How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level

Always accept feedback. Allow for a transition period but also take into account what is working and what is not. This understanding of how one process may not be what is best will allow for your company to gain greater insight into what can be fundamental and what is only a distraction. While digital transformation is key, if something is not working, take a step back and reevaluate how to best tackle the issue. Along those lines, feedback can come from anyone in the organization — allowing complete transparency and giving all employees, no matter their role, the ability to communicate their ideas will open up an organization to more new ideas.

Robert is the founder and Managing Principal of Canvas Property Group. He oversees all investment and management decisions and directs the firm’s business development.

With a focus in Manhattan and prime submarkets in Brooklyn and Queens, Robert owns Morgenstern Capital, an affiliate real estate investment firm. Morgenstern recently launched Finished Canvas, a platform developed for short-term furnished rentals. CPG is affiliated with both Morgenstern Capital and Finished Canvas.

Over his career, Robert has owned and managed over 1,000 units valued in excess of $500,000,000.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

After taking a real estate course to spend time with my then-girlfriend and now wife, I joined her family’s residential brokerage where I met an investor and long story short, became a real estate junkie in the process. With an initial interest in tech, I became obsessed with integrating tech into my real estate business and how it could help improve our productivity, etc.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

It was probably 2011, early on in my acquisitions career, and I was touring a portfolio of value-add properties in West Harlem. We looked around the boiler room and saw a rat the size of a toy poodle that started coming towards me. I jumped back and landed into the arms of the 250lbs tough-looking super who shook his head at me like I was the scared rookie I was. He said, ‘the rats are just as scared as you’. I recently toured an asset and when walking the basement, he looked at me and asked, ‘you still scared’? He remembered the day (and the rat) as vividly as I did and let me off the hook and agreed he hadn’t seen one that big since…

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’ve got many people in my life who have been helpful along the way. If I had to pick someone who helped me, my father-in-law, Ian Kleier has been involved in every move I’ve made. As an original Mad Man, having created the marketing campaign behind ET and Showtime, he launched and ran a successful ad agency in the ’60s — ’80s with three-martini lunches and many battles against the nation’s largest firms as he figured out how to succeed in NYC during some of its toughest periods and with a challenging partnership. He managed to succeed and grow a business and brand into something unique and successful. He has been an incredible influence as I grow my small firm and create a unique space in the market. His support through what has been a real estate career with its own share of twists and turns allows us to share stories and I’ll be thrilled to continue our frequent dinners while I’m able to lean on his experience over Gibsons and Chicken Balsamico at Vicolina.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

As I’ve begun a journey to expand my technology-based real estate investment firm and build and launch a software firm, I find the concept of thinking bigger than what is obvious and available to us today very interesting.

Zero to One by Peter Thiel is about what is needed to create something entirely new and unique in a world that generally rewards simply tweaking existing ideas and pushes entrepreneurs to think outside the box.

Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler is about finding flow, that state of being in the zone — and why getting there is the key to breakthrough development in any area of life.

Grit by Angela Duckworth — This is the concept of the successful people finding that measurable element that combines passion and perseverance, and why that is far more important than natural talent in determining long-term success.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

Canvas Property Group is an entrepreneurial, tech-focused property and asset management company specializing in multifamily real estate in the Northeast with a focus on New York City. I started the firm in 2017 because I had an interest in technology before working in real estate. Canvas Property Group has fused my interest in both real estate and technology.

Canvas is a unique firm in the marketplace to serve as the hinge between ownership and tenancy and utilizing PropTech in all of its forms to foster community in its properties, transparency to its customers, and efficiency and performance of its assets. Internally staffed with incredible talent working on every element of the development and management life cycle, we are able to see properties for what they can be and run them with efficiency far beyond our competition.

Purpose does more than make a brand unique. It can shine a light on a business’ evolutionary path. At a basic level, purpose can simply express what an organization aspires to be and do. But at a more advanced one, it becomes a conscious expression of how an organization intends to evolve and transform itself.

Canvas brings far more to the table than a traditional property manager. We also offer asset management services that proactively analyze financial and operating data to bring key performance indicators to decision-makers and help them run real estate in 2021.

The company’s primary goal is to gain insight into specific properties and management through the perspective of owners. Through that viewpoint, Canvas Property Group provides data, both financial and operational, to our clients to enhance short-term cash flow and long-term value of assets. This enables us to engage with clients through the lens of being data-driven purposefully.

Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

Investing in and implementing different aspects of technology, we’ve changed the management for New York City multifamily real estate. We created proprietary software to provide reporting to our clients that saves time and energy by utilizing business intelligence to allow business decisions to be made by stakeholders.

Our software allows us to look into the day-to-day operations of our growing 1,500-unit NYC portfolio, allowing us to use that data to help our clients make meaningful decisions based on relevant and up-to-date metrics and better operate our own real estate.

Separately, we are developing a SAAS business intelligence platform that will be rolled out later this year. This product will build on what we have done internally but allow operators who manage their own real estate new ways to view their financial, operational, and tenant data in an easy-to-use platform.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation.

For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what exactly Digital Transformation means? On a practical level what does it look like to engage in a Digital Transformation?

Digital transformation is the active engagement of technology in every aspect of your business. Canvas Property Group sees the New York City property management space as one of the slowest adopters of technology. This is especially true for owners who manage their own portfolios. Taking on a digital transformation is so daunting that most rely on what has worked for prior generations to avoid the headaches that would be involved in a corporate upgrade.

Canvas Property Group has technology and business intelligence at the root of our purpose. Our principals are meeting and learning about new technology that can be rolled out to improve diverse aspects of the lives of our clients and tenants. We believe one of our core competencies is to improve the communities where the tenants live while vastly improving the way the performance and events are reported to clients to improve transparency. Jointly, these actions create a digital transformation of a single property. Doing this across a portfolio takes purpose and vision, time, and money. We pride ourselves at being ahead of the curve in all aspects.

Practically, to engage in this transformation a client must consider each element of their business. The tenant experience must be converted from the apartment viewing, lease signing, move-in, period, to the work orders, repairs, and capital work needed at a property. Finding out how to communicate effectively from building staff up to C-level such that cloud-based collaborative work and a single source of truth are what guides decision-making throughout an organization.

Specifically, upgrades to access control, intercoms, apartment doors, package rooms can change the way a tenant interacts with their front door. Rent bills, online payment options, e-signed lease renewals, and security deposit replacement options give a tenant optionality for their obligations. Platform reporting of building inspections, work orders, financial reporting issues, collaborative communication tools, and custom downtime tracking and leasing status alerts allow management to move away from manual excel trackers and email communication to a place where entire organizations can view a manager, property, or portfolio’s performance at a glance.

Canvas Property Group has invested in digital innovations such as remote door access, package delivery systems and efficient communication channels with property management and building staff. Smart door technology, which allows tenants to open doors remotely without a hard key and facilitates home deliveries and visitors; the phone app also enables property managers to blast announcements. Prioritizing digital capabilities will enable companies to engage in long-term growth, ultimately enabling them to stay relevant in their respective market.

Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?

The pandemic has forced every business to reevaluate their operations and identify the areas that can be improved upon to become more efficient, flexible, and less dependent on in-person interactions. Despite the many challenges it posed, remote work has presented an opportunity for decision-makers to take a closer look at processes that may have once worked but are now no longer sustainable, as well as a chance to look towards the future with a growth-oriented mindset to determine what functions and capabilities will drive both short- and long-term success in the current climate. Often, technology is part of the solution. Businesses that want to remain competitive, particularly in real estate, have no choice but to evolve and modernize.

Canvas Property Group thrives by providing a new way for its’ clients to control their finances and data. Engaging and investing in our own digital transformations allows us to enable purposeful decision-making for our clients. Whether these decisions impact amenities, capital expenses, marketing, etc., our team focuses on how we can enable a more competitive product in an incredibly saturated market.

We’d love to hear about your experiences helping others with Digital Transformation. In your experience, how has Digital Transformation helped improve operations, processes and customer experiences? We’d love to hear some stories if possible.

New York real estate is notoriously one of the slowest adapting industries to the technology available. This process, converting a firm that has done things “their way” including relying on dated accounting software and using notepads or Excel to write down open issues and crossing those off a paper when they are done, is not an easy habit to break. But when we show our clients what is available, we’ve been able to demonstrate how much savings in both time and money can be created by utilizing what we spent years building.

Anyone who has the experience of reviewing an income statement for a single building, then moving on to another, trying to compare how those properties are doing to ask a question of their property manager hoping for an answer that lets them understand how they can make changes to improve, understands that it’s nearly impossible. Having struggled with this, we built a cash flow dashboard that takes the relevant information from our client’s income statement and balance sheet so they can instantly see every KPI across their entire portfolio. This doesn’t do your job for you; it just saves dozens of hours monthly pouring over results trying to figure out where the issues lie. Business intelligence comprises strategies and technologies used to allow people to make decisions out of the data that already exists in their systems. When we are able to provide this, there is an “a ha” moment — it’s a great feeling to provide time back to our clients and is allowing our firm to grow exponentially as demand for our services has increased.

In our experience, technology is at the very root of our day-to-day operations. From gaining information about current and prospective tenants to accessing valuable feedback about the tenant experience, data is the driving force in our work. Our BI software allows us to maintain efficient building operations and increase our reporting capacity to third-party clients and our investment partners. Our building supers and porters create building inspection reports during every site visit, with time-stamped photos and notes, which allow issues to be handled immediately. Arrears and lease renewal information is tracked and updated, nearly in real-time, by all relevant parties (ownership, asset management, property management, leasing teams). Without this innovative technology, our team would lose efficiency. Our digital enhancements and technology-based approach have improved the operations and processes of our clients, which ultimately leads to an improved resident experience. Data continues to enhance our operations and has proven that technology goes hand-in-hand with the work we do in the multifamily sector.

Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?

There is always a learning curve with new technology and it’s inaccurate to say that widespread adoption throughout your company will not induce growing pains. Some people are more accepting and willing to learn new data and others will struggle. When this process proves to be challenging, the best way to resolve this and to get comfortable is by showing and not telling.

Different elements of digital transformation are easier to undergo in the real estate space. We find most companies are willing to provide some elements of PropTech to the tenants in the form of online rent payment or package delivery systems. But integrating their entire multifamily operations takes pulling the historical and live results, which sit in places, not built to be analyzed and that feels more daunting. A genuine CRM and business intelligence tool are far more difficult to create than just adding a single prop-tech element into existing infrastructure, but the benefits show in increased occupancy, stronger NOI, and overall performance

Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take It To The Next Level”? Please share a story or an example for each.

Since we are not together, collaborative work is more important than ever. By welcoming digital transformation into your business, the tools you adopt will become second nature and your results will speak volumes. Results can be seen by tenant satisfaction metrics, expense savings, and overall culture improvement; meaning the results are both qualitative and quantitative. Digital transformation used to be something that was nice to have, but now it is becoming mandatory.

Understand the learning curve involved in digital transformation and be patient. Provide your employees and your clients with the tools to understand this transformation to ensure no one gets left behind. Having a positive attitude and being receptive to change will position your organization to be more willing to put in the effort to transform and eventually come to love the advantages of technology, even when it may seem strange and unfamiliar at first.

Always accept feedback. Allow for a transition period but also take into account what is working and what is not. This understanding of how one process may not be what is best will allow for your company to gain greater insight into what can be fundamental and what is only a distraction. While digital transformation is key, if something is not working, take a step back and reevaluate how to best tackle the issue. Along those lines, feedback can come from anyone in the organization — allowing complete transparency and giving all employees, no matter their role, the ability to communicate their ideas will open up an organization to more new ideas.

Know your goals. Without focused goals in mind, there will be no transformation. Know what needs to be improved and what can be strengthened in this change. While implementing technology in ways not done before can be frustrating and daunting, relying on the foundations of your work will allow you to map your digital transformation in a way that adds value to your everyday workflow.
Foster curiosity. Engaging in a culture that allows for criticism and opinion will, in the long run, make your decisions and actions more powerful. Push everyone in your organization to look at their daily role through the lens of what could be changed and how I may look through the lens of digital transformation.

In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?

An innovative culture starts by fostering a community that is always curious. By inviting innovation into your company’s culture, there is an expectation for everyone to voice their opinions on how to improve the day-to-day operations. Allowing for innovation starts at a leadership level. Being aware of the industry climate and actively utilizing technology can allow your company culture to follow in your footsteps. Being open to new ways of operating is key to modernizing. Some employees will feel more comfortable expressing new ideas in open team meetings or zooms. Others may be less comfortable. Setting up brief one-on-one meetings with an executive during which each employee brings one creative, out-of-the-box idea relevant to that team member’s job can yield some interesting ideas. These ideas may often not be feasible but giving team members a place to express these ideas quietly will also foster a culture of creativity and will help build team culture outside of the digital transformation.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Give a girl a fish, she eats for a day, teach a girl to fish, she eats for a lifetime.” I spend a lot of time trying to give everyone on the team the ability to learn new skill sets and grow into the next seat or position at the firm. Asking a team member how to do something is always faster, but learning a new skill builds competence and confidence. Understanding how to perform tasks removes reliance on others giving any individual the ability to understand how their work fits into the greater whole.

This article was reposted with permission from Medium.