Posted November, 2019
Altus Group's SVP described themselves as the "Oldest Proptech" player in the market at Nuveen Real Estate's technology summit this month. Heads nodded in the room. But the next statement was far more revealing: institutions are "blocked" by spreadsheets. And so the ugly corporate dilemma of Excel-vs-other-tech raised its head and made the room quieter. Argus Enterprise reps have clearly learned how to strike a nerve in their audience over the past quarter of a century.
It was therefore utterly refreshing to hear Nikki Greenberg from Women in Proptech argue back. She spoke plainly and clearly for the army of hard-working institutional real estate investors doing a diligent fund management job on behalf of their LPs, pension funds and brokerage firms:
"Excel is easy. You open it up and it does what I want it to do." Nikki highlighted the fact there is no manual. Why attack it? In essence, she supports the lingua franca of finance: Microsoft Excel. It offers a clean canvass of neat rows and columns for any investors to get on with their day job of closing the best deals they can find for their clients.
Nikki didn't have much time in the panel format but I'm sure she'd agree that technologically speaking, Excel is an incredibly open platform compared to many Proptech start-up initiatives: it has fancy 'interoperability' capacity, a myriad of file formats to open and export across a myriad of software and industry sectors. It still runs mini macros for the geeks. A wealth of specialised plug-ins for the data science wizards, and on and on the list goes...
Dashflow for CRE includes Microsoft Excel to provide audit capacity via spreadsheets. So investors can see returns super-fast, but also back them up the traditional way. One of the largest UK investment mandates was lost in 2018 by a firm that made it to the final 2. Their feedback? It included the fact that they could not account for their risky spreadsheet processes.
If anyone remains blinded to spreadsheets because they see red when thinking about the Microsoft brand, they should reflect carefully on why the good old generic spreadsheet format has been so useful since 1969. It is no small feat that spreadsheet's unique popularity drove the early market for personal computing. From 1990s household shopping lists to Lazard's investment banking advice to Tesla(1) - it's all been supported by Excel's staying power. The 40-50 year-old range of leaders in global real estate today are too young to have lived through its impact on the global business stage. But instinctively they smell some stinky fish when market sales people feel the need to attack Excel over aggressively.
So what's the beef with Excel that Argus Enterprise staff could possibly have? If anyone needs to open up, it's Altus Group. Let people work with the best tools they need for the particular task, daily responsibility or team project at hand. Wanting to be an all-dominating industry empire in the Cloud can be contrary to notions of liberty that Sir Tim Berners-Lee promotes(2). I would offer that the best way to get people interested in this unstoppable tech revolution is to offer powerful next-generation benefits while not forgetting current basic needs - e.g. a time-saving tool like Microsoft Excel which no FTSE or NASDAQ institution will cease to use overnight in 2019. Excel is too complex and rich (3) to be replaced by one niche real estate software company.
(1) Spreadsheet horror stories compiled by EU Spreadsheet Risk Interest Group http://www.eusprig.org/horror-stories.htm
(2) Sir Tim Berners-Lee "Long Live the Web" article in Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/long-live-the-web/
(3) Download Dashflow for CRE White Paper about Spreadsheet complexity here.