JLL made headlines recently for a particularly high-profile hire: the commercial real estate giant lured a Google executive, Vinay Goel, to join its team as chief digital product officer for the company’s corporate services division. In the course of his impressive career, Goel most recently spearheaded monetization of the Google Maps API and was instrumental in developing features like Google Street View, Finance and News. Previously, he led a product development team in India—a major source of coding talent for Google—that built products not only for Google India, but for global markets.
Bringing Vinay on has many implications for the world’s second-largest commercial real estate services and investment management firm. JLL has already been quite aggressive in its technology strategy. For example, last year the company brought on two Silicon Valley veterans to launch JLL Spark and its $100 million Global Venture Fund to acquire and invest in promising new property technologies.
In his role at JLL, Goel will be focused on creating new products to help JLL’s corporate clients drive business transformation, adopt new workplace technologies and use data-driven insights to manage their corporate real estate portfolios.
“Google doesn’t look for people with specific domain experience,” said Goel during our phone conversation. “Instead, it hires generalists and expects you to pick up knowledge as you go.”
While he may not know the details of, say, creating a facilities capital plan, Goel is an expert on aggregating property data. Google Maps, for instance, only succeeds if it can gather data about every type of retail establishment, from operating hours to menus.
“Similarly, in commercial real estate, we still need to create a comprehensive database of every piece of property in the world just as Google did for shopping,” says Goel. “The attributes will vary, because you need to know things like property type, location, square footage, age, number of floors, parking, zoning, elevator access and so on, but there would be value in having all of that information in one database.”
Goel sees the future of corporate real estate technology as a connector between the digital and physical worlds. “The companies that have created the most value—like Amazon or Airbnb or Uber—have combined the digital and the physical world. This is where value is created. A lot of people in Silicon Valley have great digital expertise, but a lot of value has been left on the table because it can only be created by bringing the digital and physical together. With JLL, that physical piece already exists. We are managing and designing spaces and doing it at scale. The question is, what digital elements can we bring to add more value to this ecosystem?”
One of the main questions I had for Goel about JLL’s future is who the company sees as the potential users for the technologies that it develops. Most large commercial real estates service providers and investment management companies like JLL stand to gain a lot by creating technology for their own internal use.
JLL clearly has bigger ambitions than just creating technologies for its employees. For example, it recently secured a patent for its property visualization platform, Blackbird, a move that signals the desire to bring the product to market rather than keeping it for themselves. And, the company has been partnering, building and acquiring technologies that benefit clients across its various service lines and industry sectors. Corporate services is a significant part of the company’s business, but the company also provides services for commercial property investors and developers.
Goel reinforced this hypothesis. He wants to help JLL get into the “product mindset,” saying, “if you restrict your thinking to just a specific customer base, then you are still in the services mindset of selling technology alongside something else. To sell a product, you need something that can stand alone and be useful for a wide audience.”
The product mindset entails creating products that address identifiable needs today, while spending time and money coming up with the next generation of technologies.
“At Google we took a 70/20/10 approach to creating products. Seventy percent of your engineering resources are in your core business today. The other 20 percent is dedicated to looking at emerging possibilities coming down the pipe two or three years down the line. The remaining 10 percent is for completely blue sky innovation that might not result in anything—or it might be the next big thing.”
When I asked him what he saw as the main path to innovation, build, partner or buy, he emphasized that it would likely be a combination of all three.
“In my mind, PropTech is really large and we can’t possibly do everything internally at JLL,” he said. “We will play across the space with smart investments and incubating innovations moving forward. Concurrently, my role includes working with the organization internally to drive digital transformation in corporate real estate services. Our core products will be a combo of building from the ground up and creating partnerships as we have with other technology innovators in service areas such as facility management and workplace technology, financial management and lease administration.”
Tech companies like Google, with its Sidewalk Labs program in Toronto, have already started pushing into real estate. They obviously see the value that Goel talks about that comes from combining the physical and digital worlds. While tech companies have a huge head start on developing technologies that could benefit companies, the major commercial real estate service providers have the industry expertise and large client portfolios on which to pilot new products. In the area of corporate services, companies like JLL are well-funded and have access to large client bases looking to create better workplaces, reduce facilities costs, become more agile and manage their corporate real estate portfolios more effectively.
So, companies like JLL are aggressively head-hunting Silicon Valley talent like Goel. And they’re succeeding in hiring them.