Proptech companies love to present themselves as being at the edge of innovation and the daring disruptors of the status quo.
They have started up, they claim, to help either agents, buyers, vendors, tenants or landlords enjoy the huge benefits that their platforms provide.
Although this may or may not be true, these claims conveniently forget that the greatest revolution of all has already occurred within the sector; the arrival of the property portals.
It is now 22 years since the first, Propertyfinder.co.uk, launched in the UK and its first online listings sputtered onto the internet.
Launched and conceived by then Humberts agent Nick Leeming (left) in his spare time, many forget his contribution to the genesis of property portals following the much later success of Rightmove.
Leeming’s pioneering spirit was perhaps too early, though. Only a fifth of the UK population had access to the internet in 1997, and even those who did had to endure glacially slow speeds.
And remember this was before the launch and dominance of Google; house hunters had to know where to find Propertyfinder and where to locate its listings.
Nevertheless Leeming’s efforts and contacts book helped him sign up some early adopters including Knight Frank, Savills, Chesterton International, Hamptons, John D Wood and Strutt & Parker, and he also secured financial venture capital backing for the business.
It can also be argued that Leeming’s efforts also paved the way for the development of Rightmove and alerted the big agents to the potential of propert portals.
Eventually, Rightmove began to catch up and Propertyfinder was bought by Norwich Union in 2001 and merged into its new property portal Assertahome.
It was then sold to a joint venture between Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and Australian portal REA in 2009 for £14.3 million, although Leeming stuck with it until the business was finally sold to Zoopla in 2009 and its internet address and name was subsequently subsumed into the Zoopla brand.
PrimeLocation may be seen as the upmarket sibling of Zoopla these days but for a while it was considered to be the No.2 of the property portals in the UK behind Rightmove.
Founded by some 200 estate agents in 2001 and lead for many years by Ian Springett, who subsequently set up OnTheMarket.com (see below), PrimeLocation was bought by the Daily Mail and General Trust Group for £48 million in 2006. The deal included the purchase of Fastcrop, the holding company behind the portal.
DMGT had bought rival Findaproperty.com two years beforehand for £13.8 million and was part of the newspaper group’s then energetic efforts to hoover up as many jobs, cars and property portals as it could as newsprint advertising began its now inevitable move online.
After the purchase of PrimeLocation, DMGT created The Digital Property Group (TDPG) to run the two websites with offices in London and Brighton.
But TDPG ultimately lost its portal battle with Zoopla and in June 2012 the two companies merged, although in reality Zoopla was the dominant partner; FindaProperty disappeared and PrimeLocation essentially became a rebranded Zoopla albeit with a different listings set.
PrimeLocation survived the merger because it dominated, as it still does to a certain extent today, the London online search market enabling ZPG to claim No.1 spot in many parts of the capital.
Many people wonder how Rightmove became so dominant. Like many of its earlier and later rivals, it began (in 2000) with the backing (and listings) of many leading agents and offered a similar online service.
Three explanations are the most commonly proposed, although the portal is always tight-lipped about how it grew into such a behemoth. The first is that by good luck its launch coincided with the appearance of Google.
This hugely increased the number of people who used the internet, and how they used it.
Rightmove’s listings were suddenly all over Google search results and millions of house hunters searching for the first time online came to accept that Rightmove was the best site.
The second is that it was backed by most of the key estate agency chain owners at the time (Halifax, Royal Sun Alliance, Countrywide and Connells), giving it massive ‘utility’. This means house hunters felt it had the widest range of properties for sale and therefore returned to it more frequently.
The last point is that Rightmove got the tech right early on of all the property portals. Many of its rival portals were, to put it politely, haphazard in their accuracy and often couldn’t recognise certain postcodes or town names.
Rightmove also had a core senior leadership which stuck at it. They may be retiring or moving on now, but for the first 15 or so years the founders Managing Director Ed Williams, CEO Nick McKittrick (left) and Commercial Director Miles Shipside steered the ship to incredible profits and turnover. Both Williams and McKittrick have left the business, but Shipside remains.
In more recent years the portal’s relentless and sometimes double-digit annual fee increases have led to open revolt among some sectors of the estate agency world.
But these have yet to materialise into anything approaching a boycott or mass exodus, and the only threat to significantly shake the portal is the likely contraction in the number of paying branches following a Brexit-induced economic slowdown.
Zoopla was established in 2007 by former LoveFilm.com co-founder Alex Chesterman (left). He copied some of Rightmove’s tactics when growing the portal including signing up several leading estate agency chains including Countrywide, Connells and LSL to invest in the business alongside two City investments firms.
But otherwise Chesterman tried to do things differently; the simple strategy he employed was to position Zoopla to agents as the more digitally dynamic, property-prices obsessed, less expensive and cheeky disrupter to Rightmove.
Zoopla also quietly hoovered up every miscellaneous property website including The Guardian newspaper’s ThinkProperty, PropertyFinder, HotProperty, UKPropertyShop and Globrix and then (eventually) amalgamating them into the Zoopla main site.
This gave Zoopla instant turnover and grew its listing quickly before the final push – when it merged with DMGT’s PrimeLocation and FindaProperty, making it the No.2 portal in the UK.
Since then Zoopla has concentrated less on ‘catching up’ with Rightmove and more on fending off the threat from OnTheMarket, as well as buying property-related consumer sites and agent software providers including ExpertAgent in 2017, The Property Software Group in 2016 and Hometrack also in 2017.
The portal is the latest to join the fray and is the brainchild of PrimeLocation founder Ian Springett (left), who together with a group of agents (including Knight Frank, Strutt & Parker and Savills) unhappy with the ‘duopoly’ of Rightmove and Zoopla, as they see it, decided in early January 2015 to launch an estate agent-cum-mutually owned portal.
Springett tried a strategy not seen before – to stipulate that agents joining the portal must stick to a ‘one other portal’ rule which, in reality, meant most ditched Zoopla rather than Rightmove.
This led to a high-profile court case brought by Gascoigne Halman, a sub-brand of Connells which was an investor in Zoopla, claiming the ‘one other portal’ rule was anti-competitive.
Gascoigne Halman lost the case but appealed, an action that it also subsequently lost.
Ironically, given the jubilation around the case, OnTheMarket went on to de-mutualise, ditch its one other portal rule and float on the stock exchange in February 2018.