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Dinosaur or Chameleon?

How Easy Access to Information is Changing the Role of the Commercial Real Estate Broker

Sometimes, change prompts fascinating adaptations. Blockbuster’s fall as the go-to video rental store changed the media world forever, but other rental shops have held on. Some, like the chain Family Video, have won through real estate ownership and partnering with a pizza chain. Other niche shops succeed by offering lesser-known titles that the streaming companies will never offer. It just goes to show that sometimes, success requires reinvention.

With that in mind, when discussing professionals in real estate, we should keep our minds open to evolving roles, even if that evolution is uncomfortable to think about. Thinking back on it, I’m as guilty of this as anyone: contextualizing the future of the real estate profession in terms of how each role (broker, developer, manager, etc) functions right now. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that roles in the business that don’t change too much will be the exception, not the rule. That doesn’t just mean needing to adapt to a new listing platform, either. It may well be the case that specific industry roles are vastly different, within just the next couple of decades. 

Brokerage is the perfect example. Consider the example of the recently-announced partnership between commercial real estate marketing software SharpLaunch and listing platform Spacelist. Through the partnership, SharpLaunch joined Spacelist’s integrative Data Sharing Initiative. Steven Jaffe, CEO of Spacelist, told us that “SharpLaunch enables its clients to syndicate their listings directly to Spacelist. This is a value-add to SharpLaunch clients as it provides maximum exposure for their listings, and allows Spacelist to offer its prospective tenant users access to a robust selection of available spaces for their business. Any listing on Spacelist that is sourced from a data feed partner is labeled as such within the listing details.”

Increasing information availability will have big impacts on the brokerage business, making it easier to find on-the-market properties that fit the specific criteria of any occupant, and helping investors determine whether a given product meets their needs without having to do as much legwork. Steven added that “Our goal is to create an open data platform that removes the hurdle traditionally associated with acquiring and analyzing market activity. The objective is to allow real estate professionals to focus on actionable insights, instead of dedicating resources to acquiring/assembling listing data that is already public on every brokerage’s website.”

This is a good thing, and something that brokers across North America (Spacelist is active in both Canada and the U.S.) should be excited about. Anybody in the field can tell you how critical and time-consuming information gathering is, insatiably consuming team resources and money alike. But at the same time, substantially streamlining the real estate information gathering process will change the face of the brokerage profession, as owners, buyers, and occupiers alike all find information easier to get on their own. Brokers, in turn, will need to find something to do to reaffirm their value to their clients.

What that looks like is still very much in the realm of prognostication. But if property information comes to be easier to find, whether through the efforts of Spacelist and SharpLaunch or other firms, perhaps brokers will come to be more similar to true advisors, helping their clients manage their workplace strategy or investment plans. These future brokers could marry deep location-specific knowledge, top-tier networking, and an automation-proof understanding of the client’s context and business goals to deliver insights and advice that go deeper than “buy this” or “rent here”. Perhaps they will instead give advice that helps increase investor profit or cut occupier costs by leveraging an understanding of market dynamics, financial strategy, and emergent technologies alike. 

Looking forward, perhaps the actual transaction or lease itself will come to represent only part of what contributes to a broker’s compensation. Maybe they will get paid as consultants, or take a minor ownership stake in the properties their efforts help close on. The brokerage skillset, balancing interpersonal skills with analytical ability, is a chameleon-like one. Just because the nature of the business is changing doesn’t mean that the best in the business will be out of a job. 

As seems to be the trend with technological progress, though, things might be rougher for junior team members and pros who aren’t exactly at the top of their game. For these individuals, who probably spend more of their time doing rote work like property research or cold calling, there may be no opportunity to build a platform as an advisor, or if there is an opportunity, they may simply not have the skills to make it work. 

The business of brokerage is changing. These changes are very likely going to be a lot deeper than a lot of us want to admit. But despite the rain clouds on the horizon, brokers should remember that they need not always be stuck doing the business that they are doing now. Video stores may have faced their reckoning, but for those that made the cut, business is good, 

Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.