I know a lot of you were looking forward to a gut-wrenching expose and tell-all from the insider’s perspective on why NAR so suddenly defunded and suspended all work on AMP – the Advanced Multi-List Platform that RPR had been developing for over three years. And I know a lot of you were disappointed that I didn’t just spill the beans the first week after I was let go by RPR. Well, your disappointment continues…this is not that pot boiler.
I was prepared to make an update presentation to the RPR Advisory Council, a gathering of industry executives that meet regularly to hear updates on RPR’s product offerings, plans for the future, and offer, well, feedback and advice to the RPR management team. The presentation was due for delivery February 1, 2018 in Austin.
It didn’t happen. Instead, we got word the week before that the NAR leadership team had decided to pull the plug on the AMP project that was set to launch in five pilot markets as soon as March 1, barely four weeks after the plug-pulling. Obviously, that didn’t happen either.
AMP failed to launch for several reasons, which I will address later in this essay. But since I went to all that work to put together this presentation, it seems a waste to just throw it away. So, had I been in Austin in February, here’s what I would have said.
AMP has changed the MLS World.
That’s a pretty profound statement about a product that had not even been delivered.
I wanted to talk not only about the promise of AMP and what it holds for the future of the real estate industry, but also take a trip on the Way Back Machine and look at where AMP has come from and how it has already affected the world of MLS technology.
When I left Zillow in July of 2013, I was interviewed by Inman News about where I would be going next and what I would be doing. I said, “I’d like to go out with some major accomplishment.”
Little did I know when I said that, what the road ahead had in mind for me.
Later that year, I was introduced to Tim Dain, then CEO of the Southwestern Illinois Regional MLS. Tim had been working with industry consultant Rob Hahn on a new direction in MLS technology – a modular approach to structuring an MLS system in line with their new strategic plan for SIRMLS that they called Operation Trim Tab. No, it was not a diet pill. The name came from a quotation from architect Buckminster Fuller who said:
“Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary — the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab.
It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So, I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go.
So, I said, call me Trim Tab.”
— Buckminster Fuller
Fuller’s Trim Tab concept very well describes the movement we are seeing in the big ship of state called the MLS Vendor community. The monopoly enjoyed by the legacy vendors like CoreLogic, Black Knight, and FBS is moving, it’s shifting, changing course, and much of the recent movement can be attributed to the introduction of AMP and with it the concept of open architecture and front-end-of-choice.
There was a lot going on back then. You will recall the now infamous CMLS meeting in October 2013 when Craig Cheatham, CEO of The Realty Alliance warned the MLSs that they were not the most liked of institutions by the brokers they were created to serve and that they had “10 days” to fix the problem or Realty Alliance would do it for them.
Two weeks later, the Alliance announced a mysterious new initiative that was vaguely defined and had no name, but within a few weeks was revealed to be a national broker-owned database that would reverse the flow of MLS data management. That initiative became known as Upstream.
At the same time, I continued to work with SIRMLS to more clearly define what their future technology requirements were and to go shopping for a technology company that could build it.
At the core of the SIRMLS vision was an open MLS database that would allow agents to pick from a library of applications and agent tools, to access and manipulate that data. This was not a new concept but was one that had been universally ignored by the existing titans of the MLS technology industry.
The concept of Front-end-of-choice was first floated by Internet Crusade founder Saul Klein in 2008 when he penned a treatise entitled “MLS 5.0 – the MLS of the Future”
In that essay, Saul described one of the requirements that he felt MLSs must have to be competitive in the next decade (or two). He said the MLS had to be
“Open to and encouraging of innovation, allowing for various front end software to be created and used to access the data. Members of the MLS could choose a Rapattoni front end one day and select a FNIS front end the next.
“A user might find that one front end is good for some things and one is good for others, and use the appropriate tool to get the job done. Openness should allow for more applications and solutions and lower prices for REALTORS®”
Four of us (Tim, Rob, Tim’s attorney Mitch Skinner, and I) met in a hotel room in Minneapolis in April 2014 to map the future of MLS technology.
Throughout the spring and summer of that year I met with a number of technology companies large and small to identify one that (a) could build such a technology platform and (b) was actually interested in doing it.
Only one company appeared ready to do both – that company was RPR.
Dale Ross, Jeff Young and Marty Frame were enthusiastic about the possibility of repurposing the technology that RPR had already spent considerable time and money developing into something that would not only serve the MLS industry but also create a revenue stream for RPR.
In April, I published a series of articles that described in exhaustive detail (I learned my blog style from Rob Hahn: Mantra: Never say in 20 words what 200 will say better.) what the problem was, how the industry had failed to address the problem, and what the potential solution could be. In May, and the mid-year meetings in DC, AMP was announced and funding for the project was approved.
Opposition to AMP
The AMP initiative was immediately noticed by the major MLS vendors who had the most to lose if someone new, a new player, upset their stable marketplace of antiquated technology. As one said to us when we announced AMP, “I don’t want to be just a front-end vendor for your database.”
Some that I had talked to in my interviews when looking for a technology company had immediate reactions.
One major vendor said it was a great idea and they would love to get involved and build it, but they were backlogged three years in converting all their old MLS systems to their new flagship system as their MLS of the future.
Mike Wurzer pointed out in a post on his blog that FBS had introduced the Spark platform, built on the API concept, three years earlier and he was advocating for Spark and AMP to both adopt RESO Web-API standards in the spirit of cooperation.
CoreLogic, the MLS vendor with the largest installed base of subscribers, countered by announcing Trestle, an aggregated database with an API that they said would provide the same functionality as AMP, but was available immediately.
Trestle mimics the AMP concept by adding an API in front of their existing RETS server and billing it the gateway to front-end-of-choice. Trestle aggregates data from multiple MLS systems into a single repository and makes it available to vendors through a common licensing platform.
But Trestle was not AMP. Trestle cannot receive listing input and manage the MLS’s inventory in an active database. Trestle cannot deliver real-time MLS data to inquiring applications. It is a syndication management system, not an MLS platform as AMP is.
In many of the presentations I was making at the time I stated that even if AMP was never successful, even if it never delivered one live MLS system, the fact that we were awakening the industry from a decades long slumber and provoking conversations among the principal players about how to improve the technology to make brokers and agents more productive was significant. And if that conversation led to improvements in the tools available to agents, we will have made a major contribution to the industry as a whole.
But the mere fact that Trestle exists is testament to the fact that AMP was moving the needle. And we started to see other activity almost immediately.
In March 2016, Rapattoni Corporation, at that time the fourth largest vendor based on agents served, announced that they would integrate their system with the AMP platform. They said they were modifying their front-end application to work with the AMP backend.
In August, Zillow announced that they were buying Bridge Interactive Group in Atlanta, and would combine Bridge’s listing input product, called Compose, with the Retsly data distribution system they had bought two years earlier to offset the loss of syndication services from ListHub to create an aggregated data system that would compete with CoreLogic’s Trestle and with AMP.
Much like Trestle, Bridge is an aggregation of MLS data from multiple systems. It’s hosted on a RETS server with an API interface that makes the data available to third-party vendors and applications.
Unlike Trestle, Bridge does offer listing input and management through Bridge’s Compose tool. But as a stand-alone system, the Bridge suite of products is not a full MLS platform.
That changed in June 2017 when Zillow and Black Knight announced a joint venture, partnership, relationship (call it what you will) to combine the Bridge suite of solutions with the Paragon MLS platform.
The combination of products is intended to duplicate the capabilities of an AMP powered MLS system. But being two separate products built by two separate companies and managed by two separate development teams raises the potential for much finger pointing when things don’t work as planned.
One of the early development partners that AMP attracted was the team at Solid Earth, led by founder Matt Fowler.
Solid Earth had an existing API foundation product called Spring. Spring was a reimagining of their existing List-It MLS system designed to act as a public facing portal for the MLS that could also function as a lead management tool and MLS interface for brokers and agents.
Since Spring was already built using API technology as its foundation, Solid Earth saw a short path of modification to make Spring work on AMP.
They were enthusiastic about the opportunity to introduce Spring to many existing RPR markets.
Their efforts did not go unnoticed because in June 2017, FBS announced a partnership with Solid Earth to port the Spring system over to the FBS Spark platform that FBS had developed years earlier. That partnership apparently worked pretty well because six month later, in December, FBS announced they were buying Solid Earth and rolling Spring up into the FBS product line.
Some MLSs, particularly the larger ones that are well funded and have cash reserves because of their large subscriber bases and huge volume buying power, have decided not to wait for the vendors to catch up. They want to offer multiple front ends on their systems now. They have taken what I would call the Brute Force approach to front-end-of-choice, not by adding a standard database with multiple front-ends, but instead by offering a complete parallel system from a second vendor. You can find examples of Paragon running alongside a Matrix system in more than one market.
What we have witnessed in the three years since AMP was first announced is nothing short of a seismic shift in the focus of real estate technology companies.
They have turned away from perpetuating their legacy systems at the lowest possible reinvestment cost to maximize profit. They have turned toward actually listening to their customers. Those customers and their subscribers are tired of home buyers and sellers having better tools, better portals, better platforms upon which to search for real estate than the agents do.
They, the brokers and agents who use the MLS as their primary business platform, are demanding newer technology, systems with options and flexibility that they have long been promised but really have never seen.
Now they are seeing it, all because RPR launched AMP. AMP was changing the strategic landscape of the industry for the better. And had we continued down the path to launch our first pilots, AMP would continue to do just that – push the industry ahead, force it to make changes in the name of progress. AMP was truly living up to its promise to be the MLS Database Reimagined.
And thus ended my presentation… and the AMP project…when it was unplugged.
Why did that happen?
I can attribute the demise of AMP to several coincident and colliding agendas – a perfect storm of opposing forces that was just too great to overcome.
First, there was much opposition to the AMP project, primarily from larger MLSs who thought that AMP was anathema to NAR’s mandated core standards and recommended association consolidation efforts. We positioned AMP as a facilitator of consolidation by solving the technology problem first, leaving more time for the MLSs to work out their governance and financing differences. The large MLSs thought AMP was just propping up the small MLSs and giving them a stronger technology footprint from which they could better reject the overtures being made by regionals to absorb their small neighbors and expand their footprints. RPR had been facilitating cooperation between MLSs for years with their RPR Share program. But now RPR was building AMP and that was just one step too far. They hated AMP. And they were not shy about making their opposition known.
Second, there was the issue of competing resources. AMP was funded by NAR in a combined package with Upstream at the 2015 annual meeting. The combo seemed to make sense at the time since both projects were operating from the same RPR infrastructure base; both required similar API approaches to data management; both relied on staff with similar experience and capabilities. They sometimes competed for resources, and the closer we moved to their mutual launch dates the more competitive that situation became, I believe to the detriment of both.
Third, the old axiom about software development proved more than true here. All projects always take longer, and cost more than the initial estimates would lead you to believe. AMP announced multiple target pilot dates only to have those dates slip as more nuances to the project were uncovered and attended to.
And finally there was the change in leadership at NAR. Dale Stinton retired and Bob Goldberg took the helm. Dale loved the AMP project and defended it at every opportunity. But Bob arrived with a directive from his leadership to examine everything NAR has been doing, top to bottom – staff, budgets, programs, services, investments – nothing was off limits.
Bob wasted no time, announcing within a few short months of taking office a top down reorganization of NAR staff in both Chicago and DC. That was followed by a program review and a recommendation to fund additional lobbying and political action initiatives either by budget savings elsewhere in the organization or through an increase in dues (something any association executive will try to avoid by any means possible). That’s not a dig at Bob. He’s a great executive and moves quickly to achieve the goals set by his leadership team, goals that the team feels are in the best interest of the association – admirable, if sometimes painful.
The budget axe fell, and AMP’s neck was on the chopping block when it hit. The leadership team at NAR felt that AMP had been funded enough and they could not continue to justify any more product delays. Even if AMP stayed on schedule, given the long sales cycles involved when an MLS makes a vendor and technology buying decision, that meant they would not see any revenue from AMP until well into 2019 and that was just too long to wait.
So nearly four years of work, from when the first concepts were discussed in a hotel room in Minneapolis in spring of 2014 to the final curtain coming down in spring of 2018, has now ended. Yes, I’m disappointed we couldn’t push the project over the finish line and prove the concept with a delivered system. But this is not sour grapes time. It’s a time for reflection on the good things that the AMP project accomplished. AMP moved the needle pointing to MLS technology and where it should be going. AMP stirred the development community to finally embrace a concept that had been talked about for a decade and do something about it. AMP made a difference, even though it never got to market. I am proud to have been a part of the AMP project and to have worked with a great group of people who were bound and determined to make our industry better through better technology. It was a great ride. Thanks for letting me tag along.
I’ve penned this history not to throw stones or cast blame, but to document from an insider’s perspective what we were thinking, hoping for, looking forward to, and planning to deliver – a revolutionary new architectural base for MLS technology.
Where to from here?
And now onward to the next challenge. This blog is now active again and I hope to offer some critical thoughts on current issues and events in our industry while I look for the next opportunity to make a continuing contribution to the real estate community – be that as a consultant or an MLS executive. I’ve taken a few months off to have one of my knee joints replaced and now that I’m totally mobile again I’m looking forward to (a) getting back on the golf course this weekend and (b) interviewing for the next MLS CEO job that opens, or (c) talking with your organization about your plans for the future and how I might help. I’ve been around for a lot of years, but I’m still too young to quit, too antsy to sit still, and too afraid of having something hard and heavy thrown at my head if I hang around the house too long. If you have the need to hire a seasoned MLS exec, either as a consultant or on a full-time basis, I’d love to talk with you.
For this post:
Cause – A final reflection on the past four years
Effect – Bob gets a new gig working for a new MLS