In 27 years working in the real estate and strata management industries, Julie Grove continuously had to confront the same issue – who knows what about the buildings she was managing, and where was this information stored? Nobody was able to answer that question about all the components required to build, or provide any historical information of, the buildings Julie managed.
“No one! Like, NO! ONE! And that was scary!” Julie recalls.
Julie explains that the construction information about apartment buildings such as plans, approvals, caveats, landscaping, locks – everything – was held in paper or electronic silos by a variety of different people, or not even retained at all once the job had been completed.
“People who were long gone by the time the building was finally occupied left owners and managers completely in the dark about the fundamental DNA of the building,” Julie says. “I saw the headaches this wreaked on far too many multi-apartment buildings and their owners first-hand, and it scared me.”
On one such occasion – a three-year-old building in Crows Nest at which Julie was the second strata manager – the apartment owners started reporting major water leaks throughout the building, with one of them standing knee deep in water. There was no documentation from the handover, and it took Julie six months and $36,000 to gather all the information from council, architects, engineers, surveyors, etc. before the owners could start looking at the real structural issues in their building.
This same scenario is now playing out in Sydney with Mascot Towers. After the whole building was evacuated, the owners and managers have had to pull together all the information from the past 12 years and give access to lawyers to start to remediate their building.
“Choose mentors and collaborators wisely, but don’t let them hijack what you are doing and where you are going.”
While many companies try to solve this information problem with off-site storage facilities for the boxes, books and digital records for the buildings they manage, the information graveyard becomes unruly to manage, it’s impossible to locate information when needed and that results in important data relating to buildings being lost.
“Most strata or body corporate managers only have about 10 per cent of the information about the buildings they are managing to hand at any one time,” Julie says. “And if the manager moves to a different company or the building changes management, much of this knowledge about the buildings’ assets walks out the door with them.”
Rather than continue to put up with these issues, Julie determined to find a better way, creating StrataVault, a software solution that enables owners and managers to store and share all the vital information securely on one platform.
“Version one taught us many valuable lessons, and by implementing these learnings, we have now developed a very robust, interactive version two, making it a user-friendly marriage of office software applications and the gaming software all our kids love,” Julie says.
“The property industry that is now in crisis, we want to make a lasting contribution by improving the lot of those
The platform is designed to take into consideration all the stakeholders who require access to the books and records of any building in Australia – the managers, owners, committee members, residents, auditors, valuers, tradespeople and strata inspectors.
Hosting StrataVault in the cloud allowed those stakeholders to access and rigorously test the first iteration of the platform before Julie embarked on the upgraded second version.
“Being in the cloud requires us to be on our toes with continual monitoring and penetration testing,” Julie says. The refinements that came out of this collaboration with all the disparate parties the platform is designed to serve are aimed at breaking down silos of ad hoc information storage and providing strata managers one centralised location to secure all the records, information and communication for the lifetime of a building.
Despite the benefits of such a solution, it hasn’t been easy to get the industry on board.
“Educating people who are more interested in ‘protecting their patch’ rather than doing the right thing by the owners of the buildings has been a challenge,” Julie explains. “In Victoria, the Owners Corporation Managers believe that the building information is theirs and they need to hide it away from owners. It’s like VicRoads not allowing drivers to conduct a REVS check on the car they’re about to buy because it considers that information to belong to them!”
Despite the challenges, Julie is determined to change the industry and prevent more incidents such as Opal Towers, Mascot Towers or the cladding “disasters” that have been so prevalent in recent times.
Julie’s journey has left her with a number of insights into making a success of a tech start-up, starting with a careful appraisal of the competition before you jump in yourself.
“Analyse the closest product to what you want to do; if there is nothing out there go for your Proof of Concept and rigorously test it on your market. It doesn’t have to be perfect first time around.”
Once you’re up and running, Julie says it’s important to keep your start-up as simple as possible.
“Niche your offering,” she explains. “Be as specific as you can, then you will learn who your market is and where your clients are really quickly.”
In Julie’s experience you need to be prepared to run at a loss for a while, as “big visions take big time”. To mitigate this, Julie deems the best insurance policy in technology is to ensure you start a business with recurring revenue – with a subscription-based model the most efficient.
Last, but not least, is the value of the support network you surround yourself with.
“Choose mentors and collaborators wisely, but don’t let them hijack what you are doing and where you are going,” Julie advises. “And never stop learning. One of my mentors Wilson Luna said, ‘When you are in the most discomfort it will lead to more learning – lean in to the discomfort’.”
This story first appeared in issue 27 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine.