How We Made CBRE Build, Part 1

None of us knew where we worked anymore. We were the same team of forty or so, doing the same projects in the same office. If anything we were better, newly empowered with more resources and reach than we’d ever had. But if you had asked any of us where we went every morning, we would have told you we weren’t quite sure. We might say something like, “Well, CBRE I guess. We used to be a startup called Floored. Now we’ve been acquired. So we’re one of CBRE’s in-house software labs, but we get to keep our independence and culture. Our jobs haven’t really changed, but our name has. We’re all CBRE employees, but basically we still work at Floored.”

The Problem

That didn’t work, neither for CBRE nor for our team. In buying us, CBRE signaled that it was getting serious about making its own technology. If we still used our old name, our work wouldn’t help CBRE grow. But when we called ourselves CBRE, we sensed our voice as a credible tech company was lost among the tens of thousands of real estaters we now called colleagues. It felt especially true when speaking to job applicants. Already wary of our metamorphosis into a corporate behemoth, they’d look askance at CBRE’s recruiting material:

A collage of images from CBRE's recruiting materials.

Images from CBRE’s print and online recruiting material.

This wasn't CBRE’s fault. These images work well for their intended audience of real estate professionals. But for software engineers, designers, product managers, and so on, this world — with its suits and glass and business blurs — is an alien vision of work. In tech, candidates are presented a work world that looks like this:

A collage of images from tech recruiting materials.

Images from Facebook’s and Google’s recruiting pages. Not a buttoned collar in sight.

Work on our team still felt much more like this world than like CBRE’s. But it was hard for candidates — and, to a degree, for us — to believe that when it was expressed in the voice of corporate real estate. We were having — well, if not an identity crisis, then some distracting identity problems. We, both Floored and CBRE, needed a new identity that could explain the company’s value to a new audience of recruits.

The research

So we did our homework. To create a new identity, we first had to learn what makes CBRE unique, to internalize its values and point of view. We wanted to understand how the company thought about technology, and if anyone else had adjacent problems this project could solve. To do so, we conducted over a dozen interviews across the company, with brokers, CBRE’s other tech teams, and its tech leaders around the world. We also spoke to recruits who had turned us down — who better to tell us how to improve?

Everyone “got it.” Some had similar problems, like the few product teams who’d already been working on tech at CBRE, but felt disconnected in their efforts. Or the database engineers, who found recruiting to be tough. And we learned that at CBRE, technology was more often a source of frustration than empowerment. “Technology” was generally preceded by “Information”, as in IT, the team who can fix it when it breaks. But now technology had a new role: to change the company’s DNA, the way it thinks and works. CBRE wanted tech to be not only the pit crew, but the carmaker, too.

We also learned what made everyone we interviewed so excited and optimistic about this mission. CBRE, it turns out, has lots of qualities that should make it attractive to technologists. It’s a diverse organization with a serious commitment to sustainability and offices in over 80 countries. It presents the unique opportunity to have the best of both worlds, to work on a small tech team and draw on the resources of an enormous organization. It’s a chance to work in an industry new to technology and thirsty for it — to solve the fun problems, not optimize the solved ones. And it’s the potential for a huge impact: if technology changes the DNA of CBRE, the biggest player in commercial real estate, then that changes an even bigger global industry. We had learned that CBRE is a great place for technologists — we just needed to do a better job explaining it.

The task

Our new identity had a lot of jobs to do. It had to serve as a flag to unite the company’s disparate tech teams under a common mission. It had to signal that mission to the rest of the organization. It had to explain that mission to a new audience who didn’t know much about CBRE. And it had to express who we are: the fusion of two work worlds, commercial real estate and tech. What did we have in common? What idea could encapsulate all this — something both fields could understand, relate to and be proud of?

The answer

We found our answer in the notion of building. As a noun and a verb, the word resonated with the right kind of meaning. Both real estate people and tech people go to work every day to build something. They might build a deal, an app, a team, a building, a website, a parcel, a network, or a new core competency for a massive company. It’s a word used in both industries to mean roughly the same thing. And it carries strong, active, positive connotations that would lend themselves naturally to all sorts of brand and recruiting material.

So we had a central concept on which to hang our new identity. But how did we get from there to the electric green explosion you’re now reading? In my next post, I’ll explain how we developed our identity visually, the second half of our Build journey. Until then, thanks for reading!