyond the European market? Verlee doesn’t want to say too much about that yet. “Never say never, but let’s see whether it is realistic. The American market, for example, is very different and already has several major players. We are looking around and keeping a close eye on everything, but so far without concrete plans.”

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