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How our industry can thrive (not just survive) in the future
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Ben White
17 March 2022
Remember visiting the video shop on a Friday night? The rows of shiny new release tapes and DVDs, the popcorn and chips by the counter, the heady anticipation of a night of entertainment? It was fantastic.
Who would have thought, as we rode home clutching our Mighty Ducks and X Files tapes, that the entire Blockbuster experience would be completely obliterated?
As sad as the blow to our nostalgia might feel, the reality is that no industry has an automatic right to exist. Only industries that provide value to customers can be assured of their place.

“If events transpire so that the proposition is no longer valued by the consumers, the very existence of that industry is placed under threat.”

Ben White, Ailo Co-Founder
The other aspect of this is that if we assume that our industry is here to stay, we will avoid facing some of the most challenging questions that we urgently need to face.
Which brings us to a daring question to ponder: Does our industry have the right to exist?

The history of vanishing industries

History is littered with stories of industries that have almost completely disappeared. Most of them have failed because they’ve been superseded by technological advances.
For example, the horse and buggy was replaced by the motor car. Transport revolutionised by the jet plane. Mail was largely replaced by faxes and then faxes were superseded by email. There are hundreds of examples and they make for interesting reading.
Ultimately, though, I find these case studies unsatisfying because in most of them, the industry is superseded by something fundamentally different that renders the original industry obsolete. No passenger ship builder would be expected to invent the jet airplane. For these industries, their time was up and that was that.

“What’s far more interesting to me are those industries that fail for cultural reasons.”

Ben White, Ailo Co-Founder
These are industries that are not sunk because they are overtaken by a new, competing industry, but rather fall under their own weight, for entirely avoidable reasons. These are the truly fascinating case studies, rich with contradictory information and what-ifs. What happens to an industry that deludes itself into complacency, thinking that there is no need to change? Or if there’s a market shift, decides that retreating and bunkering-in is the safest option?
There are a couple of classic examples. My favourite one is the taxi industry
and its collective failure, essentially globally, to address the self-evident issues
in that industry, instead retreating behind regulation and its government- granted monopoly. As we all now know, that was a potentially fatal mistake.
Their failure to act has allowed another service to develop that was based on one simple idea: creating a marketplace for the service and having each person reviewed and judged by others. Uber has not succeeded in gaining significant market share quickly because of technology, it’s succeeded by having a superior cultural DNA. Now, the rest of the game is being played out.

How Blockbuster went bust

There’s another great example in the entertainment industry. Those born before 2000 will remember Blockbuster. At their peak they were the largest movie rental company in the world. They had almost 10,000 stores and around 60,000 employees. Customers would regularly drive to their local Blockbuster and browse for movies.
In 2003, Blockbuster had revenue of US$6 billion and made almost US$500 million in profit. The company was only founded in 1985, so it was a relatively young company competing in a large market for movie rentals. Regardless, it was the dominant player and it was aggressive. The inherent conflict in its culture though, was that the entire profitability of the company was driven by late fees. If people returned movies on time, Blockbuster would actually lose money. Their business model relied on the consumer’s laziness to make a profit.
Netflix came along in 1997. At first, it developed a mail-order model for DVDs
that then evolved into a streaming service. The case study of how Netflix did this is interesting in itself, but the more important point for this exercise is that Blockbuster failed to recognise its model was under threat until it was all too late (Blockbuster in fact turned back an early opportunity to buy Netflix cheaply). And it wasn’t just Blockbuster, it was the industry as a whole. They just couldn’t imagine that all of their stores, their inventory and their employees could be of no value in the future. So, they ignored all the evidence and just assumed their industries were safe. Today, I doubt few can remember the last time they rented a DVD from a movie store!
The cause of Blockbuster’s failure (and the others like it) was cultural.

“A poor culture can kill an industry as quickly as a technology shift.”

Ben White, Ailo Co-Founder

The need for a cultural change

The structural weakness in those cultures can often be traced back to a broad-based assumption that the industry itself is timeless and necessary - because it has been so, it must always be so. That complacency becomes the seeds of the industry’s inevitable destruction.
Does our industry suffer from this thinking? What are the big risks to our industry? Perhaps it will be a technology service that makes it much easier for a private investor to manage their own property. Perhaps it will be financial planners broadening services into property management. Perhaps tax changes will be implemented that make investing in real estate unattractive for the ‘mum and dad’ investor. Perhaps our industry
will follow the US model of the large ‘multi-family’ model and move to a more professional ownership model, run by investment funds. Maybe banks will offer property management services to their mortgage clients and use their branch networks to manage them. Maybe the industry will remain, but property investment levels will fall to those levels achieved in the US, making the industry itself unappealing. There will be people who read this list and instinctually say “that’s ridiculous, that will never happen”. To those, I suggest imagining the stance of a board member of a taxi company five years ago, or Blockbuster in 2005. Would their reaction have been one of ridicule, too?

“I am an optimist on our industry’s potential, but I do worry about it, too. I don’t think optimism is possible without the associated concern, because if we want to achieve our potential, we do need to change our industry’s culture.”

Ben White, Ailo Co-Founder
If we don’t recognise the need for change, the need to fix the culture, then I fear for our industry. No industry has the right to exist and like everyone else, we have to fight for ours if we want to survive.
An industry cannot move forward unless we accept that it continually underserves its clients. There is always more to be done and now more than ever, customer expectations are always increasing. Even if a company offers a great service today, that service will not be great in a year or two. This is just a basic law of our market-driven economy.

“Business owners who don’t accept this basic premise will not make the changes and commit to the innovation that companies need to undergo to stay relevant to their customers.”

Ben White, Ailo Co-Founder
Regardless of personal opinion on the matter, there are plenty of people who are looking for market gaps and opportunities to fill. There are plenty of cashed-up companies looking at ways to offer a different service to investors, ideally without the need to use real estate agents.
Those new models will only be effective if we as an industry fail to accept that we can – and must – do better.
Ailo co-founder and industry expert Ben White has authored three books on the property management industry and is currently working on a fourth. This piece is an excerpt from his book Numbers Game: The Science of Building a Rent Roll