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An event like the firing of OnTheMarket’s Ian Springett is bound to create a number of key talking points, especially when, at the time of writing this, the reason for this board dismissal is still unknown. For now, we can only speculate as to why Mr Springett was given his marching orders.
When Agents Mutual was formed, the mission statement revolved around how the portal was for the community and that it would create an industry-wide democracy. Trust them, they said. Unfortunately, that did not work and was never realistically going to. The structure of the company was always going to prevent the very level playing field that was promised. Once a company becomes shareholder led, the balance of value against price becomes murky and compromised.
OnTheMarket certainly has challenges ahead and perhaps a new vision under a newly reviewed plan may work. On my rounds of speaking with agents, it seems the general thought is that OnTheMarket may merely be a Rightmove Version 2.0. It has to be said, their structure serves as a good argument for this view.
Rightmove are continuing with their plan to replace drop-in agents’ customers with an increase in prices for the rest of their customer base. This is welcome news for the shareholders, no doubt, but the demise seems to be growing ever clearer on the horizon. What’s worse is that the vast majority of people have noticed, but have Rightmove accepted it? Their product is still strong and, whilst some agents have left and others are promising the same, they still have a hold over the majority across the country. Let’s face it, they provide a great product that agents need. However, they would do well to remember who their customers are. Never become complacent!
In fairness to them, Zoopla are operating differently and seem to have a better reputation than both Rightmove and OnTheMarket. I say, good luck to them! Their attention to the data offerings is a smart aspect to their plan.
So, the important question now becomes, who can challenge these big-name portals? Of course, I am biased as the CEO of OpenBrix. However, for 25 years prior to this position, I was an independent letting agent in Surrey. I started Mountford Residential Lettings before the implantation of the Housing Act 1988. I then grew the company over the years, buying up two agencies in Esher and Cobham, Surrey, at which point we become CHK Mountford. In 2014, I sold out to Countrywide.
So, how exactly is this relevant, beyond demonstrating my experience within the industry as an agent? Well, during this time, my monthly portal costs, for two portals, was more than my rent in each branch and I remember wishing that I could find an alternative. The reality was that I needed these portals, which only caused resentment, a situation which I suspect has not changed in the minds of the agents of today.
Another portal? Believe me, I have heard it all before too, both as an agent and beyond. A long list of failures and broken promises litter the past of the UK property portal market. So, why did I join OpenBrix? Well, I saw the absolute need to provide a method of delivering on the promise and to do so at a low fixed subscription. The prices should be low and remain low, with no hidden costs or unexpected rises. It used to annoy me that some agents paid less than I did, in fact, most seemed to pay less than I did! Independent agencies seem to be the ones charged the most, usually for the lower numbers of listings. Where was the rate card and the promised level playing field? Why can’t I advertise five extra properties this month without my costs going up?
These issues required a solution and I believe that OpenBrix can deliver this due to its unique structure. None of the current paying portals will do anything other than increase their prices once they grow. It cannot be avoided. Call it greed, call it good business, call it giving your investors the best returns… call it outrageous. What you can’t call it though, is unusual.
I try to avoid using this word, but the reason why the structure of the OpenBrix platform is different is that it is built using blockchain technology. There…. I've said it. Blockchain! In simple terms, this means that, as the UK agents join OpenBrix and become the ‘nodes’, they will physically form the heart of the community. Each brand gets one vote, meaning that control is with the community and not with shareholders. The OpenBrix shareholders own a node, they own their own brand name, and equally have just the one vote, making this a true level playing field and a true democracy. OpenBrix is a decentralised portal run by a community of agents who join. The price can only go up if that same community agrees on such an event.
The good news is that OpenBrix is already built and we are now in the final three weeks of a live trial with a handful of very helpful agents. Our system has over 600 independent agents who have indicated their wish to join, plus we are in advanced discussions with several of the larger agency bodies. We are also expecting to have the support of a large number of tenants via various tenant offering entities. We hope to roll this out nationwide in the near future and that aim is looking more positive than ever! We feel as if we have the support of the UK Agents and even the best wishes of those who doubt us, people we are aiming to prove wrong.
Will OpenBrix forge the portal cavalry and ride to the rescue? Honestly, we do not yet know. Success for us is not about being worth £6.4 Billion. With 40% of the UK market, we would be a very successful small business, a popular SME with a decent profit margin. Our aim is more to provide a portal that we believe the agents in the UK deserve, without charging them obscene prices for the privilege.
What I can say is that we have built it; the structure to deliver on the promises is already written in stone, reinforced by the blockchain. Most importantly, the functionality works and offers unique and unrivalled benefits to tenants and, very soon, to buyers as well. With even more agent benefits to be announced in the near future, you would think I would be saying things like ‘it’s a no brainer’, but my agency experience tells me a few things. Will agents leave Rightmove and OnTheMarket to flock over in droves? Unlikely, to say the least. Will the low-cost monthly subscription be the incentive? Absolutely not! If OpenBrix can get agents leads for their properties, then yes. Have we got a plan in place to get such leads? Yes!
So, why did I join OpenBrix? I joined because I could see exactly how the company could genuinely deliver on all of its promises. We have already delivered the structure of providing a public community-run property portal. Tick. We have already ensured that the low cost is controlled by the voters. Tick. We have already ensured that the democratisation of the platform is a fact that is built-in and cannot be altered by OpenBrix. Tick. We have already designed the end-user benefits to be slick, relevant, and wanted. Tick. What’s more, we have plans to tick off plenty more boxes in the near future!
A CEO of a corporate agency explained his understanding of our concept the other day in a rather clever and unique way. He said it was like we had built the road network of the UK, and we would charge each vehicle owner a fixed low-cost toll charge or road tax to maintain the roads. If taxi firms, bus companies, carrier logistics firms, petrol stations, motorways services, or anyone else wish to use the network or offer other users their services… they all could.
I will never be so arrogant as to say that OpenBrix is the new Rightmove and that anyone who doubts us is misguided. However, we do want to be seen as the portal that is trying to solve a problem that has hurt agents for years, whilst at the same time providing a fantastic facility to advertise property. It all comes back to that value versus price argument. I know the pain that agents feel first-hand and I realised that they are being targeted from all sides. I am proud to assure the agent community that we have genuinely built the solution.
I love the fact that this is built for the community on a public run network. OpenBrix simply could not take control back from the community, even if we wanted to. I really hope agents realise the potential and see this as the way forward. However, only time will tell.
OpenBrix offers the ability to bring transparency, efficiency, and speed together with a level playing field to the property community under the control of that very same community for the first time ever. Does it work? Yes. Should agents take a leap of faith and join? That’s up to them. Will OpenBrix bring leads? Yes. Will OpenBrix be the new leading portal? One day, I can only hope. Maybe I will be hot on the heels of Ian Springett and be pushed out the door. The future is a strange and unpredictable place.
In the meantime, I would spare a thought for Ian Springett. He came up with a solution, but the goalposts were moved, and not necessarily by him. I guess we will never know exactly what happened. I can’t see OnTheMarket surviving long without something drastic happening, but that is just my opinion.