Mihir Shah and Yishai Lerner like a challenge, and their latest one could reshape an entire industry.
The JLL Technologies co-CEOs have all the credentials of seasoned technology entrepreneurs. The pair co-founded a startup which was eventually acquired by Groupon and Lerner was an early angel investor in Uber. Their first project together during their sophomore year at MIT even involved robots.
“(The MIT project) was basically 30 days of being in the lab, where we didn’t sleep,” Shah said, “We didn’t talk to anybody else, which is pretty much what it feels like in a startup.”
Added Lerner, “We didn’t go home. We slept under the desk at the lab, and we were passionate about building a robot that would compete autonomously against the 50 best competing robots at MIT. And we had a robot that didn’t work until the day of the competition, and then worked flawlessly through 12 rounds of competition to win against every single other team out there.”
The duo’s next project will hopefully come with similar success and more comfortable sleeping arrangements. Shah and Lerner joined the commercial real estate industry with the launch of JLL Spark in 2017, and in June of last year announced the establishment of a global venture fund to help bring proptech ideas to reality.
That work led to the creation of JLL Technologies — announced in October — a new business division for JLL that will align and expand its technology and digital initiatives, as well as accelerate innovation in commercial real estate for the firm’s investor and occupier clients.
“As we told JLL when we first started, a startup is a pivot,” Lerner said. “You never know exactly how you’re going to get somewhere. You might know where you want to go, but the path there is always going to change or evolve.”
We sat down with the pair from JLL Technologies in their San Francisco office to discuss technology transformation in real estate.
A conversation with the leaders of JLL Technologies
Q: What was the attraction to PropTech?
Shah: Both of us were trying to buy a commercial real estate building in San Francisco as a personal investment. When we went through the process we realized, “Wow, it’s really hard to find data about this building, and this is not exactly how we thought it should go.”
Lerner: We made offers. We were turned down. We didn’t understand why, didn’t understand what they were going to go for, didn’t understand how other people evaluated these buildings and so it was really a very opaque process.
Shah: And that’s the time when JLL came calling and said, “Hey, we think that technology is going to transform our entire industry, and it would be great to have people who worked on technology— transformative technologies—to come and help us.”
Q: What did you see when you first stepped foot into the industry?
Shah: When we first started, we spent the first six months just studying and understanding the space.
Lerner: We literally sat in with teams— property management teams, product and development services teams—to see what they do on a daily basis. What are the pain points? What are the challenges?
Shah: Initially we thought we would find white space where technology could solve a particular problem, and we would build businesses at Spark along those lines. What we found very quickly was the proptech space was moving way faster than we thought—with way more startups and entrepreneurs coming in this space. If we truly wanted to do what we’re here to do, we needed to work with more companies. Building just one or two businesses at a time was not enough.
Q: That’s when you evolved your model in June of 2018 to create a $100 million global venture fund. What led to that pivot?
Lerner: One of the realizations was the breadth of what JLL does, in the industry as a whole, was much larger than we even realized coming in, and so again, to help all those business lines we needed to find technology that can help different groups. Just investing in one or two ourselves wasn’t going to be enough. So, investing in 13 now in year one, you know, we’re starting to have an impact on a much larger group of businesses at JLL.
Shah: We have three kinds of companies we invest in: companies whose products could be used by JLL business lines to improve their service delivery; companies whose products can be sold to clients of JLL, namely investors and occupiers; and companies that we see are sort of disruptive in this space, trying to get a different kind of business model. If you look at that on one axis, and you look at all of JLL’s businesses on the other axis, and you take these 13 companies, you’ll see that they cover the entire matrix. And that’s what Yishai is talking about, is we’re starting to be able to impact a broad set of clients and businesses around JLL.
Q: How do you connect with the businesses you choose to invest in?
Shah: Often a startup actually comes to us by an introduction to someone at JLL. When we see a startup, we often go back to someone at JLL for due diligence. Before we invest, we ask, “What do you think of this product, and would our clients want it?” And then when we invest, it’s great because they already understand that this makes sense to them.
Q: What is it about you that positions JLL Spark and JLL Technologies to be successful in an industry that’s been slow to adopt?
Shah: We are a little unique. First of all, we have been technology entrepreneurs ourselves. So we’ve done it, we understand what the entrepreneur is going through; and we have empathy for the entrepreneur. The other thing is that, although we’re part of JLL, we’re really very independent in terms of how we make our investment decisions.
Lerner: We have a different vibe, even just in this office.
Shah: But that’s great, because I think JLL and our clients benefit from that kind of atmosphere that we bring. We bring startups, and we invest in them. But we’re also unique because we have this investment team and growth team. Where the investment team will make the investment decisions, but then there’s a growth team which also has operators like us, who have a lot of technology experience, who have led technology companies in the past. They will work with the CEOs of our portfolio companies to figure out the best ways to get products to either JLL, investor clients, or occupier clients.