Julie O'Donohue is disrupting the real estate landscape.
The chief executive and founder of Next Address is empowering owners to sell their own homes by directly connecting them to buyers.
It is a vision of real estate driven by transformative technology and a determination to improve the experience of buying and selling a house.
The online peer to peer real estate platform gives sellers and buyers more control over the process and the ability to choose the services they need.
And it all started here in Ballarat.
Ms O'Donohue understands the real estate game. She worked as an estate agent for two and a half years before leaving the job because she felt her 'moral compass was under constantly pressure'.
It was a negative experience buying a house with an estate agent and hearing the frustrating experience of a friend selling her property that triggered the idea for Next Address.
"Four years ago I was buying a property in Melbourne and I could not believe how I did not get along with my agents," she said speaking at a StartUp Ballarat event on Thursday evening.
"They just ignored me. They didn't care. The market was hot, but it was further than that, it was a lack of understanding of what the customer needs. There was no customer relationship at all.
I knew that these technologies were there, so why were we still using this old technology for real estate?Julie O'Donohue, Next Address
"On the other side I had a girlfriend here in Ballarat selling her property she had renovated. She did a great job on the house.
"She got three agents in. One valued at $590,000, one valued at $570,000, one at $560,000. I thought it was worth $520,000. I didn't tell her that. It's not my role. She chose the middle one.
"Six months later, bridging finance later because one of these agents talked her into buying a property, three lots of marketing later, three lots of photography later, she sold for $520,000 to the first people who came through an open house her very first week.
"This isn't an unusual story at all. I was really angry. I am still angry about that situation because this is going on now.
"At the same time I was using Air BnB and Uber. I knew that these technologies were there, so why were we still using this old technology for real estate?
"I was walking my dog Tilly and I imagined you could sit at home, you could go through a house room by room and then you could connect with that person. How simple is that? I came home and literally that night I registered the name Next Address."
After 12 months of research and planning, and four years of building the business, Next Address is now connecting thousands of buyers and sellers.
Advanced algorithms match real estate sellers and buyers who can tour houses from the comfort of their own homes using virtual reality technology.
Sellers can choose their own level of support ranging from weekly phone support, a 3D virtual property tour, an independent property research report, advocacy and sales advice, feature listings on realestate.com.au and Domain, to a personal sales relationship manager and property styling advice.
It is a disruptive model of real estate in Australia that cuts out the real estate agent in a traditional sense, but Ms O'Donohue said selling your own home was not unusual in other countries around the world.
"In France, 40 per cent sell their own home. In Canada, in the city of Quebec, 50 per cent sell their own home. In New Zealand, 25 per cent sell their own home. Even in the United States it is 20 per cent," she said.
"In Australia it is three per cent."
Ms O'Donohue says she has experienced resistance from traditional real estate agents who are operating in a shifting market.
"We don't want to wipe real estate agents out, we just want them to behave better to save us money," she said.
"These systems do that. People are paying $50,000, $60,000 commissions to real estate agents in Melbourne for what? For someone to open the door of a house and show people through. Our model is a service model where you pick and choose what you need."
We don't want to wipe real estate agents out, we just want them to behave better to save us money.Julie O'Donohue, Next Address
The site lists homes across Australia and can provide licensed estate agents if a seller decides that is the service they need.
For Ms O'Donohue, the business is about providing that choice and a transparency in what costs are involved in the selling process.
Adapting and utilising changing technology is helping to ensure transparency, with the ability to see how many people are virtually touring a property and see offers be made in real time.
"How many of us have been told there has been another offer when you are buying a house and you question if there really has been?," Ms O'Donohue said.
"We have had so much negativity about real estate agents and questioning how do we know what they tell us is true or not?"
"Millennials will be the ones who will drive this change in real estate. You won't want to go to 25 open houses to see houses that don't even suit you. You can change your profile constantly to suit what you are looking for.
"A lot of people do buy off the plan but for someone who is buying the family home you will always want to visit it. I don't see that changing. But the technology is saving time and cutting out houses that are irrelevant for your needs."
Technological advancements on the horizon is a 3D virtual tour of the space where the user can put in furniture and move it around.
Ms O'Donohue's advice to other start ups is to follow your gut feeling - if something doesn't feel right, walk away.
"One thing someone said to me a while ago which I think is really valid is try to disrupt your disruption constantly. How can I be better? How can I disrupt what I am doing to make it better and smarter? What would someone be doing to disrupt me?," she said.
THE VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE
Ray White Ballarat director Phillip Lee said the ability to directly connect buyers and sellers is not new.
"Buyers have always been able to sell their property directly, it just comes on different platforms," he said.
"This platform may make it easier, but I think at the end of the day people still need a lot of advice when it comes to selling their home.
"You still need to speak to a human and the face to face application of real estate is still really strong. I think there is still a really important role for a real estate agent to assist and guide through the sales process. Sellers are not used to negotiating with buyers directly, so there are some dangerous things that can happen if they try to do it themselves. It is not a straightforward thing selling a house and there are risks if you do it yourself."
Real Estate Institute of Victoria chief executive Gil King said "real estate is essentially a service industry, as it should be, and I think people still want to talk to a human being in the flesh about handling what is typically their largest asset".
"Real estate is one of those industries where you really have to see, touch and experience the product and REIV agents know the importance of providing an end-to-end experience," he said.
Support for regional start ups
StartUp Ballarat is part of an active statewide push to support start ups in regional areas.
The City of Ballarat program funded by Launch Vic is working to create and support a culture of innovation, entrepreneurship, adventure and risk-taking in Ballarat.
City of Ballarat economic development sector specialist Kelli Moran said 93 per cent of start up businesses were based in Melbourne, so there was a concerted effort to support start ups in regional areas.
"Ballarat is a really viable option to start a business," she said.
"If we think of that notion of a start up businesses as often not being backed by a huge amount of capital and often just a couple of people with a great idea, trying to develop that idea in somewhere like Melbourne can be really cost prohibitive because of the cost of living.
"Victoria is screaming out for some great regional alternatives to Melbourne where people feel they can come to be a part of a start up ecosystem."
Ballarat Innovation series
The Courier's series Ballarat Innovation features stories each week that showcase and celebrate industry, business, innovation and entrepreneurship in Ballarat.
The new series comes as part two of the More than Gold series that told the stories of Ballarat's diverse community members last year.
This new branch continues the aim of More than Gold to create a sense of pride in Ballarat's achievements and celebrate the fantastic people that make this city great.
In partnership with Committee for Ballarat, we hope these stories help create a sense of aspiration, a sense of excitement at the possibilities of what can be achieved in Ballarat, and a sense of confidence to take a risk.
We want to move past the buzz word idea of innovation and instead celebrate the diversity the word offers by telling the stories of new startups, long established businesses that are innovatively responding to change and challenges, and experimentation with technology.
As we tell the stories of Ballarat's innovators, we will also be asking the harder questions: what is needed to support and promote growth in industry in Ballarat?; how does Ballarat address the skills shortages that are holding so many business back?; how do we create the estimated 15,000 new jobs that are needed in the region by 2030 to support the projected population increase?; how do we ensure our education offerings are prepared for the changing nature of jobs; and how do we create more high level career pathways for Ballarat's youth?.
We hope you enjoy the journey, as we explore and celebrate innovation in Ballarat each Saturday.
OTHER STORIES IN THE BALLARAT INNOVATION SERIES: