Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Druce and I’m one of the co-founders of Stacked. We are primarily a real estate media company with a focus on helping buyers and sellers in Singapore through our editorials, content, and videos.
We focus primarily on editorial content and videos as there is a serious lack of quality content in the market. Our best work is shown in our comprehensive condo reviews, where we personally go down to each development (sometimes even a couple of times), to showcase the property in an objective light. This is done through a walkthrough of the estate, followed by a review of the area, a price comparison, and future growth points of the neighborhood.
Each review is pretty painstaking work, as it takes us about 2 weeks to complete one. Some readers have complained that it is way too long, but we’ve always wanted to create as detailed a review as possible. After all, buying into real estate is often going to be the biggest purchase of your life - and so we wanted to make sure we cover as much ground as possible.
Another thing that we are quite proud of is our photos. We do take the effort to capture the development - both in its best light and its worst - so that potential buyers can get a fuller picture of the space.
Today, we have expanded into video content as well - more specifically, content on YouTube. We are quite excited by the progress so far. We’ve managed to grow the channel from 0 to 17k subscribers in 3 months. It definitely wasn’t easy at the beginning, as the growth was quite slow. But video is a very rewarding thing as well. From planning to shooting and seeing the whole thing come to life is fantastic. Of course, the best part about it is often seeing the comments and how receptive people have been to the content we’ve been putting out.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Stacked wasn’t the first startup I’ve founded. Initially, I was doing a business messaging app that was a really expensive lesson in what not to do. But I have to contribute a lot to what we’ve done right at Stacked through that experience.
So Stacked actually started off as a platform that was designed to cut out the middleman - the property agent. In Singapore, properties are pretty expensive because of how scarce the land is - so the commissions can be quite significant sometimes. To give you an idea of the amount people could save by not using an agent, a $1 million home at a typical 2% commission for selling would be $20,000.
That amount could buy you a nice watch, or even a fancy holiday overseas. So we believed that that would be enough motivation for people to push on to the DIY process of selling a home.
Taking inspiration from the US and UK from companies like Purple Bricks and Redfin, we initially envisioned a platform that would allow you to market your property listing as well as take you through the process of paperwork - all online.
To add the icing on top of the cake, we decided to invest in a 3D Matterport camera. I do believe we were the first in Singapore at that time to bring one in (early 2017). Remember, this was way before Covid-19 had happened, so the idea of a 3D tour was definitely a new one (in Singapore, at least), and not something most people would have seen before.
So armed with that, we set about with the lofty idea of being able to do a 3D tour for each owner that listed with us as a way to set ourselves apart from the competition. It was a common complaint of portals at that time - agents always took poor photos so we believed that better photos and a 3D tour would be an easy way for us in capturing some market share.
As most of you reading that has started your own business can testify, the period before you launch is always the most exciting. Designing the site, doing up your logo, creating the tech assets - you have a vision for the future and how you are going to change things dramatically and your confidence would be at an all-time high. And unlike the first startup, we had a marketing plan this time. Before we launched I had started the Stacked Homes blog, and the plan was to use content to draw eyeballs to the site to view the listings (looking back, this was definitely the best decision we have made).
I can’t say that the launch of the portal was a failure, but we certainly weren’t setting the world alight either with our website. We had competition at that time - they were well funded with good money for PR, and even bus and train ads. In comparison, our budget was the equivalent of a poor church mouse - we only had a 3D camera, limited writing experience, and grueling effort to try and get as much awareness as possible.
As Paul Graham famously said, “do things that don’t scale” - we wholeheartedly believed that and set about the arduous task of capturing the early listings that we got with our 3D camera. To give you an idea of the work, it takes us about an hour to capture a small apartment of about 700 - 1,000 square feet. Medium-sized apartments would be an hour and a half, and big properties or landed homes can take as long as 3 hours. Mind you, we had only 1 camera at that time so this was as unscalable a process as you can imagine. Safe to say, this was not our magical moment, and we found out that most people didn’t care about a 3D tour.
We learned the hard way that the market was not ready for such a product. Singapore is a small country, and it doesn’t take much to travel to view a home. It required a global pandemic to force the issue of a 3D tour, and even then I can’t say now that it is still a requirement to sell a home.
We saw immediate growth from doubling down on content. Our strategy in terms of SEO at that time was to focus on long-tail keywords that the bigger players were not targeting
Ultimately, the biggest issue was our competition. Or rather, we had a wrong idea of what our true competition actually was. We wrongly assumed that our competitors were other DIY platforms, but the real competition was the big property portals in Singapore. As a buy-sell direct platform, the aim is to get enough eyeballs to the site so that seller listings would be able to move. Buyers don’t care that you are saving the seller money, so they naturally gravitate to the big property portals that have an entrenched SEO advantage. It would take millions of funding to even try to displace that - so it wasn’t too long before we realized the difficulty of the task ahead.
Nevertheless, the one motivating factor that kept us going was the blog. We could see the traffic steadily increasing each month. At that time it wasn’t apparent to us, but our key differentiator was that we had nothing to sell! We were just trying to write educational and objective content that appealed to buyers. Because we weren’t agents (and in fact, trying to kick the agent out), we could be as objective as we wanted to be. In a sea of salesy content and exaggerated advertisements, we stood out - and we had people reaching out to us asking for our opinion and help.
After a few months, it was crystal clear to us that the problem wasn’t really the number of commissions that you could save. It was really that agents in Singapore were doing such a poor job that you really didn’t need to do much to stand out. People wanted help, they wanted objectivity, and they wanted someone they could trust. It didn’t matter that by doing it on their own they could save $xxx in commissions, after all, this was a majorly huge transaction that they might be doing for the first time, and perhaps even for the only time in their life. Was it worth risking that amount to save, and making the wrong purchasing decision?
From seeing our traffic increase each month, we made the decision to pivot and double down on content. We kick-started our Instagram and Facebook and had a strategy of how to differentiate ourselves from the competition. Our generation believes in being organic and authentic, and we believed that in time to come, the way the newer generation would buy a property would be shifting. As the information on real estate is increasingly more and more available online, they are also starting to research way more before making a purchase, and we had to make sure that we were in all the right social channels to make an impact.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Unlike the portal, we saw immediate growth from doubling down on content. Our strategy in terms of SEO at that time was to focus on long-tail keywords that the bigger players were not targeting, launch comprehensive condo reviews, and write about current trends in an approachable way (most property articles at that time were written like a report - factual and boring to read).
Condo reviews were something I was really passionate about, and I think one of the key elements to where the site has grown till today. I used to love to read about tech products - phones, laptops, tablets, you name it. And I was always amazed at how much content grew out from tech. Publications could be writing 9-10 pages on a tech product, and potential buyers could easily spend hours reading and watching videos to research for the right phone to purchase. All this for a $1-2,000 price tag!
Yet, when it came to buying a home, you absolutely could not find such content online. No one was really writing about it, and even if there were, it was completely superficial, badly rendered photos, and super sales are driven. In other words, it was content nobody really wanted to read, let alone rely on to make a decision.
So from the beginning, we set about to create a framework for the most in-depth reviews possible. Good photos were a must, and the content had to show both the good and bad of each property.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Since I’ve already spoken about how we started, let me talk more about our pivot and subsequent relaunch. We relaunched in later 2019/early 2020 with an updated design to reflect our focus on the editorial.
I think we were quite conscious of the fact that real estate was such a big purchase - as such, we wanted to communicate to our readers that we had to be taken seriously. So we decided to invest in a proper rebrand of the site, the logo, etc. We went away from that early startup playful colorful style into what you’d see of the brand today - mainly black and cream colors to reflect a more serious editorial approach.
Of course, today’s consumer is a mobile-led one and we placed additional emphasis on the look and usability for mobile. In addition to that, the new look carried onto our Instagram page - we made sure to adapt our content specifically for the Instagram audience. So our IG stories and posts have our branding and look.
I’m definitely pleased with how everything has turned out. Many readers did reach out to say how they really like the look and feel of the site, so that has been a pleasant journey so far.
Since the rebrand and relaunch, the site traffic has been steadily increasing month by month. Covid-19 was definitely a mood killer during the lockdown period as we were unable to get out to do more condo reviews - but traffic during that time frame was at an all-time high (because everyone had to stay home) so we can’t really complain too much as many other businesses were badly affected.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We definitely have tried it all when it comes to marketing to grow the readership base. Not so much from a paid perspective, but what were we able to do with a limited budget. So certain things that we tried like creating infographics, data graphs, collated pieces of information into posts.
We track how each post has done from analytics to see what works or doesn’t work. I would say one big thing is to definitely reach out to your audience to get feedback. As mentioned earlier, this generation responds well to authenticity, and having a conversation with your readers and audience is definitely a great way - you get good content ideas plus it is always good to engage more.
Turning that content into IG stories was certainly a winner for us too - our content was getting organically shared and we were getting more and more responses each time we put out a question and asked people what they thought of it. Share those responses to the audience again - and it’s always important to add in your own thoughts as well.
We also didn’t want to rely on just the social media platforms, and so from the beginning, we set out to be able to harness our own audience as well through subscriptions and newsletters. We spent a fair amount of time optimizing our subscription pop-ups, even going to the extent of doing a different pop-up for each category in the editorial! To be honest, it took up a lot of time, and I can’t say that there was much to take away from that as we’ve moved to a singular popup for everything today!
We’ve always adopted the idea of trying to do something different. Whether it is to invest in photo quality, replying to each and every message sent to us, and now, down to the popups that we run. Of course, not everything is successful. We recently tried a different approach (which we frankly had high hopes for!) - but the results were pretty mediocre.
But as a result of that optimization and being somewhat data-driven in how we look at the numbers to always strive for better conversions, we have grown from 0 to nearly 40,000 email subscribers since launch. Today, we send out 3 emails weekly and are quite hands-on still with our open rates and click-through rates on each email.
It’s hard to say as of now, but from the start, our belief was always to educate and not be afraid of oversharing our knowledge on the real estate market. Most property agents out there aren’t doing so - they are afraid of letting the consumer know too much, or afraid that the reader would learn it all and do it on their own. We see it differently - establish yourself as a thought leader and build an audience from doing that. Ultimately, in a real estate transaction - the most important quality is trust, and that is always what we are looking to build.
Perhaps the most important growth channel for us is really word of mouth. We managed to utilize software from an Appsumo deal that allows us to track WhatsApp shares of our content - and I can say that the results are very interesting to look at. In a nutshell, always think from a buyer's point of view and write content to serve the buyer and you will never go wrong.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
As of the first proper year of the revamp, we are sustainable so far - which to be candid is quite a surprise given the pandemic and the lockdown period in the earlier part of 2020 as well.
Unlike most other media companies, we chose not to monetize the business through traditional means (ads, sponsored content). We have absolutely no ads on the site at all as we want to create a seamless distraction-free reading experience - and also because we believe that it will have a negative impact on our own conversions. Taking advertising money from developers will only create speculation that we are biased as it is paid content - and so because of that, we want to stray as far away from that as possible.
Currently, the only way we monetize is through working with our own agents. So we get leads through our reviews, in which we work with agents we trust (this is very important!), and we share a cut of the revenue earned should a deal be closed. Some people may say that this would mean that we would be incentivized to write positively - but we believe otherwise.
As mentioned earlier, trust is the most important factor in the whole equation. And for us to be able to build a competitive moat around the business, having that trust factor is crucial. So we are always building for the long term, and it absolutely does not make sense to short circuit what we’ve worked so hard to sustain so far by being a short term to close a deal.
Because we actually came from the other side of the coin (trying to cut out the agent), we believe that we are in the absolute best position to be able to add value to the real estate transaction.
Our page views have grown from 90,000 monthly page views in early 2020 to over 700,000 monthly page views as of March 2021. We’ve also grown our Instagram account to over 43,000 followers from restarting our focus on it in 2019.
Long-term goals would be to really focus on our YouTube channel. We’ve seen the benefits of video (as late as we are to the game). Truly, the exposure that you get from the video is quite phenomenal. So we have concrete plans to expand into more video series to expand the awareness and reach of the brand.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I think most of the mistakes we have learned from our first venture, but there were definitely major blips along the way that we had to overcome.
One of the earlier ones was when we were putting more content out there, and getting some negative feedback. For some of the team, it was quite demoralizing to read, especially since they’ve all felt like they have put in a tremendous amount of effort into each piece.
So very quickly, we grew to accept that you really cannot please everyone. Trying to please all parties will just mean you end up pleasing no one. It’s better to have a small group of people really love what you do than to have a large audience that just has a lukewarm response to everything that you put out.
One major challenge was really scaling the operations of the business. Early on we wanted to set the culture within the company to help no matter the size of the issue or even if they weren’t working with our agents. Bear in mind we were already receiving a ton of emails, IG DMs, and FB messages daily, and real estate enquirers aren’t the typical eCommerce replies that you can reply to quickly. Some questions can be really detailed and you will need to spend a good amount of time to research to be able to answer appropriately. We do spend quite a bit of time daily on this - it isn’t revenue-generating by any means but we do believe ultimately it does set the tone for the brand we want to build.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
One of our favorite tools is Convertful, it’s invaluable for us when it comes to optimizing our pop-ups for the site.
We also use ActiveCampaign to send out our emails. Yes, it is more expensive than its competitors but the open rates are truly better.
Last but not least, Get Social to track our WhatsApp shares. I could be wrong but I don’t think many people track their dark social shares - but it is actually important to see your “word of mouth” growth - and how each article is doing beyond the usual FB or IG shares.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Recently I’ve been reading the book Oversubscribed: How to get people lining up to do business with you by Daniel Priestley. It’s been a great read - lots of actionable examples and it’s easy to pick up and get into.
One of the best podcasts is Everyone Hates Marketing. Super good insight, straight-to-the-point advice, and no bullshit - exactly what he says. If you are looking to expand on your marketing knowledge, this is one of the best resources.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I think one of the best things that I’ve learned is to have a tool like Notion or Google docs just to save ideas on content. Whenever you have any ideas or a conversation that sparks an idea, just create the habit to immediately save it. Having this list of content ideas is invaluable as you can always revisit and expand it at any time.
Probably the most important thing though is to have a long-term view of the business. Especially when it comes to a media company and how most of these companies make money - as an example, for us to do sponsored content right now. It may seem like the easier and more profitable route but that doesn’t mean it is the right move. Yes, we could possibly make more money now and be more sustainable, but it could hurt the brand and credibility more in the long run.
It is a common question asked: shareholders or stakeholders? (In other words, profits or readers), and from the traditional mindset as the function of a company - it should be to maximise profits for its shareholders.
So Fortune magazine publishes a list of the world’s 50 most admired companies every year (Apple, Google, Berkshire Hathaway, Southwest Airlines, to name a few). This is done by surveying more than 10,000 business executives, directors, and analysts to vote for the companies they admire the most. This is based on factors such as innovation, people management, social responsibility and so forth.
And when you look at the numbers, it is clear to see that these firms that supposedly took better care of their stakeholders will outperform their rivals as well. As an example, between 2000 and 2007, the companies in the top 10 did 17% better than those ranked in the bottom 10.
Ultimately, put your readers first and you won’t really go wrong.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are looking to hire more writers to expand the team, but to be honest that is a really tough ask to find a good writer that has real estate knowledge to boot!
And of course, as we look to build on YouTube more talented editors and videographers.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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