Category Archives: Geek Estate Blog

Posts by Sam DeBord on the Geek Estate Blog

Naming Your Start-Up/Technology Company – Does It Matter?

This article was originally published on Geek Estate Blog:

Naming a Start-up technology companyCreating a great name for your company can be difficult.  For start-ups and technology companies in fast-changing environments, it can be hard to find a stable moniker that represents what your company is today, and will still be appropriate years down the road.

As someone who thinks business school first, technology second, I’m going to give some advice that may ruffle a few feathers.  This what you’d hear if you asked your potential paying business customers what to name your company, instead of your inner circle:

Stop creating sophomoric pseudo-words with zero product relevance to represent your business.  Why?  Because we have to decide if we want to do business with you.

I know that there are umpteen examples of strange names for successful companies, but bear with me for a moment.  If your company is selling bouncy houses, sunglasses, or cell phone decorations to consumers, feel free to make up a stupid name for your business.  Consumers will probably forgive you.

If, on the other hand, you’re running a company in which you’d like to sell services on an ongoing basis to business professionals, act like you understand business.  When you call to introduce yourself and your services to myself or my team, do it in a way that makes you sound like you’re worthy of our ongoing relationship.  In short, B2C has a lot more leeway than B2B.  There are two businesses involved in this equation, and you should keep that thought top-of-mind.

Need convincing?  I receive a slew of daily communications from companies hoping to garner my team’s business (read: monthly service fees).  My tolerance level for these pitches is minimal.  If it doesn’t hook me in the first 20 seconds, it’s probably getting deleted, or I’m hanging up.  That may sound cold, but I, like many professionals, know that this mindset makes me more productive.  This is my time, and as soon as you let me realize you’re wasting it, our conversation is done.

So, when you introduce yourself as the representative from Zumper, Qazzoo, Reesio, or any other inanely-created cluster-company-name, my tolerance level for your pitch has just been cut in half.  Fair or not, you’ve now created a much higher barrier to garnering my attention.  My first impression is that you don’t take business seriously.  It’s a game for you.  Start-ups and tech are really a lot of fun for you, and in six months you’ll be off in another country creating Twerkzig.

It took me months of seeing anecdotes about a company called Zurple before I finally investigated what they were doing.  I now think their product is pretty amazing.  Still, I had ignored them for quite some time, merely on the fact that their name sounded like a taffy factory.  I wouldn’t even consider them as a serious option when online discussions turned to lead generation opportunities, until I made a personal connection with one of their people over a different discussion topic.

You could easily point out the successes of companies like Zillow with its strange moniker.  I won’t argue that many companies with strange names are successful.  At the same time, Rich and Lloyd were respected Microsoft executives first before they started Zillow, and also had Expedia under their belts (whose name actually had a connection to the service’s primary benefit).  Credibility for their company was built-in.  They’re also a company whose popularity was driven by consumer traffic far before it became a business services revenue driver.

For those that are still trying to build their first big success, the point in naming your company is not that you couldn’t be successful with a ridiculous name.  It’s that you might just be successful in spite of it.  Even worse, you might have been more successful, in a shorter time frame, if you had just used the English dictionary when naming it.

In the meantime, companies like DoorSteps, Market Leader, and WalkScore give us potential partners that we’re not embarrassed to tell our associates we’re doing business with.  We can even be a bit flexible with slightly-amalgamated words in company names like Compstak (“stacking” multiple rent comparables) and Agentfolio (agent-to-client portfolio of activity).  These names at least give us an idea of what these companies do, and sound like they might actually know what a business plan is.  In real estate, this is ultimately important.  Our world is unceasingly chaotic, and the ability to present oneself as a solid, responsible, reliable business partner is a huge boon for a business that wants to stand out from the cacophony of vendors calling for our attention.

In the end, if you’re going to do something truly amazing, you’ll probably be successful long-term no matter what you name your company.  If you’re an entrepreneur, though, you should be acutely aware that your new company is very likely to struggle for some time.  If your goal is to sell to other businesses, creating any extra barriers to making connections with professionals in your desired business community is simply detrimental to your long-term goals.

So, if you still want to name your company Xapjiggle, go ahead.  You may very well succeed.  Just don’t be surprised when my colleagues don’t answer your emails.  It’s a self-inflicted wound, and one that is borne out of ego.  If you’ve go the chops to overcome your funhouse company name, more power to you.  For those that prefer a smoother road to new business customers, when choosing your business’s name, take the advice of a wise man: “You stay classy, San Diego.”

100 Smartphone Real Estate Videos in 100 Days: A Challenge

This article was originally published on Geek Estate Blog:

Online buyers want more video content, and video technology has become much simpler to use.  I’m challenging myself, and anyone who’d like to join me, to create 100 neighborhood videos in 100 days.  To make that happen, I’m going to shoot video only on my smartphone.

Where did this idea come from?  R.E. agent discussions focus a lot on what the big data aggregators are doing to beat them online.  However, no amount of server capacity or programming staff can drive through a neighborhood, take video, and speak intelligently about that neighborhood and the local market like an agent can.  Local video leverages the agent’s unique advantage over a portal.

That, and Matthew Ferrara‘s video speech finally broke through my thick skull the third time I heard him speak.

Putting off video is easy because of the technological barrier to doing decent quality video.  Professionals don’t want shaky, grainy video representing their company.  However, doing something is better than doing nothing.  The ability to create good quality video, even if not top-tier, is easily accessible today.

Getting started with video is the hardest part.  Large cameras, tripods, dollies, etc. make for a clumsy setup that is a big time killer.  Complicated video editing software lengthens the process, and makes the user want to give up after a few tries.

To get 100 videos done, it needs to happen on a phone.  I still sell real estate.  I can’t be out every day doing complicated shoots, and back every night in front of the editing screen.

Some Shortcuts:
handheld mobile videoI cheated the “only on my smartphone” part to get the process started.  I created some graphics on my PC with Adobe Photoshop.  I wanted to give the video a recognizable branding that looked professional, but also put it in perspective, emphasizing that it is smartphone video (i.e. mobile video handheld tours).

Then I used those logos to create two quick video clips on my PC–an intro and outro to bookend the videos.  The neighborhood video would be the central content in between these two 5 second clips.  They were created on Cyberlink Power Director.  You don’t need these clips, or this software, but since I had access, it was a nice base to start with.  You could easily just upload a logo image to be used as your video’s intro.

Video/Smartphone/App Specs:

I’m using the Videolicious App on my iPhone 5.  The video quality, image stabilization, and reaction time of the iPhone 5 are good enough that a small-format video might sometimes be a bit shaky, but it’s good enough for posting online.

Videolicious is the simplest way to put together a number of videos, create a voice-over, add music, and upload to the cloud and social media without leaving your phone.  It transitions smoothly between clips and processes new videos quickly.  The Business pricing plan is $5/mo and allows the user to have appropriate branding.  There may be more advanced software available, but I’m looking for something to get the job done well and get me back to my real work.

Tip:  To integrate an outside video with its own audio source  (like my intro and outro clips) into a Videolicious video, I had a long conversation with someone in their tech support who really went out of his way to explain this little trick.

Create a neighborhood video in Videolicious with voice-over/background music and save it.  Import your intro and your outro videos on to your iPhone through iTunes.   Now create a brand new Videolicious video, and import the intro, fully-produced neighborhood video, and outro into one video.  Skip the voice-over and the music.  Save.

Result:  New Neighborhood Videos Without Leaving My Car

At this point, I can drive to a neighborhood, shoot video, edit, voice-over, and publish it before my clients show up for an appointment.  Since I can’t shoot video every day, being mobile is important, as I could shoot a half-dozen of these on a good day.

The plan is to post each video on our websites’ neighborhood pages, and host them on ourYouTube channel.

I’m trying to keep the videos around 1 minute.  They’re more of an intro video to a neighborhood page on a website.

98 to go.

Realtor.com Free Mobile App: Flexing Strategic Muscle

This article was originally published on Geek Estate Blog:

In case you haven’t read it yet, Realtor.com is planning to release a new version of its mobile app that is branded for the individual agent–and it’s going to be free.  You can read Inman’s review of the upcoming product but, to put it simply, an individual agent can have their clients download one of the best mobile apps available for iPad, iPhone, or Android, and all of the app’s contact features, including the ability to schedule appointments and chat about a property in real-time, will be linked directly to that agent’s contact information.

I’ve written before about the top two apps by the big players in this arena, as well as the strategic advantages that Zillow and Realtor.com are employing as mobile becomes a much larger part of the real estate search landscape.  There are plenty of other mobile apps available from Homes.com, Trulia, Redfin, ZipRealty, etc, as well as brokerage-branded apps like Coldwell Banker’s, but their share of the market really doesn’t compare to the top two.

Realtor.com’s app, in my opinion, is slightly superior to Zillow’s in terms of functionality, but they are both neck-and-neck as highly sophisticated, easy-to-use products. I haven’t found a user who hasn’t loved both interfaces when they tried them.

Realtor.com has two main advantages over their competitors, which they’re looking to capitalize on:

  • Listing and data accuracy from MLS feed
  • Somewhat dedicated Realtor members of over 1,000,000

Accurate Listings

Realtor.com’s online advantage always been their relationship with the National Association of Realtors, which gives them direct access to MLS listings across the country.  In terms of data accuracy, they are worlds apart from any other non-MLS app.  Zillow, Trulia, etc have up to twice as many “listings” showing available, which simply means that close to half of those listings are already sold, expired, duplicated, or are those pesky fake foreclosure listings.

While this is a huge advantage, consumers usually don’t know this when they download an app.  They don’t find out until they make a phone call or send an email on a dead listing, and at that point the responding company has already achieved their goal of creating a lead.  There is no way to leverage this data advantage outright without more consumer knowledge, meaning more users.

Realtor Membership

Realtor.com’s other big advantage is the membership of the National Association of Realtors:  over 1 million professionals.  There are some rifts in the relationship between the two companies (Realtor.com is technically an independent site run by Move, Inc under an agreement with the NAR), and certainly not all members are supporting the organization directly with advertising dollars, but that is the genius behind the move to give agents something for free and bring them into the fold.  As of today, there are 2,000 Realtors signed up for the first chance to brand their own app.  This list has only been available for two days.

Even an agent who has had a bad relationship with Realtor.com on a sales/advertising level in the past has to see this as a positive.  Very few agents spend the time and money to create their own branded app.  The majority of agents nationwide, in fact, have no mobile app whatsoever for their clients, unless it is a generic brokerage-branded app.  Realtor.com has taken away the barriers of time, money, and technical skills and laid an app at their feet.  If it works as advertised, any agent with a website would be foolish to not offer it their clients, knowing that they would otherwise simply download another company’s app with someone else’s phone number.

This brings us to the interdependence that I believe Realtor.com is attempting to create with the new app.  Far fewer than the 1 million Realtor members are actually working regularly with Realtor.com.  Every agent who signs up for this app will be tying their clients, and their paychecks at some level, into a Realtor.com system.  There may be some future upgrade options.  There is a potential that they create some advertising/marketing/premium features in a package for app users.  No matter what, a large number of real estate professionals will gain a benefit from Realtor.com, and the business relationship will become stronger across that network.

Just imagine having over 1 million salespeople working the phones and the internet every day asking their clients to download your app.  If this app delivers as promised, that’s what Realtor.com has just done.  That is the strategy of an industry titan in a nutshell.  Leverage the assets that your competitors cannot.  Realtor.com has the opportunity to dominate the mobile market if this rollout goes as planned.  If most real estate agents are anything like those on my team, there are a lot of people nationwide waiting anxiously to start signing up their clients.

Five Things Zillow Could Learn From Realtor.com

This article was originally posted on Geek Estate Blog:

Zillow and Realtor.comI wrote a previous piece on the five things that Realtor.com could learn from Zillowincluding the newer, fast-paced marketing techniques that they have been using to catch up to Realtor.com in terms of consumer traffic online.

While “shiny and new” always generates attention, it’s worthwhile to also examine some of the superior traits of a company with a long track record.  Experience creates some wisdom in marketing and an attention to detail that can sometimes be missed in a pell-mell startup environment.  Ergo:

Five Things That Zillow Could Learn From Realtor.com

Bigger Isn’t Always Better:  Sometimes More is Less

Of course, I’m talking about the database of homes available for sale.  It’s been widely reported that in many markets, the number of homes listed for sale on Zillow’s website and apps greatly exaggerates the actual market.  Expired listings, duplicates, and questionable “foreclosure” listings inflate the numbers and give an inaccurate view of the actual market of homes for sale.

While Realtor.com will sometimes miss a minute portion of the market, the listings you see on their website are directly from MLS sources.  The database of homes available is accurate, timely, and smaller for a good reason.  Home buyers browsing these homes will make better use of their time, and have a better understanding of the current market.  While Zillow has higher hurdles to cross to make this happen, that’s just reality.  The consumer isn’t concerned with the impediments a company faces, just the product it produces.

Speed and Ease of Use are Paramount for Mobile

Realtor.com iPad appI had previously lauded Zillow’s ads for their mobile device apps as superb marketing.  Realtor.com hasn’t quite started the same level of marketing push, but after comparing the actual mobile products, they should be blasting mobile ads on every screen they publish.

To be fair, Zillow and Realtor.com’s apps are both sensational real estate applications.  They have similar features, and are better visual products than what most agents use from their actual MLS.  The ability to draw an outline on a map with your fingertip and select homes within that sketch is mind boggling to an agent who has watched the clunky search functions evolve over time.

Realtor.com, even though its products have been downloaded less times, has superior products on both mobile phone and tablet platforms, in my opinion.  They just seem to get a user to their desired endpoint more quickly.  There are less steps to take, and the menus seem more intuitive.  The “draw” function for buyers to circle a search area happens seamlessly within the screen without delay.  Of course, the quality of listing data is better as well.

If you haven’t tried out these apps, give them a try.  I tested on Android, iPhone, and iPad, and although both companies’ apps on all platforms performed well, the Realtor.com app on iPad blew me away.

Newbies Like Flashiness;  Serious Buyers Like Accuracy

Real estate websites generate the majority of their revenue from advertising.  Most of that advertising comes from real estate agents.  While the sales process is changing daily, more and more attention is being paid to the kinds of visitors a web site gets, and not just the raw traffic numbers.

Agents want to advertise on sites that have serious home buyers.  Realtor.com prioritizes listings first, with all other offerings as auxiliary features.  When a user searches for homes, they’re not being called away to other items.  The focus is squarely on the homes for sale.

Zillow, on the other hand, seems more focused on displaying a wide range of features and tools, with listings for sale being one of those features.  Listings are just one of many layers of icons upon a map.  It’s a big part of the business, but it’s just one of many.

Which leads to a related point:

Not All Web Visitors Are Created Equal (In an Agent’s Eyes)

News stories and user discussion forums bring in traffic, but quality listing databases create buyers who stay on-site.  Realtor.com’s average visitor spends about 20 minutes on the site and views 45 pages.  The majority of this time is spent on actual listing pages, not conversing with strangers about the Federal Reserve.

These are the visitors that agents are looking for, and as the metrics and analysis for agents become more clear and prominent, this will be a huge factor in driving advertising revenue.  Realtor.com’s visitors spend more time, visit more often, and view more pages.  These are valuable visitors.

All Publicity Creates Traffic, but Bad Publicity Also Creates Enemies

We can cut to the chase on this one.  Zestimates created Zillow.  There are a whole lot of other amazing technical achievements by the company as it grew over time, but the Zestimate was the iconic calling card that brought attention to the company.  Everyone wanted to know what their home was worth, and this was the single element that initially defined the company as being very different.

While this drove a large amount of initial traffic, it was criticized by the vast majority of those than analyzed it.  Every strain of real estate professional knew that the numbers were ridiculous, and these are the people who were supposed to be the revenue source.  Home buyers and sellers, in large percentages, scoffed at the values they received.  Yes, they certainly visited the site and looked.  When they saw the results, however, the taint of inaccuracy was attached to the brand name.  No amount of disclosure, explanation, or rationalization can separate the zestimate from the overall brand.  If you rely on a marketing gimmick for traffic, you receive the appropriate consumer response.

Realtor.com had similar access to automated valuation products from First American other providers if it had felt the need to follow suit, but chose to stay out of the fray.  Home buyers, sellers, and agents who understand the inaccuracy of those valuations appreciate that.

The question for Zillow is, when do you drop the gimmick?  Is there a point at which you’re so successful that you don’t need it anymore?  It clearly hurts credibility.  It would be wise, in my opinion, if a company had already gained front-runner status and gone public, to re-evaluate the need for such a controversial feature.  Then again, I’ve never managed an IPO, nor had to answer to a board of directors.

Overall, these sites have both brought some significant and exciting changes to the world of real estate online.  Both have also made some mistakes that deserve analysis.  Still, the ongoing changes will keep us entertained and on our toes…and continue to give me something to write about.

Five Things Realtor.com Could Learn From Zillow

This article was originally published on Geek Estate Blog:

Zillow and Realtor.com are at the top of the list for the most popular real estate destinations online.   While Realtor.com has been the leader for years, Zillow’s skyrocketing success has recently had it matching or beating Realtor.com’s traffic numbers, and its current trajectory certainly points to a growing lead in the future.

Instead of lamenting the current outlook or ignoring the ever-growing elephant in the room, it would be wise for the folks at Move, Inc (the current operators of Realtor.com) to take a step back and recognize what Zillow is doing right–the things that create web traffic and repeat, loyal web users.

Five Things Realtor.com Could Learn From Zillow

Mix in a Bit of Entertainment With Your Real Estate

Real estate consumers want to be intrigued, educated, and entertained at the same time.  Have you read the blog on Realtor.com lately?  If you’re a consumer, the answer is almost certainly “No”.  The majority of the content on Realtor.com’s front page is about Realtor designations, continuing education, and statistical reporting. (Edit:  there is quite a bit of entertaining content, but you have to find the blog first.)

Zillow’s blog, on the other hand, is chock-full of celebrity homes, tweets of the week, video interviews, and home tours.  It’s eye candy, and it’s visually intermixed extensively with the other elements of the site.  It’s the kind of thing that visitors come back to every morning to see something interesting or exciting.  They share it with their friends.  Realtor.com has recently made an attempt to move in this direction, and my advice would be to get some entertaining writers on board, pronto.  Building a loyal fan base is more than just displaying home listings.

Be Sociable

I’m not just talking about having Facebook and Twitter sharing buttons here.  Every site can and must have a way for users to share the content they find interesting, but we also need humans who actually interact in the social web.

Look at Zillow’s CEO, Spencer Rascoff.  He’s responding to not only questions on the Zillow advice forums, but also tweets from average consumers on Twitter.  Call me naive, but knowing the guy, I believe Spencer is really the person sitting at a desk and responding whenever someone on Twitter writes something interesting about Zillow.  Of course, there are dozens of other Zillow employees doing the same throughout the social media platforms.

Can you imagine the kind of trust and loyalty your business achieves when employees are having one-on-one communication with “non-paying customers”?  I’m not saying that Move Inc’s CEO needs to be on Twitter 24/7, but building a personal face, with local or regional interaction, would be greatly helpful for Realtor.com to create a stronger connection with its users.  We want to talk to people, not brands.

Mobile is the New Bookmark

The key to being successful with web traffic is to get repeat traffic.  Businesses need to find a way to remind consumers that they are still available when it comes time for a consumer to take a second look online.  Repeat traffic creates loyal users.

Zillow knows that by getting its app on a user’s mobile device, they have a permanent “bookmark” on that user’s most personal possession.  They carry it everywhere.  Every time they look at their mobile device’s desktop, there is a nice big icon begging them to come back to Zillow.  When you look at Zillow’s traditional website, there’s no way to miss the ever-present ads for the free app.  That app is a hook into a user’s online world, and it is worth its proverbial weight in gold.

Realtor.com actually has a very nice app.  Most users who download it will probably enjoy using it.  The problem is finding it.  Sure, there’s a tiny text link in the corner of the screen, but this just crystallizes the importance that the site places on creating mobile users.  Compare this to the four inch image of an iPhone on Zillow, and guess which site is creating more app downloads and mobile users.

Leverage Your Strongest Allies

Zillow has a huge ally in Yahoo right now.  The two companies combined have access to untold finances and online visibility.  The partnership might be the strongest we’ve ever seen online in the real estate world, and their combined influence is exponentially stronger than it was as two separate organizations.

Realtor.com, on the other hand, theoretically has/had a trump card.  The site is supposed to be the face of Realtors nationwide, and has unmatched credibility when responsibly used.  The 800 lb gorilla, so to speak, is the “official” real estate landing page.  The problem is the disconnect that has been created between Realtors and the quasi-Realtor organization, Move Inc.

Let me preface this by saying that I am an unabashed advocate of the Realtor organization, have worked with the government affairs group, and published outreach efforts for the local and state organizations.  The ever-growing ideological divide between Realtors and Realtor.com seems like a major disappointment that never had to happen.  Realtor.com needs to be brought back into the fold, and the two groups’ goals need to be aligned to create real success.  This leads us to the final point.

Focus on the Consumers – Agent Advertising Dollars Will Follow

Focus on what consumers want, and leverage your ultimate asset:  Realtors working in the field.  Get every listing from every MLS in the country, and don’t muddy the waters with silly premium listings that distort the listing inventory for consumers.

Keep listing agents happy by listing all of their homes, without exception.

Keep consumers happy by having the all-encompassing, up-to-date, accurate database that home buyers are searching for.

It’s fairly simple.  Realtor.com would have a huge leg up on its competition if it focused on making both agents and consumers happy instead of resorting to a “pay up or else” sales model.   Traffic will grow organically with a full database of homes, as agents and consumers alike gain trust in the site as the “official” database of homes.  Advertising revenue could easily grow as traffic increases, but the model should again be like Zillow’s.  Buyers’ agents can pay for advertising space, and rates will be set by demand.  There would be no conflict of interest in artificially displaying one listing over another.  Just present a consumer with the best list of homes for sale, and an opportunity to work with a buyer’s agent in the area.

Sometimes, an old dog has to learn new tricks.  The 800 lb. gorilla would be wise to emulate some of the moves its competitor, because it just happens to be the elephant in the room.

If This Then That: Top 10 ifttt Recipes for Real Estate Agents

This article was originally published on Geek Estate Blog:

If This, Then That is a new company with a plethora of tools designed to automate, simplify, and organize your online world.  They have broken down the code and APIs of online services including Facebook, Twitter, Google, and many others, and created services that automate many functions that users would ordinarily have to do themselves.

For a more in-depth overview of the technology, see Chris Smith’s article on Inman, “If This Then That will melt your face off“, inspired by Gahlord Dewald, which introduced me to the product.

While there are thousands of “recipes” for services on If This Then That which could be useful to the average consumer, I wanted to compile the top ten recipes that would specifically be beneficial to a real estate agent.  Getting an automatic email about Amazon’s newest Top Free MP3s is nice, but it doesn’t exactly help me close more real estate transactions.  So, without further ado:

The Top 10 Recipes for Real Estate Agents on If This Then That:

#1 Text to escape

This is my personal favorite.  Did you bump into a story-teller that you just can’t stop from talking?  Have an appointment coming up, but just can’t find a polite point to cut in and tell someone you have to leave?  Send a text to ifttt and it will automatically call your phone with your “urgent appointment” that you must get to right away.

#2 Syncing Google+ public posts to Twitter

We all know that there are challenges keeping the same posts flowing to all of our social media outlets.  By syncing your Google+ feed to Twitter, you skip one more step in your very busy day.  While you’re at it, sync your Google+ posts to your Facebook Wall as well.

#3 Note to Self

Just had a great thought, and don’t have anywhere to write it down?  Call ifttt, leave the message, and you’ll get a transcript in your email.

#4 Archive my Foursquare check-ins to Google Calendar

Have trouble remembering your past appointments and schedules?  Many real estate agents need to record mileage, appointments, and travel for tax purposes.  With your check-ins recorded to your calendar, you can go back and see where you were as often as you used your Foursquare account.  Also, save Facebook timeline statuses to your calendar.

#5 Tweet with #fb hashtag to Facebook status and remove hashtag before posting

Don’t you hate reading Facebook posts with hashtags that clearly were syndicated from Twitter?  You can create the impression of being engaged on each platform more directly by having the hashtags removed from your posts automatically.

#6 Tweet my blog post from WordPress to Twitter

Many people have another service like Twitterfeed to do this, but when you start setting up all of your services with ifttt, it just makes sense to use it here.  Have blog posts and links automatically Tweeted after being published.

#7 Receive an SMS text message before a Google Calendar event starts

This is a nice reminder function for people who just have a few events per day.  For those with a very full schedule, it could potentially be overkill, but then again it might be a lifesaver for some.

#8 Thanking people in Twitter when they mention you or RT

You’ve heard that engagement is key in creating social relationships on Twitter.  Thanking those who mention you can be a quick way to encourage others to follow you as well.  Along the same lines, send a Thanks for following! message to new followers.

#9 Tomorrow’s forecast calls for rain, send me an email.

For those of us in Seattle, this isn’t a particularly useful recipe.  For sunnier climates, those of you with brand new shoes and a shiny convertible might change your attire significantly if you were warned beforehand.  Or maybe you’d just skip getting your car washed the night before.  Alternately, add the warning to your Google Calendar, or text me if it’s going to snow.

#10 Help me find my lost phone!

This is pure genius.  When your phone is lost, just send an email to yourself with the hashtag #lostphone in the subject or body.  The phone will start ringing, helping you find it.

Alternates:

When Facebook profile picture changes, update Twitter profile picture

This recipe didn’t make the top 10 cut, because there is some disagreement in the real estate biz about having the same photo on all social media outlets.  Some say consistency and branding is key in your photos.  Others would argue that a professional headshot on Facebook is far too stuffy for the medium, but could be appropriate on Twitter.  To each his own.

Wake-up Call

We all have alarm clocks on our phones.  In theory, there’s no need for an actual phone call to wake us up in the morning.  However, for those of you who get used to your alarm clock sound and tend to hit the snooze, a big appointment just might warrant the ring of your phone to make you sit up and notice.

Receive a text message when mentioned on Twitter

For those of you so concerned with your online reputation that you can’t bear a generic response or a five minute delay…this is for you.

There are hundreds of more recipes available.  Give If This Then That a try, and let me know what you think.

Public MLS Real Estate Sales Statistics – A Model For Real Transparency – GeekEstate Blog

This article was originally published on Geek Estate Blog:

After the latest attempt at publishing MLS sales statistics for real estate agents in a public forum went down in aninglorious blaze, many people inside and outside the industry are still interested in the possibility of a second try.  It may be an outside 3rd party that creates such a service, but I’d be more inclined to believe that a push from within the industry would lead to the creation of a more comprehensive database.  That may or may not happen, but it makes sense to discuss the proper way to deliver it if it were to come to fruition.

No model will ever be perfect, but let’s start with the big issues:

  • MLS data input accuracy
  • Off-MLS sales
  • Teams vs. solo agents
  • Transparent interface/display
  • Agents changing offices/teams
  • MLS rules: Should we do it?

MLS Data Input Accuracy

Let’s be honest and say that many agents feel they’re too busy to spend time double-checking their data input.  Put in place a system of warnings, disciplinary measures, and monetary fines for repeat offenders.  Occasional mistakes are inescapable.  Rampant, repeat mistakes say that you don’t respect the organization and don’t deserve membership.  Random, intermittent data checks are enough to create the fear of a fine, and create the appropriate level of attention to detail.  We’ve adopted some of this in the NWMLS in Seattle.  We may not all have loved it at first, but I certainly have it in the back of my mind every time I input statistics in to the MLS these days.

Off-MLS Sales

To accomodate for agents who sell homes off-MLS and don’t get credit in the system, there would need to be an input method for these records.  This would require more scrutiny that an average system since it would be very tempting for some agents to input bogus sales to inflate numbers.  However, we can’t ignore the builder’s new construction agent who sells 60% of his homes off-MLS.  Just like the last topic, the presence of disciplinary measures should be enough to keep this at a minimum.  Each non-MLS transaction might even need a quick look-over from an MLS staffer.  This could be time-consuming, but also necessary.

Teams vs. Solo Agents:  Unique Identifiers

This is where it gets trickier.  The combination of agents’ statistics into large and small groups has always thrown a wrench in calculations of sales.

  • A single agent sells 20 homes.
  • Two agents partner and sell 20 homes, each claims to have sold 20 homes.
  • 6 agents form a team and sell 20 homes, each claims to have sold 20 homes.
  • 12 agents form a team and the team leader takes credit for all 20 homes sold

These agents would all look equal to a consumer viewing solely individual sales numbers, but there are clearly different production levels coming from these agents.

The answer doesn’t seem particularly complex, however.  MLS organizations will have to implement a team identifier.  Every brokerage, team, and agent have their own unique ID number and all three IDs are attached to every transaction the agent is involved with.  On a 12 member team, members will get individual and team recognition for each sale, but we will also have the ability to classify it as a team sale.  This gives a much clearer picture to the consumer if they’re working with John Doe or if they’ll be working with his dozen apprentices.

Transparent Interface/Display

There is no way to display this information in a snippet without bludgeoning the value out of it.  Individual agents’ stats need to be displayed within the context of their team, their brokerage, and their overall business model.  It’s the only way to ensure we’re allowing each different agent’s business to be seen in an equitable fashion.

A simple potential example of an agent’s statistics:

John Doe, Managing Broker
Big Brokerage ABC
(150 agents, Past 24 mo Total Sales: 800, Total Volume:  $300 million Office Agents’ Median Sales: 10)
XYZ Team Statistics (12 Team Members)
Buyer Side:  25 sales past 24 mo, $12 million gross, median price $300,000
Seller Side:  25 sales past 24 mo, $13 million gross, median price $300,000
Median Listing Days on Market: 90

If an agent is solo, their stats are reported in a more straightforward fashion.  The only downside to this model is when a team tries to “game the system” and lists 12 agents as individuals but still only gives 1 credit for the sales.  This would make the one individual agent look, inaccurately, like a solo real estate rockstar, which is why the office stats are needed (see the Agent median sales).  Any team or company employing this model would have a majority of agents with zero sales, and their stats would read “Office Agents’ Median Sales:  0″.  Some might think this is penalizing one business model, but we are trying to be transparent, and gaming the system in that fashion is anything but.

Number of price changes:  This stat has no value. 

  • $500,000 home’s price is lowered 12x – $5k/wk for 3 months, sells for $440k
  • $500,000 home’s price is lowered 3x – $20k/mo for 3 months, sells for $440k
  • $500,000 home sticks to price for 3 mo, asks to bring all offers, sells for $440k

What does the number of price changes tell us?  Nothing more than that there are different marketing strategies.  All homes sold for the same price, in the same amount of time.  It doesn’t produce a valuable comparison tool for the consumer.

SaleTo List Price Ratio

I don’t think there’s a lot of consensus on this stat.  It’s interesting, but so difficult to really draw conclusions from.  REO agents sell homes under value and get multiple offers on the first day, many times above the list price.  Does that make them great marketers or do they just have less-concerned clients?

Having a good sale/list ratio may say more about an agent’s ability to talk a seller into a lower price than their marketing ability.  Could the sellers be pricing their homes too low and leaving money on the table based on the recommendation of an agent with a great ratio?  It’s a great ability to have as a salesperson, but is that really what consumers perceive when they read this statistic?  At the same time it can show an agent’s ability to price correctly vs. “buying listings”.  I’m on the fence about this stat’s relevance, but if consumers want it, so be it.

Agents changing offices/teams

We can certainly create an amalgamation of one agent’s stats from a number of teams and companies, but it will be a mess.  I’m going to take the easy way out here and say that it’s one of the sacrifices agents make when they change businesses.  Their stats will be off, and it will be up to them to educate their clients on their track record until they’ve built up a better one with their new company.  I’d be happy to hear suggestions.

MLS Rules:  Should we do it?

Herein lies the crux of the whole issue for agents.  It’s not as much about whether or not we can publish our own stats on our own websites, but whether our competitors are allowed to advertise our stats.  To take it further, can they attempt to gain market share online by advertising a web page with a title, content, and statistics all about a competitor’s business?  I think that this is the real fear of most agents.

(NOTE:  The Realtor Code of Ethics will be an issue in some ways.  Not all agents are Realtors, but many are.  Some will construe ”refrain from making unsolicited comments about other practitioners”  to include reporting competitors’ sales statistics unsolicited.)

 

Plenty of other businesses in the marketplace have competitors write about them and their statistics, but this is different.  We would be providing a database that’s officially approved by those competitors.  In effect, the stats on Company A’s site about Company B would have Company B’s seal of approval.  This isn’t done in other industries.  It’s why agents are so concerned that if it’s done, it’s done with exhaustive research and deliberation with all parties.

While I’m fine with the idea, I also won’t throw on the halo of transparency and flog my fellow agents who aren’t.  This isn’t some public government database that, by its nature, must to be available to anyone who wants it.  Tens of thousands of agents spend hundreds of dollars and countless work hours every year to update, maintain, and improve it.  I know that all of my tech friends are screaming “Why don’t they want anyone to see it, then?”, and I understand your frustration.

But, it’s not your choice.  It’s theirs.  You have to understand the mindset of a real estate agent if you want to convince them to change.  Some of these people have poured their hearts and souls into their communities for decades.  They don’t care about your tricked-out new website.  They’re not some fly-by-night salesperson looking for a quick IPO payout.  They care about selling their neighbors’ homes.  They truly are well-respected figures in their communities and have worked their whole lives to earn those reputations.

The “old guard” might have been coaxed along slowly with a gradual transition to an agreed-upon format.  Instead, they feel that they were slapped across the face with a sloppily-tested affront to their business.  It will be very difficult to undo the damage that was done to the reputation of the idea itself.  This is one tough industry to crack, and anyone trying would be well-served to offer agents the ability to opt-in to their ideas as opposed to throwing a wet blanket on them and yelling “Surprise!”  Right now, this industry is a hornets’ nest and it’s boiling.  The next contender had better be on their best behavior.

VC Money, Startup Technology, and Real Estate: Does Hubris Trump Ethics?

This article was originally published on Geek Estate Blog:

The real estate industry, slow to adapt to new technology, has been experiencing growing pains from outside startup technology companies pushing the boundaries of its comfortable digs.  The latest flavor of dust-up was well-documented by Drew Meyers of Geek Estate.  Redfin’s Agent Scouting Reports change the nature of how formerly-private sales statistics are displayed in a public forum.

While most of the discussion has centered on the vast inaccuracies of the reports, the lack of adherence to MLS membership rules, and the lack of transparency in the user interface, it makes sense to step back and look at a larger subject.  Is it possible that the influx of venture capital into a real estate tech startup is creating an even larger change in the way we work together as an industry?

Tech Startup Culture

Real Estate VC Money, Startup Technology, Hubris and EthicsI worked in, and consulted for, a number of tech startups in the Silicon Valley over a decade ago.  The energy within these companies is immense, and creates not only a sense of confidence but also a fair bit of hubris.  When you work within a company that is “changing the world”, pats on the back are never far away, VC money supplements your shortfalls, and the rallying cry is “always faster, before someone else does it.”  A tech startup’s focus is getting new information to the consumer as quickly as possible.  Transparency takes on an almost religious tone in this world:  “We are delivering information.  What we’re doing is important.  What we’re doing is good!”

The quest for larger amounts of public data at ever-increasing speeds is certainly positive in many ways, but it seems that sometimes we allow ourselves to forget our most basic responsibilities in our rush to achieve those goals.  Case in point:  our current debate over publicly displaying agents’ sales statistics and doing so in an accurate and transparent fashion.

The Ethics of Open Data vs. Accurate Data

I’ve stated before that I’m open to this data being public, but the majority of my colleagues are not.  This is fine, because we belong to member organizations which can vote on these kinds of decisions.  Inaccuracies in data will certainly lend themselves to legal issues for those who display incorrect data about business competitors.  More importantly, though, the personal interaction between our industry’s professionals is being thoroughly tested.

At what point does the need to be “first to market” in Seattle trump the damage done to a small business owner in Sonoma County, CA?  When consumers in Cynthia Larsen‘s neighborhood search online for her name, what does it cost her when they find a page on another broker’s site stating that she only sold 2 homes in the past year (missing 95% of her sales)?  Cynthia doesn’t know, because those potential clients will never call her.  She doesn’t have millions of dollars in venture capital to create a comparable online presence to combat the misinformation.

What happens when agents in Phoenix, looking for a new brokerage, search for Jay Thompson’s company statistics and 44% of his agents are not even listed with Thompson’s Realty?  Jay doesn’t know, because those potential agents may never call him about joining his brokerage based on that data.

Were These Questions Even Asked?

What does this say about the publication of such a model in this manner?  The Realtor Code of Ethics certainly comes into play.  I’ll give the benefit of the doubt in saying that Redfin didn’t intentionally disregard the well-being of thousands of professionals’ small businesses across the country.  More likely, it’s the arrogance that can be created in an exciting tech startup culture, distancing its members from the mundane details of industry, and allowing them to simply disregard the ethical implications.

This service was released publicly with a brazen “Let’s just see what happens,” attitude.  There was no timeline in which it needed to be released, no deadline coming from some regulatory board.  There was plenty of time to make sure that it would not unduly harm other professionals, but no one felt the need to raise those concerns.  Why?  Because it was going to be exciting.

Real Estate Is A Cooperative Industry

Real estate is unlike many other industries.  Most sales professionals compete against each other until one makes the sale.  Attorneys compete with one another for clients and in litigation, and at the end of the day, one wins and one loses.  In real estate, while we compete for clients, positive results are only achieved when we work together with our professional competitors to create a satisfactory transaction for both sides’ clients.  The only success for buyers, sellers, and brokers, lies in all sides reaching an amenable agreement and the subsequent closing of a home sale.

Whether my cooperating broker in a transaction is from my Seattle real estate brokerage of Coldwell Banker Danforth, or a competitor such as Windermere, John L. Scott, RE/MAX, and Sotheby’s, we know that our clients’ best interests are served when we aggressively negotiate for them, but maintain a professional relationship throughout the process.  The majority of brokers actually enjoy working with our competitors. We have a genuine concern for our cooperating brokers’ well-being, because will be working with them again in the future.

Redfin is hoping to expand its partner agents nationwide.  Whiteboard Friday lesson:  “Partner”.

**UPDATE**  As this was being published, Redfin was making the decision to pull the plug.  Inaccuracies in data were noted as the cause for the decision.  I’d be more inclined to believe that the threat of widespread litigation, multiple MLSs declaring it in violation of their terms, and the burning bridges within the industry had a lot to do with it also.  If this can be done correctly in the future, by a neutral party, we can give it another shot.

Automated Home Valuations From Trulia, Zillow, Etc: Who Do Estimates, Zestimates, Online Values Benefit?

This article was originally published on Geek Estate Blog:

Automated home valuations are a growing trend on real estate websites.  While Zillow’s Zestimates are clearly the standout leaders in this field, there are plenty of others. Eppraisal.  Cyberhomes. Trulia has a one-city beta product in the works, while First American has had its own automated valuation model for quite some time.  Even our own Geek Estate Blogger, Justin Britt, has a new Hawaii Life Value Score, taking a different angle with more of a comparative score valuation.

The vast majority of real estate professionals I encounter dismiss the value of these models, sometimes for very good reasons which I’ll discuss later.  Technology enthusiasts like myself, however, find the same fascination with these valuations as the average consumer.  It’s a brave new world in the real estate industry, and the amount of intellectual and financial horsepower being driven toward these online outlets of real estate data seems almost unlimited.  In the end, though, my concern is with who really benefits from online automated real estate valuations?

Clear Benefit:  Real Estate Consumer Websites

Zillow, Trulia, and their cohorts are in the business of differentiation.  There are already tens-of-thousands of agent-based local websites delivering accurate, timely listing data for consumers.  Recreating this same database on a national scale doesn’t add value for a local home buyer.  To pull a consumer away from their comfortable neighborhood home, something shiny and new is required.

The national real estate websites are leveraging their superior finances and workforces to create tools that an average agent cannot.  Automated valuations create a unique, interesting, and (potentially) financially valuable tool for consumers.  When a home buyer begins using one real estate site to compare home values vs. home prices, he or she is likely to continue using that same site for a long period of time, to guarantee the consistency of the metric being used in the search.  This creates a consumer who not only views a large number of pages within a site for comparison purposes, but does so repeatedly, day-after-day.  Consumers will many times become quite loyal to the site, out of appreciation for its unique value, or even out of fear of making a mistake by not coming back and consulting this source of information.

This loyalty and traffic, generated by the unique content, creates a great amount of SEO and financial value through advertising.  For a real estate portal with no associated brokerage actually selling homes, this is the number one goal.  Profits come from advertising, and advertisers buy traffic visibility.  Make no mistake, Zillow didn’t become one of the world’s most popular real estate sites because the forums had nice discussions.  Zestimates were the sparkling new bauble leading the news media and the public through the door and allowing the company’s introduction to a massive audience.

Unintended Benefit:  Real Estate Macro Market Statistics

Although I can’t guarantee this, after watching a company like Zillow for years, I don’t imagine that the founders ever thought that their market data would be used in the way it is today.  The tools, in the beginning, were designed to compile large amounts of data and apply it to one home, creating one estimate of value at a time.  The massive undertaking and collection of data sources, in the end, created an unexpectedly-accurate database for national real estate forecasting that is nearly unmatched in size.

Stan Humphries, Zillow’s chief economist, has been making a name for himself by beating Case-Shiller to the punch on housing statistics of late.  The statistics are actually a very good thing for the overall real estate market, as they add another voice with a large body of credible data to back it up.  The extra publicity doesn’t particularly hurt the company either, as Humphries and CEO Spencer Rascoff are regularly featured as national real estate figures based on their data.

Partial Benefit:  Home Buyers

This point has been made by real estate agents ad nauseum, but I’ll repeat it because it is valuable.  Automated home valuations have a small benefit to a buyer in their home search.  In an introductory phase, buyers may want to see sales prices and values in a general area to begin to understand the area in which they’ll buy.  Estimates may flesh out the neighborhood a bit more than simply viewing recently closed sales.  The additional data could help a buyer understand that most homes in their preferred neighborhood are worth between $350,000 and $400,000.

That’s it.  That is where the value ends for a home buyer.  Estimates on individual properties are not worth the screen they’re displayed upon.  Since Zillow is the most popular, and I know and like a bunch of people at the company, I’m going to pick on them in particular.

Nationally, Zillow’s estimates missed the sale prices of homes 45% of the time by more than 10% of the value.  Zillow’s estimates missed the sale prices 25% of the time by more than 20% of the value.  From these two statistics alone, it’s clear that you’d be foolish to make a home purchase decision based on an automated valuation.

This isn’t an opinion, it comes directly from Zillow’s statistics.  The  company itself points out that its estimates are not to be used as an appraisal, and is highly transparent about its own inaccuracies in the data for individual homes.  Unfortunately, it seems that there are far more consumers relying on Zestimates than there are actually reading those disclaimers.  Buyers should understand that once they’ve gotten past the initial phase of scouting out a neighborhood, using an automated valuation model isn’t going to provide accurate information on individual homes’ values.

Net Zero Benefit:  Home Sellers

Home sellers register the most complaints with real estate professionals over automated home valuations, with good reason.  While home buyers might miss a potentially good buy because they relied upon an online valuation, there are always other homes to buy.  Sellers, on the other hand, have just one iron in the fire.  If a seller lists his/her home for sale and an inaccurately-low value is being posted next to their house online, the seller is stuck explaining a botched mathematical calculation to buyers instead of promoting a home’s best features.  There is no upside to a high valuation.  Sellers have already named their price, and buyers won’t be increasing their offers because of the high valuation.  While the number of potential buyers who may undervalue this home based on that valuation is unknown, it creates a great amount of anxiety for a home seller that they’re being unfairly judged by an outside source with little direct knowledge of the home.

All of the major real estate sites claim to have procedures for human input on their valuation models to adjust a poor valuation.  This is very temporary band-aid, however.  Human input will always be subjective.  High valuations won’t be appealed.  Listing agents and sellers will always appeal low valuations, even if their home is overpriced.  In the end, human input altering the outcome of the model just reduces the intergrity of the model itself.

Automated Valuation Models Have a Long Way To Go Before Truly Benefitting Consumers

We’ve certainly seen some benefits to real estate statistics and greater market knowledge, and I enjoy watching another statistical powerhouse competing with the old guard for the most accurate industry projections.  It’s fairly clear, though,  that these automated valuations have benefitted their creators much more than individual home buyers and sellers.  In the spirit of technology progression, I’m hoping that these algorithms are developed to the point that they become somewhat-accurate predictors of value.  However, as much as I’m admirer of our ever-increasing ability to manipulate data for research purposes, I’ve sold far too many homes to believe that a computer model can compare one neighbor’s shiny granite counters to another’s crumbling laminate.  The data is a nice tool for economists, but for the individual consumer it’s more entertainment than sound financial advice.

Custom URL Shortener: Maximize Your Mobile/Social Online Branding

This article was originally published on Geek Estate Blog:

Creating your company’s own customized URL shortener is faster and easier than you might believe.  Why would a company need/want a custom URL shortener?  I’ll get to that, but if the geeks will please excuse me for a second, the basic premise of URL shorteners for those who might not be aware:

URL shorteners are used to shrink a web link to a smaller size.  When users on Twitter, Facebook, and a number of other mobile/social media sites type or paste web links, they need to them to be as short as possible to save room for a title, explanation, comment, etc.  Example:

http://seattlehome.com/waterfront-homes/Bellevue is a nice link, but it’s 48 characters long.  You are only allowed to type 140 characters per tweet on Twitter, so you’ve used up more than one-third of your space if you paste this URL into your tweet.  That same URL can be shortened to http://seaho.me/w and your link points to the exact same web page, but you now have 31 more characters to work with on your tweet.  This is possible by registering a short domain name (seaho.me vs. seattlehome.com) and using a URL shortener.

Why Custom Branded URLs vs. Public URL Shorteners

There are plenty of public URL shorteners available, with the most popular being bit.ly.  These services allow you to shorten a link, but it will be branded under the service-provider’s domain.  This can save you a few characters, and is fine for most individual users.  However, most good marketers are looking to squeeze every last ounce of branding out of a marketing effort, and a shortened, custom URL gives the impression of a polished, tech-savvy, well-organized company.

Think of it this way:  You are a source of valuable information for your followers.    Your social media account could be seen as one large convention hall full of your personal knowledge of a subject matter, and doorways that you provide to information from others that you trust and respect.  Because your followers trust you, they follow the links that you provide to other sources.  If you owned the convention hall, how would you label the doors leading to the knowledge you’re providing–with some other company’s name, or would you put your company’s sponsorship right on top of every label as you direct your customers to the information they’re seeking?

Branding your URLs means owning your knowledge space, and reminding your followers/users/customers/clients about the value that you are providing to them.

Pseudo Custom Branded URL Shorteners

Some companies have adopted a partial solution with hosted custom branding.  Bitly enterprise is an upgraded ”pro service” that allows companies, like the Seattle Times, to register a shortened domain and use it as their URL shortener, while bitly hosts the software and the links database.  http://seattletimes.com becomes http://seati.ms and the repetition of the Seattle Times name throughout the company’s posts does deliver some of the impact of a custom URL shortener:

@seattletimes (Seattle Times) Local home sales on an upswing: http://seati.ms/o8JD2H

There are just two downfalls to this service.  First, it’s $995/mo.  No, I didn’t miss a decimal in that price.  Second, for those willing to cough up that nearly-thousand dollars per month, it gets worse.  The “home page” of your shortened domain will redirect back to bitly’s home page.  How much time and money would you spend branding a domain which has a base page sending traffic elsewhere?

Fully-customized URL shorteners

I’ve researched a number of do-it-yourself URL shorteners, and all signs point to YOURLS as the best and easiest product available (being free is a nice bonus).  YOURLS allows you to install a set of files on your company’s server/host, create a simple database, edit one text file, and start linking.  Anyone who has installed a custom wordpress site can do this in a blink.  If you haven’t, it wouldn’t take long for your IT guru to get it done for you.  I won’t get into the technical details of the install since every provider is different, but there are ample instructions on YOURLS’s site.

Once installed, log into the admin page, paste your link, and shorten.  You can even post directly to Facebook and Twitter through the YOURLS interface.  Links are saved in the database for as long as you keep the web hosting in place.  Is shortening your links in an external application a bit more work?  Every new marketing venture is more work, or more money.  In the end, the minimal extra effort spent to brand URLs is, in my opinion, worth the boost to the brand’s image.

TIPS:

First things first:  find yourself a great shortened domain name.  International domains come in particularly handy for creating shortened words ending in .me, .ms, .ly, etc.  Here are sometips.  Take the time to get a good one, because once you start linking, you’re stuck with it.

Now, for the important part.  You’re not finished until you’ve created a mobile-friendly landing page for your new shortened domain.  A high percentage of users viewing your social media feed are going to be on mobile devices.  When they decide that they want to see what this http://seaho.me site is that keeps delivering relevant real estate news to them, they need to find a web site that is designed to be viewed on whatever device they might be using.  It doesn’t matter how much time you spend on branding, if a user visits your site on a mobile device and it’s not optimized for mobile, they’ll be off to another company’s site in a minute.

Register a short domain, install YOURLS, create a mobile-friendly landing page, and link like the big boys without spending the big bucks.