Written by Tom Shrive, Founder, AskPorter & Curated by Holtby Turner
PropTech start-up AskPorter is an AI messaging platform that aims to improve customer satisfaction across property and Ask . With an easy-to-use conversational interface, AskPorter’s chat based platform automates tasks, notifications and reports which reduces the amount of administration, along with the cost of management.
Serial entrepreneurs, Tom Shrive and Sam Tassell were friends from birth and grew up together. After university, the pair both ended up working in agencies – Sam as a lead developer for a prestigious design agency, and Tom, a digital strategist working on accounts like ARM. In just less than a year from their first ‘shall we? shan’t we?’ conversation, they had raised £100,000 of investment and secured a contract manufacturer for their wearable camera with a new kind of magnetic mount.
The realities of taking on a market leader like GoPro with a small budget became pretty real, pretty fast. So they pivoted. AskPorter grew from multiple innovations and iterations before it began to take shape (as is the case for so many start-ups). After winning a place in the finals of Intel’s Make It Wearable competition in San Francisco, they completed an innovation course at Berkeley, University of California, and immersed themselves in Silicon Valley’s start-up world. It was there, the idea for AskPorter emerged.
Seeing artificial intelligence and chat-bot technology leap from strength to strength, Sam and Tom starting thinking about how these technologies could be put to use in a practical and commercial way. These ideas coincided with Sam’s mother wanting to leave the family’s property business.
When Tom tried to find someone to manage the properties, he realised that most of the job actually involved connecting people to other people, or passing on information largely based on a script. This insight, coupled with a dose of shoddy customer service, opened his eyes to the potential of AI-driven chat assistants. I had read that AskPorter was inspired by Tom’s mum Pam, and wanted to know if it was true.
“Mostly true yes”, AskPorter’s Founder & CEO Tom Shrive explains. “We thought long and hard about whether to use email in the service. But looking at how fast it was growing in popularity, and how easy my 70-year-old mother found using WhatsApp, we settled on messaging (although we do work with email and voice too as a backup).”
“I guess the other inspiration – as ridiculous as it may sound – was Ironman and his assistant Jarvis. I reckon they’ve been an inspiration for many of us looking at messaging – Zuckerberg included. I reasoned that if all properties and facilities had a helpful chat-bot assistant to take care of the menial tasks (like unblocking a drain, or getting spare keys cut) then it would reduce a lot of annoying tedious tasks on both sides.”
How did the idea of AskPorter make its way to real estate?
“We got some initial validation from the property world early on in our journey. Then that was followed by a large commercial property owner and manager requested to try the service – which was at that point still an MVP. They were looking for solutions to all the same problems I had experienced in the family business, but on a much bigger scale”, Tom revealed.
This gave them validation to keep going. “The more we built, so the platform became more exciting and adaptable. Whilst it’s great that some of real estate’s biggest players have been interested in AskPorter this early on, there’s little margin for error, “ he admits.
How does AskPorter actually work?
At its core, AskPorter is a conversational, instant message ticketing system which is managed by AI assistant, Porter. Much like Amazon’s Alexa, Porter is constantly learning and is made smart through connected skill-sets like maintenance reporting, emergency handling, knowledge-base enquiries, IoT integration and even property search.
A lot of the questions Porter is asked are fairly common, and so repetitive for a human to keep answering. But Porter doesn’t get annoyed, he can’t get annoyed! What Porter’s learning offers property businesses are incredible insights across operations. To illustrate, a user asking when their lease expires might indicate that they are looking to move, or a particular contractor always seems to be revisiting jobs– these can all be date driven flags which help businesses operate more efficiently.
Trying to have a sensible conversation with an AI bot of any kind is hard work. What quirks and challenges of developing this for AskPorter have you come across?
Sam and I wanted AskPorter to be the best instant messaging and ticketing platform out there – which meant a bespoke product, built from scratch. Yet some of the biggest technical challenges have been people messing around with Porter, and asking silly questions like “will you marry me?” And prior to getting clients, a lack of data meant that training Porter involved the team and a group of volunteers asking Porter thousands of property-related questions to build up his data pool.”
You join PiLabs cohort in January 2018 to help connect you to the broader real estate field. With your seed round closing in August just gone, are you now primarily looking for strategic partnerships and joint-ventures?
“AskPorter would be nowhere near where it is now without PiLabs, and we’re looking forward to working with them in the new year. At the moment, you can either take a product off the shelf, or we can adapt it for clients. As many large operators have very specific needs, a one-size-fits-all product only goes so far in the ways it can help.”
When Tom spoke about AskPorter being there to ‘help real estate but not replace anyone’, I didn’t doubt him, but also couldn’t help wondering if it would turn out to be true.
When artificial intelligence is applied to human intelligence it should allow users to do ‘more with more’. It is designed to be a significantly better service than the existing human solution. In an industry like real estate, the pie is not that elastic, so market share gains are important.
AI will put some people out of business, but I think we’re too polite to say that in the UK. This is the nature of clever innovations like AskPorter: they will in time, dramatically disrupt real estate, and it would be foolish to think otherwise.