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Transcript: Direct Connect – David Holman: Connected To Customers

Kylie Davis:

Welcome to the PropTech Podcast. It's Kylie Davis here, and I'm delighted to be your host as we explore the brave new world where technology and real estate and property collide. It's so great to have you here and share more stories of innovation and opportunity across real estate, property and building services. Now, the aim of each episode is to introduce listeners to a PropTech innovator who is pushing the boundaries of what's possible across how we design, build, buy, sell, rent and invest in property, and all of the associated behaviour around that. And none of this would be possible without the fabulous support of our sponsors. A big shout out to Direct Connect, Dynamic Methods and PropTech Association Australia. Thank you so much for your support of the podcast.


Kylie Davis:

Now, my guest this week is David Holman, CEO of Direct Connect. David has had a long career in the energy industry. Before taking the role of CEO of Direct Connect in 2016, he was head of business development at Red Energy for 11 years, and has always specialised in keeping large scale businesses innovative and aligned with future trends, while never losing sight of the importance of great relationships with customers. Direct Connect is one of Australia's most established connection service providers but under David's leadership, the company has undergone a reinvigoration, increasing the types of services it's able to connect to, to expand from its origin in energy services, to include cleaning, removalists, insurance and even truck hire and delivering service that is tech enabled and deeply personal. And in this interview, David and I discussed the competitive marketplace of connection services, the challenges of innovating at scale and the challenges that both movers and real estate agencies are facing in the space. Here to tell us all about it, David Holman, welcome to the PropTech Podcast.


David Holman:

Thanks Kylie, thanks for having me.


Kylie Davis:

No, it's great. This conversation is long overdue. David, you're the CEO of Direct Connect. And so tell us, what is the Direct Connect elevator pitch?


David Holman:

Well, we're a customer centric business helping people move home and connecting all their services, such as electricity, gas and internet, and offering help with all the other services designed to make the move as easy as possible. We're all about ease and convenience.


Kylie Davis:

Awesome. Let's run through the services that Direct Connect offers, and how big is the business? Give us a bit of a view on how big you are.


David Holman:

Okay. Well, for movers, we offer services from a number of leading national service providers, so around energy, telco, pay TV and also other service providers across multiple states. We're right across the Eastern seaboard, Queensland, New South Wales, Vic in South Australia. But we also partner with various other technology providers for services such as cleaning and removalists. They've got different platforms that we use. And part of that process is that we're constantly re reviewing our technology partners and our suppliers, just to make sure that our services evolves.


David Holman:

I guess, how big we are … Over the last 17 years, we've helped more than one and a half million people move home and get their lights on and get their broadband connected and furniture moved and homes cleaned. We've got just over a thousand real estate businesses, conveyances and various other software service providers that are partners of Direct Connect. Some have been with us for well in excess of 10 years and others are just newly coming on into the partnership. Really, our business and our ethos is connecting and helping people, but also getting their homes connected. It's connecting people, connecting technology and connecting homes.


Kylie Davis:

Awesome. I didn't realise that you also did those other services around moving and cleaning and things like that.


David Holman:

Yeah. And it's increasingly becoming important in different states. And look, there is more technology and different marketplaces that are really improving those services. And one of our partners that we use, it's really the Uber of cleaning, if you like. They source all the cleaners, they police check them, they've got the reference checking, et cetera, and that offers the ability to people to choose different services that they want.


Kylie Davis:

Awesome, awesome. Direct Connect, you're part of Red Energy and Snowy Hydro are you?


David Holman:

We are, we are. We're owned by Snowy Hydro. Snowy actually bought Infratil Australia's assets back in 2015, and that included Lumo Energy and Direct Connect. And Snowy also owned Red Energy. Red Energy was started in 2004, as was Lumo and Direct Connect, all around the same time, all about 17 years old. And then we incorporated Red and Lumo together as our energy brands and bought them together on the same platform. And we continued to run Direct Connect as a standalone business. Red and Lumo combined, we've got about 1.1 million customers across Australia but Direct Connect is our business that's focused on helping people move.


Kylie Davis:

Awesome. And so if I am using Direct Connect, am I obligated to use only Red Energy or are there other options around that?


David Holman:

No, no. We offer choice. We've got other providers on the panel, so Origin and AGL. We really try and partner with those quality nationally led brands, certainly Red being our national brand and Lumo in Victoria and South Australia. No, it's the customer's choice.


Kylie Davis:

Awesome, okay. You really do get the connection services, the convenience and then also the choice.


David Holman:

That's right, that's right. And then we do that on broadband. We've got a number of different partners that we work with, so people aren't tied into fixed term contracts if they then decide to make a different choice once they've got the lights on. I guess, our focus really is about that speed and convenience of getting the lights on, which is what people need when they're moving home.


Kylie Davis:

Oh God, yes. I remember one very particularly bad move that we made with a 12 month old baby. Tell me a little bit about your career. How did you come to be in this role?


David Holman:

Well, I'm part of the executive team of our broader retail business. I started with Red 11 years ago. I'm the general manager of business development, which in typical style in our portfolio, covers a few different things. And that includes marketing and brand strategy and different channel development, et cetera. And really, creating new businesses was my mandate. I had a one line job description, or still do, which is add value. And so that resonated with me. And as I said, about five, six years ago, we bought Lumo and Direct Connect. And at that time, shortly afterwards, I became the CEO of Direct Connect. We run that business and we also manage other parts of our business but look, I'm a Kiwi originally, 21 years in Australia. Been in the energy industry for about 30 years, worked obviously in New Zealand and in the UK, in London for a few years, and now settled in Australia with my family.


Kylie Davis:

Awesome, awesome. I love your job description, add value. I'm stealing that. Look, that connection services space, it's pretty … Back in 2004, when Direct Connect started up, it was all pretty brand new but now, it's a really hotly contested space and there's lots of new PropTechs coming into the space and there's lots of innovation in the space. How does Direct Connect remain competitive?


David Holman:

I think there's a number of ways of doing it. I think there's probably three key areas that we look at. One, is to stay absolutely focused on the customer experience. I think that's really important. As the customer sentiment shifts, really that means listening to the customer feedback no matter what, whether it's good or bad, and making the improvements. And the way that we look at that, it's all about the one percenters and just doing that continuously and focusing on the customer. I would say the second way, is staying on top of the emerging trends, both from a customer sentiment point of view, which in our case is obviously the people moving home but also for our real estate partners. For real estate, over the last 18 months we've integrated into 12 different PropTech companies and we've got a significant pipeline of future integration, so staying ahead in that way. Got to say though, we're very considered as to how we do that and who we integrate with, really got to be about values alignment, culture, cybersecurity, compliance, data privacy, all of those things play into our decision making.


Kylie Davis:

Awesome. Do you want to give a shout out to some of the PropTechs that you're collaborating with or integrating with?


David Holman:

Well, Property Tree, so MRI now, we've been with them through their rest enterprise system for some time. PropertyMe, we're in with [10 App 00:09:44], we're there. Look, there's a number … I don't want to leave anyone out.


Kylie Davis:

That's okay. We are seeing that trend, one of the trends that I'm sure you mentioned, because it's now part of your service offer but is that whole of property service offerings. And some of your competitors are not just doing, moving and utilities but a whole range of other services. How do you assess what services should be inside Direct Connect?


David Holman:

Well again, listening to our customers and understanding the trends that are emerging. I think part of it is not just plugging in another service, it's really making sure that it adds value. And I won't say that it works but …


Kylie Davis:

No, no, that's very important in PropTech, right.


David Holman:

And look, the journey is seamless and it doesn't just feel clunky and just a add in on the side. And I think that's important. I think it's very exciting for the industry as a whole, that there's a lot of new platforms that are emerging and new marketplaces that are emerging but it has to be seamless and it's got to be about managing that whole customer journey. I think that's what we look at. Certainly, things like maintenance and various other things coming in, there's some exciting opportunities around that. We're exploring different opportunities but really, what I'm interested in is around that local community, perhaps more in a virtual way than physically but combining the physical and the virtual. Again, if I take the maintenance side of it as an example, a lot of real estate partners, they have long formed relationships with their local tradies and we want to help maintain that as well.


Kylie Davis:

Yeah, yeah. And look, it's been a great year. Or a great 18 months, two years for the merging of virtual plus the physical, hasn't it?


David Holman:

It certainly has. And I think it's now becoming a bit of a cliche but COVID has been that great accelerator of people adapting new ways of either working or new ways of working with their clients and customers. And I think what people have found that was a little bit scary, they found that actually, that change that they can bring into their business, they can do relatively quickly but there is a little bit of change fatigue setting in with some, so I think we're seeing a more considered approach going forward.


Kylie Davis:

Yeah. And you guys have an awesome office in Melbourne, in the old Bryant and May Factory with from memory, a slide that goes from one level to the next level. I would be racing to get back into the office just so I could go on the slide about five times.


David Holman:

Oh, we're very lucky. Yeah. It's the Bryant and May building in Richmond, which is an old match factory Redheads matches. And yeah, we've got two slides.


Kylie Davis:

Two slides. Oh, my God. I've only seen one.


David Holman:

Well, next time you're in, we'll have to get you down both of them. And it's look, I was in there last week and we're slowly coming back to the building, as a lot of Victorians are now. And it's the vibe really, that you really miss. On any given day prior to COVID, we'd have 8, 900 people in the building. And I really think it's about … A lot of it is about community. A lot of it is about that human interactions and we want to start getting that back.


Kylie Davis:

Yeah. No, I can completely understand.


Kylie Davis:

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Kylie Davis:

Tell me about the Direct Connect business model. Is Direct Connect only for property management teams or is it anyone who moves?


David Holman:

Well again, two sides to the business. Obviously, one side is our concierge call centre and the various other services that we've got for anyone that's moving. But the vast majority of our referrals that come to our business are via the real estate network but predominantly renters, just the sheer volume, obviously. People rent in and that convenience offer in terms of the timeframe they have to move but increasingly, home owners. And we're talking to all of our real estate partners about just bringing the home owners. We've got a service tailored for that particular part of the market as well, recognising that everybody's different. This is not about a one size fits all. This really is making sure that we know what's important to different demographics of customers and trying to move our various supplier network through that journey.


Kylie Davis:

You have two sets of customers, you've got B2B and B2C, I'm assuming.


David Holman:

That's right, that's right. The B2B part of it, obviously the real estate network, we're actually essentially a revenue stream for that particular part of the business. We pay for referrals coming our way. And what we try and do is at the same time, make their life easier. And that's where technology plays its role, we're partnering with different technology providers, software service providers to make it very, very easy to send the referrals to us. And then yes, the B2C side, we talk to all of the movers.


Kylie Davis:

The movers themselves, awesome. What do you see those two different customers sets, what are the challenges that they're facing at the moment?


David Holman:

Look, I think there's a couple of things. I think, from the customers themselves, and I think this is just a human thing, that time's a precious commodity and it's part of the thing that we look at in terms of our convenience, is helping save time. And even though some of us are still at home and we're starting to get back to the office, I think time is still short. But as part of that, equally it's that human connection that has been missing in our lives. I think we've just about run all of our lives in a digital fashion one way or another. And I think for us, as I said, we talk to all of the customers and having that human connection and that empathy is incredibly important. And we have the same philosophy on the real estate side, a number of account managers across the country and just reengaging back face to face with our clients and going out and visiting them and just really understanding what's going on in their business.


Kylie Davis:

Yeah, awesome. What's your personal approach to innovation? Because Direct Connect, 2004, 17 years old and part of a much bigger organisation, how do you stay innovative?


David Holman:

Me personally or the company.


Kylie Davis:

Well, how do you stay innovative? And then I'm going to guess, as CEO that's going to flow down into the company.


David Holman:

Yeah, it does a little bit. Well, just at a personal level, I'm a bit of an early adopter. I've annoyed my family by very early on, having a connected home. And with some of the earlier technology that was available, that didn't quite gel together.


Kylie Davis:

Do you have a sonar system that just will not behave these days? You do. My husband curses at it every morning.


David Holman:

I do. And the family has to talk to Google to turn the lights on and off, et cetera. But from that, I guess I take those learnings. Just be careful about …


Kylie Davis:

Version 1.0.


David Holman:

That's right. From an innovation point of view, from a company perspective I guess … Look, I think we are very considered in how we approach innovation and it can't be innovation for innovation's sake. It really needs to make a difference. When we do have a look different emerging technologies and different organisations, really for us, the first and foremost is the values and cultural fit that come with that company because we're going to partner with them ultimately, we're going to work with people that do what they do extremely well. And then we'll make sure that we can, as I said, fit that into a seamless journey for our clients, if that's the purpose of the technology and the innovation. Or does it really add to the customers rather than just … I don't know, the latest cool thing.


Kylie Davis:

It's really important, isn't it? And you touched on a really interesting point there about the connection between innovation and culture and technology and culture. And this is something that came up on the podcast a couple of episodes ago when Chris Handley pointed it out. And then David Bowie from MRI actually started to expand on it too. I'm going to get your take on it. How do you see innovation and culture connected and how are they connected at Direct Connect?


David Holman:

Oh, I think they're extremely strongly aligned. Culture is obviously all about the way we do things, how we behave, how we interact and how and why we in innovate. From our perspective, a culture of customer first, an entrepreneurial risk management culture, a culture of compliance, really all of that combined with teamwork and having fun along the way, I think all of that's extremely important but I think as an organisation, when you're either adapting or partnering with people that are doing new things, you've really got to have a good view of change and change management and that adaptability to go into something that may not have a blueprint, that may not have been done before. There's a lot of courage that comes with that, which again, is linked to the culture. There's a lot of ownership that comes with that, which is very aligned with our values of agility and ownership and decency, et cetera. I can't separate the two, they are so intertwined.


Kylie Davis:

Yeah. And how do you engage your B2B clients, so the real estate space, around innovating and that culture of innovation?


David Holman:

I think it's very different for very different clients. And I really do think it's that one on one interaction we have. And I think to some extent, taking a bit of fear out of change. I think that's the important thing because there's a lot of people saying, "What I'm doing today is fine. Why do I need to do anything different?"


David Holman:

And I actually think for many cases, there's no problem with that. Don't change for change sake, it really has got to be something that truly adds value back to their client base, to their business, whether it's due to efficiency gains or whether it opens up the door to additional revenue opportunities but it's got to have a purpose. And I think understanding that first and foremost before going in with, "Here's something new, would you like to try it?"


Kylie Davis:

Yeah, yeah. What do you want Direct Connect to be known for under your leadership, David?


David Holman:

I think first and foremost, I want us to be known that we are there for the customers. I think that's important, and the evolving needs of our customers. And for us, if that's just as simple as continuing to help make moving easy, then that's what we'll do. And they're the people that we interact with every single day. And I think, we're not a company that's based around a singular piece of software or one particular product. We're a business that's here for the long haul. And it really is, as I said before, it's about connecting people. It's about connecting technology. It's about connecting homes. And we're a leader in what we do.


Kylie Davis:

Do you think some of your clients, especially in that B2B space, take comfort from the fact that you guys have been around and you've seen a lot of stuff before, as opposed to maybe a new startup that is very untested?


David Holman:

Yeah, I do. I think there is an element of that. There's I guess, that scale that comes with accredibility, the experience that we've got. There's a lot of people that talk about DC of old and new. We try and not use that phrase too much but there is an element of continuing to evolve as the market evolves and keeping ahead of it where we need to, riding the wave when we need to. And so we are probably a different looking organisation as we've shifted down the path of 17 years but we also are always looking for what is emerging, what the future might look like. Even though we've been going for 17 years and got all the experience that we have and our clients feel very comfortable with that, we are still pushing the boundaries in terms of looking at what else is coming down the pipeline as well.


Kylie Davis:

Let's just take a short break and hear a quick word from our sponsors. Do you run a PropTech business or are you the founder of a PropTech? Make sure you join the PropTech Association of Australia. It's Australia's new, not for profit association made up of tech people who are passionate about the property industry and committed to improving experiences in how we buy, sell, rent, manage, build and finance property. Joining will give you access to events and networks across Australia and globally to help you promote and grow your business. Go to PropTech association.com.au and follow the prompts to join.


Kylie Davis:

Get your crystal ball out and tell me, what do you think are the big trends or the most important technology trends or human trends that you think are going to impact real estate and property in the next five years?


David Holman:

We do actively think about this. I would say there's probably three trends that I would … There's a lot.


Kylie Davis:

Yeah.


David Holman:

There's a lot but I'll narrow it down to three. One, is 5G and everything that will bring, electric vehicles and what's going to happen there and the connected home. And I think those three things will really change the way we live and how we interact and the way we work. And for the real estate industry, this could mean the way that people manage properties remotely … If I think about 5G, that takes us from 4G, a hundred thousand connections per square kilometre, 5G takes you to a million connections per square kilometre. That brings in preventative maintenance and connected appliances and just a very different way of managing the property in a digital way.


David Holman:

I think data will continue to play a huge role in innovation and technology and the ability to use that in very insightful ways and meaningful ways back to the customer. Electric vehicles are a big game changer for the way people are going to be using their energy, the way they're going to connect their energy, the way people want to monitor that data and the energy use. And that's going to change things for the real estate industry as well, people are really going to be looking for homes that they can plug in their car and …


Kylie Davis:

Yeah. We've been quite behind. Australia's been quite behind on that haven't we, compared to the US and Europe around charging and how you charge … Do you have any … How do we get over that? How do we speed that up?


David Holman:

Well, I think certainly we are and certainly we've seen in the last 12 months, things are really speeding up in that space and you've got to have the distribution network. You've got to have the places where people can plug in. I know that sounds obvious but we do watch the various markets. And if you look at most of the more mature markets, 80% of the charging's done at home. Therefore, the infrastructure at home. There will be all that retrofitting of energy charging stations. A lot of people that have already got solar will be looking how they discharge the solar back to the car. Essentially, rather than a stationary battery, why not have a battery with wheels and you can use it for other things. We are a little bit behind in Australia but I suspect we'll see that starting to speed up. We're talking to a number of different companies out there that have got big plans in that space. And certainly, we see that that will impact on some of the services that Direct Connect offers in the future as well.


Kylie Davis:

Yeah. I'm looking forward to the day when on the agent sign board, you see the bed, bath and then car charge, as well as the car space. I think that will be awesome.


David Holman:

Yeah. They're looking at a lot of the new builds and their apartments, and they're already putting charging infrastructure in place now.


Kylie Davis:

Yeah, yeah. What does the next five years, and that's a long time but what does the next five years hold for Direct Connect, David?


David Holman:

Oh, wow. Well, we are continuing to grow, so that's encouraging. We're continuing to expand our services from our supplier network. I think the main thing we'll see is the rise of the different marketplaces and different technology platforms that will enable that but they'll be done in quite a different way. We're moving into a world of open source banking, and then we've got consumer data rights coming into the energy market, followed by telco, followed by insurance.


Kylie Davis:

Yeah.


David Holman:

The rise of subscription type models, where people get value from different services within that marketplace. We'll see Direct Connect and others shift further into that more integrated digital marketplace that offers multiple services.


Kylie Davis:

Under that model, I wouldn't just have a relationship with Direct Connect when I'm moving house, I would have a relationship the whole time while I'm in my house.


David Holman:

That's right. That's where it starts expanding to not just be a singular event that you can add value, you can add value right across the life cycle of the customer within their own home and other services, as they mature in their own home but when they move to the next home and the next home, et cetera. We'll see a lot of that emerge I expect, in the next five years.


Kylie Davis:

Awesome. Well David, it's been absolutely fantastic talking to you today and hearing about Direct Connect, one of my favourite companies. Thanks so much for your time.


David Holman:

Thank you very much, Kylie. Always good to see you.


Kylie Davis:

Let me tell you the story about how I met David and the Direct Connect team. After speaking at the PropTech summit in the days way back before COVID, a lovely gentleman by the name of Joe Flynn reached out and introduced himself to me and said that he wanted me to talk about PropTech to the Direct Connect team. What happened next was a bit surreal. There was a couple of months where Direct Connect wrapped me up in their warm embrace as I shared with them the insights into the rapidly changing world of PropTech, identified the trends that were driving those changes and worked with them to help them understand how it could improve their business. On a trip to Melbourne to meet David for the first time and brief their Melbourne team, they had their driver pick me up in electric vehicle and collect me from the airport.


Kylie Davis:

And from the trip from Tullamarine to DC's offices in Cremorne in inner city Melbourne, that driver told me the entire philosophy of the company, their approach to people and their vision for sustainable energy and a sustainable future. Now, when you hear the driver of a business acting as an ambassador and being such a raving fan of the company, you know you're dealing with a business that has a pretty amazing culture. And since then, I've spent a lot of time with the team and the wonderful Belinda Seers, and I count her as a dear friend. And I've loved working with James, Brendan, Emily and the team.


Kylie Davis:

Now, as an established PropTech with the large and sometimes cumbersome compliance and legal obligations of an energy company behind them, Direct Connect does have challenges that can define the speed and velocity with which they can innovate. But what I'm always struck with when I deal with Direct Connect, is the thoughtfulness, the care and the deliberateness that goes into everything that they do and their determination to navigate through those challenges. What they end up with, is a really solid piece of technology that has thought through all the angles. And I love that they are now integrating with even more newer PropTech services and a broader range of CRMs. It's great to hear that they're now offering so many services to not just renters but anyone moving. And in doing so, empowering real estate agencies to deliver those services to their clients in a way that's both connected and personal.


Kylie Davis:

Over the past few weeks, I've interviewed both David Holman from Direct Connect and David Bowie from MRI. And I think both businesses represent what all startup PropTechs should want to be when they grow up, mature businesses that remain innovative, not just because they have strong tech offerings but because of the calibre of their people and the strength of their cultures and their commitment to putting people at the centre of their offering.


Kylie Davis:

Now, if you have enjoyed this episode of the PropTech Podcast, I would love you to tell all your friends. Check out all of our episodes on thePropTechPodcast.com or drop me a line either via email, LinkedIn or Facebook. You can follow this podcast on Spotify, Google Podcast, Anchor and Apple iTunes, or anywhere good podcast are heard. I'd like to thank my podcast Producer, Charlie Hollands, and our sponsors Direct Connect, making moving easy, Dynamic Methods, the name behind Forms Live, REI Forms live and Realworks. And the PropTech Association of Australia, Australia's industry body supporting the flourishing PropTech community. If you're an Australian or New Zealand PropTech who would like to be on the show, drop me a line via LinkedIn or Kylie at proptechassociation.com.au. Thanks, everyone. Until next time, keep on PropTeching.