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Opinion Editorials

The questionable timing of Errol Samuelson’s departure from Move, Inc.

(Editorial) A key figure at Move, Inc. resigned without notice last week, leaving many wondering how his move to Zillow will have an impact on the real estate industry.

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The difficulty of quitting

In my life, I can count the number of times I’ve quit a job with no notice and a “shove it” note on one finger. I was accidentally included in an email from a boss who made a cruel comment about me. It was one in a long chain of abusive statements toward me and everyone else. I had worked enough 90 hour weeks for this man, so I printed out the email, circled his statement, wrote “ADIOS” in red Sharpie, handed it to him, and walked out that minute. I was immediately hired to be the Marketing Director at a real estate firm, and then began working here, so it all worked out for the best.

I have no regrets. If you’ve ever seen The Devil Wears Prada, you’ll understand my plight. He deserved it. But not all bosses deserve a nasty red sharpie note, but it happens regardless.

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When Errol Samuelson, former president of realtor.com and Chief Strategy Officer at Move, Inc. left to become Zillow’s Chief Industry Development Officer, it appeared to me to be a red Sharpie note to the ol’ boss, but instead of handing it to him personally, he called it in. I’ve been pondering the timing of the departure and what it means for the industry.

The timing of Samuelson quitting

We had known for some time that Move would be in an investor’s meeting all day on Wednesday, an event that everyone knows does not permit interruptions. Steve Berkowitz, CEO of Move, Inc. told us that while Samuelson was not expected to be in the day-long meeting, he was aware of it. Additionally, Berkowitz said that he had a standing appointment with Samuelson on Thursday in person to go over his 2013 objectives and review his 2014 goals. In other words, he quit the day before he had to meet with the boss to discuss his performance.

These two facts confirm to me that the timing was choreographed purposely. Was this designed to hurt Move’s chances with investors or hurt their stock? “That can’t be determined,” Berkowitz told us. He tells us that while in the investor meeting, he ignored a call from human resources, then the legal department, and realized something was afoot when his Chairman rang his cell phone – he stepped out, learned the news, and called Samuelson.

In less than a minute, Berkowitz says he congratulated Samuelson, asking only that they hold off on announcing the departure for 24 hours. Within the hour, Zillow published a well crafted press release on the subject. Berkowitz is keeping a positive outlook, noting that “business is business,” but quitting in this manner is nowhere on par with my red Sharpie note, and it seems to violate basic business ethics, particularly given the fact that every Move, Inc. strategy in Samuelson’s brain has gone to Zillow who one Move, Inc. insider opined is “known for their drama,” particularly with the timing of press releases, lawsuits, and the like.

A slight change in tone

Berkowitz’s statements have been extremely courteous so far, but we noticed a slight change in the tide when he asserted to us that Samuelson “was privvy to the strategy, but was not involved in the day to day operations. We won’t miss a beat at all.”

Although the feeling inside of Move, Inc. seems to be that Samuelson burnt a bridge, the overriding feeling is that it was completely unnecessary.

Berkowitz echoed a feeling we had here at AG, noting that Samuelson was one of the most outspoken critics of Realtor.com competitors, and to see that change overnight is like a Republican becoming Democrat with no explanation.

Moving forward, Berkowitz noted that their “direction is solid,” their “value is strong,” and that they will continue to live up to the promises they make. He opines that their current team is extremely strong, and that combined, they have more industry experience than any of their competitors. They have restructured Samuelson’s role, and recent promotions will take care of the company strategy, which Berkowitz notes he has always driven, no matter who reported to him.

“People’s actions define them.”

Berkowitz says that this departure has him concerned for the industry. “Remember this: people’s actions define them.”

One topic Berkowitz sidestepped was the reaction of the National Association of Realtors, simply leaving it at the fact that Samuelson was privvy to their strategies as well (which we can imagine they’re likely somewhat annoyed by).

My interactions with Samuelson have always been positive, so I was surprised at the choreography of this departure, and I do think that Zillow has one hell of an industry leader in their midst, but climbing the wall and kicking down the ladder behind him seems unnecessary, and although Berkowitz wouldn’t say it, I will – this feels designed to hurt Move, Inc. in favor of Zillow. From where I stand, it didn’t have to be that way, and it actually hurts Zillow’s relationship with NAR, informed brokers, and informed agents who butter their bread.

Lani is the Chief Operating Officer at The American Genius and sister news outlet, The Real Daily, and has been named in the Inman 100 Most Influential Real Estate Leaders several times, co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH and Austin Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. andreageller

    March 10, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    I think in this day and age there is no graceful way of going from one competitor to another for either party. As with all things it’s timing.

    • agbenn

      March 11, 2014 at 10:33 am

      In some ways I agree with you Andrea, but in this case when discussing two publicly traded organizations, timing is everything. The timing and rush are certainly questionable. Big businesses do this everyday, but the cloak and dagger style of leaving is suspect when you put it with a publicly announced investors meeting. The move was designed to at minimum embarrass Move, but even that failed because although he had a title, he wasn’t involved in execution according to the article, and Move.

      Funny thing about real estate, most R’s spend a lot of time avoiding these types of individuals, so the role he was hired for will only place more distrust on Zillow for the foreseeable future. I have good friends at Zillow, but the ethos is gone and seems it could be a top down problem.

  2. basic_business_ethics

    March 11, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    I agree that the timing seems to have been designed by Zillow to damage realtor.com, it is shocking to me that Errol went along with it.

    Getting poached is one thing, but giving zero notice and being announced as starting a job at a top competitor that same day is another.

    Samuelson should have resigned, and then later re-emerged at Zillow.

    Zillow and Errol may have just made the already treacherous waters of securing MLS feeds and favor with NAR even more turbulent.

    It may hurt realtor.com in the short term, but I doubt this is a long term win for Zillow.

  3. BawldGuy

    March 11, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    We all have a choice when it comes to how we unilaterally end any relationship. We can be a real man or woman, or we can be less. Grace is a choice if we’re the ones making the decision to leave any relationship. Class too is a choice. To believe otherwise is unfortunate.

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Opinion Editorials

Disrupting the idea that tech is the disrupter of modern business

(OPINION EDITORIAL) In a world of streaming, apps and have-it-now, it is easy to think of technology as a disrupter. But is that the issue or the symptom of a bigger issue?

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Customers matter

Amazon didn’t kill the retail industry, they did it to themselves with bad customer service. Netflix did not kill Blockbuster, they did it to themselves with ridiculous late fees. Uber did not kill the taxi business, they did it to themselves by limiting the number of taxis and with fare control. Apple did not kill the music industry, they did it to themselves by forcing people to buy full-length albums. AirBNB did not kill the hotel industry, they did it to themselves by limited availability and pricing options. Technology by itself is not the real disrupter.

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Being non-customer-centric is the biggest threat to any business. Not my words, they’re rad. That’s Davis Masten, making an elegant and effective argument for the disruption business model. Let’s get less concise.

User experience

Mr. Masten absolutely isn’t wrong. Every success story he lists got its customers based on a smooth, convenient user experience, and I’ll wager everybody reading this has a hilarious horror story about at least one of the failures.

He does undersell tech a bit. The music industry didn’t force people to buy full albums. You could buy all the singles you wanted. They were just a pain in the posterior to sort and store. Then, iTunes. If AirBNB is killing hotels it’s doing it darn slowly (which I guess might be worse?) and Netflix coexisted with Blockbuster until the former went streaming.

But that’s a quibble. Even in cases where the new model didn’t disrupt the old one until certain tech was in place, that tech was invariably in the service of a convenient, cost-effective user experience. That’s Mr. Masten’s point. Whoever wins at that, wins. Truth.

The question I really want to address: what then?

What then?

That’s a question the disruption business model has a bad habit of not answering. Well, I mean, there’s the Uber answer, the Uber answer being “behave contemptibly for years on end until your own shareholders kick you out despite you making them money.” Never give the Uber answer.

It is not a good answer.

For folks looking to be Travis Kalanick in 2013 without being Travis Kalanick in 2017, a level of responsibility is called for. As Mr. Masten points out, “disruption” usually means a smoother, simpler user experience beating the tar out of an older, clunkier one. That’s great!

It also comes with collateral damage.

Terms of employment

The ride-sharing model – and this is everybody, I’m not just picking on Uber – depends on drivers being legally self-employed. AirBNB depends on hosts not having to meet hotel regulations, and guests not expecting them. Put differently, if Uber and Lyft had to pay a living wage and offer benefits, or AirBNB hosts had to meet hotel cleanliness standards out of pocket, those services would keel over and die in a week.

That cash-in-hand approach absolutely makes things simpler for the company and the customer.

To be especially callous, it may also encourage a better user experience because workers are broke and terrified of losing their jobs, unlike, for instance, unionized cab drivers.

It’s also precarious in the extreme, and not just for employees. The Uber/Netflix model is a confluence of easy user experience and the technology that empowers it. That being the case, there will be a new “disruption” every time the tech gets measurably better. Conservatively, we’re ten years out from self-driving cars. Executives at Uber, Lyft, Amazon, Grubhub and every other “disrupter” that uses vehicles – so, all of them – would probably like that to be five years. Their drivers probably feel otherwise.

That’s the Uber error (I have now resumed picking on Uber).

They missed that “customer-centric” means more than “convenient.”

It also means “up to the customer’s standards of good business.” They couldn’t manage that even when it came to their own internal culture, and they paid for it with a public scandal, a non-negligible market segment who refuse to use their brand on principle, and “Uber, but for…” becoming a punchline.

Sustainability of disruption

The disruption model, which was synonymous with fast profits from streamlined processes, is rapidly becoming synonymous with fast failure, toxic corporate culture and horror stories of low pay and poor treatment of customers and employees alike. For those of us ancient enough to remember it recalls the change in public perception of the term “dot-com,” and seriously, short of literal Internet access, anything affiliating your business with the dot-com bubble is not your friend.

That’s still reversible, and Mr. Masten provides a superb starting point.

“Disruptive” companies generally do their disrupting by streamlining user interaction, and whether you’re writing an app or running a bank, user interaction is the most important thing.

Customer-centric

But user interaction isn’t limited to purchasing your service, and Econ 101 notwithstanding, customers buy based on more than who offers most for cheapest. In the frighteningly transparent 21st century, being customer-centric means addressing human values along with economic ones, guaranteeing that when you profit, so do your customers and employees. If your standards don’t stand up to the people who buy what you’re selling, you will not be selling it long.

That’s what “customer-centric” means. You can’t disrupt forever. Eventually, you have to build.

#Disrupters

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Opinion Editorials

How to impress people by being stupid (and when not to)

(EDITORIAL) Did you know that admitting you don’t know something can be a respectable business move? But in other situations, you better avoid it.

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You want to impress people, right?

My first job was at my aunt and uncle’s children’s bookstore, long before it was legal for me to work. My aunt drilled into me the best customer service tips I’ve received in my life. By age 13, I could answer the phone like a pro, help an aimless mother compile a bevy of meaningful gifts based on her child’s age, I could operate a register, and knew when to be patient, when to rush, when to jump, and when to sit still.

If I didn’t know the answer to any of her questions or the questions of a customer, “I don’t know” was never an acceptable response. “I don’t know, but I will find out for you right now” sufficed, but “I don’t know” was deemed ignorant, rude, and in some cases, disrespectful.

42Floors.com Founder, Jason Freedman has waxed poetic about the power of the phrase “I don’t know,” noting that when you use the phrase, even if you think you look stupid, it validates everything else you’ve said as honest rather than salesy bullshit, and rather than your just nodding your head in agreement with everything, even when you’re lost. Go read it so the rest of this editorial makes sense…

Contrasting my experience with the phrase with Freedman’s has had my mind in some knots today as I’ve sorted out why I agree with both my aunt and Freedman.

I realized that there is context in which using the phrase is actually appropriate, and advantageous, because looking stupid can actually lend credence to your words, but at some times, it is a lazy response to a request.

So which is better?

So, which is it? Use the phrase liberally, add “but I’ll find out,” or strike it from your vocabulary?

When speaking to a boss or someone that is requesting something from you, take my aunt’s advice and admit that you don’t know but that you will immediately learn the answer. If you are pitching to investors or talking to potential hires or partners, use it liberally to strengthen your other answers. You get the picture.

Freedman is right – there is value in using the phrase, but in some situations, there is value in adding the followup that you’ll find out immediately what the answer is. Both scenarios may make you feel stupid, but they both have a tremendous amount of value and are instant trust builders.

This editorial was originally published in 2014.

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Opinion Editorials

Don’t settle for mediocrity, make a killer first impression

(OPINION EDITORIAL) You don’t get second chances on a first impression so you might as well make your first impression a positive, memorable one.

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Your book cover

It’s been said you only get one chance to make a first impression. This can set the tone for your entire relationship, so it’s important to make a positive impression.

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Whether you’re going for your first job interview or a seasoned veteran in the workforce, it can be daunting to meet someone new who may have your future in their hands. Let’s talk about things you can do to be remembered well.

1. Smile

Smiling puts people at ease. A first meeting can be extremely stressful, but when you smile it decreases your anxiety. Just make sure your smile is authentic. You don’t want to look cheesy or nervous.

2. A strong handshake

Don’t squeeze the other person’s hand too tight, but don’t hold it too limp. You should have a handshake that is somewhere between. There’s an art to a good handshake. Keep your right hand free so you don’t look like you’re fumbling. Stand up to shake someone’s hand. Make eye contact with the other person and smile. Shake from your elbow, not your wrist.

3. Speak clearly and warmly

When you meet someone, break the ice by telling them how nice it is to meet them. Speak with authority. Use a calm and steady voice.

4. Make eye contact

When you look someone in the eyes, it not only conveys confidence, it also demonstrates interest in what they have to say. Be careful it doesn’t come off as staring. Make sure to change your glance occasionally.

5. Watch your body language

Sit up straight. Don’t yawn. Sit still without fidgeting. Give the other person your attention. In fact, it’s a good idea to mirror their body language. It’s a subconscious way of building trust. Don’t draw attention to your flaws.

6. Present yourself well

You may not have an Armani suit, but you can make sure your clothes are clean and pressed. Clean your shoes. Make sure your fingernails are well manicured.

7. Have confidence in yourself

You might be judged on things you cannot change, such as your gender, age or attractiveness. If someone is that shallow, you probably don’t want to work for or be in business with them.

Probably the one best thing you can do when you meet someone is to just be confident in your abilities and talents.

#ImpressionPositive

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