How a B.C. upstart became a key player in the real estate software biz

Real estate software firm Spark caters to developers in 80 cities throughout North America and beyond.

Credit: Spark

Simeon Garratt launched Spark in 2012 after moving to Vancouver from China

Spark, co-founded by Simeon Garratt, now caters to property developers in 80 cities throughout North America and beyond

Before he launched Spark RE Technologies, a real estate software firm based in Vancouver, Simeon Garratt couldn’t have lived a more different life.

Garratt mostly grew up in China and Malaysia, where his Canadian parents, who now run their own nongovernmental organization, did Christian aid work. (Julia and Kevin Garratt were detained and imprisoned in China in 2014 after being accused of spying. They were both released and deported, but only after Kevin Garratt had spent 775 days in jail.)

Garratt started out in the cosmetics industry in 2008, as a liaison between a Chinese manufacturing group and big private label brands in North America.

“I would go to the big shows,” he says of that business development job, which saw him work between the southern Chinese cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou and fly to places as far-flung as Beijing and Italy. “I would travel around with a suitcase full of makeup brushes and eyelash curlers and things, go to stores and suppliers and try to negotiate better rates. And then I would put together plans for these private label brands to roll into their next series of production.”

He didn’t last long. “It was a great job, but living in southern China, especially in that area of southern China, it’s an absolute grind.”

So about a decade ago, Garratt jumped on a plane. “I didn’t want to move back to Toronto, which is where I was born, and I landed in Vancouver.”

There, he quickly found a new career. “The long and short of it is that I was a white guy who spoke Mandarin and Cantonese in 2010 in Vancouver, and I got into real estate because everybody that was buying homes here was from China.”

Garratt spent the next couple of years helping agents, developers and marketing firms sell projects between Vancouver and Asia. Along the way, he noticed that big developers in his new hometown, Toronto and the U.S. used what he calls “archaic” software. “It was Excel spreadsheets and legacy platforms,” says the Spark co-founder and CEO, who has a BA in marketing from New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business. “It didn’t work very well overseas.”

Thinking he could do better, Garratt met the other members of Spark’s original team, including Cody Curley, who is now co-founder and chief product officer. “We decided that we would try to build a platform that we could then sell back to the guys that I was working with.”

Condo presales from A to Z

To make Spark happen, Garratt spent the next year and a half working out of his living room with Curley and three other colleagues. At first, the team self-funded that effort through side jobs. Thanks to a $150,000 loan from Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) in 2014, they were able to hire their first employees and move into a coworking space in Gastown.

Spark’s customer relationship management software caters exclusively to developers that are building condominium projects for presale—a model that originated in Vancouver with the likes of Rennie and MLA Canada. “We are all the back-end information that lives behind a developer’s sales process,” Garratt says. “We’re not reinventing the wheel in any specific way, but what we are doing is we’ve curated different pieces of software into what fits this very, very specific niche,”

As a result, Spark doesn’t have any direct competitors, Garratt argues. “Nobody’s really doing it from A to Z like we are.”

From day one, Garratt explains, the goal was to create a platform that works anywhere new developments are getting built, whether it’s Vancouver, New York or Miami. “That’s why it took us so long to originally launch the platform, because we had to take all of those different markets into account when we were trying to build the system.”

Although Spark doesn’t turn away customers from elsewhere, 95 percent of its business is in North America, Garratt estimates. Today, the company works in 80 cities. Among its local clients: Adera Development Corp., Aragon Properties, Beedie, Concert Properties, Intracorp and Shape Properties. “We have about 45 active projects in Vancouver right now,” Garratt says.

Besides letting users create sales and marketing, return-on-investment and other reports, Spark offers insights into past data, he notes. For example, the company began working with Intracorp last year. “Not only did they on-board their brand-new projects that they were launching, but they also took all the data that had saved from every historical project and input that into the system as well,” Garratt says.

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“If a person registers on one of their new projects, they’re able to reference and say, Hey, that person actually bought with us seven years ago in this project,” he adds. “Here’s the process, here’s the salesperson, here’s what they did. So it gives them a really good data set to then work from and understand their information a bit better.”

Room to grow

Spark is one of the bigger North American players in the real estate software market, Garratt reckons. “We’re still not even scraping a couple percent of it,” he says, adding that there’s still no dominant player.

“This is still a market that isn’t even really adopted in a lot of places in North America, and it’s still one of those big waves that’s coming,” Garrett says of presales. “So I think there’s still a huge amount of growth that’s going to happen, both on the real estate side of new development but also on the software side. And I think they’re probably in tandem.”

After raising some funding on the heels of the BDC loan, Spark weighed going public but decided against it. This past July, to help speed up its U.S. expansion, the company secured about $6.5 million in a Series A funding round led by BDC Capital and Vancouver-based Pender Ventures. It has since been on a hiring spree, growing to 32 staff from 23 in July, with 10 more positions now being filled.

Staying true to its co-founder’s roots, Spark has always done charitable work, including some with his parents in Asia, Garratt says. Back home, the company launched its Reduce and Replenish initiative, a partnership with Tree Canada, in September.

“Every digital contract that we write in partnership with a developer, we’re trying to plant a tree as an offset to that,” Garratt says. “We’re trying to find ways that we can be involved in a little bit of a bigger way that just being a software player in the real estate market here.”