Aaron Block is everything you would expect from a Chicago-born, New York City-based real estate broker turned tech entrepreneur living in New Jersey. As extrovert as they come, he is loud, blunt and fast-talking. But don’t let the showman fool you.
Behind the bright, all-American smile is a hard-nosed businessman who wastes zero time sugarcoating the facts. Direct to the point of withering, the managing director and co-founder of proptech accelerator MetaProp NYC said at MIPIM back in March: “I would challenge the chief executives of all the large property corporates and ask them ‘what is your plan to engage with next generation property technology?’ And the ones that don’t have an answer? I would short their stock. Right now.”
A month on, it is a statement he staunchly stands by. Based on more than 15 years’ experience in the property and technology sectors – including a decade at Cushman & Wakefield in Chicago as a commercial broker – the 39-year-old is convinced that the ground beneath the global real estate sector “is irreversibly shifting”. And anyone who still sees tech as a peripheral issue needs to think again. “Anyone who has been to Davos, anyone who listens to analysts from Goldman Sachs, anyone who is talking to any of the big banks for that matter should all be able to see that proptech is changing everything,” he says.
“It should be talked about in every boardroom. At least among the CEOs and CFOs who want to stay in business. And the people who still don’t see that? Well, we don’t waste any time thinking about them, frankly.”
With plans to take MetaProp global, Block has more than half an eye on the burgeoning UK proptech scene. “We are further ahead in America just because of the comparably large size of the property market and VC investor community, but enthusiasm in the UK is fuelling funding and pilot programmes much faster than we are seeing here in the US.”
And as for why the UK tech or property communities should be keeping an eye on MetaProp in the meantime? “I’m not claiming we are brilliant, but because of our US location we are in the right place at the right time,” says Block. “So British companies can look to us as a leading indicator of what could be to come. If you are following what we are doing, you will see what the property industry in the States is picking up, the technologies they are adopting. Use us as a rabbit on the track. Chase us.”
Beyond the accelerator
When Block set up MetaProp NYC back in January 2015, the aim was to use the programme to identify and support new technologies that could be used to tackle the “big and hairy” problems facing the property sector.
Now the set-up goes beyond a simple accelerator concept, which makes up one of three strands to the business, alongside acting as a VC investor and an advisory firm. “Of course you can run any one of those three things as a standalone business very well,” says Block. “A lot of people do that. But we exist as an organisation to bridge the gap between three major constituencies: the start-ups, the corporates and the venture capital community. Ultimately the reason we started MetaProp was because no
one was connecting.”
Forging those connections is proving to be a near universal hurdle. Certainly in the UK, the challenges around bringing the technology and property sectors together successfully is becoming an increasingly hot topic the more the worlds collide. “It is a real issue,” says Block. “That’s why we wanted to create this ongoing, perennial programme to bring these people together in a productive way over time. Not as a one-off. We need to help the property world understand that these proptech companies are the future. They will be the leaders going forward and we need to support them. So hopefully we are doing what we can to bridge that gap.”
The VC investment arm of the business is a significant stepping stone to a more cohesive future. MetaProp has the power, and the funds, to put its money where its mouth is. It has invested in more than 50 companies that have raised over $1.6bn (£1.3bn). This not only gives the right start-ups a real chance to get off the ground without necessarily relying on external seed funding, but reassures the property side of the equation that there is faith in the product. “We run two venture funds and almost all of our partners look to us as a filtering system to pilot, test and acquire new technologies,” says Block.
In a bid to pick up new innovation early – and to support the next generation of entrepreneurs – MetaProp announced earlier this year that it would be partnering with Columbia University to launch the world’s first pre-accelerator. “This is the first time we are seeing an Ivy League lean in and bet heavily on proptech,” says Block. “It is how we see being able to successfully grow seeds into start-ups that can then grow into an accelerator programme.”
Portraits by Salem Krieger
A company with huge ambitions, MetaProp remains a lean operation. It is made up of just eight staff including the three co-founders; Block, Clelia Peters – part of the American banking Warburg Peters family, a former Boston Consulting Group consultant and now president of luxury Manhattan real estate brokerage Warburg Realty – and investment banking and angel investment stalwart Zach Aarons.
“Being completely honest, another big reason we set this company up had a lot to do with ego,” says Block. “That’s the truth. We were all mid-career and wanted to do something that would leave a mark on the world. We see this business as a way to help people through a major sea change. That is meaningful and makes us all feel really good. Zach is part of a big family property business, he doesn’t need to do this. Clelia is a Warburg, she doesn’t need to do this either. We all do it because we love it.”
The labour of love is paying off with a triple digit growth rate year on year and now a plan to expand overseas.
“We are very busy in New York at the moment but I would say that within the next 18-24 months we will be selectively expanding either the accelerator, the VC arm or the advisory business,” says Block.
“We are looking at the UK and across western Europe where there is now so much more interest in proptech. New York has a special recipe for tech success so it made sense for us to launch here. But enthusiasm is a leading indicator of future success and a natural evolution is occurring which is forcing people to listen. London is at that stage now where people are really paying attention. So while it may sound like I am New York-centric, I am looking elsewhere. London, Berlin, Mumbai and maybe even Moscow are all really interesting markets.
“Once upon a time New York was the most forward-thinking place in the world. But that was back when no one else was. I mean, if anyone was then it was New York. But over the last 18 months there has been a shift. And as I keep saying, that shift? It’s irreversible.”