MAIN IMAGE: Michelle Dickens, CEO of PayProp SA
Michelle Dickens has a well-earned reputation in PropTech, first as the co-founder of TPN, and now as the CEO of PayProp South Africa. Here she shares her experience, and her perspective on the future of PropTech, and women in the industry.
You co-founded the TPN Credit Bureau at 24 – can you share a bit about that experience? What motivated you to become involved in the property industry?
I studied accounting and did my articles, but I decided I didn’t want to tick boxes as an auditor so I moved into the property management field, where I worked for three or four years.
This was before the Rental Housing Act, so it was like the Wild West at the time. Tenants would abscond from the property in the middle of the night, or they wouldn’t pay their rent. So I wanted to create a community where landlords and agents could share their experiences of delinquent tenants in a central database.
But you can’t use a list of delinquent tenants to select quality tenants – you don’t know if someone isn’t on the list because they’re a good tenant, or because their landlord isn’t on the system. So the business morphed from being a list of delinquent tenants to a list of good tenants.
Our vision was to build a profile of every single tenant in South Africa: have they paid their rent on time every single month or not? But more than that, we also wanted to change behaviour to get tenants to reliably pay their rent in full before the first of the month.
Could you share some of the lessons you learned first building, and then running your own business?
When we went out to market with TPN, people would say ‘This is an excellent idea, how many tenants are on the list, and, how many agents are contributing to it?’ We had to demonstrate the value of a service that hadn’t yet been built on data that hadn’t yet been incorporated.
That’s where reciprocity comes in. When we share that data in our community, we protect each other and benefit from our shared experiences. We had to build that community and engage with partners to bring data in reliably, consistently and, accurately.
The other lesson was about the data itself, and that was that quality is more important than quantity. You have to understand what makes that data useful and use good metrics.
You joined PayProp towards the end of last year, what prompted the move?
After I sold TPN I was in a very, very privileged position where I didn’t have to work. Honestly, I had many offers but I wasn’t in the market to join anyone.
But PayProp is a FinTech business. It’s in tech, and I love tech, and it’s in property, and I love property. It’s a company I’ve known since the start: I founded TPN in 1999 and I’ve worked with PayProp since 2004. It’s also a global company. It was an opportunity to take some of the lessons we’ve learned here in South Africa and deploy them overseas, and to take what we’ve learned overseas and deploy it locally.
So when PayProp approached me, it was an easy decision. The culture, the people, the clients, the whole PayProp business, it all made it very easy.
Could you share some of your goals as CEO?
I’ve always believed in empowering people with the right data and knowledge base to make good decisions. Knowledge is empowerment. We’re in a very privileged position at PayProp with the amount of data we have. So how do we take that data and share it with the industry? My goal is to help all of our stakeholders – landlords, estate agents, and tenants – make better decisions based on trusted data.
PropTech is moving away from being a buzzword, into something that’s becoming essential within the industry. How do you see tech being incorporated more in the next few years?
I’ve been in PropTech since before it was called PropTech. With TPN, we built a credit bureau on an Internet platform when the majority of estate agents didn’t even have an Internet connection – we had to develop a way to send credit checks on demand by fax.
So PropTech has developed a long way from those days to where we are today. And the important thing for PropTech and FinTech providers is to develop solutions that solve real problems and create efficiencies. Providers have to understand what the needs of residential property managers and administrators are at the moment, and the number one need is scalability.
How do residential rental professionals scale their businesses? They need the funds their business is built on to be safe and secure, and they need to retain their landlords because there’s a lot of churn in this business. So FinTech has to deliver on efficiency, security, and scalability.
Would you say that real estate is a female-friendly industry?
The data tells us it is – PayProp’s latest State of the Rental Industry survey found that a majority of the real estate workforce is female. But there are a lot of different layers to that.
There is a lot of female representation in administration and rental management, and we’ve seen an increase in female ownership of properties, but there’s work that can be done in terms of getting equity into the hands of female owners.
There are also differences across different types of real estate: commercial property versus residential property versus construction. And female representation in the residential sector is higher than it is in construction, for example.
In my mind, we can always do better. My focus, and my passion, is giving everyone equal opportunities with the right knowledge and the right data to make good choices and good decisions. It doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female – it’s about empowering people.
What advice would you give to women wanting to get into real estate & affiliated industries?
Knowledge is power. Never stop learning. Never stop empowering yourself. Find good mentors and coaches – people you can trust and reach out to. The people we surround ourselves with define who we are, so surround yourself with good people. Be the best version of yourself, and take one step forward every day: learn something new and apply it.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
God, my family, and the people who have coached and mentored me along the way.