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Op/Ed

12 pointed questions for Zillow’s Errol Samuelson

Errol Samuelson abruptly left Move, Inc. this month for competitor Zillow, and several tough questions remain in the wake of his departure.

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Earlier this month, Zillow announced that Errol Samuelson, former president of realtor.com and Chief Strategy Officer at Move, Inc. became their new Chief Industry Development Officer to direct the company’s relations with the industry. Move quickly promoted Samuelson’s number two, Curt Beardsley to fill his shoes, and days later, it was announced that Beardsley too, had converted to Zillow-ism. Both figures left on the heels of Trulia announcing that they had recruited John Whitney, the VP of ListHub (a Move company) to shore up their listing accuracy.

Some called the poaching a blow, others cited Move’s opportunity to bring in some new blood. Brad Inman, founder of Inman News recently sat down with Samuelson to discuss his exit, and we gained insight into Zillow’s culture. While we have tremendous respect for Inman and the paths he has paved for the industry, the video interview left us wanting more. Much more.

Prior to the publication of the video interview, we reached out to Samuelson, offering to tell his side of the story, even inviting him to do a video interview with our CEO who he has met with and spoken with in the past. He politely declined, citing that “right now I’m heads down with the team here in Seattle, putting together our plans for the next 6 months.”

Although our invitation stands, it may be because he knows that our policy is to not offer questions in advance, to never softball an interview, and to focus on the facts, that the interview was declined. For this reason, we were left wanting more. Much more.

12 questions remain for Errol Samuelson

Because we consider ourselves watchdogs for the Realtor membership and feel it fair that he answer to questions that impact not only Realtor-owned Realtor.com, but the National Association of Realtors (NAR) and their members. In that spirit, we have no choice but to ask these questions here.

  1. Why did you erase all memory from the iPhone, iPad, and laptop issued to you for business purposes by Move?
  2. Why didn’t you give the standard two week’s notice?
  3. Why did you resign by contacting the human resources department on a day that everyone knew your CEO would be in investor meetings and completely unavailable for the duration of the work day? Why didn’t you attend your scheduled 2013 review the next day with Steve Berkowitz and resign in person?
  4. When Berkowitz contacted you upon learning of your resignation, he asked only one thing – that you give him 24 hours before the announcement of your leaving goes public (we assume so he could finish his meeting and have his team mobilized to respond). You declined and the announcement went out just minutes later. Why wasn’t this request honored?
  5. How many Move employees did you contact after you had already left for Zillow? What was the context of those conversations?
  6. Why didn’t Curt Beardsley, your number two, leave at the same time as you?
  7. How do you feel about your actions (wiping hard drives, going to a competitor without notice) potentially impacting how Move will likely analyze Beardsley’s exit? Doesn’t this put Beardsley in an awkward position?
  8. Berkowitz noted that you were always 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. How do you respond?
  9. In your interview with Inman, you allude to constraints at Move. Can you expound on those constraints?
  10. Were the constraints because of the company, or because in the past three years, a $90 million marketing budget was taken out of your hands, and you were stripped of involvement in day to day operations, leaving you as somewhat of a figurehead with tied hands? Is that the real reason you resigned?
  11. Zillow launched as the anti-Realtor.com, so why do you think they are recruiting talent from within the ranks of the company they once swore against and are creating products that are so similar to Move products? By joining Zillow, aren’t you just setting them up for the same failure you couldn’t control in your tenure at Move?
  12. In your new role in industry relations, wouldn’t you expect to walk into a broker’s office and receive this same line of questioning, given that the Realtor model is built on cooperation and trust?

Samuelson is a very pleasant person and not abrasive, so he is indeed a popular figure in the sector, but industry relations matters and it’s built on trust.

We look forward to getting answers to these questions, not because musical chairs aren’t common in corporate life, but because of the complexity of the Move, Inc. structure and how intertwined it is with NAR and their members; trade secrets are relevant.

This story originally appeared on AGBeat.com on March 25, 2014.

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Lani is the Chief Operating Officer at The Real Daily and sister news outlet, The American Genius, 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.

Op/Ed

The real reason women are overlooked? Leadership is seen as masculine

(EDITORIAL) We can tell women to “lean in,” or we can address what researchers point to as the real challenge – leadership is still seen as a masculine trait.

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Researcher Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic recently rejected the popular advice of “leaning in” for women* looking to scale the professional ladder. It’s not that women are unconsciously holding themselves back from leadership opportunities, as Sheryl Sandburg so famously theorized in her TED talk and subsequent book.

But, this advice only works for women aren’t actively pursuing higher roles and greater responsibilities.

The reality is more that even when women are advocating for themselves, they are less likely to be seen as having the qualities of a leader. This widespread gender bias isn’t news: Pantene and some partners even released a feel-good commercial that capitalized on calling out how assertive women are “bossy” and borderline competent men are seen as “the boss.”

As Chamorro-Premuzic explains, the fact that our culture has so closely adhered to the belief that these characteristics are “masculine” is more likely what holds high-performing women back. Even if they are better than their competition, even other women will often not evaluate them fairly because of how they have internalized our culture’s apparent blindness to women’s ability to be “the boss.”

But then, even some masculine-identifying or preforming people who are inferior in their technical skills could be afforded afforded many professional benefits because of the implicit bias we carry into business spaces that favors “masculine” traits. For example, “male-performing” assertive people may get credit for a quieter colleague’s work.

Where Chamorro-Premuzic’s editorial gets really interesting is when they reject the idea that women and other minorities need to over-compensate for their marginalization and try to join the good ol’ boys club.

He explains, “If our solution is to train women to emulate the behavior of men… we may end up increasing the representation of women in leadership without increasing the quality of our leaders. In this scenario, women will have to out-male males in order to advance in an inherently flawed system where bad guys (and gals) win. Unless our goal is to make it easier for incompetent women to succeed – much as it is for men – there is little to gain from this approach.”

As I’ve said before: Being a leader is a gender-neutral act, (spoiler: so are all actions!); the sooner that we can accept that coding behavior as “masculine” or “feminine” only serves to obscure people’s actual contributions, the better.

Removing these archaic labels allows the real competencies of professionals to be evaluated — for their benefit, and their organization’s benefit.

For now, organizations that make conscious efforts to level the playing field (like the National Association of Realtors’ restructure leading to half of their leadership team being women) are the primary answer as our culture shifts to a more aware environment.

*Though the referenced article and study perpetuate a binary gender structure, for the purposes of our discussion in this article, I expand its “diversity” to include femme-identified individuals, nonbinary and trans workers, and anybody else that does not benefit from traditional notions of power that place cisgendered men at the top of the social totem pole

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Op/Ed

A hugely dangerous challenge of the Internet of Things

(EDITORIAL) The Internet of Things is here, with all manner of soft AI voices and shiny Bluetooth bits. But how long can we count on it staying?

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So, robot apocalypse. The Internet of Things machines have their cold metal fingers all up in our data, our houses, our sand dunes and/or porn.

And for what? What do they offer in exchange for this unprecedented invasion of our day to day lives?

Seamless, user-friendly automation to help with a thousand daily tasks, demonstrably improving our quality of life.

That’s… that’s actually a pretty good offer! Nice work, robots.

It comes with catches, and we’ve covered those, but Day One bumps and blunders are part of owning tech. They generally get engineered out.

What I want to talk about is Day 100, or 1000. Because the important word in “Internet of Things” isn’t “Internet.” We have the Internet. We can confidently expect the Internet to continue being a big deal.

But “things” is an important word. Things are distinct from tech. With tech, buying the thing and futzing with the thing are part of the fun, especially for practicing nerds like your narrator. Tech is new, and the excitement of a new game or a new phone can take the edge off, say, a server crash or a quick trip to tech support and back.

What about things? No early adopter aura in history will get a customer to ignore a fridge full of rotten food. Fridges need to work, period. So does your thermostat and your car. All those things are charter candidates for the full IoT overhaul, and they’re all capital T Things, not tech. They aren’t shiny toys people can live without for a week or four. They’re expected parts of daily life, things that need to work on Day 1, 100, and 1000.

Are companies preparing for that? Are the startups rising out of the blue-light-white-plastic Stuff Renaissance prepared to rebrand as global service providers, doing the hard, unglamorous, absolutely necessary work of digital maintenance?

Bigger question: are they prepared to guarantee security while they do so? Because anything with digitized bits needs patches and updates to function, and if it can download patches and updates, it can download things that are not patches and updates. No one wants to chase a botnet out of their microwave. Are the companies invested in always-on Things standing up and saying they’ll take responsibility for indefinitely securing and maintaining the infrastructure they intend to profit from?

Short answer, no. They’re not. Operations departments tend to be vanishingly small, painfully understaffed, spectacularly underpaid. Let’s be real,: we don’t prioritize stuff like that. We’re talking the digital equivalent of the guy who chases the raccoons out of your HVAC, and that sounds entirely too much like work.

Maintenance is not sexy.

But it’s absolutely necessary. It’s generally just the beginning of a thing. It gets the wheel rolling, and that’s not to be undersold.

But the IoT wheel is most definitely rolling. The issue is keeping it in motion, making it a wifi-level universal usage standard, not a 3DTV fad.

That won’t get done in a meeting. That gets done through long term adoption, and long term adoption will be about attracting, training, and retaining people willing to do the hard work of maintenance and customer support.

The Internet of Things wants to be a major step forward in the infrastructure of daily life. I am incredibly in favor of that. But daily life works because it’s the full time job of a whole lot of people to make sure it does so. So to Internet of Things companies, I say – pay them, treat them well, make your organization the best place in the industry for them, or be left behind by the people who do.

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Op/Ed

Your MLS system is ugly and boring – how you can impact change

Many in the real estate industry complain about their MLS, but why is that the case and what can be done about it?

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When I perform surveys of real estate brokers and agents, I see the following two complaints about MLS systems all the time: “Why doesn’t the MLS have [this cool feature]?” and “Why can’t the MLS system be easier to use?”

The first question – “Why isn’t the MLS system isn’t as full featured as some would like?” – comes down to two things: money and politics.

Let’s talk about money

Some people might think that MLS software providers are making a huge amount of money, and that the providers can put more resources into adding software features. That’s just not the case. The money isn’t there. Think about it: MLS vendors have had to put resources into making their systems work cross-browser and on an expanding number of tablets and phones.

They have added increasingly more sophisticated prospecting and client collaboration features, numerous local information and mapping layers, and so much more over the past decade. All this while, the wholesale cost for MLS systems has not increased, and in many cases has trended lower due to fierce competition for strategic accounts.

The political push and pull

As for the politics, there is a constant push and pull over the future of MLS systems. For every professional that wants the MLS system to evolve and improve, there is one that doesn’t want the system to change. I often hear, “What we have now works fine.”

If MLS staff and software providers only listened to those latter voices, we’d still be using “the MLS book” instead of electronic tools. But even when an MLS is selecting a brand new system and options are being compared, committee members will often say something like, “We should choose this system because it is the most like our current one and so will be easier to learn.” What that means is that the most innovative system is penalized for being different!

Sometimes subscribers who sit on an MLS board of directors or committee don’t want the MLS to improve its functionality. Quite often, an MLS system will be deployed with some features disabled. During a recent demonstration of system features by an MLS vendor, visitors from the neighboring MLS (which used that vendor) commented, “Is this the same system as what we have?”

Even when the features are enabled, sometimes professionals don’t know what they have.

I see this in surveys all the time – an agent will ask, “Why doesn’t the system do this?” where this is a feature the system already has.

Why is the MLS so difficult to use?

Looking at the second question — “Why can’t the MLS system be easier to use?” — the answer is a lot simpler: the more features a system has and the more ways there are to customize it, the harder the system will be to use.

Since the MLS is a business system with significant complexity, and since subscribers often want it to be customizable to fit their business needs, preferences, branding, and so forth, ease of use can suffer.

For example, it’s easier to enter a listing when there are few required fields, but the fewer required fields there are, the more agents will complain about data inaccuracy and missing data. Likewise, an MLS-generated report with fewer fields on it is easier to read and more attractive.

However, without all the fields accessible, the agent can’t fine-tune the search on behalf of his or her client and must call the listing agent for the information—which is, in actuality, more difficult.

Also, it’s easier to click once to download a pre-built statistical report. Despite this, in order to make the reports more useful to many users, the reports need to be customizable based on the part of the market the user specializes in (i.e., by area, price range, and property type), and need to be styled so the chart can be downloaded and embedded in a newsletter. That means more complexity and a system that is more difficult to use.

MLS software providers try to make good choices when designing the MLS system, balancing out the need for robust features and customization with the desire for an easy-to-use system, but it’s impossible to please everybody.

What you can do about all of this

What this all comes down to is that, if you as a subscriber want to shape how full-featured and easy-to-use tomorrow’s MLS system is going to be, there’s a way for you to do it. Get involved with your local MLS leadership, including with the system evaluation, selection, and implementation processes.

I work with many local MLSs to make sure their leadership is aware of innovation going on in the MLS technology space so they can be smarter shoppers when looking at MLS software providers. When it comes to ease of use, while there sometimes are usability gaffes on the part of the software provider, it is more often the case that system complexity simply reflects the complex needs of active real estate professionals.

Expecting a professional-grade MLS system to be as clean and easy-looking as a consumer-grade real estate search site like Zillow or Trulia is simply unrealistic. Now that you know why your MLS system is so “Meh,” you don’t have to sit back and complain about it. Get involved in your local MLS organization and help take charge of your future!

This editorial was first published here in May of 2014.

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