Dozens of skyscrapers in New York, projects by Zaha Hadid Architects, state-of-the-art office buildings from Bucharest to Johannesburg; these are all these places that use software from Sharry, a Czech company that digitizes building access management and has recently received an investment boost from J&T Ventures for further development. We basically make it possible to open doors or turn stiles with your cell phone instead of a plastic card, say two of the four co-founders – Josef Šachta and Michal Čeřovský – explaining how it works.
There are four co-founders in Sharry. How did you get together?
JŠ: We are actually a product of co-working. When an office next door became available in our house, Jakub Řezníček and Vladimír Cibulka joined us. Even though we each had our own business, we liked the idea of doing something together – we knew sales and marketing, and the guys knew IT mobile app development. Then we met Skanska, who wanted a mobile app for their office building. They invited us to participate in a tender, which we eventually won, so we developed one of the first apps for an office building in Central Europe. We later won Skanska’s contract for the CEE region. As a result, we started to hear from other clients.
And how did you manage to get a foothold in the USA?
MČ: We participated in an accelerator programme from CzechInvest, where we had the opportunity to spend some time in New York. We asked our technology partners, with whom we had already worked on projects in Europe, to introduce us to their colleagues in the US, who in turn introduced us to potential customers. Nine months later, we won our first contract for the most prestigious new building in Manhattan – the One Vanderbilt skyscraper.
There is now considerable competition in the PropTech segment of the market. Why do developers or building managers ultimately choose Sharry out of all the options?
JŠ: Most of our competitors are primarily focused on rapid scaling, so they offer a solution that is universal yet not connected to the systems in the building; it takes longer and it is a more complicated process to connect various systems. We are one of the few companies that focus on integrations, and we have a lot of experience in this area. When a client is looking for a solution that connects all of their access control systems in one platform, making it easy to manage even advanced functionality like mobile access cards or dynamic parking zones, they choose us.
So how do you deal with scalability?
MC: That is the hard part. Any large IT company can integrate a solution for one building with more or fewer problems, but it is not a scalable product. We have plug-in modules for various access control systems (ACS) and can connect almost any building to our solution quite easily. Even if the systems are sometimes 20 years old, we can give them a modern face, remote access and so on. So in terms of technology, we have mastered scaling. What we still run into a little bit is process scaling, which varies state to state. We can do it in Europe, we can do it in the USA, but maybe in Asia or other parts of the world we have to learn it. That's why we are also actively building a global network of partners who will deploy our solutions.
JŠ: The fact that the real estate business is essentially global helps us grow. Most of our clients have buildings in multiple countries. Also, the technologies we integrate are spread out around the world. We are often ‘self-propelled’ into new regions. For example, two years ago we were invited to tender in Saudi Arabia by a Spanish partner who had previously worked on a project with us in Poland.
How much does access to office buildings differ in different parts of the world?
JŠ: We decided to focus on Europe and North America first, where the differences are smaller, but they are there. A good example is the different approach to front desks. In Europe, the main technological challenge is the GDPR issue, in America it'squite the opposite – they would prefer to take your fingerprints because security is the primary concern. So while in the US we deal with scanning documents and taking photos of visitors, in Europe it's often more about how to share as little personal data as possible.
How many customers does Sharry actually have?
JŠ: Our solution is currently in about 100 buildings in six countries around the world. However, thanks to contracts with global companies, we will expand our product to at least 50 more countries later this year.
Are your customers only developers and building managers, or do you also work directly with the companies that are based there?
JŠ: For the past five years we have been selling almost exclusively to building owners. In 2022,however, we want to concentrate on the enterprise segment. We have developed a product for businesses where everything is tied to mobile access and related functions.We especially want to appeal to companies that are moving toward a hybrid working style or have multiple offices and people travelling between them. With Sharry they don't have to figure out how to get to their offices, they open one mobile app everywhere, through which they can also reserve a parking space or a desk to work at in hot-desking. If we want people to work flexibly, office building management needs to be flexible too.
Did you have this strategy in mind before, or is it a reaction to the Covid pandemic and changes in people's behavior?
MC: We have been looking into this since we entered the US market. In Europe, the space in an office building tends to be centrally managed by the building manager, whereas in the US each tenant has his own access system that he set up himself, and no one else has access to it. That's why we had to start communicating a lot with the enterprise world and prepare a solution for them as well.
How has the real estate market changed during the Covid pandemic?
JŠ: Companies will rent smaller offices in the future but, paradoxically, more people will pass through them during working hours. This is a big opportunity for us, because any effective sharing needs good software. Old buildings in particular are at risk, as they are generally less attractive and will also have a big problem with the upcoming Green Deal and the push for sustainability.
MC: There is also more pressure on utilisation. Previously, owners would lease a space to a large company and they were done, but because of the demand for smaller offices, they will have to find multiple small tenants that need to be managed efficiently; and they need a digital tool to do this too.
Why did you choose J&T Ventures out of all the investors?
JŠ: We have along-standing relationship; we have been communicating for many years, and we participated in the Vodafone Idea of the Year competition organized by Martin Kešner from J&T Ventures. We have always appreciated that they have taken an active interest in us. In addition, in the previous round, Přemysl Rubeš and his fund Presto Ventures, which cooperates with J&T Ventures on several projects, invested in our company.
Where will you put the money from your investment?
JŠ: It will mostly be used to support our expansion into Western Europe and the USA, where we have newly opened a representative office in Boston. We currently employ 45 people at Sharry, but we are anticipating significant growth this year. We're recruiting new people for product and business development, and we're also strengthening the team to focus specifically on corporate clients.
What are your goals for 2022?
JŠ: We want to confirm our position as a global leader in smart building access management, because the projects we have worked on, and are currently working on, in this area are the largest contracts of their kind in the world. In this area, we are also beating our competitors from American start-ups, which have exponentially more money at their disposal. We believe that this year will also fully demonstrate our vision that a key in the cell phone is the perfect tool for creating a relationship between people and their office. It's a foundation on which many other solutions and services can be built, from communication and parking to workplace booking.