99.co takes Singapore's property market by storm

Serial entrepreneur Darius Cheung

Serial entrepreneur Darius Cheung decided to build the property-listings service he’d want to use. Now he’s up against a giant.

By Justin Harper

Bad experiences with property-listing websites might provoke most of us to fire off a complaint email. For Darius Cheung, a prominent young Singapore entrepreneur, they provoked something more: he decided to set up a rival site. It’s a decision that is paying off: the new site, 99.co, now lists more than 100,000 Singapore dwellings.

Cheung’s first start-up, mobile security firm tenCube, was bought by security giant McAfee. His second started life as a bill-sharing mobile app called BillPin, and then became a flatmate-finding service called Homie.

His latest, 99.co, launched in late 2014 and has been gaining traction ever since, with Cheung at the helm as CEO and the other four co-founders also involved in the business.

This latest venture faces a tough challenge from more established players - notably South-East Asian property portal PropertyGuru, which has just secured US$130 million in its own fundraising exercise. However, Cheung is confident his business model will succeed, because it makes the customer the focal point.

“Every one of us met massive challenges sifting through incomplete, sometimes fake and low-quality listings.”

“Traditional listing portals sell a basic listing to one agent and a premium listing with more prominent space to another agent, often without regard to whether the consumer gets a better experience or if those listings are even accurate or real,” he explains.

“We believe that’s a lose-lose model, where both agents and consumers lose and only the vendor wins.”

Instead, 99.co takes a more user-centric approach. It avoids prioritising any results based on incentives, while “being more in tune with users, both agents and consumers, by making sure that our product is the most relevant for their needs,” says Cheung.

This strategy is clearly working well, as Cheung and his team have not only built up thousands of listings but have also secured funding from high-profile investors, including Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin and Sequoia Capital.

While 99.co is not charging for listings, Cheung plans to make money through a fee to property owners who secure business from the site. After monetising 99.co, Cheung wants to start rolling it out across South-East Asia. For now, however, Singapore is the main focus – it’s a market he and his investors know well, with five million people and one of the most developed real estate industries in the region.

“My fellow co-founders and I have all been consumers in Singapore’s real estate industry – as landlords, tenants, buyers and sellers,” notes Cheung.

“Every one of us met massive challenges sifting through incomplete, sometimes fake and low-quality listings, not hearing back from agents when we enquired and not being able to easily find all the information necessary to make our decisions.”

He hopes 99.co will change all that.

Cheung believes the real estate market is one of the last industries to be completely overturned by the internet but will soon follow “everything from encyclopedias to street directories to plane tickets” in being disrupted by technology.

“We might fail or we might succeed,” he says, “but we are shooting for the moon, for something worth working for.”

One piece of advice

“Don’t listen to advice from others who know nothing about your business.

"Starting a company, especially one that intends to completely change an industry, is a massive commitment physically, emotionally and financially.”

This article is from the February issue of INTHEBLACK.

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February 2016
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