Technology innovation and adoption. While real estate has historically been one of the slower to adopt new technology, the age of the global housing market is here and technologically is a powerful connector for agents to grow their networks and expand their reach via worldwide listings. It’s essential for those in the industry to stay up-to-date with new technologies and use it as a tool to increase their productivity.
Asa part of my series about the ‘Five Things You Need To Know To Succeed In The Real Estate Industry’, I had the pleasure of interviewing Thomas Ma.
Thomas Ma became an active business leader in proptech and subsequently brought his passion and in-depth understanding of real estate from international waters to the U.S. market. Ma saw the industry shift toward large proptech platforms presenting steep financial hurdles for agents and decided to develop a new way for agents to showcase their listings. He then founded REAL, giving agents back control of their listings to generate leads and maximize their online presence.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?
Iwas born into real estate, hailing from one of Hong Kong’s leading real estate developer families. I ventured into tech and became active in PropTech, creating HOHOJO, a rental marketplace and leasing management system that helped corporate landlords maintain every aspect of their rental properties — from receiving offers to collecting rent payments.
I saw the industry was shifting toward large PropTech platforms, presenting steep financial hurdles for agents and decided to develop a new way for agents to showcase their listings. This led me to co-found REAL, giving agents back control of their listings to generate leads and maximize their online presence.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or takeaway you took out of that story?
My first venture in PropTech was HOHOJO, which connected corporate landlords of rental properties in Hong Kong. We also rolled out a rental payment gateway. During this stage, I flew halfway around the world to attend an international property portal conference in Barcelona to forge partnerships and recruit staff.
For three days, I listened to every speaker discuss how many listings they had on their portal. Each speaker claimed they had the №1 portal in their country. During one session, two competing portals from the same South American country claimed they were №1. It was pretty funny. Most speakers bragged they only had to spend a few months getting thousands of listings. Meanwhile, at HOHOJO, we had to go face-to-face with each corporate landlord to arrange a link to their system for their rental listings.
After three days, I had enough and returned to Hong Kong.
But it did spur me to rethink our platform. The HOHOJO experience was not easily scalable. Long story short, we began to explore how we could reach a critical mass and decided the best way to do this would be to build our platform on top of a chat app. Then came REAL Messenger, version 1.
Do you have a favorite “life lesson quote”? Can you share a story or example of how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson is: Think big.
I am a third-generation family member with deep roots in Hong Kong’s banking and real estate industry. My family legacy imposed boundaries or limitations on what I could do. But I vividly remember that my father, a second-generation family member with even more restrictions to his life options, told me one day “to do my own thing — no matter what happens.” That stuck in my mind. It taught me to take control of my life and made me want to exceed the family legacy achievements.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
REAL Messenger’s biggest news right now is our SPAC merger, which is perfect timing for the company. It lets us focus on creating a fantastic product and transforming the real estate community, the way real estate content is consumed, and how the different stakeholders in the community connect. While most other industries are moving forward with technology, many of real estate’s interactions function in the same way as pre-internet. Many people think AI will eliminate the role of the agent, but we believe agents are at the center of the home-buyng process. We want to elevate them to the role of trusted advisor, who share their expertise about local markets, property values, etc. But we do need to reframe our use of technology to one that increases everyone’s productivity — from the real estate agent to the buyer and seller — to ensure everyone makes the best use of their time and is happy with the result.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
REAL is unique because it revolutionizes the business models of the traditional real estate industry by empowering agents, engaging and connecting buyers and sellers to find their perfect match. Most importantly, we want to make home searching more enjoyable and entertaining to everyone.
Part of how we gained that trust was that we have been able to provide data in the market for the benefit of the buyers and sellers. Our AI-led updates and data-focused initiatives have been a game changer.
As our user base has grown to over 300,000 downloads, we have become a vital source to help guide better-informed business decisions for all our users’ benefits.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
As a serial entrepreneur, I would definitely say my wife Kylie. There is no such thing as work-life balance for an entrepreneur. If anyone tells you there is, then they aren’t giving it all to develop the business. I have been away from the family for nine months straight during the past 12 months. Kylie gives me the space to do whatever I need to so I can grow the business, and more importantly, she allows me to take risks. As a husband and father of two, I am blessed that she supports me and lets me pursue this dream.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry? If you can please share a story or example.
- For most people, real estate is their biggest asset. Depending on where you are in your life journey impacts that decision — whether it’s your first home, your heading toward retirement, relocating because of a new job or even facing divorce.
- Real estate is always emotional and is often part of a person’s life-changing event. Beside the dollar amount of purchasing a house, the concept of owning a house is a part of most people’s life goals/dreams — and the memories once we’ve made the purchase. So many significant of life’s most moments take place in our home. Home buying should be fun and meaningful.
- Technology innovation is making access to a global housing market possible. Home buyers and sellers are no longer limited to listings within their zip code. I’m excited that technology like REAL allows buyers to find their dream home anywhere in the world — and that there’s a return for agents to giving their listings a global platform.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest? Please share stories or examples if possible.
- The difficulty for new agents to get started in the industry and compete with seasoned agents. One specific way we are addressing this with REAL is by incorporating the social element to the homebuying process. The ability to post, follow and connect with other agents and leads levels the playing field for new agents to grow a following based on their network instead of advertising dollars.
- Technology has been historically slow to adopt in the real estate industry. This has been a pain point for quite some time, and it’s essential for proptech leaders to minimize the barriers to technology adoption and innovation. One way we are solving this with REAL is by bringing all communications associated with the homebuying process into a single app. In the past, agents have had to use email, chat, texts, phone calls and a host of other apps to close a deal. Now, the technology is set up for long-term success by providing ease-of-use to agents, buyers and sellers.
- Lack of education on AI tools for agents. Every industry is facing concern around the role of AI replacing jobs, and this is also true for real estate. However, I’d like to encourage agents and brokerages to view AI as a tool to help them increase their productivity and tailor their outreach. The level of personalization and need for human interaction involved in the homebuying process will never go away. AI’s role in this process is to help agents better understand where to spend their time and efforts so there is less guesswork involved in the deal process. I encourage brokerages and agents introducing new technology to incorporate education into their adoption plan as one way to ensure real estate AI innovation is able to keep up with other industries.
Ok, here is the main question of our interview. You are a “Real Estate Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non-intuitive things one should know to succeed in the Real Estate industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?
- Technology innovation and adoption. While real estate has historically been one of the slower to adopt new technology, the age of the global housing market is here and technologically is a powerful connector for agents to grow their networks and expand their reach via worldwide listings. It’s essential for those in the industry to stay up-to-date with new technologies and use it as a tool to increase their productivity.
- Sustainable AI via employee education. The path to making AI adoption sustainable in the real estate industry requires a rich understanding of the technology being used. As new AI tools are introduced to agents and brokerages, resources must be offered to maintain long-term use of the technology. For example, when Fredrik introduced his Douglas Elliman team to the REAL app, we led an all-hands agent meeting where we discussed how to use the features. Now that Fredrik’s team is fully integrated onto the app, we’ve been able to ensure active use since app launch.
- The importance of owning your leads and listings. I believe in giving agents the ability to maintain control of their leads and listings. Unfortunately, many property portals don’t make this possible: charging steep fees for inbound leads with an external CRM not easily accessible. With REAL, we gave agents the power back to own every step of the home buying process within a single app with 24/7 chat features to streamline the process.
- Self-marketing on social media is essential. Every agent knows self-marketing on social media is a key driver to building awareness about new listings and driving inbound leads. In building the app, we prioritized combining the powers of social media with the homebuying process. Through the REAL app, agents have the power to post directly to the app, grow their following, follow other agents and even post video clips of their day-to-day life via RealMoments. The level of personalization allows agents to build trust and credibility with new homebuyers and find an agent that fits their needs.
- Understanding the needs and wants of your customers. Technology and AI will be the great equalizer when it comes to real estate buying and selling. To help agents better understand their leads, we incorporated dynamic data analytics and a social sentiment analysis within the app to better understand what characteristics users are looking for in their next home, where they are searching and when is the best time for agents to follow up on warm leads.
Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
You are never too smart or too old to learn new things. When it comes to technology specifically, I would like people to feel empowered by it and feel that they have the resources available to understand how it works and how it can potentially increase their quality of life. There is a great deal of concern about how the rate at which AI innovation is accelerating, and it’s essential for those leading the charge to test out these tools to assess risks, while also making their findings and recommendations readily accessible to the public.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights! We wish you continued success.