This year’s Real Estate Connect in New York will probably be remembered as the “How I Got Here” conference. The theme was supposed to be “How I Built It,” but that changed when Brad Inman offered a lifetime Connect pass to the person with the best getting-to-the-conference story after most scheduled flights were canceled due to “storm of the century” hype in the northeast.
The thing about Connect is that it’s different for everyone. It’s not just about the talks on the main stage. It’s about the breakouts in the afternoon, and the continuing presentations in Vendor Alley, and the informal meetings that take place in hallways and the upstairs lounge (which, for whatever reason, was inexplicably “dry” all week).
So your experience was probably a lot different from my experience. That’s why I thought it might be interesting to write out 10 things I learned from this year’s Connect and invite you all to contribute your own perspective on the lessons from last week.
1. Brad Inman is either fearless, lucky or didn’t have a Plan B.
On the eve of the conference, meteorologists were predicting a “storm of the century” for New York. Looking at the forecasts, I was convinced that the Tuesday preconference events would be wiped out, and half sure that the whole conference might be postponed, given how many people would face challenges traveling to New York. But I was wrong — Brad announced that the conference was a go, bad weather or not.
Now, I don’t know whether Brad had a crystal ball, got lucky or just had no alternative but to forge on, but he was right. The storm stayed out at sea, burying New England but mostly sparing New York City. And almost everyone made it, many with interesting stories of their journeys.
All that said, it does raise an obvious question: Why is Connect in New York in the winter and San Francisco in the summer? Shouldn’t it be, you know, the opposite?
2. Spencer Rascoff hasn’t let success go to his head.
Who is more successful than Spencer Rascoff? He helped start Hotwire, sold it, built up Zillow, and just gobbled up his biggest competitor. He’s worth millions, maybe billions. He’s the epitome of a guy who has grabbed the brass ring and stuffed it into his back pocket.
So what is he doing schlepping his own books? I ran into him after the CEO meeting on Tuesday, and there he was, carrying a cardboard box filled with copies of his new book, “Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate.” Just dragging it around!
I was disappointed. I mean, I dream of achieving maybe one-thousandth of the success that Spencer has achieved. But if I ever get there, I would hope to have sycophantic flunkies and toadies in my wake, doing things like carrying my boxes of books. In fact, I’d have designated, specialized lackeys: one to carry books, one to hold my iPad, one to carry a tin of Altoids.
But not Spencer. I found it charming that he was schlepping his own books, and if I were competing with him, I’d be a little alarmed because I’d rather see him spend his days lounging than writing books and continuing to improve his company.
3. 3-D is the next big thing.
Connect is always a fun opportunity to see all the different technologies that are going to be the “next big thing.” Most of them, of course, will be the “next not-so-big thing” — does anyone remember how text message riders and QR codes and real estate blogs were going to revolutionize the industry?
So what was the “next big thing” this year? I would say 3-D immersive technology, which I think is going to be huge. You’ve got two well-run, well-funded companies in Matterport and Floored that are already in the marketplace, smart firms like HouseLens that have already set up nationwide networks to provide 3-D walk-through services to brokers and agents, and companies like Redfin, Halstead and others (including mine) that have bought cameras and are using them.
And the tech is just really cool. We had a panel demonstrating and discussing the technology in the Broker Track, and the reaction we got was the same I saw when Floored and then Matterport both won the Realogy FWD competitions in back-to-back years: delight and awe.
4. The industry needs to get better at video.
I’m consistently surprised that real estate brokers and agents don’t use video more effectively. Maybe it’s because no one has created the killer app allowing agents to stitch together a decent video from simple room sweeps, without requiring them to learn how to edit. Maybe it’s because without that app, video is still pretty expensive, and brokers don’t have the money, and agents don’t like to spend it.
Regardless, I’ve had a theory that 3-D walk-throughs would render video obsolete anyway. Why go through the hassle of learning the challenging skills of taking and editing video when the 3-D cameras basically require you to move them around and then just get out of the way? Especially when the 3-D walk-through experience is dramatically more effective than the average “video tour.”
Then I saw what people like Raj Qsar and the Boutique Group in California are doing — rich, immersive, high-quality real estate video that tells an emotional story about a property with professional, almost Hollywood-level production values. Indeed, they’re not making videos; they’re making films. Now, it’s a lot easier to make those kinds of films when you have an average sale price of $2 million to $3 million and can readily access underemployed UCLA film school graduates. But as Qsar pointed out on a Broker Track panel, every broker in the country has access to quality wedding videographers who don’t have work on weekdays.
So if 3-D walk-throughs can replace the simple real estate video, that does create an opportunity for brokers and agents to put their time and money into creating more interesting video experiences for their clients — something that can separate them from their competition, and the more prosaic visual offerings on the portals.
5. Startups aren’t trying to destroy the real estate industry anymore.
Every year, Brad pulls out a group of startups in the “New Kids on the Block” segment. Some of them are interesting, some are beguiling, and most aren’t around by the next year — although Brad was quick to remind us that Trulia was one of those “new kids” when it first came to market.
In the past, though, most of them were also disruptive — they were trying to find a way to change the real estate industry, usually by disintermediating the middleman and directly joining buyers with sellers. Indeed, I always suspected Brad delighted in highlighting these companies, tweaking his audience mostly comprising the very people who would be victims of such disintermediation.
But this year was different. You did have consumer apps like Spacio and Perchwell, and obvious disruptors like Rentity, but most of the companies highlighted were designed to appeal to the real estate industry itself:
- LeadSecure, a lead management tool.
- Dizzle, a branded app development company.
- TLCengine, a tool to help clients and brokers determine the “true cost” of home ownership.
- Yodata, a data management tool.
- AgentPair, a matchmaking app for consumers and agents.
- Keep, an email marketing platform designed to foster past client loyalty.
- Sindeo, an online mortgage brokerage dedicated to a higher level of client service.
- FancyHands, an online personal assistant service.
In other words, it fell like this year’s crop of “New Kids” was following the path that Zillow blazed, realizing that it might be easier to make money with the real estate industry as a customer rather than a competitor.
6. News Corp. is serious about challenging Zulia.
News Corp. was all over Inman Connect. Indeed, Rupert Murdoch was the keynote speaker, and although he was not as conversant about the realtor.com business model as I expect he will soon be (there are only so many times you can repeat the mantra “we have the most accurate listings”), the very fact that he was there spoke volumes about News Corp.’s commitment to making realtor.com more competitive against Zillow-Trulia.
And even if Murdoch needed New York super-agent Dolly Lenz on stage with him to talk through some of realtor.com’s appeal, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t think anyone expects him to immerse himself in the finer details of Internet data exchanges and showcased listings. More importantly, it’s clear that his team is pretty focused on what the company needs to do. News Corp. CEO Robert Thomson was deeply impressive as one of the featured speakers at the CEO Summit the day before Connect, and HE clearly knew his stuff and had a plan.
In other words, we haven’t yet seen what realtor.com is going to be, but I get the sense that there will come a big change. News Corp. knows how to build an audience, after all.
7. Brokers need to do a better job servicing rental clients.
We all know that the real estate industry treats rentals as an afterthought. Most brokers invest little time or money building a rental division — they don’t build dedicated websites around tenant and landlord needs, and they tend to relegate rental clients to new agents eager to make a few quick bucks.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Gary Malin from Citi Habitats was on the Broker Track, talking about how to make rentals a profitable and integral part of a brokerage operation in one of the most competitive markets in the country. And it’s not just in New York. Agent Track panelist Sarah Jones built a growing and expanding brokerage out of Texas called Bamboo Realty, which started in rentals and is now on the verge of capturing the purchase business from the tenants her company represented as a startup.
But if brokers don’t raise their game, they are ripe for disruption, which is why we also saw two startups that are trying to change the way that tenants find apartments — Rentity, which tries to match up departing and incoming tenants, and Naked Apartments, a rental business that is trying to invert the typical search experience for tenants.
8. The real estate industry is slowly starting to focus on the client service experience.
The real estate industry doesn’t spend enough time thinking about the client service experience. Traditionally, we have spent all our time, energy and resources on how to generate incoming “leads” rather than what we should do once we get them. We train agents in lead generation, rather than client service. We build websites designed to generate inquiries rather than provide transactional services to clients.
But that’s slowly changing. The theme of last summer’s Connect was “client service,” and that continued to evolve in this January’s conference as speakers and panelists discussed their efforts to improve clients’ transactional experiences. We’re nowhere near where we need to be — after all, the dominant theme was “How to Build It,” which tended to drive inward-looking conversations about agents and brokers and their success in building their businesses.
Even there, we heard featured speakers who focused on issues like client ratings, agent performance metrics and improving the transactional experience. And we had Jonathan Aizen from Amitree, which provides a customizable tool for buyers to manage their purchasing process; he came up with what I thought was the best client service advice for agents that I’ve ever heard from the Connect main stage: “When a client asks you a question, it’s not enough to answer the question, you need to think about why they are asking it.”
9. But the mortgage industry is still clueless.
I’ve spent years writing about how the real estate industry needs to improve its client service experience, but the reality is that it’s not just about brokers and agents. Indeed, most of our clients have a pretty good experience during the time that they work with us — buyers usually enjoy the “shopping experience” with their agents, and sellers generally respect the work that listing agents do to market and sell their home.
In fact, I feel that the place where the real estate client service experience breaks down is actually right after agents have completed the bulk of their work — when the client gets an accepted offer. That’s when agents generally take a back seat to all the other players in the transaction: inspection engineers, mortgage lenders, title insurance providers and so on. Agents don’t control that experience; they can only hope to influence it a little.
That’s why it’s a bit dispiriting to see how few mortgage lenders are even trying to address the typically frustrating borrower experience — which is where most transactions run up on the shoals. Connect was full of companies trying to help agents generate leads, manage their databases or market their homes, but I found only one company that was promoting itself by the type of lending services it provides. That was Sindeo, one of the “New Kids on the Block,” and representatives are at least saying the right things about improving the lending experience for borrowers. I’m not sure the company has the “secret sauce” yet, and it’s only in California right now, but it’s the one lender that even seems to be trying.
10. We’re all lucky that Barbara Corcoran is (mostly) out of real estate.
Barbara Corcoran was probably the hit of the conference — funny, insightful and occasionally profane. Some of her highlights (and I’m paraphrasing):
- On salespeople: “The best trait of superstar salespeople is their resilience, their ability to bounce back from failure.”
- On failure: “Everything I’ve achieved has happened on the heels of failure.”
- On success: “The difference between the most successful people and everyone else is how long they feel sorry for themselves.”
- And I don’t think I can repeat why she’d invest with Mark Cuban rather than any of the other sharks on “Shark Tank.”
I was surprised, though, that other than in her prepared remarks, she did not get asked more about her real estate experiences. She had a lot to say about building a successful business generally, but for whatever reason, the audience questions tended to focus on her investment experience on “Shark Tank.” I guess that’s the power of celebrity and reality television.
Indeed, she was so great that I was a little disappointed that she’s not in our industry anymore, other than as an investor. On the whole, we’re probably all better off that she’s out there funding push-up machines, popcorn and four-layer cakes on “Shark Tank” rather than still competing with the rest of us!