The $4 Billion Dollar Company

It’s been an exciting fortnight since Errol Samuelson shook up the online portal competitive picture by hanging up his hat and cleats at Move/Realtor.com and accepting a senior management position at Zillow. Much has been reported, and even more speculated, about the motives for the change, both from Errol’s perspective and from Zillow’s.$4 Billion Company

Then, when things started to settle down a bit, Curt Beardsley added salt to Move’s wounds by doing the same thing. Then the lawsuit, more reporting, more speculation, and a substantial rumbling of “what’s next” and “what is the unspoken conspiracy?”

So who won and who lost and what’s next? I’ve been working on a response to Rob Hahn’s proposal that NAR pony up some substantial cash and buy Move, essentially taking a public corporation private and thereby recapturing total control over their corporate brand and flagship banner website. I think Rob’s idea has some entertainment value, but would not work for a couple of reasons. First (and foremost), it would rely on NAR levying a special assessment of $250 per member and borrowing another $200 million to have enough cash for a buyout, including a nice premium to current shareholders. Would NAR members, half of whom did not close one real estate deal last year, actually agree to such a levy or would many of them walk?

Second, the payback of the loan depends on continuing to operate Realtor.com as a profit making venture. That’s the biggest flaw I continue to see in the current business model. I continue to believe Realtor.com can be a huge asset to NAR and its million members but only if it’s a core service paid for by dues dollars (or perhaps be RPR revenue or NAR’s investment in Second Century initiatives, if any of them eventually starts to make money) and not an advertising medium that sells ad services to members. That is the singular loudest complaint from Realtors about Realtor.com – “It’s our website. They shouldn’t sell us advertising. It should be FREE, because it’s our website.”

So I began to look at how possible it might be to convince the current Move board of directors they needed to take my advice and give back Realtor.com to NAR and make Move.com their lead portal. These are reasonable people, experienced business people with a roster of companies they have either served, helped, or directed that would be enviable for any company. Four of the directors (a majority of the seven member board) are independent, so they would/should have no conflicts of interest in voting for a proposal, however radical, that was in the best interests of the shareholders. Three are a little biased toward NAR and therefore might oppose such a change – current CEO Steve Berkowitz, former REALTOR (Grubb/Ellis, Coldwell Banker) current Chairman Joe Hanauer, and former NAR President Cathy Whatley.

Alternatively, if no one was able to convince the board to make that change, what were the chances someone could raise enough interest and money to make a run at the company – a hostile takeover in true Carl Icahn style. Perhaps a large franchise (Berkshire-Hathaway or Realogy might have enough cash) would buy it and use it as a basis for changing their online presence. The Realty Alliance is already looking for proposals to create a large national infrastructure for their cooperating brokers – perhaps they could buy Move and save themselves a lot of development time. I even looked at the possibility of a grass-roots movement starting with a couple of progressive, pro-active Realtors who want to raise the bar of professionalism by raising money on Kickstarter. But alas, I doubt that a national real estate portal would qualify under Kickstarter’s Guidelines (seems they have a prohibition against funding websites focused on e-commerce and business).

So then the thought struck me that perhaps a couple of the current major shareholders might be interested in increasing their holdings, perhaps even demanding a couple of seats on the board. So I started digging around for the current list of institutional shareholders (who, it seems, hold over 95% of the stock in Move) and aside from FMC, LLC (Fidelity Investments) that owns about 15% of the company (as of 12/31) there were no other major players with more than 3.5%. (FMC’s 15% represents about $93 million in stock holdings, but when you compare that to the $4.2 Trillion — with a capital T — in assets they manage, their Move stock represents about .00221% of their portfolio. Something to sneeze at?)

“Achoo!!”  “Gesundheit!”

I was getting a little discouraged trying to think of other options, so I started fooling around with the stock reports and looked at the changing positions of Zillow and Move on the NASDAQ since the chair shuffling began back on March 5. Here’s what I found.

Z vs Move

First, Zillow closed above $100 last Friday (3/21) for only the second or third time in their history. They hit $100 last September and have drifted below the century mark since.

The chart above tracks the percent of change in stock price for Move (red) and Zillow (blue) since March 5. They stay reasonably close from the time Errol announced his move until March 13 when Curt followed. Then stuff happened. Zillow started upward on a near 45 degree slope while Move held steady for about a week and then dropped off. The net effect, Zillow is up about 20% and Move down about 10%.

Details (text for those who hate charts):

Date

Event

Zillow

Move

3/5/14 Errol made “the move” (after market close)

$83.20

$13.12

3/14/14 Friday before Curt made “the other move”

$87.10

$12.30

Net effect of Errol’s move

UP $3.90
(4.7%)

DN $0.82 (6.25%)

3/17/14 Day of Curt’s “other move” and Move/NAR lawsuit filed against Zillow

$91.68

$12.37

3/21/14 End of week of turmoil

$100.24

$11.84

Net change from 3/17 to 3/21

UP $8.56 (9.33%)

DN $0.53 (4.25%)

Net effect of turmoil, since 3/5

UP $17.04 (20.5%)

DN $1.28 (9.75%)

3/21/14 Market Cap as of 3/21/14

$3.96 Billion

$465 Million

Whoa! Stop for a minute and take a look at that bottom line. That’s really what this whole process has been about. These are publicly held companies, companies in which people (and institutions, which we know because Mitt Romney told us so, are people too) invest their money in order to make more money. Investors in Zillow earned 20% on their investment in less than 30 days. Investors in Move lost 10% of their money in the same period.

By my calculation, Zillow is just one dollar and eight cents short in its share price of being a Four Billion Dollar Company.

But even more telling is this figure. In the seventeen days between March 5 and 21, while the real estate blog-o-sphere was fixated on why Errol and Curt moved and what Zillow would do next, Zillow stock gained $691 million in value. That’s 50% more than the entire Move corporation is worth ($465 million).

I hate to keep being the guy pounding nails in the Realtor.com coffin, but the more I look at this situation the fewer reasons I can find for anyone to want to buy Move.  Even NAR – at least not right now. The sinister plot may not be one spun by either Zillow or Trulia but rather by NAR itself. Their continuing shackles on how Move can operate R.com might just be the smartest play in the game. They could soon buy back control of their website, and a company of people to operate it, for pennies on the dollar.

Much as I hate to admit it, I think Rob’s advice is right: NAR should take Move private. But I would advise NAR to hold off on that special assessment. It just might not be needed after all.

For this post:
Cause: If you can’t see the mark in the poker game, then it’s you.
Effect: The card sharp may be the player you least expect. 

The wolf eventually showed up!

The whole world of MLS is exploding. That part that isn’t exploding will be carpet bombed into oblivion. The sky isn’t just falling, it’s getting ready to crush every little chicken in its path. So many people are crying “Wolf!” that even the wolf is scared spitless. At least that’s what some writers would have you believe.Boycriedwolfbarlow-260px

Others see the problems inherent in crying “Wolf” but nonetheless think there may be some substance to the cries.

One of the morals of the Aesop’s Fable of the Boy who cried Wolf is often lost behind the more important metaphor: Don’t cry Wolf unless you mean it because you will make your audience weary of your warning. What we forget is that the Wolf eventually DID show up – and killed the whole flock of sheep.

I fear the same thing happening now in the MLS community in the aftermath of the warnings by The Realty Alliance to the collected MLS executives and leaders in Boise last week.

Some pundits are saying, “Yeah, we’ve heard this all before and nothing ever happens.” “Why should this time be different?”

This time it is different.

I’ll offer that this time is different because these are not idle threats made by some petulant teenager throwing a hissy fit. No one on the stage last Friday at CMLS was holding their breath until they turn blue in order to get their way. Not once did I hear the phrase “or else” uttered by TRA President/CEO Craig Cheatham. What I did hear was simple declarative statements of what TRA considers the facts of business life – that the practices they itemized were likely to cause conflict between MLSs and their Broker participants.

Some listeners were shocked, SHOCKED I tell you to hear there had been discontent here. They had never heard of such a thing, at least not in their backyards.

I’ve been doing some digging trying to figure out where this schism between brokers and their association owned/operated MLSs started. This has apparently been going on for years and no one noticed until last Friday.

Here’s what I’m finding and some of it is disturbing.

The Realty Alliance has a Facebook page. The page is posted to with great regularity by the administrator with observations and statements that sound an awful lot like either policy or stated concerns. These posts go back two and a half years, to May 2011. There aren’t many, but they do recite multiple expressions of angst about the growing schism between brokerages and their associations and MLSs. Examples:

TRAFB-01

TRAFB-02

 

TRAFB-03

 

TRAFB-04

 

Some of the messages are very cryptic. Such as

TRAFB-05

 

and a reminder a week later

TRAFB-06

And earlier that year when Franchisor IDX was a hot topic:

TRAFB-07

 

TRAFB-08

 

 

TRAFB-09

 

TRAFB-10

 

TRAFB-11

 

These last few entries all point to the time when TRA was fighting its implementation of franchisor IDX by NAR. The discussion was heated and almost everyone with a passing thought and a keyboard chimed in with their personal opinions about the debate. One blog, Matthew Ferrara, linked to from the TRA Facebook site, had some provocative quotes and comments, such as:MFerrara Post

Again, so what? This is just picking at the scabs of the never-healing self-inflicted wound REALTORS stabbed themselves with decades ago, called MLS.

So all of the “nice” things that MLS policies supposedly provide brokers are becoming less valuable to many brokers with every new technology decision that accompanies them.

Mr. Ferrara had some observations that seem to presage the discussions we’re having today by nearly three years. Here, on how difficult a new technology solution would be:

As for sharing it (data) between multiple brokers, alternatives have already proven the possibility: Postlets, Point2 and – shock! – peer-to-peer syndication feeds make it possible for companies to transfer data to each other without much cost (in some cases, none). If an unfunded-nobody can syndicate their data to Huffington Post using a free WordPress-coded blog and free WiFi at Starbucks, don’t you think today’s brokers can figure out how to send data to each other?

On how to do business without an MLS (remember this is early 2011):

And that’s the real unintended consequence of the IDX syndication rule. Some brokers must now seriously consider withdrawing from the MLS club entirely. And why not? Most of New York City has survived just fine into the 21st century without MLS. Millions of real estate brokers around the world get along fine without overly organized compensation policies and data policing. They know how to cut each other a referral check, and generally play nice. Consumers, on the other hand, are far better at inducing brokers to keep their data fresh than a few dollar fine by a MLS cop, lest the broker face consumers’ wrath on Twitter and Yelp.

So the discussion of MLS v. Broker problems isn’t new. Nor are some of the more obvious possible resolutions to the problems in the event that the brokers and NAR/MLS teams can’t reach consensus on changes needed in the underlying relationships.

At the risk of repeating myself, I will. Here are comments I posted to the Vendor Alley essay on this topic earlier today:

I think we are over-thinking this. Let’s look at Occam’s razor: the simple answer is most often correct.

What do the brokers say they want? A simple solution that lets them trade inventory and cooperate on selling homes. Nothing more. The simple solution would be to meet for coffee at the corner restaurant once each week and exchange lists of addresses and prices. Sound familiar? Now make it electronic, but keep it simple.

We are seeing this in the agent community with private listing networks where agents exchange pocket listings with other agents with whom they choose to work. No NAR oversight; no mandatory cooperation requirement, no syndication; no MLS rules or competing products/services, no need to join 47 MLSs because of artificial geographic or political boundaries, just a simple society created by the peers in the group. And if someone isn’t playing by the rules, the group either kicks them out or just ignores them.

That approach on a slightly larger scale could work for residential brokerages. It certainly has worked just fine for the commercial brokers for decades. And most of them have never joined an MLS in their lives.

What have we learned from all this research? The sky isn’t falling yet, but storm clouds are definitely making it darker out there. We’ve heard these complaints before, but ignored them. The alternative solutions being considered aren’t really that hard to do nor are they that novel. Don’t ignore the warning signs just because you’ve heard them before.

One more lesson from many, many old black and white jungle movies: the most dangerous time is not when the war drums are pounding in the distance, but when they stop. As long as TRA and its affiliated groups are making noise, NAR and MLS are probably safe.

But don’t expect brass bands to come marching out of the Realty Alliance meeting room on Monday. There will probably not be a news conference held, no press release released, no profound statements of great import about the future of the industry, and certainly no ceremonial button pushing. The time to really start worrying will be Tuesday morning when the drums fall silent and the jungle is deathly quiet.

For this post:
Cause: Boy cries ‘wolf’ and no one listens
Effect: the Sound of Silence.

Filling the white space void

This week’s Trialogue on Brand White Space & Brokerage Opportunity, with Rob Hahn (@RobHahn), Matthew Shadbolt (@Corcoran_Group), Linsey Planeta (@linsey), and Gahlord Dewald (@Gahlord), [which by the way actually makes this podcast a quadralogue – but who’s counting?] is a continuation of the mini-pod from last week entitled Zillow Begins to build a Media Model.  The discussion delves into the thought that Zillow is becoming the Home Depot of the home ownership process.

Rob goes to Home Depot to buy replacement windows.  The service company that Home Depot contracts with shows up with a different name on the truck and does a great job.  Rob thinks of this window company as just an extension of Home Depot and is happy Home Depot did a great job.  Likewise, should the installation go south, it’s Home Depot that Rob calls and delivers a tongue lashing.  Home Depot and Lowe’s are the go-to sources in home repair, improvement, or remodeling. Once you’re in the relationship, once you’re satisfied with a couple of jobs they do, you stay there.  There’s no reason to change.

How does this translate to Zillow (or the other portals) vis-à-vis Coldwell Banker or RE/MAX.   Zillow launched their television ad campaign intending to capture consumer mind share where none currently exists – a huge amount of “brand whitespace” in the real estate category, meaning no one brand symbolizes real estate in the U.S.   This “white space” is the empty place(s) in the entire home ownership process to which the homeowner can’t manage to attach a name – any name, be it an agent name, a brokerage name, a realty website, or a trademark brand of any kind.

If the first brand that pops into a consumer’s head when they think about buying a house is Zillow and not a brokerage or franchise, that fundamentally changes the business equation, WITHOUT Zillow actually getting into the brokerage business.

There was a lengthy discussion about the similarities between the Zillow ads (first one and second one)  and a flight of Coldwell Banker spots that aired earlier this year (right down to the music beds – did the Lumineers sample a little too much Phillip Phillips?).  Both had a similar feel, warm and tender, family oriented, designed to bring a little moisture to the corner of your eye which we men brush away as a sudden onset of hay fever. (“No, really, it’s just the pollen.”)

But despite the small difference in the commercials’ approaches, and the similarities in the message (start your home search on our web site), there’s a huge difference in the brand experience being advertised. When the consumer goes to Zillow.com, they get the same experience every time. The website behaves the same whether you’re signing on from Connecticut or California.  That’s what a brand promises – the fries will be the same no matter which McDonalds you drive through.

But Coldwell Banker is selling neither a website experience nor French fries.  Yes, the chain of events may well begin with a web search (many web searches on many websites if the consumer research is valid) but the product being sold is agency representation in the home purchase/sale process.  And THAT experience is not only different from branch to branch, but it is entirely different from agent to agent within the same branch.  There is no possible brand continuity within a brokerage or franchise unless the broker trains her agents to a robotic repetitious adherence to company process and mantra.  Perhaps some of the new models where agents are employees might be able to demand this level of adherence, but in an office of type-A personalities called independent contractors – NO WAY!

The discussion progressed on to the various models of brokerage, particularly considering the new LLC model where broker takes an equity position, not a commission split, in the agent’s business, not just within the current firm but in any future brokerage the agent affiliates with.  (More on that concept in this article by Imprev CEO Renwick Congdon.)  Carried to its logical extreme, this fractures the concept of broker branding beyond what all the king’s men could hope to reconstruct from Humpty Dumpty’s eggshells. This idea is worthy of another chapter all by itself, particularly the discussion of how a broker chooses which agents to “invest in.”

And to that point, how does the broker decide not only which agents she feels will be worthy of her investment, will be productive and return handsomely on her investment, but which of these agent-LLC’s will be brand reinforcing.  Can a company, made up of a bunch of smaller mini-companies, actually have a brand identity and create brand awareness in the mind of the consumer?  Or are they doomed to be lost in the aforementioned snow storm of white space?

For this post:
Cause: 
Entropy– the measure of disorder
Effect: 
Carpe diem