Origin Stories: Northspyre CEO William Sankey On His Journey From Building Development To Software Development
This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.
William Sankey has always loved buildings, but the way that has shaped his career has shifted over the years.
Sankey started off studying architecture in college — he got a bachelor's degree in architecture and urban planning at Yale — and then focused on urban planning and development when he got a master's degree in urban planning from Harvard's Graduate School of Design. The early days of his career involved big New York City development projects, such as working on JLL's development services team supporting the $1B transformation of Madison Square Garden.
While still a developer, he started toying around with tech and taught himself to code to automate some of his more mundane day-to-day tasks. That blossomed into a software prototype that eventually became Northspyre, a proptech platform he co-founded in 2017 to help CRE development teams manage projects and forecast the impact of changes to a project's budget and timeline.
Sankey sees Northspyre as a tool that can help the business he loves catch up to other industries in terms of leveraging data and technology but said CRE still has a ways to go.
Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?
Sankey: I was always fascinated with how cities were built and transformed by the various actors who each played a unique role in shaping our built environment. In college that meant studying architecture. Later in graduate school, my interest broadened to include the wider urban landscape when I studied urban planning and real estate development. For me, real estate development was the most obvious way to have a direct impact on influencing how our cities were built.
Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?
Sankey: My first job in CRE was in project development services at Jones Lang LaSalle. I interned at JLL for two summers, working on the Prospect Park Ice Rink and Chapin School Renovation in New York, and then came on full time in 2011, joining the team that worked on the $1B Madison Square Garden transformation. I learned so much at JLL. These were some of my most formative years career-wise and where I met a handful of lifelong mentors. JLL was and remains a premier firm, and I remember how excited I was to be a part of the team.
Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role?
Sankey: CRE is full of many different educational and training backgrounds. Expertise ranges from finance to business to engineering to design, with a common thread of passion for the built environment. My particular path led me to receive a bachelor’s degree in architecture and urban studies from Yale University, and a master’s degree in urban planning from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. I also have certification in LEED AP Building Design+Construction.
While working as a developer, I also learned how to code in my spare time in order to automate some of my more manual, day-to-day administrative tasks. As my coding skills evolved, I continued to build on these mini side projects, which eventually led to the first Northspyre prototype.
I do think my education helped prime me for a career in CRE and, combined with my internships and certification, helped me secure my first job. All of these experiences reinforced my interest in the industry and narrowed my focus on specific roles, companies and employment opportunities within CRE development.
Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?
Sankey: Learning to code was critical to building Northspyre and transforming the project delivery process for hundreds of professionals who have used the platform to date. Being able to understand and extract insights from the data that you use every day is an incredibly valuable skill that all professionals stand to benefit from, especially in commercial real estate where so few organizations are using this information to inform their decision-making.
Being more data-driven would have served me well earlier in my career, but I’m happy to bring these capabilities to our customers and watch them become more proactive and strategic as they achieve easier, more predictable outcomes on their projects with Northspyre.
Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE?
Sankey: I’ve always worked in commercial real estate, but a few years ago, I switched career paths, taking my experience working as a New York City real estate developer and project lead to build Northspyre.
Bisnow: If you changed careers, did you bring anything with you from your past career that has helped you thrive in CRE, or, on the flip side, anything you had to unlearn in order to succeed here?
Sankey: My time as a real estate developer was vital to building Northspyre. Without that experience, I wouldn’t have the insight into the industry’s primary pain points that are needed to create a fully comprehensive and competitive solution in today’s market — I had to deal with years of tedious spreadsheet work to truly understand how outdated some of the industry’s processes were. Northspyre was purpose-built to address those challenges.
For example, many real estate owners, developers and project collaborators were still relying heavily on gut instincts to make decisions that could have major implications on project costs and timelines. Northspyre compiles project information in one place, automates administrative tasks and gleans proactive intelligence from project and portfolio data that, in turn, enables teams to better predict and navigate the effects of planned and unplanned changes on all aspects of project delivery.
Automating these commercial real estate processes frees up time for highly paid and highly skilled staff — e.g., owners, developers, project management firms, owner’s reps, etc. — to focus more on the strategic direction of their projects instead.
Bisnow: Can you remember a moment where you felt in over your head or you worried this industry wasn’t for you? Did you ever think about quitting? What changed?
Sankey: I’ve always enjoyed the challenges and opportunities associated with CRE — maybe not all the late nights at the office, but definitely the “stretch” moments. The times when I felt most frustrated actually fueled my vision for Northspyre, so I see them as blessings in disguise. Friction points only motivated me to work harder and find new solutions to age-old industry problems. This continues to be the case as we grow Northspyre.
Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?
Sankey: When I first began my career, I noticed immediately that CRE project delivery professionals weren’t taking full advantage of their treasure trove of data. Other high-skilled industries, like finance and manufacturing, had been leveraging automation and data for years, generating repeatable, predictable outcomes while saving tremendous amounts of time, money and energy.
I knew that CRE could and should do the same, but was aware of some long-standing hesitation. While the industry has come a long way over the past few years with the real estate technology boom — and, more recently, with COVID-19 encouraging many companies and professionals to adopt modern technology and solutions for newly remote or leaner teams — there is still a ways to go.
I classify the commercial real estate industry as a “handshake industry” because it is so reliant on meetings and person-to-person knowledge-sharing to get anything accomplished. It is very far behind compared to other industries that have leveraged technology to make their businesses run more effectively and efficiently. However, now that social distancing has forced the handshake out of the handshake industry, CRE professionals are more open to assessing digital solutions that can help teams collaborate remotely while improving delivery of their projects.
As more teams experience tailor-made software for project delivery, there’s no question that we’ll see a larger shift in overall interest and adoption. It’s exciting to see that early momentum.
Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?
Sankey: I’ve been fortunate to have a handful of very dedicated mentors throughout my career. They are a mix of former supervisors, colleagues, family members and professors. A few come to mind.
Frank Alvarado, who ran the MSG Transformation Project as the project executive and is now in senior leadership at CBRE in their project management division, and George Ladyman, who was also at JLL at the time, and now is head of real estate project management for the U.S. at TD Bank, both hired me at Jones Lang LaSalle. Jesse Wiles, who is my uncle and also a developer in the Southeast, first piqued my interest in CRE. Alexander Garvin, a professor and my adviser at Yale as well as a former NYC government official, was someone whose ideas about development and cities I was obsessed with.
There are many more than I could name here. Each one of them has helped me grow as a professional while also encouraging, contributing to and in some cases even critiquing the concept of Northspyre — in both its early stages and today. I wouldn’t be where I am today with the support of these individuals.
Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?
Sankey: There is no time or room for silly mistakes. Traditionally, real estate development teams manage their multimillion-dollar projects from static spreadsheets, which leads to human error, version control issues, siloed information and very little visibility into real-time data or project status. During my time on the development side of CRE, I learned time and time again how important it was to double and triple-check the work our team was doing, as inaccuracies could derail an entire project. This basic lesson was just one of many that led me to create Northspyre and help teams eliminate the potential for human error by automating data entry and other tedious administrative tasks.
Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?
Sankey: There is a lot of opportunity for growth within CRE, but the industry remains fairly traditional and tech-adverse. Newcomers to CRE will need to navigate a slowly evolving environment — one that is beginning to see the value of modern technology, just as finance and manufacturing did years ago. It’s an exciting time to help push the envelope and witness the adoption of automation, data analytics and proactive intelligence across CRE project delivery.
Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?
Sankey: I love what I do and feel grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to start and grow Northspyre. It’s been very satisfying to help many of my industry peers overcome age-old frustrations caused by status quo, traditional project delivery processes. There isn’t much I would change about my career — except maybe taking the leap of faith sooner to start Northspyre!