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Windermere Solutions CEO John Jones’ 2012 roadmap

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Windermere Solutions

Recently named to the 60 Genius Brands to watch in 2012 list, Windermere Real Estate brokerage spinoff tech company Windermere Solutions was born from a push to invest in technology and has aggressive expansion plans for 2012. Windermere Solutions CEO, and former CIO at Windermere Real Estate, John Jones gave AGBeat a sneak peek into the backstory of Windermere and outlines their future plans.

The backstory

>Why did WRE decide to create its own technology company and spin it out as a separate company?

Back in 2009, the ownership and executive team at Windermere Real Estate wanted to make an investment in technology. I was the chief operating officer at Windermere Real Estate at the time and had previously been the chief information officer

We started by looking at outsourcing our technology needs to someone who was already providing technology solutions to the real estate vertical and could provide us with the products and tool sets that we needed. We took a long look at it and reviewed the pros and cons of a variety of factors, most importantly differentiation.

Would outsourcing provide us with enough differentiation to create the best opportunities to recruit and retain quality brokers and agents? What point of differentiation could we accomplish through outsourcing? At the end of the day, the risks involved with outsourcing, the lack of nimbleness and differentiation were primary factors for looking elsewhere.

We then looked closely at possible acquisitions and found a company on the East Coast that could deliver against several of our needs while augmenting what we already had in place. We started down the acquisition path and got as far as drafting a letter of intent. We probably would have made that acquisition; however the owners developed ‘founder’s syndrome’ and decided that the company was worth way more than what it was worth in our view. At that point, the deal was off the table.

The ownership then started asking the question, ‘Can we do this ourselves?’ While the company isn’t terribly embracing of risk, it does have an appetite for building out services that provide an opportunity for differentiation for the entire Windermere network.

After we had walked through all of the scenarios, the decision was made to move forward with creating our own technology company. One afternoon I received a call from the owners saying, ‘Do you think you can do this?’

I said, ‘Yes, I can,’ and they said, ‘Do it.’ So we set about starting a software company.

>What were the first steps?

The first thing we had to do was hire someone who knew how to build software development teams, architect a platform, offer strategic vision, and deliver products and services to market. Seattle has a large pool of talent with expertise in software innovation and my first choice was Brett Eddy, who came on board as our CTO. He’s a veteran of Microsoft with significant start-up experience. He thought I was crazy when I talked to him about the idea, but he decided to join me.

We started by laying out a product roadmap. We knew we need to had to replace the existing Windermere technology platform from the ground up, and we had to create a new database architecture as well. Since we sweep data from about 50 multiple listing services, we need that infrastructure to be flexible and scalable, as it is central to everything we built.

We started in earnest in August, 2010, and by March 2011, we had the foundation in place and were going full bore on product development. We had ramped up our hiring to about 50 employees, half of which were contractors, because our product development is very cyclical.

>How did you prioritize the development roadmap?

After fleshing out our approach with the Windermere ownership, Brett and I hit the road to talk with Windermere brokers (owners) and agents. We traveled to Windermere offices in six states and talked with dozens of brokers and hundreds of agents. The core question was simple: If your franchise could offer technology products to your brokers and agents, what would it be? Based on the answers we received, we started to prioritize what was important.

The answer we heard over and over from the brokers was ‘help us retain and recruit great agents.’ They wanted to know what we could do to help them achieve that.

After we reviewed hundreds of pages of notes, it became clear that focusing on enhancing the online brand of the individual agent should be our first priority. Every Windermere agent has his or her own niche or specialization, whether by neighborhood expertise, waterfront or green properties or what-have-you, and agents were clearly asking for an easy-to-use web presence that enabled their personal differentiation shine through.

So we started by focusing on creating new Web sites for agents based on the WordPress platform that would give them a strong, positive calling card on the Web and also give owner/ brokers a powerful tool for recruiting and retaining top-notch agents.

The second priority was addressing the franchise-wide need for a new and improved corporate site, Windermere.com. It needed a complete overhaul, with improved technology features, functionality and underlying architecture that would enable ongoing enhancements going forward. And that would lead us to the development of new Web sites for the Windermere offices. It was a deliberate, integrated approach — agents, franchise, offices — that enables us to migrate content and technology seamlessly across platforms. Its dynamic and extensible framework that will serve us well for years to come..

We also heard a lot about mobile in our discussions with brokers and agents. We knew we had to deliver solidly in the mobile arena, but what would give us the biggest bank for the buck and how could we do this in collaboration with all of the other things that we heard?

That led us to the touchCMA product for the iPad, which we recently released to the Windermere network and are now offering to other customers. It enables the agents to look like superstars in listing presentations to prospective home sellers and it’s a great recruiting tool.

>What are the competitive advantages of having a separate technology company?

In addition to a strong point of differentiation from other companies in the market, it enables us to offer something special to Windermere franchisees. They know they have a company that’s innovating on their behalf because they helped fund the start-up and they don’t have to pay on an ongoing basis for that innovation. Also, since we’re ultimately monetizing much of what we’re delivering to the Windermere network with other customers, that monetization underwrites further innovation and improves ROI in the company.

From a 3rd party customer perspective, we believe that we have a significant competitive advantage by being able to deploy and enhance our products and business processes at scale within the Windermere network, before we ever take on new customers. And when we do approach the broader market opportunities before us, we will do that on a white label basis for our customers. Our objective is to enhance the customer’s brand, and the brokerage’s ability to recruit and retain great agents, and in turn, help those agents conduct more successful real estate transactions.

Of course staffing a technology company in the Seattle area is an ongoing challenge. Seattle is a hyper-competitive market for technology talent. There are big companies with a significant presence here – Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon and others. They all are targeting Seattle’s tech talent and top-notch people can go anywhere.

But we are successful because of our somewhat unique proposition to our employees – we offer a start-up environment working on cool products that leverage state-of-the-art technology, yet we also have this anchor customer that provides some stability. The opportunity to make a difference in this environment, coupled with the very large economic opportunity and inflection point around technology that the real estate industry is currently experiencing, lays the foundation for a great work culture that we have here.

Looking forward

>What does the future look like?

We believe there’s a big opportunity for innovation in the real estate vertical. There has been a lot of noise in the past five to 10 years, and some significant disruption in how much information is in the hands of consumers these days, but real estate is still an somewhat antiquated, paper-based industry. We see our job as helping the brokers and agents improve their service quality to home buyers and sellers in the mobile digital information age.

We’re different from most of our competitors because we’re already on the inside. We’re trying to figure out how we can help people who already are in the vertical — owners, brokers and agents. We strive to enhance what they are trying to do, not just make money on what they do.

This is still an untapped vertical from a technology standpoint. There are lots of folks trying to get their foot into the industry and are investing significant money to get into the vertical. We agree there is significant opportunity in real estate technology, however our approach is not to disrupt the fundamental role of the traditional broker-agent value chain, rather we seek to enhance the relevance and expertise of agents to serve their customers better.

>What’s been the reception to your initial products, and what does the roadmap look like for 2012?

In 2011, we started implementing the vision for what we set out to do. We released the new Agent Web Site product in October and introduced the new Windermere.com site in December. Later this month, we will launch the new Office Web Site product and make it available to every franchise in the network. That will give us a fully integrated web product line and provide something of value to all points of contact in the network.

The Windermere network is thrilled to death with what we’ve provided to them from a technology standpoint. They’re extremely happy with the vision, our execution and the deliverables themselves, and happy to be part of the network as a result of it.

If we can satisfy a network that includes 300 offices and 7,000 agents in 10 states, then we believe we can deliver great products and services to the entire real estate vertical.

The American Genius is news, insights, tools, and inspiration for business owners and professionals. AG condenses information on technology, business, social media, startups, economics and more, so you don’t have to.

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14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Ken Brand

    January 7, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    Sounds pretty cool, a real estate brokerage/media/technology/software company.

    If Redfin decided to white-label their suite of media/technology/software assets as well, perhaps we'd have a quantum leap. The entire brokerage industry could be retooled. Everyone wins?

  2. Roland Estrada

    January 7, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    I love Windermere and work for them in Orange County. The sites are nice but need a more Apple-esque, Windows Phone 7 feel to them. I still have to go back to Ryan McCann’s site which was featured in AG. That site is absolutely killer and should be an example of agent sites that veer away from blah sites you see out there.

    That said, Windermere's touchCMA app for iPad look very cool.

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Austin

Austin tops the list of best places to buy a home

When looking to buy a home, taking the long view is important before making such a huge investment – where are the best places to make that commitment?

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Looking at the bigger picture

(REALUOSO.COM) – Let us first express that although we are completely biased about Texas (we’re headquartered here, I personally grew up here), the data is not – Texas is the best. That’s a scientific fact. There’s a running joke in Austin that if there is a list of “best places to [anything],” we’re on it, and the joke causes eye rolls instead of humility (we’re sore winners and sore losers in this town).

That said, SelfStorage.com dug into the data and determined that the top 12 places to buy a home are currently Texas and North Carolina (and Portland, I guess you’re okay too or whatever).

They examined the nerdiest of numbers from the compound annual growth rate in inflation-adjusted GDP to cost premium, affordability, taxes, job growth, and housing availability.

“Buying a house is a big decision and a big commitment,” the company notes. “Although U.S. home prices have risen in the long term, the last decade has shown that path is sometimes full of twists, turns, dizzying heights and steep, abrupt falls. Today, home prices are stabilizing and increasing in most areas of the U.S.”

Click here to continue reading the list of the 12 best places to buy a home…

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Housing News

Average age of houses on the rise, so is it now better or worse to buy new?

With aging housing in America, are first-time buyers better off buying new or existing homes? The average age of a home is rising, as is the price of new housing, so a shift could be upon us.

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aging housing inventory

The average home age is higher than ever

(REALUOSO.COM) – In a survey from the Department of Housing and Urban Development American Housing Survey (AHS), the median age of homes in the United States was 35 years old. In Texas, homes are a bit younger with the median age between 19 – 29 years. The northeast has the oldest homes, with the median age between 50 – 61 years. In 1985, the median age of a home was only 23 years.

With more houses around 40 years old, the National Association of Realtors asserts that homeowners will have to undertake remodeling and renovation projects before selling unless the home is sold as-is, in which case the buyer will be responsible to update their new residence. Even homeowners who aren’t selling will need to consider remodeling for structural and aesthetic reasons.

Prices of new homes on the rise

Newer homes cost more than they used to. The price differential between new homes and older homes has increased from 10 percent traditionally to around 37 percent in 2014. This is due to rising construction costs, scarcity of lots, and a low inventory of new homes that doesn’t meet the demand.

Click here to continue reading this story…

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Housing News

Are Realtors the real loser in the fight between Zillow Group and Move, Inc.?

The last year has been one of dramatic and rapid change in the real estate tech sector, but Realtors are vulnerable, and we’re worried.

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zillow move

Why Realtors are vulnerable to these rapid changes

(REALUOSO.COM) – Corporate warfare demands headlines in every industry, but in the real estate tech sector, a storm has been brewing for years, which in the last year has come to a head. Zillow Group and Move, Inc. (which is owned by News Corp. and operates ListHub, Realtor.com, TopProducer, and other brands) have been competing for a decade now, and the race has appeared to be an aggressive yet polite boxing match. Last year, the gloves came off, and now, they’ve drawn swords and appear to want blood.

Note: We’ll let you decide which company plays which role in the image above.

So how then, does any of this make Realtors the victims of this sword fight? Let’s get everyone up to speed, and then we’ll discuss.

1. Zillow poaches top talent, Move/NAR sues

It all started last year when the gloves came off – Move’s Chief Strategy Officer (who was also Realtor.com’s President), Errol Samuelson jumped ship and joined Zillow on the same day he phoned in his resignation without notice. He left under questionable circumstances, which has led to a lengthy legal battle (wherein Move and NAR have sued Zillow and Samuelson over allegations of breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, and misappropriation of trade secrets), with the most recent motion being for contempt, which a judge granted to Move/NAR after the mysterious “Samuelson Memo” surfaced.

Salt was added to the wound when Move awarded Samuelson’s job to Move veteran, Curt Beardsley, who days after Samuelson left, also defected to Zillow. This too led to a lawsuit, with allegations including breach of contract, violation of corporations code, illegal dumping of stocks, and Move has sought restitution. These charges are extremely serious, but demanded slightly less attention than the ongoing lawsuit against Samuelson.

2. Two major media brands emerge

Last fall, the News Corp. acquisition of Move, Inc. was given the green light by the feds, and this month, Zillow finalized their acquisition of Trulia.

…Click here to continue reading this story…

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