Interview with PowerMew — How Cloud Computing, Big Data and VR is Transforming the Real Estate Industry
“Heroes create the trend, and the trend transforms others into heroes too,” remarked Eddie Chan, CTO & Co-founder of PowerMew.
In comparison with other companies in the real estate sector, PowerMew differentiates itself from the competition by utilizing the latest technologies, including cloud computing, big data and VR, to transform the experience of property transaction for buyers, tenants and real estate agents.
How is PowerMew leveraging new technologies to boost their business? And as a latecomer in a mature market, what competitive advantages have they gained from frontier technologies? These are the questions we posed during our interview with Eddie Chan at the 2016 Alibaba Cloud Computing Conference. In this interview we take a deep dive into the inner workings of PowerMew and find out from Eddie how their cloud architecture is transforming the industry.
Transcript of the interview is as follows:
Q: Eddie, to start our interview do you mind please sharing with us PowerMew’s elevator pitch?
A: PowerMew Technology Limited provides a revolutionary virtual reality experience for exploring apartments. With its social networking platform called MewMe (http://www.mewme.com), we believe that it will become the next “LinkedIn” in the real estate industry to connect and communicate between proprietors, buyers, tenants and estate agents. MewMe refers to the combination of “a cat purring”, “mobile estate web” and a “private space” for users. Applying the latest 360-degree camera technology, every corner of the flat can be reached and displayed to users in 4K resolution. MewMe provides virtual tours of different apartments so that the user can visit from anywhere in the world.
Q: What inspired you to start PowerMew?
A: Real estate is one of the most important pillars of Hong Kong’s economy. According to statistics made available from the government, there are over 500,000 active landlords and tenants in Hong Kong. Specifically, in 2015, there were 4,009 real estate agency companies (with EA-License), among which around 99% (around 3,900 real estate agency companies) were small or middle-size firms. The majority of these companies are small firms and individuals. In terms of market share, the four biggest real estate agency firms dominate the property market with 70% of the total market share. This makes the real estate market in Hong Kong unhealthy.
Distribution of Real Estate Agents in Hong Kong
In Hong Kong, the real estate agency business is still operating in a traditional model where potential buyers approach the well-known agency companies. In 2015 there were 40,000 real estate agents. Around 17,000 agents, or 43% of the total number of real estate agents, belonged to the four biggest real estate agency firms, including Centaline Property, Midland Realty, Ricacorp Properties and Hong Kong Properties. The rest either are either small firms or operating as individuals.
A growing monopoly exists in the Hong Kong real estate business. Small firms and individuals find it difficult to survive, which may finally lead to a complete monopoly. Every large real estate agency firm has their own property database. Although the database is comprehensive, they are not open. Therefore, due to a lack of information and resources, small firms and individual find it difficult to survive. Small firms find it difficult to negotiate deals with more than three district areas. Because information is possessed only by the big firms, other players in the real estate business, including landlords, tenants, sellers or buyers, cannot make wise decisions based on accessible and comprehensive information.
Higher stamp duties to cool Hong Kong’s property market have affected the real estate agents’ livelihoods also. Sales of both first-hand and second-hand homes have dropped significantly. In July 2013, Hong Kong real estate agents organized a protest against measures designed to cool the property market. Major domestic agencies and international property consultants are also diversifying their businesses. However, many small firms and individual agents (around one-third) were forced out of the market. Many agents will be coming out from the large firms and shifting to other businesses as well. A small portion of agents may join small agency firms or turn themselves into individual agents to earn higher commissions and gain more time to handle their self-employed business. It is a golden opportunity for the MewMe social networking platform to react to these changes. Real estate agents will find our mobile platform very useful to attract customers.
Total Outbound Investment from China from the Year 2009 to May 2016
PowerMew itself has expanded business to Greater China. We believe there is a pressing need for Chinese people to buy overseas properties. In 2015, Chinese investors spent over USD $27 billion to buy U.S-based properties. The figure keeps on rising each year and has grown at the rate of 600% between 2010 and 2015. Our office is located in Hong Kong, a highly internationalized city close to the Mainland, and has great advantages in trading, logistics and financial services which play a key role for connecting potential Chinese investors to the global real estate market. With our MewMe platform, overseas developers and agencies can utilize VR technology to provide highly transparent information and attract potential Chinese investors to explore the property investment market in foreign countries.
Q: What sets PowerMew apart from your competitors? And what unique problem do you solve?
A: We have carried out substantial research on our competitors and based on the combined strengths of our team, we deliver superior technologies.
First, there is no social networking platform (technology) for the real estate market. The existing products are not transparent and clients have only limited communications. In contrast, we offer a social networking platform, which connects all stakeholders inside the real estate industry.
Second, their search engines apply only traditional queries in relational database systems and do not provide any further analysis, whereas our system applies Big Data technology to implement a powerful and fast search engine for both property analysis and property information.
Third, there is no VR technology available in the Hong Kong property industry for property inspection, which means buyers have to spend a lot of time and effort on visiting properties they are interested in and filtering out properties that are not suitable. Fortunately the filtering time and process can be greatly reduced with the VR technology provided on our platform. Buyers can inspect and get a feel of the property instantly via our tools and services.
Finally, not all existing products provide relevant information about overseas properties, including laws and tax regulations. Our platform fills in the blanks and provides information to investors to inform their decision-making.
Chinese investors tend to like investing in stocks, precious metals and properties. According to a research completed in 2015 by the CBRE Asia Pacific Research Team, there has been a surge in the number of Chinese nationals investing in properties in such places as the U.S, Japan, Taiwan and Russia. With continued globalization, the economic growth of a local real estate market is no longer restricted to its local market by limited information. Economies are now open to foreign investors.
Chinese investors though face the following issues when trying to invest in overseas property markets:
1. Poor understanding about the real estate market conditions. Deals may be mispriced. The price and condition may be inaccurate, and even worse, the property might not even exist!
2. Time-consuming and unsafe site visiting experience. It takes a lot of time to travel to foreign countries to view the properties, and it could all be in vein if the actual conditions of the properties are not suitable for investment. Visiting properties or letting strangers guide you through a foreign city may also jeopardize your personal safety.
3. Limited resources on overseas properties. There are limited channels for Chinese investors to collect information on overseas properties. The personnel who are providing the information may not even be qualified. The Chinese investors are also unable to verify the correctness of the information they have been provided.
On account of Hong Kong’s status as a large international hub with a strong international network, we could become the intermediary between China and other countries. These common issues are due to a lack of transparent information in the locations and regulations of different countries. To counter this, we extend our social networking platform from a local scope to the global scale, which will allow property agents and potential investors in different countries to join our platform. We also provide a VR experience for potential buyers and tenants to gain a more realistic feel for the properties. The objectives are:
(a) To enable users to virtually immerse themselves into the real estate properties without travelling aboard
(b) To establish a social network and ontology for connecting all stakeholders around the world in the real estate business
© To enable better price estimation and quality assurance for a massive database using big data technology
(b) To allow the users to access real estate information and co-related services around the globe seamlessly
Q:As an intelligent social platform in the estate industry, what is your definition of ‘intelligent’? How do you implement ‘intelligence’ into your business solution?
A: We define “intelligent” in terms of ACE, “A stands for analytical suggestions”, “C stands for convenience” and “E stands for efficiency.”
Let’s talk about “Analytical suggestion”:
We have just launched our application “MewMe” this year (May 2016), but we have collected a lot of big data that consists information on 2.8 million Hong Kong properties, 400,000 transaction records and 2,000 social media contacts. A lot of useful information can be extracted from the big data we have collected. First, we can have a better understanding of the market price and trends. Big data analytics can substantially improve decision-making and minimize risks when buying/renting properties. Big Data technology allows ever narrower segmentation analysis of customers and therefore much more precisely tailored agency services.
Buying or renting a property has never been easier, or more fun. With the help of MewMe’s VR solution, investors/potential buyers/tenants can simply put on the VR goggles with a smartphone, and then walk around the virtual space of any property available in the world instantly.
90% of time can be saved in travelling if the user can view the property via VR goggles in advance. Real estate agencies could spend less time and money to collect the property and clients’ information or to advertise their properties. Landlords could post their properties for sale and rent instantly. All users could share text, pictures and property information via MewMe’s messenger app. MewMe is more than a real estate database, it is an intelligent social platform which can help all users to find the place they want.
Q:You have mentioned that you are using cloud computing and big data technologies, can you describe how you leverage them to power your business? What competitive advantages do you gain from these new technologies? Do they alter your business model?
A: We use a traditional Chinese philosophy to answer all these questions, “Heroes create the trend, and the trend transforms others into heroes too.” Cloud computing and big data technologies are widely adopted in many different business domains. It is a MUST that we adopt these two technologies to our business.
Let’s talk about how the cloud computing technology affects our business. As a startup company, money is a critical issue for success. If we do not have any cloud provider solutions, we have to spend enormous amounts of money to buy expensive hardware servers, which somehow, for a startup, it is difficult to evaluate how powerful our server configuration are going to be. With the support of cloud computing services, we can cut down the cost of hardware overheads and we can focus on the real development of our platform, rather than spending endless time on connecting wires, installing server software and worrying about data security.
We also need entry to the China market. For us Alibaba Cloud is the №1 choice. We know Alibaba Cloud has an excellent track record with regards to reputation, performance and innovation.
Since launching MewMe in Google Play and the App Store in May 2016, the number of users has raised steadily. Given the growing number of MewMe users, we have been using Alibaba Cloud’s Server Load Balancer (SLB) to cope with user traffic efficiently. The public facing SLB automatically distributes incoming visitor HTTP requests to multiple Elastic Compute Service (ECS) web servers. SLB also minimizes response time and improves the user experience. The web and application servers are deployed on ECS instances, which are excellent for a startup because ECS is based on the web application’s real-time demands. In addition, Alibaba Cloud ApsaraDB for RDS takes automatic backups of data to provide data redundancy and partition data to achieve scalability, which saves the customer time and optimizes resource use. ApsaraDB for RDS is integral in underwriting data security, as well as the high level of built-in security in other Alibaba Cloud services, including identity and access management at resource and network level. The MewMe platform stores and backups static resources and content (e.g. images) on Alibaba Cloud Object Storage Service (OSS). OSS also enables us to archive large amounts of data on the cloud.
Alibaba Cloud Content Delivery Network (CDN) delivers static content with a global network of edge locations so that visitors from anywhere can access the MewMe platform with quick load time. It also helps us to effectively shorten website response times to milliseconds, ensure smooth image browsing and handle large volumes of traffic. Moreover, MewMe utilizes Alibaba Cloud Security Service and Alibaba Cloud Monitor to monitor the health of MewMe deployment and get instant updates and alerts. The cloud security features employed by Alibaba Cloud minimize the threat to sensitive information and make MewMe a more reliable platform.
Now let’s talk about ‘big data technology’:
Basically, we have developed a real estate search engine that allows one to search for all required property information to complete a property deal. However, a successful real estate agent should also know the property trends based on past real estate transactions. Every transaction record will generate a tremendous amount of data with time and location information, which we refer to as spatio-temporal data. As the size of the data is continuously growing, it will outgrow the capabilities of any serial processing techniques and it is therefore necessary to perform the data analytics in parallel. More specifically: 1) We implement a Hadoop-based storage system for big spatio-temporal property data analytics. The Hadoop-based storage system speeds up search time by avoiding the need to scan the whole dataset when a spatio-temporal range is given.
2) We implement a novel data model, which has special treatments on three core attributes including a property ID, a location and a transaction time. Based on this data model, it can hierarchically partition data using all core attributes, which will enable efficient parallel processing of spatio-temporal range scans.
Unfortunately in Hong Kong, for the big data model, we do not have any solution available from Alibaba Cloud. So we would love to hear and transit our system to Alibaba Cloud once the big data service is available.
Summary of technologies PowerMe is utilizing
Q: What challenges have you encountered using cloud computing? And how have you dealt with them?
A: We have encountered technical challenges with regards to changing different types of frameworks and database systems. For a startup company, we always have a “trial-and-error” process for adopting new technologies. It’s always a painful and time-wasting experience when we need to reformat or reinstall configurations on our own servers. But now, owing to the flexibility of cloud technology, we are able to setup any OS server, adopt different frameworks and install any non-SQL database system with a few clicks. It is a piece-of-cake now to setup our instant messaging system for real time communication among our users. Text and multimedia messages can be sent and received in the instant messaging system, which allows dynamic interactions between agents and their clients, regardless of their physical locations.
Thanks to Alibaba Cloud’s ECS, MewMe provides a personal profile system in which professional users can post updates on currently for-sale/for-lease properties. Any user can easily follow multiple personal profiles to be notified of the latest information posted. And professional users can conveniently share relevant information to a large audience with a few simple clicks. We believe this can provide a new instant channel of communication for agents and their clients, and it can enhance the efficiency of communication.
With OSS and CDN technologies, MewMe can provides seamless and flawless 360-degree photo streaming services to our customers. Customers can now look at a lot of properties in one place without travelling, in other words, it helps to increase productivity and reduce the time to close a deal.
Q:In your opinion, what is the biggest deciding factor when it comes to choosing a cloud provider for a SaaS company?
A: Two points: Performance and Extendibility
Performance is always our №1 priority to choose a cloud provider. It really is life-and-death decision for your business. Loading content instantly is that moment of truth when you can fall in love with your application.
Extendibility is about how the cloud provider can provide their coverage of the services and help our business to expand quickly. We realize that Alibaba is the world’s largest retailer and Alibaba’s annual Global Shopping Festival on China’s Singles Day is a perfect example, showing that Alibaba Cloud has the ability to handle IT problems, with up to 5-hundred million users! So we now grasp their technology and have expand our business to Greater China.
Q: What is your roadmap for development over the next 1–3 years?
A: We are developing a VR social network for real estate businesses to enhance the transparency of property information and enable users to view properties (including Hong Kong overseas properties) instantly, which in turn helps to save the time for travelling and seeing the actual properties.
There are still no such VR social networks for the real estate business in the world. We have already developed an immersive virtual reality system, which enables motion and gesture interactions. We will build a function for live VR video streaming and make use of it as a new way to share property information.
We plan to set up a database to store, organize and manage the virtual reality data of the properties around the world. Meanwhile, we apply the graph theory and implement an algorithm to calculate the shortest distance to match interested clients with properties and establish an extendable social network for the property industry, which connects to other co-related services or social networks. For example, agents could interact with their clients via multimedia instant messaging and their personal profile pages on the MewMe platform.
Initially, MewMe covers Hong Kong and it is expected that in 2020 MewMe will cover Mainland China, Macau, Taiwan, UK, America and Europe.
As a new player in real estate market, PowerMew is gaining giant competitive advantages from frontier technologies. With Cloud Computing, PowerMew is able to provide services in the global market without borders, and reduce IT costs at the same time. Due to big data, PowerMew can deliver intelligent suggestions to property buyers. In addition, by integrating VR solutions with property transaction platform, PowerMew makes it possible for users to view properties instantly without travelling abroad.