by Bharati Jagdish, Published in Channel NewsAsia on 11 Feb 2017
SINGAPORE: Rhonda Wong is the co-founder and CEO of Ohmyhome, and sees her business as fulfilling a social mission for homebuyers across Singapore.
But as a platform for HDB sellers and buyers, landlords and tenants to transact directly with each other, it is one that has naturally not gone down well with the traditional middlemen – Singapore’s property agents. It touts itself as being able to save people thousands of dollars in agent fees. Listing your property on the app is free too. And if you need an agent, Ohmyhome has them, but they charge a flat fee of S$2,888.
The app was launched in May last year and since then it has seen a 7 per cent week-on-week increase in the number of users, and 10 to 30 listings secure buyers or tenants each month. They have also reported more than S$10,000 in savings for clients in some cases, and swift sales with a HDB flat-seller recently successfully securing a buyer within 2 days of listing.
Wong started off as a treasury bonds trader before she set up Anthill Realtors, a real estate consultancy firm serving investors. One of her motivations, she says, is to have enough money to pursue her dream of full-time volunteering and helping impoverished communities around the world.
She went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about her business philosophy, property cooling measures and how it all started for her.
Wong: I love numbers and trading was very natural for me. I loved watching the screens. I love looking at patterns and it’s exciting. But over time, it stopped being exciting because when the news came on, for me, it became just about things like how much does this affect my portfolio, how much would my bond prices go up or down, how does it affect the futures market. And I found it quite meaningless over time because since I was a child I always wanted to be a volunteer and when I grew older I wanted to be a doctor. So it was very different from the core of what I loved to do.
Bharati: I understand you still do volunteer work, but why didn’t you pursue your dreams of being a doctor?
Wong: That’s a good story actually. I told my mom when I was going to university that I wanted to study medicine and she said: “Why? Your science is not that great.” I said it was because I wanted to help people. I wanted to save people. And then mom said that if you are a doctor you can only save one person at a time, so why don’t you try doing a business with which you can help a lot of people at the same time, or engage a team of doctors to go with you to support your cause.
Then I went to business school.
A Team of “Doctors” Helping People
Bharati: How do you see your business as being a team of doctors helping people?
Wong: It’s a business that reaches out and helps people. In the past, a lot of people had no choice when it came to selling their homes or buying their homes. They had to engage an agent and they had to pay market rates – one or two percent of the price of the HDB flat which is usually hovering around $4500 to $9000 per transaction. And that’s very costly for an average family. They can use this money for a lot of things; even travelling, that they are not able to afford.
It’s amazing. They’ll tell us, “thank you so much. You’ve saved us money and I’ve used this money for my child’s violin lessons.”
Now they can because with Ohmyhome you get to connect directly with the buyers or sellers, landlords or tenants without having to pay the agent. We give step-by-step tips to simplify the process of doing the transaction on your own and that is one way that we hope we can help by reaching out to 82 per cent of Singaporeans.
Bharati: Do you ever regret the decision you made not to become doctor though?
Wong: I don’t usually look back and regret things, but I do need to move on when I’m not enjoying what I do and that’s why I found myself moving on trading even though I loved it a lot. It made good money, the lifestyle was great, short working hours but I found myself moving away from it because the joy, the meaning behind was no longer there.
Bharati: How was moving into property more meaningful for you?
Wong: Previously, I worked in larger agencies and I thought that by joining a large agency I would learn the insights of the business. I would have first-hand information. I would be able to be a very effective and knowledgeable agent, a salesperson. But I realised the market isn’t so. The market, the industry teaches you how to close deals quickly, how to be a good salesperson. So you become good in the sense of closing deals, but not good in the sense of being informative and helpful to the clients to achieve their goals.
It wasn’t like that and that’s why I started Anthill Realtors because I wanted a company that focuses on achieving clients’ goals and not just make money. It’s not because we don’t want to make money. It’s because we believe that by focusing on the clients’ goals, we will make more money because clients will stick with you, they’ll be loyal and they will recommend people to you.
A Mother’s Influence
Bharati: What would you say has shaped your philosophy about these things?
Wong: Maybe upbringing. I have a very kind mom and dad, especially my mom. She’s always generous, very kind, always helpful to people who are in trouble, whether it’s her employees, her friends and family. My mom is always someone who tries her best to help and by helping I don’t always mean financially because we were not always well-to-do growing up and mom would just try her best.
If somebody’s child needs caring for, she’ll help. If somebody’s uncle is unwell she’ll be at the hospital taking care of him. So that’s the kind of parent who set a good example for me over the years and because of that, it’s very natural for me.
Bharati: You actually helped your parents too in their business. They ran a photo shop. What was growing up like for you?
Wong: I recently had a conversation with my dad about this because in my memory, I actually worked very hard helping out at the shop since I was 8-years-old. While my friends were at birthday parties on the weekends, at chalets and doing all sorts of fun things, I had to be at my dad’s shop cutting the films and running around bringing the films to be processed. But my dad said, “you think you were really hardworking, but I didn’t think so because we really needed help and you were reluctant to come to work.”
Bharati: How did that make you feel, after all these years, to hear your dad say that?
Wong: My dad is a very hardworking man. He’s someone who really came from nothing. His dad passed away when he was really young and he didn’t have (an) education so I was wasn’t surprised that he felt so because what we think is hard work is very different for him. For him, hard work is really physical labour and working endlessly and not sleeping. For us it’s skipping a birthday party. So when he said that, I thought, okay, I know. I’ll try harder.
Bharati: How did your parents manage to finance your overseas education or were you on a scholarship?
Wong: No, I wasn’t on a scholarship. I guess I wasn’t smart enough. When I was in secondary school, I was planning to go to either the UK or America to study. And my mom told me we don’t have enough. She said, “Rhonda, I’m sorry you are not able to go now but I’m going to start a joint-account with you and I’m going to start saving and I promise you that at 18, you’ll get to go. I remember it was really touching when she one day showed me the bank statements and she said, “Now you have enough. You can go now.”
Bharati: She saved all this money just from the photo business?
Wong: Yes. Mom is someone who doesn’t spend on herself. She’s always spending on others and I grew up being like her. I actually don’t shop. But I spend on people that I love. I guess it’s not always about money. The drive is always there whether I make money or not. One day if I were to do something that doesn’t make money, I would still be as hardworking. I don’t see that changing but money helps you do a lot of things. Money helps you provide your kids with a better education. Money helps you build a school for people who don’t have access to schools. Growing up, even though there were times when we were poor, we never felt poor. I always had love from my parents. I have two elder sisters. They dote on me a lot, so I never felt poor. That’s why I realise today as an adult that feeling rich or poor is not about what you have materially. It’s about family. It’s about love. It’s about giving.
Dealing with the Wrath of Property Agents
Bharati: However, I’m sure at this time, because of the nature of your business, some property agents in the market feel like you’re taking away from them rather than giving.
Wong: We have resistance from agents in the market for sure. They don’t like us because they feel that we’re taking away their rice bowl.
Bharati: They’re not wrong, are they?
Wong: I guess they’re not wrong to a certain extent, but I always feel if you’re really good at your job, no one can take it away from you. So you just have to keep evolving and being better. You have to add value and you don’t want to be one of those whom customers complain about.
Bharati: You mentioned earlier that your agents only charge a flat rate of $2888. How did you even arrive at that figure?
Wong: We arrived at that figure because we wanted to make sure that at the average price of an HDB flat, we still save for the customers. But there’s only so much that the company can subsidise before we really run a huge loss every single day.
We have to be sustainable and that’s how the amount comes about. We know that at that price, we can afford to pay our agents, we can afford to pay for their transportation and get your work done as well. After we launched, on news articles on Facebook, we can see a lot of comments where they say, “there’s no way an app can replace agents.”
Today, that is true and this is why we have our own team of agents. So there are two groups of agents. One group that’s completely against us and one group that’s very supportive of us. So the group that’s against us will keep writing bad comments, leaving us bad testimonials and giving us one-star ratings. And then we have those who love us and they’ll actually write to us and say, can I join your team?
You’ll see that agents who join our team are not money-minded. If they were, they wouldn’t be in our team. They are people who believe in this move. They believe in the move towards efficiency, technology and doing something new and different.
Bharati: A lot of people are also asking why the transaction process is complicated in the first place to warrant agents. What’s your assessment? Is it simple enough actually for everybody to do it themselves? Is it just a mental block that is preventing people from exploring the DIY option for themselves?
Wong: It depends first on whether you can read. If you can read English, then I think what’s preventing you from doing it is probably a mental block. If you go to the HDB website or if you go to Ohmyhome’s website, as long as you can read, we guide you through step-by-step. HDB has an awesome guide for anyone who wants to do this whole process themselves. The process is lengthy but it’s not complicated.
Bharati: It’s cumbersome. Do you think the authorities can make it less so and perhaps should look into it.
Wong: Yes, definitely, but HDB has regulated it to be this way which is a lengthier process than the private market and this is why we’re helping the HDB market first. It’s just more steps. With HDB there’s a resale checklist. There are HDB appointments that you have to go to. So yes, it can be made simpler. While Ohmyhome wouldn’t be able to make it simpler in terms of the steps, we can make it simpler by helping you with the steps so you can do it on your own.
Bharati: You charge a flat rate for clients who want to use an agent from your team and that’s how you make your money. But how do you make money off people who don’t want to use an agent, who really just want to do the whole thing themselves.
Wong: If they just go on the app, if they post a listing or they contact the owner directly because their looking for a flat, it’s completely free. We don’t make money. When the day comes that clients do everything on their own on the app and I make zero money from the property business, that’s the day when I think my business would have really succeeded.
Bharati: But you’ll be making zero money.
Wong: Making zero, but down the road, we can make money by for example, bringing on different services. For example if you plan to spend $15,000 on buying furniture or renovating your home, what if we can get that for you and instead, the furniture or renovation company pays us for connecting you. So that’s something we will explore. We want to make it a one-stop-shop so anything related to your transaction whether it’s legal, mortgage, renovation, movers – we want to put that in the app and we want to help you go through the whole journey. We don’t want you to have to search for each of these things yourself or get a quotation for every service. We’ll do that for you.
Disruptive Technologies May Not Be Able to Replace Existing Models
Bharati: Many have said that in spite of disruptions in several sectors, few disruptive technologies or business models will be able to replace the existing players. Do you agree?
Wong: I agree. We see more and more people shifting towards transacting online and the reason is that people are getting more and more used to getting information online. Today, if we have any questions, we do a google search. So there is this shift, but there will also be people who love the personal human touch and that’s where technology needs a balance so do you still have a hotline with a human answering or is it a robot answering. At Ohmyhome, we always have a human answering so I think that’s the balance that we need to strike while being efficient, being advanced in technology. Then there’ll be others who just don’t want to put in the work to do it themselves, so agents will still come into play.
Bharati: What is your business philosophy in terms of turning your ideas into reality like this?
Wong: I mentor a lot of students and they always ask us how we came up with the idea and I always encourage people in the sense that in everyday life, when you encounter problems, you actually already have the beginnings of an idea. It’s just that you take no action on it to come up with a solution. For example, when the bus is late, you will always think, “I wish it was on time.” When something is expensive you’ll say, “I wish it was cheaper.” And all these are solutions and ideas you can work on. If you want to make something cheaper, work on it. Try to make it cheaper and that’s how you turn it into reality instead of just complaining about it. But what many people don’t know is that your complaints are actually ideas that can help a lot of people because a lot of people are experiencing the same problem.
Bharati: Taking that step can be quite challenging.
Wong: Yes, very challenging.
Bharati: So how do you manage to get past that?
Wong: I’m not special. I get past that the same way that everyone gets there. We just work very hard and there is no shortcut to it. I think every founder whom I’ve read about, every successful person – the story is the same. Everyone works very hard and of course there the smarter ones and there the not-so-smart ones. The smarter ones go faster and the not-so-smart ones are slower but they get there. You need to have that drive and passion because if your drive is very short-sighted, it’s very difficult to last that long. Every single day, I spend most of my day working whether I’m pregnant, whether I have a child, I’m working all the time.
Bharati: Why do you work so hard?
Wong: There’s just a greater purpose beyond myself and I always tell people if you have hands and legs and you have a healthy brain, a healthy and able mind and body – this is something that many people in this world dream to have. If you were born and grew up in Singapore, I think there are millions of people out there who wish to be in your position. So if you don’t do the best that you can then you’re letting down all these people who wish they can be in your shoes just having a good life, good air, clothes, shelter just normal things in life. But we’re so engrossed in being brought up in the city that we forget that there are all these people in this world and every day we take it for granted. Every day that I’m alive, I have to do my best.
Your Customers Can Help You Evolve
Bharati: A lot of people – businesses and workers in general – are facing a lot of challenges in today’s economy and some not able to cope very well with it. What’s your advice to them?
Wong: Treat your customers well. I always believe in that. If you treat your customers well, they will be honest with you even on the day when they choose not to support you. So if you treat your customers well, first of all, they will always support you. They will tell their friends, their family. They’ll tell the whole world about you. They’ll Instagram you. They’ll Facebook about you. They will do free marketing for you. But there might come a time when they decide that they’re not going support you. Maybe because you’re getting too expensive. But when that day comes, because they have been a good customer of yours, they will tell you that. They will be honest and that’s something good because you should listen to your most loyal customers and they can help you evolve. But if you choose to be stubborn and stuck in your old way and you don’t want to evolve, that’s where the problem comes because we keep moving. Everyone keeps moving. Nobody’s going to wait for you.
On Property Cooling Measures
Bharati: I can’t let you go without getting your take on the current property market. A lot has been said about cooling measures. What’s your stance on this?
Wong: I can see the government’s point of view to make homes more affordable, but my take is make those homes affordable for first-time homebuyers – people who are buying their first home with their savings from their first 10 years of work. They probably wouldn’t be buying homes that are five million dollars. So have measures in place for the lower end of the market. For the higher end of the market, five million dollars and up, maybe even three million and up, I don’t find cooling measures necessary. In fact I think that we should allow the flow of funds from overseas and from local players who want to make money from real-estate because these people are not affecting the first-time homebuyers. These people are not investing in the same kind of property. So with HDB and with the first-tier of the private market, I would say, yes keep it controlled. Make sure that everyone has a home to live in but with the expensive properties, I don’t see a need to cool it.
Bharati: Affordability is key if you’re a first-time homebuyer, but shouldn’t these individuals also have the opportunity or be given a fair chance to profit from their purchases and to advance into the higher end of the market? If we go by what you said, the rich will only get richer and everyone else will be left by the wayside.
Wong: I hear so much of that now because with “Ohmyhome” our HDB clients who are trying to sell, say the prices haven’t moved in the past five years. But you have to take the good and the bad. The good thing is you got to buy it at an affordable rate and the bad thing is you’re still selling it at the same price. I think maybe with government housing, profit shouldn’t be the purpose. Providing affordable housing was always the building block of our nation. I think to use HDB to profit would be the wrong starting point.
Bharati: But you mentioned foreign buyers as well. Why should they be allowed to make money off the market here or to live in luxury in Singapore while these properties remain out of reach of most Singaporeans?
Wong: Again it’s two sides of the fence. If you don’t have the foreigners coming in to help you push up prices then you will not be seeing huge profits will you? You’ll be seeing moderate increments, a few percent a year if it’s just driven by Singaporeans. So if you want profits, you should welcome the foreigners. I have a trading background so I believe in natural market forces. Even in trading you should be allowed to long and short. You shouldn’t only be allowed to long the market but in a lot of markets you are not allowed to short the market which means it’s unnatural. So with property, I think it’s the same. You should allow people to buy and sell because they can or because they cannot. So they sell because they need the money back. They buy because they feel that they can afford to buy. They can upgrade.
Bharati: But wouldn’t you say the run-away prices that we saw when natural market forces were reigning, were concerning, preventing many Singaporeans from upgrading?
Wong: Yes. So maybe there should be a permanent moderate measure throughout. You can take measures such as in Australia. For example, as a foreigner there, you can only buy “off the plan” purchase and you cannot buy existing stock. And when a foreigner wants to sell, they can only sell to a local so this by itself is already a permanent measure to keep the property market stable. As a result of this, foreigners are not able to keep buying and churning property. So these are the types of measures we can look at without being very drastic. Right now, the ABSD has been relatively drastic.
Bharati: You have called yourself, in past interviews, “a small-time property investor”. How “small- time” are you?
Wong: Well, “small-time” relative to the people we serve in Anthill Realtors who can buy buildings. We’re just buying a few units here and there. I have a few in Singapore and a few in Malaysia. One in Australia. It’s between my sister, Race and myself. Race is my partner. We decided that if we buy one property a year, in 10 years we will have 10 properties and we can collect rent and do whatever we like. So that’s how it started.
Bharati: We’ve been talking today a lot about your business. Any parting advice to people who at this point might be struggling in their business?
Wong: Be strong. You have to be very strong. Markets will go up and down and even if you survive this round, you may not survive the next round. So be strong. Be adaptable and don’t give up on yourself. A lot of times you may think that you and your business are one. That means if your business fails, you fail too. But the truth is, it’s not. If this business fails and you have the courage to close it down because you know that it’s coming to an end, I would say that it’s a brave move. You can always do something else.
If you have the right attitude, you can always do something and be successful again, but don’t be afraid. Don’t feel that if you’ve failed today, you’ve failed forever. And don’t be afraid to let your current business go in order to start something new. It’s not easy. We are always sentimental about our businesses. We’ll think we’ve done this for this many years. We’ve spent this number of hours in the shop, in the business. So it takes a lot of courage to say, hey, you know what? This is not working out. I’m going to close it and do something else. It takes courage.