A Realtor’s Journey From Recession To Tech Startup Founder: His Real Estate Personal Assistant Is Backed By IBM
One minute, Bobby Bryant was living the dream in Houston, running his own real estate brokerage firm.
The next minute, the bottom had fallen out of the real estate industry, the Great Recession was on, and Bryant and his colleagues were reeling. He had to change everything:
“I had the cars, the house, the office, the life,” Bryant told Moguldom in an email interview. “I was a single father raising my two beautiful kids and was lucky enough to have a more-than-comfortable life. Then, it was like someone turned the lights off to my business and my finances.”
Bryant moved out of his office, downgraded his and his children’s lifestyle, and took a year off to “relentlessly study and understand what the hell just happened.”
He wanted to remain in the real estate industry, and obsessed about understanding the problem for real estate and anticipating solutions that could evolve in a future that was essentially unknowable.
“During that year, I literally was a minimalist,” he said. “Everybody in the country to some degree was experiencing this hell (recession). I called this humble moment in my life “The Laboratory.”
In 2008, Bryant started what he believed would be the future of real estate. He created a company called iBuy Realty, a do-it-yourself company that empowered consumers to be more involved in real estate transactions. In return, they received a buyer rebate towards lowering closing costs.
“Business was great! We built the team to just over 40 Realtors and were on our way to changing real estate,” Bryant told Moguldom.
Then Apple introduced the world to Siri in 2011. When he saw this technology, Bryant immediately thought, “Wow, what if we could do this for real estate?”
“(Could I) use my cell phone to ask any question about any property in the country with our natural language and voice to get accurate, easy, and instant answers? I was flooded with this thought, but didn’t see a way to mobilize this idea.”
Shortly afterwards, Bryant saw IBM featured on the quiz show “Jeopardy!” with its supercomputer, Watson. Could this technology be used in real estate?
Watson is a system capable of answering questions posed in natural language. In 2011, Watson competed on “Jeopardy!” against humans and won the first place prize of $1 million. Watson applies automated reasoning and machine learning technologies to the field of open-domain question answering.
Fate stepped in. On a flight from Dallas to Houston, Bryant sat with an IBM executive from IBM Watson. “I told him that I had a tech-based real estate brokerage firm, and mentioned to him my thoughts about Siri and IBM Watson (and) my ideas for this new voice-activated cognitive technology. He said that IBM wanted to enter into the real estate industry but hadn’t seen a use case that entertained them. He strongly encouraged me to submit my information to IBM Watson. And I did.”
Bryant immediately submitted his use case to IBM Watson. He continued to build iBuy Realty and began working on the business intelligence model in case IBM Watson responded positively. It took IMB two years to finally reach out to him.
“The call blew my mind,” he said. “IBM was interested and we immediately entered into a developer’s agreement that allowed us to build a MVP (minimum viable product). They gave us 45 days, their sandbox of Watson API tools, and engineers to help us along the way. We built it and it was ready for our scheduled demo day. My team and I knocked it out of the park. Grand slam.”
On Jan. 26, 2016, IBM Watson entered into an IBM Watson Ecosystem Agreement with Bryant’s company. The name of the product: DOSS. It stands for stands for “digital on-demand software system” — a throwback to the Microsoft/IBM DOS System days.
Bryant used his own savings and raised money from family and friends to build a development team, bringing in business partners. It was expensive.
“You’re not sitting in your garage creating tech,” he said. “We have to pay for data and developers. That data is not cheap.” Bryant partnered with data providers, including one that gives him every property that isn’t for sale. There were delays. When the tech team didn’t have the required skill set, Bryant had to find new ones who knew how to build on the IBM engine. He hired a company that had 15 years of experience with IBM Watson and a chief technical officer from Silicon valley who’s an expert in conversation, “because that’s the the core of what DOSS is doing,” Bryant told Moguldom.
Bryant is on schedule to take DOSS live on Sept. 15 for desktop, Android and iOS.
DOSS will allow home seekers around country to use their cell phones to learn about real estate in their market. Realtors will be able to log in to DOSS and receive leads and see all the houses for sale in a specific area. Do you want to know if a house is in a flood zone? Have permits been pulled? Do you want a deck and granite countertops? You’ll be able to ask your phone, and DOSS will answer, Bryant said.
DOSS will be available free to consumers. Buyers and sellers will be able to search for a property, research the property and be put in contact with a Realtor. When DOSS puts a buyer or seller in contact with a Realtor, the Realtor pay DOSS a referral fee upon closing — 25 percent of the real estate commission is the industry standard, Bryant said.
“It’s no different from Uber,” Bryant said. “We put the rider in contact with the driver. When the deal closes, we do a share. We have a monthly subscription because we can’t do a revenue share legally with Realtors.”
Bryant says it’s the best way ever to search for real estate. And it could be, if everything goes according to plan, that is.
Bryant told Moguldom he’s in discussion with four investors. “We are fortunate enough to have our pick or maybe even be oversubscribed,” he said, “not only (because) we’re building but (because) we’re backed by IBM.” One of the four investors is a debt investor, and the other three are equity investors. Bryant and his partners are looking for $3 million-to-$5-million in funding.
IBM doesn’t contribute financially at this stage, but provides support as an ecosystem partner. Developers and engineers on the IMB side work with DOSS’s tech team, “to make sure we’re maximizing the tech so when we have hang up, we maximize the usage and don’t waste time. It’s a very efficient cohesiveness,” Bryant said. “It also showcases IMB and that’s what excites them. It’s a big data play. Once we launch, we start graduating to the dialog of a potential partnership.”
DOSS set an ambitious goal of pre-enrolling 20,000 Realtors in 90 days from May 1 to July 31. They signed up 21,000-plus Realtors. Realtors like DOSS because it will make their jobs more efficient, Bryant said. “That’s what DOSS is — an advocate for the real estate industry. People say, ‘Wow are you serious? We’ll be able to use our cell phone without logging in to Zillow?’
Initially, Bryant plans to spend marketing dollars in Houston with a heavy digital and online presence. “After we secure Series A (funding), we’re going to saturate the largest markets from the top down.”
Bryant said his target market is anybody and everybody who has a real estate need.
His advice to other African American startup founders?
“Diversify your team — not just in men and women. I have other African American friends who have startups and their entire team is African American. They struggle to raise money. Our ‘friends-family-and-fools’ money was raised by a diverse group of people. You need enough ‘fools’ that belive in you and your business partners. Being able to leverage diverse perspectives and contacts will better aid and mobilize your idea — not only to become all-inclusive but also to become a reality.”
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