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Bricks and Agent harnesses cloud technology and AI to simplify property maintenance

Rafael Niesten and Jon Stul have known each other since they were four years old. The lifelong friends joined forces in 2016 to create Bricks and Agent, a revolutionary platform that improved the way property and strata managers interact with tenants, owners and tradespeople to complete maintenance tasks.

Niesten and Stul had noticed that property maintenance processes in Australia relied on  complicated manual processes. Property managers were overwhelmed with the high volume of maintenance requests. Tenants were frustrated that their requests weren’t being completed. Tradies often struggled to understand vague or incomplete maintenance requests. And property owners often felt like they were in the dark about the maintenance of their investment properties.

“I’ve got a number of investment properties and I kept noticing that tenants were really frustrated because maintenance wasn’t being done, things were being missed or, worse still, that the property manager seemed to be doing every single service just under the [cost] threshold that I’d approve,” says Niesten.

So I thought, ‘There has to be a better way to fix this manual, mundane and error prone process.’”

Niesten had just exited a medical software venture called Clinic to Cloud, which is hosted on Microsoft Azure. Stul had also recently exited his own business venture, so the friends decided to team up to create Bricks and Agent.

Removing complexity in Microsoft Azure

Leveraging Microsoft’s cloud technology and artificial intelligence capabilities, Bricks and Agent is platform-as-a-service (PaaS) solution for property managers. It enables tenants to submit maintenance requests with images or videos in less than 60 seconds using Bricks and Agent’s website or mobile app, or its automated email, phone, SMS, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger services. The platform supports 15 languages for tenants to communicate with their property managers.

Property managers can use Bricks and Agent’s rules engine, smart dashboard and AI-powered workflows to automate most maintenance-related tasks, making it up to 70 per cent quicker than completing tasks manually. Reminding trades to quote or submit invoices, reminding owners to approve works or assigning urgent after hours work to trades are just a few of the examples of the automation the platform assists with The PaaS solution also helps property managers quickly find suitable tradies for each job by providing insights into factors such as their skills, availability and fees. It also considers the number of jobs tradies have open and the average time it takes them to complete work.

“It’s kind of like load balancing … we consistently make smart decisions for them,” says Niesten.

“We use some containers in Azure to help us determine things like the average cost of a plumber in Sydney, for example. So, we’re giving insights and data back to people who may have absolutely no idea.”

Tradies can keep track of their maintenance quote requests and work orders using the Bricks and Agent platform on their smartphone or computer. They can share their schedules with tenants to organise a convenient time for work to be completed. Bricks and Agent’s automated communication workflow capability allows tradies to close quotes and invoices just by sending an email as well ensuring trades of all technical skill levels are able to use the platform

Property owners have complete transparency over the maintenance process, with Bricks and Agent enabling them to review quotes, notes, comments, photos and videos. They can also approve, discuss or decline maintenance requests from their property manager.

Collaborative partnership leads to rapid growth

Niesten says Microsoft has been instrumental in the growth and success of Bricks and Agent.

“We’ve had five great years and Microsoft is a great partner to us, always willing to help and collaborate,” he says.

“The Microsoft managed services suite has been a huge competitive differentiation as we don’t need to worry about patching for our infrastructure, allowing us to focus on development.

“Working with Microsoft has enabled us to easily be PaaS-first, and other vendors can’t match the ease of deploying these managed services. It continues to help us innovate with new services [like] AI and machine learning.”

In 2018, Bricks and Agent was selected to participate in the Microsoft ScaleUp Program. This enabled the company to save a significant amount of money on infrastructure costs and validate its proof of concept, according to Niesten.

“It allowed us to try new things that we wouldn’t have otherwise tried because you’re so constrained in regard to budget when you’re starting up. You want to try and do everything you possibly can,” he says.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and lockdowns restricted tradespeople from completing maintenance requests, Bricks and Agent used the downturn in activity to re-architect the entire platform to make it easier for customers to use.

“We had all these cool features and options, but the more we built, the more complex the platform became and the more difficult it was to use given the high turnover of property managers during and post covid, where more than 30% of them left the industry,” Niesten explains.

“We needed to make it as simple as possible, so we focused on using Microsoft’s machine learning and AI capabilities to do a lot of the heavy lifting for users and make their lives easier. We basically rewrote the entire platform from scratch and that has delivered significant dividends.”

Bricks and Agent achieved 185 per cent revenue growth in the FY22 financial year in what was a difficult year with multiple lockdowns and Covid and now has more than 1.300,000 users in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, tripling in the last year.

The company was also recently named Most Innovative Scale-Up in the Property and Facilities Management Category at Proptech Association Australia’s 2022 Proptech Awards.

According to Niesten, Bricks and Agent processes tens of thousands of maintenance requests every week and has created an online marketplace of more than 50,000 trades through its A$9 million partnership with hipages.

The startup’s customers now include major real estate and property management companies such as Belle Property, First National, Harcourts, Jones Lang LaSalle, LJ Hooker, Meriton and Raine & Horne.

Rafael Niesten, co-founder, Bricks and Agent & James Peterson, head of investor solutions, JLL

Bricks and Agent has integrated its platform with those of other property management and inspection software providers such as MRI Software’sProperty Tree and Palace (NZ), as well as Property Me, Console Cloud,VaultRe, Reapit and Inspection Manager.

“We want to work with other integrated partners in similar verticals,” says Niesten. “It’s about adding further value and not creating all these silos because there’s so many different pieces of kit that don’t talk to each other.

“And obviously Microsoft is constantly releasing new technology and capabilities, so we will look to harness those as they become available.”