A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum…

Actually it was a great evening at the MIT Enterprise Forum program last Wednesday (3/15) on the topic of Online Real Estate. I was on the volunteer program development team that put the evening together, and I got tagged to put together this note for you 🙂 And my own personal thanks to all who helped us with insights and contacts to build the program, including Dustin. There’s already been a lot of great timely comments on the program in this blog, so this note is primarily to report some of the stats and survey results, and a couple of my own comments on disruptive technologies and market inertia (or active resistance, as the case may be).

Attendance at the dinner/program meeting was a sold-out 400 people, one of the highest numbers ever for an MITEF program. The program panel was made up of three local online real estate companies – House Values (Niki Parekh), Redfin (David Eraker) and Zillow (Spencer Rascoff), plus a broker, Real Property Associates (Gordon Stephenson), and an Internet savvy agent, who was also our moderator (Jim Reppond, Coldwell Banker). So it was a good crowd, and a good spectrum of players on the panel. The program consisted of introductions of the players and their companies, key questions and panel responses led by the moderator, and open Q&A from the audience.

Wednesday morning (3/22) we reviewed the results of the online survey we sent out to the 298 attendees that we had emails for – we got 96 responses back, which is a pretty good sample. Here’s some highlights of the responses:

  • 63 % were there because the program was relevant to their work or job – usually not that high; lots of Realtors present, as expected. For over 60%, this was their first time at an MIT Forum event. The other large segment was more the regular MIT Forum attendees who follow, and lead, tech-driven companies and their business issues.
  • 87 % said the topic was relevant to them; 78 % said the program met or exceeded their expectations.
  • 69 % said the level of detail was just right, but 31% said it was too general – higher than we would have liked.

Enough of the stats. Here’s some quotes from the comments that show more of the flavor of the event, and some of the mixed reactions it generated:

“Having Zillow, Redfin and House Values in the same room at the same time was the reason I decided to attend. Not necessarily the speakers themselves, but the companies they represented.”

“I was expecting to hear about more revolutionary technology. It seems the real estate industry is still in the technology dark ages.”

“The topic was “The New World of Buying and Selling Real Estate”. The moderator and the audience of R.E. agents didn’t allow for a real discussion on the future because they feel so threatened by these new technologies. Boos from the crowd of R.E. agents and a moderator who encouraged it stifled an open and honest discussion.”

“It is difficult for businesses to share the future directly as competition is present and they cannot release product plans before they are ready to launch.”

“It was good to hear the stories on the companies’ background and how they work. Although, at times it almost seemed as though I was at an infomercial.”

“Great topic; always fun to hear the spirited discussion that an industry in transition generates.”

All of the above once again proving that it is very difficult to satisfy all of the people all of the time, and that divisive subjects generate divisive reactions. It would be fun to do this again a few years from now, when more of these companies are bigger, and public, and have more visible business strategies.

So now I get to put in my nickel comments, based on my own background as a tech exec, seven years working with the MIT Forum on these kinds of programs, and now full-time realtor for several years. I think that this is an industry in the very early stages of being hit by disruptive technologies and the new business models that they enable. The mass and momentum of the industry are huge, and the consumer market is highly diverse. It may take quite a while for the new business models to clarify and engage their target segments of the market and start to get real (no pun intended) traction. The players we see today may not be the players of the future (for example, see Dustin’s earlier post about Google Base vs Zillow). But some will get traction, and as they do we will see a lot of resistance and delaying actions by those whose market is being disrupted. Some resistance will be tightened corporate policies, some will be PR campaigns, and some will be lobbyist-driven regulation. Anything sound new here? We’ve seen it in industries as diverse as airlines and telecoms and travel and books and so on … Delaying change is worth $billions to the incumbents, and they are pros at the game. But it still looks to me like the technology train is on the tracks, and gathering speed. Personally, I will take every advantage I can of the technology-driven changes… and I will continue to welcome ‘old-fashioned’ people-driven referrals 🙂

Corporate Personalities on Display at the MIT Forum…

Brief overview of the event…



Jim did an excellent job leading the discussion. I didn’t take notes, but in general the questions were all pretty predictable and the answers were spot on… With an exception of a “woman-related” comment by Nikesh, no one made any major gaffs, and there were no real surprises… But that is not to say the event wasn’t informative…

My initial reaction is that the four panelists did a wonderful job and all represented their companies well. I’d even be willing to go further to say that they personified their respective companies. As in:

Nikesh had a hard time sounding real and often ended up sounding like he was recording an infomercial, which is (for better of worse) my picture of HouseValues.

David made some great points, but came off at times like he hadn’t completely thought through his business model. I wish Jim had pushed him to answer the question: What if a listing agent refuses to show one of your buyers a property? Or better yet, what happens when that listing agent who DOES show a Redfin buyer a property and then sues Redfin claiming they were the procuring cause of the sale. Talking about this issue, I wish someone had pushed either Gordon or Jim to answer if they would knowingly show one of their listings to a buyer who openly said they were going to use Redfin. Agents out there: Would you?

Spencer played the role of beta tech guy. He obviously understands the real estate industry and no one really forced him on any issues so he kept from saying too much of interest (like: What comes next?).

Gordon played the role of elder experienced broker really well. He obviously knows the industry inside-and-out, and considering his interest in technology (he is also a Director at Zillow), he came off as someone willing to explore new business models.

If you were there, what was your take on the MIT Forum? Did you learn anything new?

Niki from HouseValues has a collection of interesting reflections on the forum

Spencer added his thoughts on the MIT forum (and a few other conferences he’s been to recently) on the Zillow Blog.

Lots More than Just the Sexiest Real Estate Agents

It’s been a while since I had a real “ramble” post, but considering the occasion, hopefully people will forgive me for trying to cover a lot of ground in one post.

Happy Birthday to Rain City Guide!!!
It’s been one year since I wrote my first post (Hello World, of course) on Rain City Guide. I probably would have taken down the first post since it was just a test except we got a comment right off the bat and I’ve never been very good at deleting comments…

I have no (clear) idea where RCG will go over the next year, but considering the real estate industry is clearly in a pivotal position and I’m extremely excited to have front row seats.

New Broker For Anna
LTD Real EstateWe’re excited to announce that, as of today, Anna has officially switched her broker to LTD Real Estate. This major change for Anna began when I struck up a conversation with a broker at LTD, Jon Ribary, after noticing that we were both developing tools to map Seattle listings this past summer (who wasn’t???). Just like my gHomes tool, his search tool hasn’t kept up with some of the amazing tools that have been released recently (including ours!). However, our similar interests led to many conversations and ultimately a much stronger bond between Rain City Guide and LTD. Anna and I look forward to working closer with Jon and his staff in the days, weeks, months and years to come. If you’re wondering, don’t expect much to change here at Rain City Guide based on Anna’s move to LTD (besides the logo on our sidepanel!). Anna’s move is really related to the fact that she was searching out a broker who understands that the real power of marketing on the internet is when you use the tools to communicate with potential clients as oppose to talking at them. About the only thing you can expect to change is that Jon and I have some ideas for side-projects that will allow RCG to continue innovating so that we can achieve our mission of being the best resource for real estate information in Seattle.

Ride Home from the MIT Forum
The MIT forum is tonight and it is sold out in a major way. I definitely plan to attend, but I have a minor issue in that we’re a one-car family and Anna has something else that she must attend. Getting between my work in Downtown Seattle and Downtown Bellevue tomorrow afternoon without a car will be easy. The part of the trip that I’m not sure I can handle is the trip to my home in Crown Hill this evening. Is there someone attending who wouldn’t mind giving me a lift home after the forum is over? Found a ride home! Feel free to email me directly.

Sexiest Real Estate Agents
I was checking my log files earlier today when I noticed that someone came to Rain City Guide based on the Google Search: [sexiest+real+estate+agents]. I was deeply saddened to find out that we are ranked a dismal #2 on this all-important search. So, if you are a blogger interested in helping us celebrate our birthday in a zany way, consider linking to this post with the phrase “sexiest real estate agents”. I’ll bet it won’t even take a full week for us to be rated #1! Okay, it is obviously getting late, so I’m going to go to bed and try to sleep off the celebratory Champaign that Anna and I cracked open tonight!

What do real estate industry people talk about?

My 10-12 weeks of “blogging” have been quite interesting for me, in that for 15 years I mostly have talked about the real estate industry with other industry people, and talked about local real estate with my own clients and local agents. Blogging opens up talking to consumers generally about the industry, which is in and of itself, quite a revelation.

Given I will be attending the MIT dinner event tomorrow, I am contrasting the speakers of that event with the participant theories of my normal industry discussions. Tomorrow’s event will be “the newbies” Zillow and Redfin plus HouseValues, whom I wouldn’t call a “newbie”.

I am “lifting” this discussion of the past few days from the forum that has been around since 1995 or so, and I have participated in since 1998. I thought this particular discussion was a huge complement to whatever I may hear tomorrow night. For the benefit of those attending tomorrow night, you might want to read this beforehand for “balance”. I have removed the names, except mine, since I am “lifting” it out. I think at least Robbie’s interest will be peaked by that part of the discussion that suggests that the MLS may cease to exist as an end result to all of this.


Agent A says:

I would guess that there is not a large brokerage in the country that doesn’t have plans to withdraw from MLS depending on the outcome of the DOJ suit. I believe that many large brokers are considering withdrawing from MLS REGARDLESS of the outcome of the DOJ suit…

All across America, in every major city there are 3 or 4 large brokers who control around 80% of the inventory. If COURT mandated MLS rules don’t make competitive sense to those brokers MLS will END.

Even if you and Attorney Barry and the rest of the majority of the NAEBA are victorious your victory will be pyrrhic– MLS will be run YOUR way but it won’t contain enough listings to be a market force.

“Ardell” wrote:

What I am asking everyone one to focus in on is what “should be” as opposed to what “has been” since before buyer agency existed.


My major beef with the industry is that buyer agency was set into a system, parts of which should have been revised accordingly, and still need to be revised.

Agent B says…

Could it be that buyer agency will be given as the justification for the large brokers pulling out of the MLS? As Ardell notes, the whole system is a carry-over from a time before buyer agency. Does it really make sense to “cooperate” with other brokers in an adversarial relationship in the same way as when it was a subagency relationship?

One could argue that a listing agent is not truly acting in their seller’s best interest by making the property available to buyers working with their own agents until they have made every effort to find a buyer themselves. If a buyer agent is really going to save their buyer money, help them get more concessions, etc, isn’t it in the seller’s best interests for their agent to find an unrepresented buyer?

Consider this hypothetical situation:

Large brokerage with a state-of-the-art website and large advertising budget decides that they will take all of their listings as exclusive, non-MLS, non-cooperating listings for 45 days. No lockbox, the listing agency will conduct every showing, and there will be no showings to buyers who have not gotten a mortgage pre-approval. During this period, they will not do dual agency, and will attempt to find buyer customers for their listings. If they do not sell in 45 days, the listing will then be entered into the MLS. Their justification for this is that they believe that this maximizes the chances that the seller will get an offer that is in their best interests. Is there anything that would be illegal or unethical about this?

I think it is very easy to come up with scenarios in which the MLS becomes the dumping ground for the bottom of the barrel properties and over-priced dogs. It’s also easy to see scenarios in which MLS entries are very bare bones affairs with just enough info to generate a lead from Realtor.com, but not enough to be useful for other agents anymore. I find it very hard, though, to picture a scenario in which the large brokerages will just happily keep providing data-rich, picture-laden MLS entries for all of their listings, if they lose control over how and where these listings will be used and displayed.

I thought this might be food for thought for those who have not considered how the industry might change in order to counteract the events currently taking place with regard to mls access.

Something’s Afoot in the Real Estate Business – but what does it mean and where is it going?

(Editor’s Note: I few weeks ago, I sat down with Chuck Reiling to discuss an MIT Enterprise Forum he is helping to organize that will feature leaders from some of the top real estate technology firms. His excitement at the idea of bring people from Zillow, Redfin and HouseValues together to discuss the future of real estate was obvious and contagious. Hence, I asked him if he would be willing to give some background on the project, which led directly to this post. Interestingly he’s not the only one who is excited about this forum as he the story was already picked up by both Robert Gray Smith and John Cook. Chuck and his wife are local RE/MAX agents.)

There’s been lots of local and national press lately about new online real estate offerings like Zillow and Redfin. With lots of investor money moving into the arena, we know there is change afoot. The question is, how much change, and for whom? Change for the consumer? Agents? Both?

As Ardell described recently in her “History of Real Estate” articles (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3), the residential real estate business is always in a state of change. Ten years ago the online MLS systems caused a lot of change. The listing books got thrown away, and a few agents who couldn’t adapt went with them. Then the MLS derivative sites started appearing, with MLS download data becoming available to the public. People could start doing their own online searches without having to call an agent, or cruise the streets on Sunday afternoon looking for open houses. So change is ongoing, and maybe there are only a few real (no pun intended) points of stability.

My daddy and my uncle were both brokers years ago. The only points we still have in common with their businesses seem to be clients, agency law, and the For Sale sign in the yard; almost everything else has changed. For a long time, ‘public’ records in boxes in warehouses were not very publicly accessible for most of us, but government agencies (state, local and federal) are rapidly putting their public records information online to support their operations, and incidentally help us too. And new services like Redfin, Zillow and House Values make that data even easier to use in support of their own business models. As we see locally, the big four real estate companies, Windermere, Coldwell Banker, John L. Scott and RE/MAX are also exploiting that data in conjunction with MLS data on their sites. None of this has changed the basic business model of professionally assisted transactions with buyer and seller agent commissions. While the traditional model has been a subject of debate for a long time, and a lot of creative alternative business models and offerings have been tried, the industry is still seems to be running on business as usual.

However, there is also a lot of technology-driven change right now. Someone with a background in the high-tech industry might observe that real estate looks like just one more industry about to be disrupted by the Internet – changes caused by dramatically improved information availability, rapid communications and online business models. But residential real estate is still dominated by local interests, its product is both expensive (understatement) and unique, and there are a lot of local and national consumer protection laws on the books – some good, some bad, and more coming. So who is right, and what will happen next?

To try to pull together a picture of the impact of these changes, and where they might lead, a local organization called MIT Enterprise Forum is focusing one of its dinner programs on the topic of Online Real Estate (clever title). The Forum focuses on highlighting business issues and opportunities for tech-driven companies and entrepreneurs. The Online Real Estate program will be on Wednesday, March 15, at the Bellevue Hyatt Hotel. See www.mitwa.org for program details and reservations.

These MIT Forum events typically draw 200 to 400 attendees, and this one will probably be on the larger side. For better or worse, it seems like everyone is interested in real estate these days. The program will be panel-based, with a traditional real estate broker, a top online agent and execs from Redfin, Zillow and House Values, with an open Q&A session at the end. I’m on the program team that is pulling the program together, and I’d have to say I expect a very lively conversation on the stage that evening. 🙂

Forget tradition! The New World of Buying and Selling Real Estate

I’ve been going to the MIT Forum’s dinner topics for years as a technology geek. Now that I’m in real estate, I’m still finding applicable topics. Let me put my plug in for the MIT Forum first — The Northwest Chapter of the MIT Forum hosts monthly dinner meetings with topics relating to business and technology. The topics cover the spectrum from computer technology, biotech, nano technology and yes…now real estate technology trends. Always interesting!!


Transformation is afoot. Remember how Expedia revolutionized the travel industry? Now companies in our own backyard, including Redfin, HouseValues and Zillow, are offering online technologies that are transforming the real estate industry. From online valuations and lead generation to completing the legal transaction, these companies aim to exploit opportunities in the business of residential real estate. Home buyers, sellers and real estate agents are changing the way that they do business.


  • David Eraker, Founder, Redfin
  • Spencer Rascoff, CFO, Zillow, Inc.
  • Nikesh Parekh, VP of Corporate Development, HouseValues, Inc.
  • Gordon Stephenson, Co-Owner and Managing Broker, Real Property Associates, Inc., Director, Zillow, Inc

March 15, 5:30PM – Tickets are $50 at the door (less if you buy ahead of time). Visit http://www.mitwa.org for further details.

The 5:30 time is no-host cocktail with doors for dinner opening later. Come on by and join us.