The upmarket hotel coffee bar in central London where DealMakerz.co.uk is interviewing former Douglas & Gordon executive director Ed Mead is full of old-school suited and booted business people.
Clipped accents and tailored suits float around the venue’s plush surroundings. But these days Ed sticks out where he used to blend in; he’s dressed more like a tech start-up CEO than an estate agent, sporting chino slacks and a casual jumper.
And in many ways, he is one now. Ed has been running property viewings platform Viewber for two years. It’s a part technology, part service supplier that otherwise is fairly hard to pigeon-hole.
The company’s main clients are auction houses, online estate agents and both large and small high street agents, but the question on most people’s lips is, will it gain a solid foothold in the industry?
“We’ve completed 40,000 viewings so far so I think Viewber has proved the concept works and that it’s not a passing fad,” he says.
But Viewber is not without its detractors. Some estate agents are concerned that the company, which uses the services of some 2,200 or more self-employed people to do the viewings, is threatening their jobs.
Ed’s very keen to allay their fears; his ‘Viewbers’ add capability to agencies rather than replace it. But on the other hand he clearly believes that paying negotiators to do viewings isn’t the best use of their time. To make the point, Ed recounts how he got his big idea to start up the company while working for Douglas and Gordon.
While walking around the garden of his Dorset holiday home with his wife, who is a senior public relations executive at Savills, he was complaining about having to persuade reluctant negotiators to do Saturday viewings.
“If you’re a good negotiator, you don’t want to work at weekends particularly if you’re starting a family,” he says. “Each office always had one ‘weekender’ and the diary for that person would normally be full up by Tuesday evening. We would have to say no to anyone who would call up after that requesting a Saturday viewing.
“I said I wish D&G had a service it could dip in and out of and use when needed.” Ed’s light bulb moment had occurred.”
In many ways it is. Viewber is using flexible part-time freelance providers and employing them to exploit a opportunity ‘hole’ within the industry; that agents are contractually obliged to provide accompanied viewings but often struggle to match demand with a supply of staff to complete them.
To anyone in a relatively secure job within the property industry, quitting it to start-up a company based on a conversation like that could seem reckless.
Asked why he made the leap, Ed initially says he was ‘bored’ at Douglas & Gordon, and then retracts the statement. Ruminating for a few seconds, he then says that after 37 years in estate agency, 23 years of which were at Douglas & Gordon, he felt the time had come to quit.
“I could see the London market winding down, which it has been now for four to five years and is undoubtedly getting tougher and tougher with more to come, probably.
“And at D&G it was getting to the stage when it was one of the last bastions of putting service before profit. It was very clear in the long term that the shareholders – of which I am one – were going to require a different approach to maximise the efficiency of the business. I didn’t want to be a part of that.
“They wanted to bring in someone who was young and dynamic which they have with [current CEO] James Evans.”
After talks with tech expert and friend Marcus de Ferranti, and conversations with corporate backers, Viewber was born.
“Going from a good salary to zero was undoubtedly a significant driver for getting me out of bed in the mornings when it got going,” Ed says.
“But also a source of excitement. And it’s something I wish I’d done some time ago, but the tech didn’t exist.”
Ed is cagey about his client list but mainly because many agents don’t want their competitors to know they’re using the service. One agency he does name-check is central London firm My London Home, which was recently snapped up by Nick Dunning firm Stirling Ackroyd.
They give their negotiators two Viewber credits every week to use as they see fit to free up weekends. This enables estate agencies to offer weekend viewings without having to pay staff extra to do them and keeps buyers and vendors happy.
But one point of resistance among agents to Viewber has been how to pay for it. Agencies are generally more reluctant to pay in advance for Viewber viewings – or any other service for that matter – week or months before they get a cheque for the fees earned from a sale.
To remedy this, Ed is currently working on offering a deferred payments system to ease this and invoice them after a property is sold.
Aside from traditional agents, Viewber’s other big income stream has been enabling online-only agents to offer ‘viewing’ bolt-ons to their digital service.
“The difference between online or hybrid agents and the traditional ones is really interesting,” he says. “Our research shows that traditional agents take approximately 14 or so viewings to achieve a sale on average, whereas online/hybrid ones achieve them with half that number.
“I believe that’s because high street agents are paying a lot of negotiators to sit around and certainly at D&G one of the targets we used to judge our negotiators was how many viewings they were doing, so of course they will do more viewings. Negotiators like viewings; it gets them out of the office. But it’s not the most efficient use of their time.”
The logical progression of this argument is that, if they don’t need to do viewings, why not get rid of your branches entirely, as Humberts has, and have them sat in out-of-town call centres?
Ed isn’t convinced that our high streets will soon be cleared of estate agent branches, though. When he was at Douglas & Gordon, he examined why people instruct an estate agent, and says “there was a lot of evidence to suggest that having a high street presence placed the brand in their psyche subconsciously.
“I’m not sure that the branch costs everyone talks about are as high as some people claim – the main cost is the staff. It is a very difficult balancing act for agents.”
On that note, Ed had to go to some balancing of his own. He’s got plenty on these days on top of running Viewber. As well as being a RICS fellow, he’s a trustee of The Hepatitis C Trust, a non-exec at The Property Ombudsman and a non-exec at a property REIT.