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.
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.
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.