The perfect Spark: marrying digital technology to manage real estate projects

Every so often, a perfect combination comes along that makes so much sense it seems inevitable. Meet the newest combination: Spark software and the global real estate industry.

Spark, headquartered in Vancouver, is an ideal union of technology and the real estate data that property developers need to keep their projects running smoothly. Its software allows staff at all levels, from the CEO to the sales force, to manage and market properties using real-time data that’s as close as a screen, tablet or phone.

“We’re working with 500+ projects around the world – up from 200 a year ago,” says Simeon Garratt, who co-founded Spark in 2012 with business partner Cody Curley.

“We’re managing just over $25-billion worth of new development projects  on the platform now, in 67 cities,” says Mr. Garratt.

The secret to Spark is timing. The real estate industry has been slower than most to adapt to the 21st-century digital economy, and Spark provides a way for companies to move forward seamlessly and smoothly.

“We’re helping take an industry that is inherently based on pen and paper, and turning the whole process digital,” Mr. Garratt explains. While it’s true that a lot of property developers have some systems in place to manage their project data, the process is still often a patchwork collection, making it hard for project teams to access and use the data they need.

“We’re getting rid of a lot of the confusion around what sales teams are doing, as well as what marketing needs to be done and so on,” he adds.

“For example, we digitize all the contracts and signatures needed for real estate transactions. With the click of a button in Spark, you can populate a contract with all the correct information, including commissions, deposit structures, and any additional forms that might need signatures to get the deal done,” Mr. Garratt says.

“What traditionally can be up to 50 pages of signatures can be dealt with in a fraction of the time, and much more securely. It speeds up the process. Some developers who are Spark clients have done more than 300 deals in a day this way, while traditionally it would take much longer to go through each contract, to make sure they’re all accurate.”

Tech companies like Spark come at the right time for the real estate industry, says Professor James McKellar, director, Brookfield Centre in Real Estate and Infrastructure at the Schulich School of Business at Toronto’s York University.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity. Typically, real estate companies are not very well managed in terms of numbers. A lot of how they manage is based on old practices. Traditionally, about the most advanced thing you see is the use of Excel.”

Real estate developers who gravitate toward software platforms that manage their data tend to be younger and more comfortable with technology, Prof. McKellar adds.

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Data-management platforms are also useful for real estate companies because they minimize the barriers to actually working with the information they gather.

“We found that companies often gather a lot of data, but they don’t seem to know what to do with it. They’ll fill out spreadsheets, but they won’t use the information to drive their businesses,” Prof. McKellar says.

By making all the relevant data related to a project available on one screen, Spark makes customer relationship management (CRM) easy for project developers. A sales team can track client leads, see who’s followed up with prospective buyers, compare the progress of multiple projects and ensure clients’ questions are answered promptly.

The Spark platform can also track marketing costs, helping developers allocate their budgets most effectively and get the most out of every dollar spent.

Prof. McKellar says one of the reasons the real estate sector has been relatively slow to embrace digital technology is that many of the most successful developers are self-starters from other work backgrounds.

“They could be anything from lawyers to plasterers. They acquire a lot of street knowledge. They pick up a lot of good habits, but they also pick up bad ones.”

Another barrier is that as an industry, the real estate sector invests relatively little in education, compared with other industries.

“Overall, it’s not an industry that has embraced technology. It’s a transactional industry – deal-making – it reacts more than it does research,” he says.

That’s changing fast. Spark already has competitors, Garratt says, although these tend to be focused on single markets in particular cities, as opposed to the model he and Curley have developed, which can serve international property developers in multiple countries.

“We’re helping clients manage some of the most sophisticated, coolest-looking buildings anywhere, and we intend to keep it that way” Garratt says.