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Op/Ed

Does Zillow acquiring Trulia doom real estate professionals?

As Zillow announces plans to acquire Trulia, boots on the ground gnash teeth and wail, but is it misguided?

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By now, if you’re in the real estate industry, you know what could be THE news story of 2014 broke the morning of July 28: number one real estate portal Zillow announced its intentions to buy number two Trulia in a $3.5 billion stock purchase. Last week, rumors leaked that a merger might be in the works, but I don’t think anyone expected to wake up this morning to an early morning email such as the one Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff sent to Premier Agents announcing the deal is in the works: “Because of your importance as a Premier Agent, I wanted you to be among the first to learn we have just announced that Zillow has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire Trulia.”

Reading real estate tech boards and industry insider groups the discussions typically become heated (to say the least) when Zillow and Trulia are concerned. It seems the only agents or brokers who have neutral or no opinion on the listing aggregator sites are those who don’t understand how listing syndication works. Many scoffed at the rumors as mere gossip while others on social media sites predicted it’d be the end of the industry as we know it. If you logged onto Facebook today and read some of the posts in the real estate groups, you’d think the Apocalypse is here.

This piece is an editorial – not a summary of the proposed purchase – so I won’t rehash the morning’s news. You can read the official press release for yourself, and go over the details on industry newsites such as Realuoso to Inman. Here I will give my opinion of what this deal means to the industry in general, and why it’s not the End of Days scenario agents may fear.

Do We Need Two Sites?

Rascoff says the two brands will remain distinct (at least for now). I find that hard to believe that in the long run there is a need for one company to run two separate sites that basically do the same thing. Some analysts compare operating the two sites to the online dating model where one corporation (IAC) owns multiple dating sites (Match.com and OkCupid), each targeting their own niche.

I don’t think this argument is valid, as the two sites sell the same products (advertising to real estate brokers and agents as a way to connect to consumers), and attract the same consumers (buyers, sellers, renters). On both sites, consumers can search for homes for sale, find an agent to help them through the process, and see what home values are in their neighborhood. While I find Zillow to be more seller-friendly, and the leads in my in-box tell me that Trulia is attracting more renter eyeballs, for the most part I don’t see the sites as fundamentally that different in who their customers are.

Zillow has stated that two-thirds of their users do not use Trulia, and that half of Trulia users don’t use Zillow. What that says to me is that consumers use (or don’t use) a particular portal based on their own particular preferences. They’re choosing one or the other and not really hopping onto every available site. I think hard core, urgent buyers are indeed exploring multiple sites, in an (sometimes desperate) attempt to ferret out more homes for sale. They think by searching on Trulia, then Zillow, then Realtor.com, then a big corporate franchise IDX site, somehow they will find secret or hidden listings that meet their needs.

For the most part, casual shoppers seem to stick to their favorite sites and not hunt furiously for more and more inventory. I don’t see two independent portals being necessary to serve the consumers efficiently and effectively. If both have the same listings, both share data sources, and both are soliciting the same broker/agent pool for marketing dollars, what else is there to differentiate?

Get Over the Zillow = Evil Bias

The ability of sales staff to cross-sell agents on either Zillow or Trulia, or a package deal perhaps for marketing on both sites, is a plus for the company but not necessarily brokers. I find brokers/agents to be one of three mindsets when it comes to Z/T: those who staunchly refuse to pay money to be “sold” leads on their own listings; those who grudgingly buy zip codes or cities in order to compete; and those who see their monthly fees as no different than any other media buy – necessary to do business and part of their marketing plan.

Zillow and Trulia are media companies. They exist not to benevolently provide listing information to consumers. They exist to make money from brokers and agents – same as the local newspaper or real estate homes book. Agents need to get over the affront that somehow the aggregators are “stealing” our data and selling it back to us. If brokers don’t like their houses marketed on these sites, they have the power to cut the feed (and some big ones have). I cannot image explaining to a seller why I am NOT marketing their house for sale on the largest real estate portal – plus AOL.com and Yahoo.com and their other partner sites – especially when that marketing does not cost me a dime.

So given that purely syndicating my listings out to Zillow and Trulia does not cost me anything, why not do it? If my argument is because I want my own face displayed next to my listings, then go ahead and pay for upgraded marketing on the sites. It should be noted that both sites also do note who the listing agent is, to the right of the screen. If a consumer really only wants to contact the listing agent, he can. If he just wants an answer to a question, or to schedule a showing, he can contact any of the spotlighted agents who pop up. And isn’t that the point? Sell the listing. Be happy someone is looking at my property online, even if another agent “gets” that buyer lead.

Combined Efficiencies & Higher Prices

The press release states the merged entity hopes to realize $100 million in “annualized cost avoidances” by 2016. This is one positive effect — economies of scale — where the company can combine people, technology, infrastructure, share data pools, make better use of a single sales staff able to sell packages on either or both platforms, etc. Combining/streamlining duplicative departments (marketing, human resources, administrative) makes sense and only a fool would think that a certain number of jobs will not be lost at one or both companies.

Besides lower operating costs, less choice in portals could lead to higher prices for agents. Especially if the two sites physically become one, agents will have less choices for online marketin. Realtor.com is such a distant third place that it doesn’t even rank in my marketing matrix right now. So if Realtor.com remains ineffective for me, that leads me to spend the bulk of my money online at Zillow and Trulia. And if they become one they’ll practically have a monopoly on the market, and the ability to increase prices as high as the market will bear.

Where I see this as especially problematic becomes in the large firm vs. small firm. Larger firms with lots of listings and/or agents may be able to negotiate better deals than small firms, which may be priced out of the market. Large firms may be able to buy zip codes or cities because of their larger budgets, while smaller boutique firms won’t be able to spend those kinds of dollars. Less choice, higher prices – it’s the classic argument against a monopoly.

Zillow’s Plan to World Domination

Another fear amongst brokers is that Zillow is plotting to become a Super Broker, wiping out the rest of us in a giant power move to control the data, the listings, and steal our commissions too. I don’t buy this. Zillow makes money off of agents/brokers. Why would a company that profits from brokers try to wipe brokers out? The logic escapes me. As long as we are willing to pay Zillow to market our agents and help sell our houses, why would they want to be in the brokerage business? I don’t see little Zillow kiosks popping up around the country, “click here” to buy a house and be connected to your own Zillow Agent. It just doesn’t make sense – why would they want to kill the goose that is laying their golden egg?

As I wasted way too much time today reading news sites and lurking on Facebook groups (the tearing of garments and doomsday predictions were quite amusing) I keep coming back to one thought: our industry – the buying and selling of homes – is so much more than a data feed. We’re not going to suck all that data back into the old county courthouse, it’s all online and public record. We’re not going to pull back all our listings and hide them in secret MLS books branded with the words “$300 fine for use by non MLS participant” across the front. It’s out there. Too late.

It’s Not Just Data – It’s Relationships

The statistics, the photos, the MLS data, all of that is one component of our business. We are so much more important to the process than that. Buyers don’t need us to put them in a car and drive them to houses using a printed MLS book as our guide. They can find their own dream houses online at midnight. They still need us – to get inside, to show them comparables to justify an offer, to help guide them through financing, inspections, and more. Sellers need us to set an asking price, market the house, prequalify buyers, negotiate like a pro and more to get them to the desired result.

Our value proposition has shifted to their guide throughout the process. We need to prove our value by giving customers and clients the highest level of customer service. Return calls. Provide information. Educate. Communicate. Build your relationship during the transaction and nurture it afterward. Connect. The real estate agent is still the center of the transaction. We won’t be eliminated by this power play.

Erica Ramus is the Broker/Owner of Ramus Realty Group in Pottsville, PA. She also teaches real estate licensing courses at Penn State Schuylkill and is extremely active in her community, especially the Rotary Club of Pottsville and the Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce. Her background is writing, marketing and publishing, and she is the founder of Schuylkill Living Magazine, the area's regional publication. She lives near Pottsville with her husband and two teenage sons, and an occasional exchange student passing thru who needs a place to stay.

Op/Ed

5 must-do’s if you want to come across as a great communicator

(EDITORIAL) When you communicate in business, you have to change your talking style to give infor without losing engagement. Here’s how.

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Being confident during a work presentation, using tips to communicate efficiently.

Mark Zuckerberg once said, “The thing that we are trying to do at Facebook (now known as Meta), is just helping people connect and communicate more efficiently.” One of my biggest pet peeves on social media is the post that goes on and on and on. I’d like to think that I communicate fairly well, but I do tend to verge into over-communication every so often. I’m not an expert, but I have learned – and continue to learn – a few things about talking and writing to other people.

1. Know Your Audience

At a board meeting of a local non-profit, I was explaining a repair project that we had to vote on. When I got finished talking about the quotes and the insurance claim and said that we will probably come out even, the acting president looked at me and said, “why didn’t you just tell us this to start out with?” I realized I had wasted about 10 minutes because I didn’t know the audience. Definitely a case of overcommunication. All he wanted was the bottom line, but I thought the board needed to know every detail. Chalk that one up to a lesson learned. When your listener’s eyes start to glaze over, you’re probably talking too much.

2. Be Intentional – AKA Don’t Go Down Rabbit Trails

When I’m with my friends, I love just letting the conversation take us down whatever path. In business, I want brevity. I’m kind of a TL;DR person. Even though I want to make sure that people have enough information, I just want the bottom line. When you’re communicating with a co-worker or boss, don’t let your message get hijacked by taking a fork in the road. You’ll lose your audience.

3. Avoid the Obvious

I hate it when people regurgitate information or tell me what I already know. Call it mansplaining or just being thorough, but it’s annoying on the listener’s side. Give information that serves your audience, not your ego.

4. Don’t Assume

I could write a dissertation on assumptions. We all know the saying, “when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me…” When you’re communicating, find a balance between stating the obvious and assuming your listener knows what you’re talking about. The simple question, “do you need more information” can be a place where you can find out what your listener needs. But I’ve also learned to avoid assuming someone’s emotions or attitude about what you’re saying. Read their face, but know that confusion and daydreaming can look similar.

5. Good Communication Improves Productivity

When you’re an effective communicator, it directly impacts your effectiveness in the workplace. You get more done because you’re not going back and forth answering and re-answering questions and providing information. There are times when you do need to provide lengthy emails or have detailed meetings. Knowing the difference keeps you from being boring and long-winded. Take a few seconds (or even minutes) before sending that message or talking to a colleague about a project. You’ll be a better communicator.

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Op/Ed

What life-lessons college taught me both in and out of the classroom

(EDITORIAL) College teaches you some things that you will (and won’t) find in a textbook but it sure comes at a hefty price.

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People meeting with laptops in a college classroom

I walk the fence when it comes to a college education. It works for some and maybe not so much for others. It’s the whole “well-rounded” education thing that bothers me: First there’s 12 years in elementary and high school learning things that, even if you never use the information, it’s important to know. I get that.

After a lifetime of education

But when you go into college why repeat the process all over again? Why not focus on a career track? Learn and do! Get into the trenches! Where the heck are/were the survival skills you need to make it in the real world? Instead you get two more years of general education requirements! Really? And that’s going to make me a better “xx?”

I chanced upon a great editorial that touches on these same questions. And it got me to thinking: A college degree makes for a perfect world and on paper it looks good. Everyone with a framed BA or two would rule the world and help consumer trust levels, but I don’t believe it would actually make for better X’s (fill in the space with the career of your choice).

The big picture

I had a moral sense of needing to graduate so my folks, bless ‘em, would have the satisfaction of seeing their kid accomplish something they never did, but in the bigger scheme of things what was the purpose of Astronomy 101? Geology? I wanted to learn how to make movies and write scripts and I couldn’t even take a class on Film Theory until my junior year? NASA we have a problem.

Lesson Number One: What I learned fast is that college is a business. If the business can make more money in four or five years instead of one or two, of course you want to drag it out and milk it for all it’s worth. What’s the rush on graduating? Relax! Kick your feet up! That was a problem back then and I still see it as a problem now.

Fear: An incredible motivator

Instead of feeling like I was in the comfort zone of the universit,y I felt like the clock was ticking. Those first two years taught me that I needed to get out of that environment. THAT much I learned! I didn’t know what was waiting for me on the outside but some internal clock kicked in and I went from 12 hours a semester to 20 or whatever the maximum was that you could take with the Dean’s permission.

Lesson Number Two: The unknown is scary. It keeps you up at night. Ties your stomach in a knot. It almost makes you do things you might not ordinarily do. I graduated in three and half years and not four or five like many of my friends because I was scared shitless. Without even realizing it, by wanting so badly to get out of school, I was learning things that would serve me well in life: Goal setting, time management and speaking before a group.

I made a short list: a) See the world. b) Get paid to write about what I saw. c) Don’t look back. I graduated on a Friday and walked into a recruiter’s office on a Monday. I should have done that a few years earlier, but it didn’t matter. Within six months I was in Europe.

The ensuing 20+ years serving all over the world is a story for another time. I wish I would have started that odyssey a few years earlier.

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Op/Ed

4 red-flags to see if you (or your boss) may be an ineffective leader

(EDITORIAL) Leadership is hard as is, there’s no need to make it harder on yourself. Avoid these bad-leader habits and you’ll be golden.

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Being a leader can be tough

Whether you are heading a soccer team, a choir, or a team of young realtors, being a leader is tough. Even the best leaders have character flaws. Under pressure, these peccadilloes are often exacerbated. If you find yourself in a position of influence, your flaws may magnify into strategic disasters.

To prevent such scenarios, it is critical that we dissect our own behavior, not only for the sake of our professional careers, but also for our own conscience and sense of self-worth.

Tips for success

Use the following 4 red-flag-raising behaviors as a blueprint, making sure you refrain from (or rectify) these mistakes as you evolve into a better leader.

1. Wavering on tough calls

Bad leadership 101 is an indecisive leader. A pitiful half-panicked state of ‘I cannot make up my mind’ hesitation. Nothing frustrates a team more.

More poignantly, nothing destroys an employee’s respect in a leader quicker.

Decisions, especially the big ones, need a steadying, confident hand. Buying yourself time, by demanding more research from the team, or hiding behind the excuse of another round of “brainstorming” shall only delay the inevitable. Rise to the occasion; do not be dragged to it by your circumstances. Dignify a problem with a decision!

2. Inefficient communication

This problem is more nuanced than simply bad communication. It may mean three things: under-communication, obfuscation, or over-communication. Try to avoid each like the black plague.
Nothing makes a project stall quicker than an unclear path forward. Make time to explain things to the team, clearly and precisely. Lay down a path. After all, that is your job! No one can be a “leader whisperer” or thought interpreter.

A team should not have to second-guess the direction of an assignment.

Obfuscation stems from the leader’s own lack of direction. Do not call a meeting where there is nothing definitive to announce. What is the operational plan? How should it be implemented? Do not assume that a plan shall present itself during a meeting.

Then there’s the sin of over-explaining.

This is a behavior where the leader drones on and on, wasting vital time, in order to elicit tacit or verbal endorsement of his/her idea. This is the control-freak micro-manager. Efficient communication does not mean more time in the conference room. Efficient communication is more productive in less time.

3. Abusing power privileges

Leaders enjoy considerable leeway to enforce their decisions. However, it is easy to forget that this “power” exists not for the leader to bask in its glory, but to deploy as necessary for the team to operate more efficiently. The possibilities in which a leader can abuse power are countless, and varies wildly, but here are some of the usual suspects:

Humiliating an employee publicly: constructive criticism is an art, delivered with compassion. It requires restraint and strength. Weak leaders have “outbursts”, aspire to be feared by others, and work hard on creating an air of intimidation and un-approachability.

Breaking your own word: Leaders may also make casual promises to a client during a meeting, without owning up to the promise. The leader may then avoid to the agreed upon request entirely, or worse, hand it off to subordinates to deal with. Empty promises make for empty leaders.

Rewarding loyalty: Leaders often play favoritism by distributing assignments and workloads unevenly.

Feigning neutrality: This may seem contradictory to the previous point, but it is not. A leader should take clear sides on arguments (not people) put forward. Not committing to opposing views leaves everyone directionless and confused. There are good ideas, less good ideas, great ideas, and terrible ideas. Which one do you like? Whose is it? Point it out. Give direction and move forward.

Insubordination: Weak leaders often bad-mouth their bosses, behind their back, in order to win cookie points with the team. It shows a lack of dependability, trust, and character.

4. Evading feedback at all costs

If your team cannot express grievances, complaints, and concerns freely, your leadership is off the mark. The most likely cause: YOUR unwillingness to take responsibility for failure. Shifting blame to others for what has gone wrong, attributing harsh decisions (like letting someone go) to “the company” and not yourself, bemoaning lack of resources as an unfortunate scenario where your hands are tied— these are all ways to clamp down on criticism. Seeking revenge on, or appeasing your critics is worse.

If you do not like employees to ask you questions, you should reevaluate your own position immediately. Feedback is essential to growth. To dismiss them as “whining” is going to kill your effectiveness as a true leader. In times of true crisis, you will find it impossible to rally the troops to your cause.

Leader to the core

Keeping these common leadership flaws in mind shall help you become “self-aware,” your best guard against becoming a horrible boss. In the process, it will take you much further—it will inspire you to inspire others, the very essence of great leadership.

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