From trying to disrupt the domestic work industry in Hong Kong, proptech firm Butler has shifted its focus to providing services to both landlords and tenants in residential buildings, improving on what its founders say is an antiquated “pen and paper” approach to property management.
Hongkongers Jonathan Lam, Angues Chan and Jeffrey Ma founded Butler in 2018, with the aim of providing concierge services to tenants and homeowners in Hong Kong. The company has raised about US$1 million (HK$7.85 million) in initial funding. But the Covid-19 pandemic, especially the latest and worst wave in the city starting in December, drove the trio to adapt and scale the business to offer property-management services for buildings, with developers as target customers.
“We are a proptech that is digitalising the entire property-management function and at the same time enhancing the residents’ and tenants’ experience,” said Chan.
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During the pandemic, the company realised that its clients wanted not just the in-home services the company already provided – such as closet organisation, cleaning, and meal preparation – but also information about their building beyond their flat’s doors. “They asked for things like ‘send me a reminder of the lift maintenance’, ‘check if my package has arrived’, ‘check with the reception when is the gym opening’ and ‘double-check that the stairs are sanitised’,” Chan said.
Residents and tenants use WhatsApp messages to arrange for Butler’s service. For property managers, the company developed a dashboard that details visitor trends such as the expected number of visitors for the week and the busiest time for visiting as well as the busiest time for building facilities such as gyms and swimming pools. This gives property managers a clearer picture of when they need to employ more staff to assist residents and anticipate their needs.
Acting as a bridge between residents and property managers positions Butler in the intersection of the real estate industry, technology and the hospitality industry, according to Lam. The company’s platforms, he said, seek to improve and modernise archaic practices in the property-management industry, such as record keeping using pen and paper.
Presently, the start-up works with four buildings that have more than 360 units housing over 1,000 users. For buildings that have signed contracts with Butler, fees depend on the functions and features they want to use. For end users who live in buildings that are not Butler clients, membership costs HK$88 (US$11.2) per month, and services such as cleaning cost around HK$185 per hour.
Butler has signed contracts with Hong Kong developers such as Swire Properties, New World Development and Sun Hung Kai Properties.
The company is aiming to raise additional funds and also looking to expand to Singapore. Among the investors currently supporting Butler is James Riley, group CEO of Mandarin Oriental.
Although the property market in Hong Kong, including the residential segment, is on a downturn as the city’s borders remain closed as part of strict Covid-19 containment measures, Riley said the industry is rife for a quick turnaround once things are back to normal.
“I am bullish about the future of Hong Kong and I am not bearish about the property market,” he said. “Clearly, we’re in a difficult time at the moment, and there are some challenges while Hong Kong, along with the mainland, is pretty much the only place in the world that still has travel restrictions. But that will pass ... and we all know how quickly things change and markets and opportunities change.”
Analysts, however, believe that for start-ups to succeed in Hong Kong and the rest of the region, they need to keep innovating.
“As long as they stay abreast of technological advances, understand the path of its business and build close connections with customers, a proptech firm in Hong Kong will stand a high chance of success,” said Maggie Hu, assistant professor of real estate and finance at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Not many proptech firms in the region have grown beyond their home market, according to Sing Tien Foo, professor, director of Institute of Real Estate and Urban Studies at the National University of Singapore.
“We have not seen many proptech firms attempt to scale up and grow in size after the listing, and many of the proptech firms could not increase their market share beyond their home shore,” Sing said. “PropertyGuru has attempted to grow market share through acquisitions of other smaller portals in other countries, but they have yet to make the same impact in markets outside the home market.”
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