In your start-up, no-one can hear you scream...
It's difficult to talk about yourself without beginning to feel like you might be spouting nonsense into a vacuum.
So it is an enormous relief to have the The Finance Innovation Lab around to help. Especially the wise editing of Naomi Alexander Naidoo. Who does a jolly good job of making me sound like I know what I am doing. Follow the link to the Finance Innovation Lab website to learn more about Mortar's ambitious plans to change the property sector for good with data efficiency, open banking and tenant-led design.
We’re entering the final months of Lab Fellowship – our unique incubator for financial innovators who are building a democratic, responsible and fair financial system from the bottom up. While we gear up to our Demo Day event in September, you can get to know our Fellows, and learn about how they are pioneering the responsible use of data in finance, in our Meet the Fellows series.
George Unsworth is the founder of Mortar: a software system enabling new ways to share and use financial information and rental data to benefit tenants. George has worked in property management for over ten years and looks after several properties in East London. Managing a range of residential, commercial and creative spaces has taught him a lot about problems in the sector and the opportunities for positive change, particularly around the creation and use of data. He explains:
“What the property sector does well is generate a huge volume of information and data, but what it does incredibly poorly is distribute that information, or use it to help inform and provide better services. So, I’ve spent the best part of three years experimenting with different technologies to build the tools that allow tenants to generate and then utilise their own data, for the benefit of the whole tenant community.”
From the long and frustrating tenant referencing process, to the barriers to communication between landlords and tenants, and the lack of transparency around deposits and how to get them back, George explored how technology could overcome these and other challenges.
The result of George’s experimentation is Mortar’s software, designed to connect tenants and landlords with the information and tools they need to build a more integrated, streamlined and supportive rental experience for tenants. The software includes novel APIs to seamlessly share information, an AI-powered arrears detection machine that identifies and flags late rental payments, and data aggregation tools to collate and make sense of multiple data sets. It has been designed to be useful not only as a standalone service, but also as a tool that landlords, letting agents, proptechs and fintechs can use to power their own systems – all for the benefit of tenants.
George has an ambitious vision for what Mortar’s technology can achieve over time. Acknowledging that the real estate sector is set for an app-based revolution, he wants to ensure that Mortar is looking after the interests of tenants and to explore how it can be used to support the financial health of the tenant community:
“We’re looking at ways in which Mortar can stimulate completely new alternative financial instruments and solutions to support tenants. This includes intelligent and innovative ways in which to support them with arrears (like working to help deliver initiatives such as ‘rent flex’ – so tenants can adjust their rent payment schedules), resolving debt (by connecting them with independent, free advisors, for example) and managing budgets (including through providing jam-jar accounts). We want to help people generate a return on the large deposits they have to pay, obtain better access to new and responsible loan and credit facilities, and create a more streamlined process for the distribution of benefits and grants between the different groups involved in housing.”
Over the course of the Fellowship programme, George has particularly valued the safe space created to express himself and experiment with ideas, as well as the depth of knowledge and expertise in the Lab community. The data theme of this year’s Fellowship, including sessions on data design principles and data-driven business models, has been particularly useful for George:
“I’m not sure I would have had the opportunity to learn so much about the implications of data bias and information asymmetry in any other start-up incubator environment! On several occasions now, the Lab has been the place where I have had distinct lightbulb moments in relation to the risks held by Mortar’s implementation of AI and automation.”
Confronting these risks has not only enabled George to introduce measures to mitigate them, but has sparked new ideas and opened up new business opportunities. For example, George is aware that digitisation of the rental sector threatens to make impossible the informal flexibility many landlords privately provide (whether fully aware or not) to tenants who miss payment dates by small periods of time. He is designing Mortar so that it doesn’t remove this type of flexibility, which is crucial in enabling tenants and landlords to co-operate. At the same time, considering this risk has also developed his thinking about the resources, advice and support that Mortar must provide to support tenants effectively.
In the final few months of Lab Fellowship, George is focused on building Mortar’s software, establishing Mortar Works Ltd as a company and making an application to the Financial Conduct Authority for the permissions they need to work with Open Banking. He is also setting up a charitable arm of Mortar, Mortar Studios, which will run cultural and community spaces and digital inclusion projects. He is starting this work in his home, Hackney, by opening a 9,500 square foot creative workspace and launching a digital inclusion project for Hackney’s older residents. Looking ahead, he has been accepted onto the Young Foundation’s Reimaging Rent Accelerator, through which he will explore partnerships and co-design with tenants to develop user-led solutions to increase Mortar’s impact.