Structurely is Driving Innovation in Real Estate through Use of Artificial Intelligence
An idea that was hatched in a dorm room is squarely focused on disrupting the way buyers begin the process of finding the perfect home.
Structurely was founded by Nathan Joens and Andrew Dickelman, former classmates at Johnston High School. The two attended different universities—Joens went to Iowa State University, while Dickelman went to the University of Iowa—but maintained contact over the years, sharing a keen interest in real estate.
Initially, the two thought they’d enter the market as investors. They consumed market data, sharpened their business planning skills at Startup City in Des Moines during the summer of 2014, and began to pitch their ideas to potential investors.
“The investor idea just didn’t pan out for us,” says Joens, who serves as Chief Executive Officer of Structurely. The company was selected as a member of the first cohort of Iowa State’s Startup Factory in June 2016. “Instead of being discouraged and giving up, we kept iterating and pivoting. In April (of 2016) we landed on the idea of chatbots. As we began to develop and share the concept, everyone we talked to loved the idea.”
Looking at Data Differently
The basis of the Structurely platform is a chatbot named Holmes. Consumers can engage in a text message conversation with Holmes to help in identifying homes for sale in their preferred area, meeting their specific needs.
Looking for a 4 bedroom, 3 bathroom on an acreage with a pool? Holmes can deliver all your options in a message or two.
Dickelman, who is Structurely’s Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer, says it is the team’s commitment to digging into data that gives the product a competitive edge in a market that has traditionally been slow to implement technology. By analyzing countless data points and developing algorithms to speak to specific needs to consumers, Holmes serves as a virtual agent.
“It is a challenge to bring an innovation like this to a market that has traditionally relied entirely on face-to-face communications,” Dickelman says. “In demonstrating the product to potential clients, the key has been showing them that we aren’t trying to replace agents. Instead, we are working to make the lead process more efficient so agents can be more productive.”
The sheer volume of data collected in a real estate search can be intimidating, according to Joens and Dickelman. From square footage and bedrooms, to the number of bathrooms, enhancements like granite countertops, pools, finished basements and more, the number of variables is almost limitless.
And that’s where Structurely saw an entry in to the market. While most search engines offered a refining capability based on a few characteristics, most left out more specific data that was left to the narrative description of a particular property. There weren’t any options effectively using AI and/or chatbots.
“One of the things that interested us in real estate initially was the amount of data that is out there,” Dickelman says. “We knew that a lot of that data was unused in facilitating an efficient search. We took on the challenge of building a platform that could identify and pull that information in and then communicate conversationally with a user.”
Building a Winner
Refining the product, according to Dickelman, has required a concerted effort to dig deeper into the data every single day.
“Developing the type of artificial intelligence we employ isn’t magic,” he says. “It takes hours and hours of work and discipline to identify ways we can refine the manner it communicates with the end user.
“We look at everyday as a learning day,” Joens adds. “Real estate is a unique industry and we continue to do all we can to learn more about the way agents work and how we can support them.”
To date, response to the product has been overwhelmingly positive. With just a skeleton crew of Joens, Dickelman and some part-time programmers and analysts, Structurely was a finalist in the prestigious Inman Innovator Awards in 2016. In that competition, they found themselves up against industry heavy hitters like Trulia, Zillow and LinkedIn.
“There were all these multi-million dollar companies and then us,” Joens says with a chuckle.
The company has also been featured by real estate industry trade organizations, received rave reviews from respected industry blogs, been awarded a $25,000 loan by the Iowa Economic Development Authority, and grown the team to seven with plans to add additional sales and tech staff in the near term.
They say the key to their success is embracing the challenge of continuing to learn more about their market.
“The industry is looking ahead and trying to find ways to leverage technology,” Joens says. “And at the end of the day, our product can help them find leads and convert those leads into sales. That’s important. For the agent, it’s about the sale. We can talk cool technology all day long, but if it doesn’t get them to a sale it doesn’t matter.”
The warm reception has extended beyond industry organizations and blogs, as well. Investors have already thrown their support behind Structurely, and the company recently eclipsed 3,000 realtors offering Holmes to clients. The technology can be found in more than two dozen Multiple Listing Service (MLS) markets spanning from San Francisco to Orlando.
The team is looking forward to wrapping up the 52-week Startup Factory this summer and continuing to fill out its team. Joens says the experience with the Startup Factory has been invaluable in helping them scale faster.
“It has been so helpful, especially the guidance and input we’ve received from Bill Adamowski,” Joens says. Adamowski, who leads the Startup Factory, has vast experience in developing applications used in real estate. “Our participation has sent a message to investors that there is value in what we are doing and we are serious about getting to market.”
Access to Iowa State, in general, is also a big benefit to Structurely.
“It is a huge help to be so close to the programming and data analysis talent at Iowa State,” Dickelman says. “We can’t imagine that there is a better place in the country to launch a business like ours.”
Going forward, Joens and Dickelman are focused on Holmes becoming increasingly responsive to the specific needs of users.
“To date, all of our development has been organic and the result of an incredibly skilled team buying into our vision of disrupting the traditional process of searching for a home,” Dickelman says. “We’ve quickly become the leader in offering AI for real estate agents. Our goal is to expand on that foundation and continue to innovate.”