by Molly Donovan
Ten years ago, Pippin founder Bharat Das was working as a real estate investor, where he saw first-hand the problems and inefficiencies of the real estate industry. What began as a personal frustration blossomed into an idea: if he could help customers access accurate real estate information that allowed them to close transactions more quickly, then he could have a real business.
We spoke with Bharat to learn the details of his story and his vision. In this interview, learn why Bharat found title services particularly interesting, how he worked the phones to develop Pippin’s network of on-the-ground title searchers, and why you should think twice before telling him that you think title is boring.
What made you decide to start Pippin?
Before I started Pippin, I spent almost a decade as an investor on Wall Street. My family is in the real estate business, so I joined my family’s company as a real estate investor. It was through my work in real estate private equity that I realized what a problem title and access to data about real estate can be. It’s both challenging and very inefficient. It was crazy to me how inefficiently the system was organized in terms of access to accurate information about properties: who owns properties, what are the restrictions for use of properties, and so on.
I teamed up with Bassel, our CTO, a friend I’ve known since college. We thought it was crazy that transacting real estate is as inefficient as it is, when real estate is the largest financial transaction that most Americans ever make in their lives. Buying stocks takes one day, but buying a house takes 40 days or more in most parts of the country. We were really puzzled as to why that was.
We designed Pippin to help that transaction process, to give access to real estate information in a convenient and user-accessible fashion, and eventually to become the information provider and transaction processor of choice for the real estate industry across the country.
What made you decide to focus on title search?
I think title is particularly interesting, because it is one of the longest parts of the closing process in any real estate transaction. It takes many days, and because it’s so paper-based, we imagined it was the area that technology could change the most—particularly in this modern day when buyers and lenders and realtors and everyone else are pushing for speed.
What did the process of starting Pippin look like? How long did it take to get where you are now?
It took a couple years as we were ramping up. The company took off once we started focusing on the title space. A substantial number of customers wanted a product like this, where they could get access to this fundamental real estate information and the accurate details behind real estate ownership, so they could close transactions. If we could be the source of that information, I thought we would have a real business.
How did you activate your national network of on-the-ground searchers when you were still a fledgling company?
We built the network piece by piece. It involved calling up title searchers in different parts of the country and partnering with them. The folks who are on the ground for the company are the true heroes in all of this. They’re the ones who are able to get any undigitized records for us. They make what’s sort of an analogue world into the digital world we want to show customers. We literally went through phone books and called them up and found out who works well and who works less well. We spent a lot of time working the phones. (This experience was the basis for our blog post “Searching for a Title Searcher“).
When did you know you had product-market fit? What did some of your earliest customers say that validated what you were doing?
Our work really is about helping our customers scale. Being a title agent is a hard job. It’s a rewarding job, but it’s also a hard job, because you need to have on-the-ground logistics in various counties. That can sometimes be a challenge because of the vagaries of the business.
We found that we had product-market fit as we were talking to specific customers, and they were telling us how much time they were saving by working with us nationwide on a regional basis. By working with Pippin, they were getting access to information faster, which ultimately enabled them to get their customers into their homes faster.
And we saw that customers appreciated our focus on service. For example, the first time I met one of our longstanding customers, I flew out to Ohio to meet him. And he said, you’re the first service provider who has ever flown out to Ohio to visit me. Making sure that our focus is our customers and helping them do their business more quickly and efficiently has contributed to the success of the company.
How do you plan continue to help customers, even beyond title search?
The bigger opportunity for Pippin is as a provider of accurate information to the real estate industry as a whole. The information we provide is also useful for developers and many others in the real estate space. We’ve worked with governments to do infrastructure projects. We’ve worked with companies on headquarters, on development, on putting up new plants and various different activities.
Real estate is an industry that touches so many aspects of our lives in ways that can be counted as well as ways that are sometimes hidden, and digital information allows real estate to flow much faster. Ultimately, we want to be that provider—to be an essential tool for real estate professionals, whether they’re closing agents or they’re trying to make investments or acquisitions or something else entirely. That’s the power we feel the platform will ultimately have, and that’s what we’re building toward.
What are some challenges you’ve faced?
One of the challenges is that this is an old-fashioned business, and lots of people in the real estate industry are used to doing things as they’ve done them for many years. Getting people to see that a new process that can really improve their lives is often a challenge.
That’s why we’re really thankful for the early people using our system and our software. They took the plunge with us and took a leap of faith because they believed this technology and this small company could serve them better. I’m glad many of them have stayed with the company for a number of years at this point and are still using Pippin as their exclusive provider of real estate information. That’s a vote of confidence in how we are able to solve their problems, and how we are focused on their success.
What are some industry trends or macro issues that you’re keeping your eye on?
The biggest change that’s happened is due to the pandemic, which has accelerated a lot of the digitization that needed to happen in the real estate industry. Pippin is on the cutting edge of that digitization trend. Over the past year, many states have announced that you can use a remote online notary (RON) and conduct closings remotely. Previously, you had to be face-to-face to do real estate closings in most places. The possibility of doing things digitally stresses the need for speed in the industry, for access to accurate title information quickly and reliably, for ensuring logistics are handled efficiently, so you can do all these things in a digital fashion.
Another trend that’s been accelerated by the pandemic is iBuyers—financial institutions that purchase properties and resell them in the same year. All these forces are collectively making real estate transactions more frequent throughout the year. Having an efficient data system that allows you to close transactions quickly, like Pippin, powers these use cases in the “Real Estate 2.0” that’s emerging post-pandemic.
How would you describe Pippin’s company culture?
We’re a fast-growing company, and we bring a true fun startup atmosphere to the real estate space. Real estate has always been a hardworking industry, but it’s not always been an industry that acknowledges or accepts technology solutions very quickly. Having a team that is able to build the technology and communicate it effectively to our customers and that has fun while doing it? That’s what allows Pippin to be successful.
What are some qualities of people who do well at Pippin?
Having a customer-first attitude is really important to us. Focusing on getting our customers access to the information they need and going above and beyond for those customers is truly important. We value people who can be courteous to customers who are sometimes in a stressful environment. It’s important to our customers that they get into their houses on time. That can be emotionally stressful, and we want to be able to handle those requirements. We try to emulate Amazon’s customer-focused philosophy, and service is an important factor we look for when bringing on new people.
What would you say to people who say that your industry is boring?
I would tell them that real estate is one of the most exciting industries, in my opinion. For people who think it’s boring, I don’t think they’ve lived on the cutting-edge of real estate. It’s not a static industry. It’s always changing. There are redevelopments. There’s making real estate suitable for new uses. Whether it’s infrastructure or building skyscrapers in a city, real estate really touches many aspects of our lives that we see and we don’t see. And the opportunity for innovation is massive. There’s a $27B for title insurance products, and a $300B+ gross market for related services in real estate. There’s excitement in that.
From Pippin’s perspective, being able to power those transactions that allow society to function efficiently is very fulfilling for us. If anyone thinks that’s boring, I think they should come live a day in our shoes.