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Have you ever endured the problem of being bombarded by phone calls from dozens of restless property agents soon after you"ve placed an apartment with them for sale or lease in the market?

It could be exasperating at times, exacerbated by the fact that one might not be able to afford offending finicky potential buyers, particularly when the seller is desperately trying to get rid of the property.

The troublesome situation, perhaps, can now be addressed by online property agency Okay.com"s mass database and information sharing culture.

The company, whose name "Okay" sounds like the Cantonese word for "home", was launched in 2011 in a bid to solve some of the problems in Hong Kong"s large, but fragmented real-estate industry.

"It could be a big frustration for consumers here when, after doing intensive research on the local market, all they could find are fake listings or obsolete information dating back to many years ago. Thus, they"ve to work with many different agencies," says Joshua Han Miller, chief executive of Okay.com.

Miller — a former vice-president at Morgan Stanley"s global capital markets unit in New York — thought of starting his own business after quitting the investment banking giant in 2005. He joined Asia Pacific Properties, which was founded by his mother, to learn how to run a business, and subsequently bought a majority stake in Okay.com in 2011.

"It was a property website with no agents. But, we saw an opportunity to chart a new direction for us," says Miller. He and his team went on to build up an online agency using technology and data to help consumers spend much less time in locating a property of their choice.

Currently, Okay.com boasts having between 4,500 and 5,500 properties listed in Hong Kong on its website, with nearly 98 percent of them available for immediate viewing by consumers. The company"s agents can use mobile devices to access the backend system with a huge database if they"re out of the office, a quite efficient way to respond to clients" requests.

"Data is really what we are offering as a company," says Miller, adding that such information gives their staff a "huge advantage".

"This is an industry where agents compete against each other, so they keep their best information in their pocket or in their mobile phones."

Among conventional agencies, property agents used to hang on to property listings themselves and would only release information when necessary as they want to protect their commission. But, this creates a problem for consumers as they cannot have the full options for the properties available.

As an online platform, Okay.com has vastly saved rental expenses on setting up offline outlets. It also enables the agency to encourage its staff to share information with each other with financial incentives. The one who provides the relevant information stands to reap up to 10 percent of the commission once others have closed a deal.

"If all the agents in our ecosystem are sharing their information, the network effect is much more powerful," explains Miller. He believes that, in this way, consumers will have 10 times more property listings from Okay.com"s staff than from other property agents, and they only have to stick with just one agent.

Miller admits he cannot force all agents to do that, but they"ll find they would have lost the opportunity to make more money when others are one step ahead in providing a piece of information.

"It"s like a team sport. If you"re trying to play football and everyone in your team is fighting you for the ball, you"re not going to get very far. But, if you can work together as a team, then you can do very powerful things."

Thanks to its sharing culture and massive database, the agency"s revenue had continued to grow 40 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of this year after having risen 51 percent last year from 2016.

Miller agrees that Okay.com is called the "Uber of real estate" to a certain extent, as it is a new platform for agents to find and serve customers. And the company"s next step, like Uber, is to aggregate the data collected and create new value that was not there before.

For example, in valuing a certain property, different banks may vary by 20 percent in their assessments. The main reason for this is that they may lack key information, such as the number of units available in the same building, the asking prices, the rentals and the consumer behavior trend.

However, the condition will improve if Okay.com provides data to these banks to do more specific risk analysis and valuation analysis.

At the same time, the agency will focus more on developing advanced analytics tools and regression analysis to help consumers in plotting trends and predicting what"s going to happen in a certain district.

A new version of the company"s website will be launched later this year with more historical data and analytics concerning the relative values of properties in a district. With the agency"s rapid development, the impact of data is more and more obvious and advanced.

Miller believes that what he"s doing will further remedy the imbalance in supply and demand in the local property market.

"The market"s effective supply is actually less than the real supply. A lack of transparency makes it harder for people to see what is actually there," he says. "If we can bring transparency to the market, in effect, we can increase market supply and that will help bring prices down or at least take them back to a normal level."

Contact the writer at [email protected]


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