In our latest Digital Lighthouse episode, Zoe Cunningham is joined by Jonny Britton, who is a co-founder and the CEO of LandTech. He discusses how LandTech started as a response to unclear and missing tools for property developers and self-builders to buy land. Jonny shares how the company is fulfilling its customers’ needs and how technology has been the catalyst for supporting urban development.

Digital Lighthouse is a mini-series of Techtalks brings you industry insights, opinions, features and interviews impacting the tech industry. Follow us to never miss an episode on SoundCloud now: See all the Digital Lighthouse interviews online for free on SoundCloud

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Transcript

Zoe:

Hello and welcome to the Digital Lighthouse. I’m Zoe Cunningham. On the Digital Lighthouse, we get inspiration from tech leaders to help us to shine a light through turbulent times so that we can learn, act and change as a result, for the benefit of our businesses. We believe that if you have a lighthouse, you can harness the power of the storm today.

I’m super excited to welcome Jonny Britton who is a co-founder and the CEO of LandTech. Hello Jonny and welcome to the Digital Lighthouse. Could I ask you to start with to maybe introduce yourself and tell us about what LandTech does?

Jonny: 

Hi Zoe, thank you for having me.

Sure. I’m Jonny Britton. I co-founded LandTech about eight years ago. Was previously a town planner who was frustrated with the pace of town planning and moved into becoming a software developer. LandTech is a suite of tools that enables property developers to unlock pieces of land, essentially to buy pieces of land.

So we have a range of products that help our clients identify good opportunities to stay on track, keep keep up to date with what’s happening in the land market, who’s doing what, what stuff’s coming through planning. It enables them to find good opportunities and to build a project around them bringing in their teammates people from our other organizations to partner with to turn these these projects into actual land deals so that they can get through planning and be funded.

We’ve got solutions and we’re building our solutions for that whole life cycle (so from from identification through to the funding of of a piece of land) and the whole idea is that we make it that bit much easier so that it increases productivity and enables more people to do it and ultimately we we get more productivity in the land market. So that people can build more properties and and development and in theory try and solve the housing crisis or do a little bit towards it.

Zoe: 
Exactly. There’s definitely much more that can be done. I think having successive governments come in and state housing targets you know and not hit them, so technology is always the answer to everything, right?

Jonny:
Ah, it’s certainly in in this industry. It’s got started from almost nothing so we advanced our customers lives so significantly. It radically transformed the way that people search for land and, over time as we’ve gone on, we realized we’re not really solving the actual problem. We’ve made a fantastic business with our first product LandInsight, but our clients still have got a mountain to climb before they actually do a deal on land and it’s really tricky and really high risk to do that. So we can see huge opportunities of improving their lives.

Zoe: 
So how did you initially realize that there was an opportunity in this area? Is it something that came from your town planning days?

Jonny:
I wish I’d had that vision when I was a town planner. Unfortunately, I didn’t and in fact, this is where you join our story.

So I was introduced to a guy called Andrew Moist who had tried to do a self-build project, who was a software engineer in London that you knew. And he was trying to do a self-build project and realized that it’s incredibly difficult. Where’s the land? There is no land available. How do you value a piece of land? How do you purchase a piece of land? How do you know? What you can put on a piece of land?

All of these challenges were incredibly hard even for professionals. Let alone for self-builders. So he tried to set up a solution to help self-builder find land and reached out for a co-founder to help him. You retweeted or tweeted on his search about co-founder and and I emerged, trapped in a snowstorm in the North East on Twitter more than would normally have been, and it was serendipity kind of I guess.

Nice thing about social media is it enables serendipity, but it it certainly helped us to do that and we tried to do that. We tried to build his project. But what we found is that it was just far too hard. We we weren’t able to build a solution that really solved the problem. We tried to build a marketplace to help self-builders find plots of land. But there’s no, not necessarily good plots of land for sale near where people want to live, where their jobs are, where their friends and family are and you know we couldn’t think of a way to solve that problem.

So we tried to codify how professionals find land and effectively they buy it on the market or they buy it off the market. On the market’s largely to do with their network and off the market land was really interesting. They prospectively search for pieces of land that can match their what they want to in terms of the risk profile, the profit they can make, what they want, what they’re capable of building and we tried to decode that and give it to self builders and say ‘look this is how a professional does it. Would do you like to do it? This is how they value a piece of land. This is how they go through planning’.

It just blew their minds. They just wanted to do a dream home build and we weren’t able to get them educated them well enough through this complicated process. So, at that point, we pivoted and thought well actually look, we’ve got a theory of change which is that we think that by helping the people with the biggest problem we can solve the problem for most of the industry.

So by helping self-builder in the UK, there’s actually that many people do it around Europe. So if we could bring it up to European levels. We can solve the housing crisis but we weren’t able to, so we pivoted to saying we can help those who are actually doing development into being far more productive and solve the housing crisis in a different way. So there was kind of a journey towards it rather than being a big visionary. Which sounds much more like a genius it was. It was far more evolutionary.

Zoe: 
And that’s how it always works right? I think that very few businesses start out from an idea and you just have the idea and implement the idea and and then you’re done. You know it’s always learning more about what is available and what is possible before you get to a final solution.

Jonny:
Yeah I think so and I probably think that’s where most startups fail as well, by either being pressured to build too early and go too fast with the wrong solution, or not giving it the time it takes to go through. That I mean it was a two-year process effectively.

Zoe: Yeah, and something I really want to ask is that obviously the government is also investing in using its own data and using public data. So why is a startup?

Jonny:
Sure and, you know when we probably none met about eight years ago, we probably haven’t that was but very live conversation for us and only really in the last couple of months have has a white paper been released by the by RTPI (the Royal Town Planning Institute) which makes it look like it might start to happen.

But still I think we’re probably three or four years away from a meaningful amount of data being released for the type of data that we use and and I do think it could be a good way to go. But I have to say I’m a bit of a skeptic now with what I know about about the government. I don’t know how much to get into it now. So I’ll just say that I’m not sure how much we’re aligned in them and their work.

Whereas where there’s a small company, we effectively raised a small amount of money. We raised none back in 2015 and have radically transformed the way that the property developers find opportunities and and have opened up that up to to the none of developers democratizing this information using technology, building a 200-strong business and raising $50000000 along the way. So I have you know a few doubts there.

There’s planning applications in the UK, probably ten, eleven million and we go into every Council and we ingest the data from their systems. Each planning application is a PDF document. We go in and read each of those documents and extract certain lines of text. Which we then interpret and make available through our application.

It’s certainly going to help us if the government make either the standards by which the data gets inputted into those systems or makes that data more available. I hope they draw the line there. What we then do we actually, we combine that that data with other datasets and and that’s where we start to add value and then through the ability to to analyse multiple datasets and make patterns or searches or filtering in a very visual and way on a map.

That’s where we can help our users a great deal and then from there, from that we can turn that into a project or make a report or it can be shared or collaborated over and so. It’s great that the government are are doing these things and they can really help us, but we just add a lot more value excuse me, so we haven’t just a different approach to it. We’re very, very user-centric about what the problems are for our users and and they’re kind of taking a big infrastructure level view of things.

Zoe: 
I think that makes sense and actually I think that answers my question really well because, at the end of the day, your only challenge is to solve the problems of developers and help developers be as efficient as possible within the Framework.

Whereas the government is responsible for setting and maintaining and policing, you know property development across the country which is a different focus right? And so I’m like you – I’m very much a a believer in a mixed economy and actually the government does some stuff well and private companies do some stuff well and the more we coexist, the better.

I do want to ask though: So, this sounds like a massive data challenge that you started with in terms getting hold of the data and then processing the data. Were there kind of challenges around that when you started or or were there other technical challenges that were actually more pressing?

Jonny:
That that that was actually the big challenge that we had. We kind of did the whole lean startup thing, mock ups and experiments, to prove the value proposition and make people click things so, we knew that they wanted it and all this nice hacky stuff.

But when it came down to it, we needed to build data set and and you know we were in the right place at the right time in many ways because we were able to lift some machine learning models off-the-shelf or natural language processing models off-the-shelf that Google had made available and others were making available and implement them so we could interpret the data.

And we frankly were the right time at the right place to get Amazon Web Services that we could spin up huge servers on demand and not pay for ongoing massive server costs. So it enabled us to do it much cheaper. And some of the databases that were coming out were really well-suited towards what we needed at the time. A lot of map-based databases and open source tools were available, so it enabled us.

Along with the funding, the hiring of a lot of people, having an identified need from our customers which attracts the funding in, and you can speak to the customers about the right thing. So we were able to get all that in place and, although it took us a year just to build a rudimentary dataset, that that took many many years to to get accurate over over time. That was the differentiator between us and many other well-funded competitors who joined the the industry and tried to compete with us. Just by taking the time to do the really hard thing that we knew wasn’t being valued as that, that enabled us to to kind of win out in the end.

Zoe: 
That’s the definition of solving the problem right?

There’s no value in reimplementing something that someone else does or doing things that are easy. The value comes from the difficult challenges that people haven’t solved and obviously you’re so there. I can see with data – it’s always the case that you need to almost have the data before you can get clients on board, but you need clients on board to know what data you know? So I can really see that. That’s a big challenge.

And now you have investment you mentioned and obviously you’ve got the business model. You know that’s kind of well-established and like you say honed over years. What are the challenges now? How have your technical challenges changed compared to back in the day?

Jonny: 
Okay so I’m not sure how much you’re supposed to admit this stuff but many of the technical challenges we have now came from the technical choices we made at the beginning.

Zoe: 
Ah, very honest. I appreciate the honesty. That’s brilliant.

Jonny: 
Yeah, I mean we we really focused on going fast solving user needs, tackling as many of the user problems as we could, so we could expand our and addressable market and we focussed far less on technical debt or or the infrastructure that you need to scale and have you know multiple engineers working on it on the application at the same time.

I’d say that a lot of our challenges are about the architecting or have been about rearchitecting the tech stack in order to to scale really, because that combined with our next big market challenge. That’s the only way we could tackle it, because we’re going to launch in the US this year and whereas we’ve got about nine odd councils and in England and Wales to to draw the data from, there’s 19,000 municipal councils in in the US that we need to draw the data from so, behind the scenes in our business, it moved from a data aggregation kind of full stack ability to get the data ingested and then all our developers could kind of draw from it and put it into their pieces of the app. But now it needs to be kind of an abstractive layers API-driven. Applications on top and specialized teams working across each of those components of the tech stack.

Zoe: 
Very interesting and I think you’re not alone in that being a challenge as you scale, and perhaps scale to to levels that you hoped but perhaps didn’t. If you don’t get your original product outs and to clients then, there is no scaling challenge later on right? So I think it is always a balancing act.

Do you think you could have known at the start the challenges you would face now? and do you think you could you know if you if you honestly think back, ‘could you have done it differently’?

Jonny: 
Yeah, that’s that’s a good question and I have reflected on that from time to time.

You know most founders are quite creative people. We’re very critical of ourselves and and never settle. If I did it now I would have thought about it differently but knowing what I knew back then it would have been very challenging and just from a knowledge point of view.

But also we didn’t actually expect to be a kind of good company in many ways. We actually didn’t we wanted to solve a problem but we didn’t realize we’d be such a force for good. We have you know built things in a very ethical and sustainable way in terms of our staff and our culture and it’s very empowering.

We bring lots of great minds together and they give us lots of ideas and it’s grown our ambition for how much we can do and the horizon just gets bigger in that regard. We want to solve more of the customer problem now and it’s opened up a huge addressable market and we’ve found ourselves in a position where we’re best placed to do this internationally, so it would have been very difficult to be that prescient. But I also wish I knew what I knew now.

Zoe: 
Yeah, don’t we all don’t we all?

As a technologist and obviously at Softwire, we see a lot of different businesses and their technology evolution. I think that it’s so easy with hindsight to say ‘I wish we had/ we could have/ we should have…’

But actually you know technologists all around the world are always making the best decision they can at the time and things change and that’s why we use agile development right? So that things change we move quickly. We change with them and we accept that. That changes part of life. So yeah, don’t be too hard on yourself and I think that you’ve answered my next question or possibly not – How much of your original code is still in production?

Jonny: 
I haven’t got a very good answer here. Zoe. It’s constant challenge to unpick some of the areas that work perfectly. Well but you know are still in the application. We focused on the moving, the changing, the things that make us move faster and enable our software developers to get up to speed faster and are less likely to to have an impact to the user when. And we’ve slowly unravelled the union, but I’m sure there’s still some dark corners of the application that people are a bit scared to go into.

Zoe: 
I love that answer and, again, I feel that my perspective as a technologist, seeing lots of different businesses, is that you have to balance your product and your user needs.

With like writing a perfectly clean code base that you know is for absolutely every piece, is following absolutely every guideline, it’s just simply not possible and everyone has limited resource. You know if we all had unlimited software developers that we could just use.

So, I agree. I think you’ve done the right thing. I agree with your answer and so just finally, what are your plans for the future like where is LandTech going?

Jonny: 
So, there’s a few things that we’d like to do. We have this flagship product that helps find parcels of land and assess them, assess the value, the potential and we’re taking that to the US. There’s a big gap in the market for us. Our solution’s unique and differentiated, so that is our big push for this year.

But we really see that we have, as I said before, we haven’t solved the problem for our users and that vertical line of exploration opens up really big opportunities.

So, first of all in the UK, at least for now, we’re the only company that has really consolidated that group of property developers into one place and just from doing that, we’ve learned a huge amount. From that community, we’ve actually turned them into the community. We’ve got a community platform where they can talk and discuss and give us ideas and and and we’ve started to do lots of our own podcasts and and seminars, and we’re starting to form a point of view.

And our customers are very misunderstood. That comes through very clearly and we’ve got an opportunity to to represent them better in the industry. You know property developers are always the ‘fall guy’. They’re always getting bashed over the head by the media because their lives are extremely difficult, high-risk, long timeframes. Often they can go bust quite quickly when the economy turns, so it’s not for the fainthearted and we feel like we can advocate for them on their behalf much better than we’re doing now. So we’ve got a lot of activity in that area.

And we really hope that we can be a force for good and and there’s so many amazing property developers building these fabulous sustainable and regenerative projects that we want to shine a light on and and share best practice there and  therefore get more people thinking about. What? What? What? How? What enforcement good property development can be. So there’s quite a few things there.

But the big exciting thing that we’ve got is in building all of these datasets. We’ve got this incredible proprietary data that we’re not really yet harnessing properly and it gives us insight into how the land market works, how properly development works, how the property industry works and we’ve just started our big data science projects into looking at that.

I can’t say too much here about what patterns emerge and what they can tell us, but it’s very exciting because we think we’re the first company to have these datasets, which can give you such a view of what’s going to be happening in the property industry.

Zoe: 
That’s absolutely fantastic. Thank you so much Johnny for coming on the show and for your openness in talking about challenges because that really for us is the point of this podcast.

It’s very easy particularly when someone’s been as successful as LandTech right? It’s very easy for others to look at them and go ‘Oh they must have got all their technical decisions right. They must have a perfect architecture’ and actually it’s not. It’s not like that at all for for any business.

So, I really appreciate that and I wish you all the best for your very exciting future plans.

Jonny: 
Well thank you for for having me on here Zoe and it’s great work you’re doing to get people onto talk about this stuff because it could help someone do a bit better than we’ve both done our job!

Zoe: 
Amazing! Thanks.