Building Castles in the Sky

Private Property South Africa
Lea Jacobs

Perhaps the most amazing thing about so many of the companies that have built their success on the back of the computer age is their humble beginnings. Bill Gates started Microsoft and Steve Jobs designed, developed and marketed the first Apple computer from their garages.

Private Property had similar modest beginnings. Justin Clarke, one of the founders and the initial CEO of the company until 2005 had a history in property and was involved in development of commercial, industrial and residential developments in the Durban area before Private Property. A chance encounter with an old school friend seeded the Private Property story.

“It was way back in 1997 and he started talking about this thing called the Internet and how it was going to change the world, and although I didn’t get involved immediately, I was absolutely fascinated by the concept and what it could do in the real estate industry.”

From the very start, Clarke saw the potential and benefits of the Internet and how getting buyers to put their names on a database as well as being able to view photos of a property before physically viewing the home would lead to the ultimate way to sell real estate.

“It was clearly the future,” said Clarke. “I wrote the Estate Agency Affairs Board (EAAB) exam in 1996 and when the economy tanked I spent many hours sitting at my own show houses trying to sell off stock at net prices – this gave me time to consider better innovative methods and strategies of getting the job done.”

He says that in the beginning the only way they could think of getting listings onto the Internet was from private sellers who would be happy to pay for an advert on the website – initially for novelty value. The company was initially operated in a converted outhouse at Clarke’s home in Durban North in the early 2000s. Although he initially tried to balance the work with his development company with his new venture, it soon became apparent that the Private Property concept had triggered a new way of thinking with the South African public and by 1999 Clarke became totally involved with the new startup.

“In many ways, Private Property was way too early,” says Clarke and the first few years most of the effort was spent educating people about the Internet. The concept of listing property on the internet only started to catch on in 2003, and privateproperty.co.za emerged as the biggest property website in the country. The model has steadily changed over time and in 2007 the company announced that it would extend the service to estate agents. Since then the site has pulled even further away from its closest competitors.

Justinus Adriaanse, the current CEO of Private Property joined the group as a franchisee way back in 2000 and was immediately hooked. He became a CEO in 2005 and under his guidance the company has flourished. Having grown up in the tech age and witnessed the effects of the Dot Com bubble, Adriaanse developed a passion for online business. He says that the fact that Clarke and he not only love what they do, but are also determined to make a difference in the world, has been the driving force behind the company’s success. Both firmly believe that technology can make the property industry operate more effectively and are working flat out to make this dream a reality.

Today the company employs 140 staff which includes a development team of 50 people operating between the head office in Durban, the Greydot office in Cape Town and the Centurion office in Pretoria.

“The company has moved into overdrive and we have an enviable team of people driving it,” says Adriaanse. “Both Justin and I learned long ago that you need to try to constantly reinvent yourself, so the business is growing in all directions at an incredible rate.

“We have built and developed world leading technology, especially in the mobile space. Almost all of South Africa’s real estate companies now advertise on the Private Property system and the Graydot office software is now running some of the country’s leading brands. We have started to move into other areas of Africa and are enormously excited about our early gains.”

Clarke said that people often do not see how technology is changing the whole real estate environment.

“In the near future I see a real estate agent being regarded in the same professional light as a doctor, or financial adviser. What the technology will, and in many instances is already doing, is getting buyers to take the initial responsibility for choosing their own property and only calling in the agent to help negotiate and put the final deal together. Never again will an agent act as a taxi. Never again will an agent waste time taking irritated clients to unsuitable houses. Agents will be the professional who directs the selling and buying process from their office, not from the seller’s living room.”

In Clarke’s opinion, Private Property is making the business of real estate “cool” once again and like a child reaching maturity, it is off on its own, driven by outstanding people who are passionate about finding new innovative ways to make the buying and selling of property far more simpler.

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