Greg Fischer, Chief Technology Officer at West + Main in Colorado, joined us and we had a great discussion ranging from tech to relationships, the role of the Realtor, and community. He also gave one of our favorite “what detail do you sweat” answers we’ve had so far.
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Highlights of our Conversation
- The role of technology in real estate in 2020
- Community and relationship marketing and tech
- Overrated and underrated tech in real estate
- What tech we’d like to see in real estate
- Collecting and sharing data to benefit Realtors, clients, and the consumers
- That time when we had access to lockbox data
- Grubhub’s use of data
- Indie brokerages and big box brokerages
- Building and facilitating culture
- Showing up
- Being selective in who you hire, and having standards
- Indie brokerages in the next 5 years; the need for access to capital
- How do you come up with new ideas?
- What detail do you sweat?
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Jim: Greg, thanks for joining us today. What are you up to now? What is your role there in Denver and what have you been doing?
Greg: So my role here at Western Maine Homes is started out as Director of Agent Experience and we’ve moved it into a Chief Technology Officer role. I’m doing a lot of different stuff. I definitely manage our technology stack here for a brokerage of 110 agents. We’ve got four offices. So I spend a bunch of my time making sure our software is working, trying to find cool new software. I’m a managing broker, so I work closely with our agents and also kind of work in the partnerships and business development space of this small independent brokerage in Denver.
Jonathan: That’s great. Hey Greg, I want to drill in a little bit on the technology. Obviously, there’s a big debate in the industry about how important technology is to an agent, but tell me what you believe the role of technology is for a realtor in 2019, 2020?
Greg: Yeah. So I think my view on this stuff has kind of evolved over the years. It was interesting. 10 years ago, technology, whether it was websites like Zillow or New Transaction Management Systems were really kind of all the rage and were going to be game changers for agents’ business. I’ve just kind of come to a place now where I think it’s a very roots oriented. Our realtors are cool, important members of their community and their community is not only their neighborhoods, but their friends and their family and their family’s coworkers and friends. So I’ve kind of come through a place where I think the most important thing for agents is being great at relationship marketing. Sometimes the way we do that is through tech. Of course, being savvy with social media platforms, I think is table stakes for them.
Greg: I think agents have to know how to do that stuff, but it’s not like we’re out here working on flux capacitors and making spaceships that are going to change the game of real estate. I think all we’re really doing is trying to make sure our people are tech literate and capable of communicating. What I’ve been trying to do lately is really synthesize and break down and sort of take all of this stuff to its bare elements and just remind ourselves the mission we’re trying to accomplish, which is creating compelling marketing for people that we know and just being awesome at transaction management. Those are the two pillars that I really think are the most important today.
Jonathan: Yeah. I’d jumped in and I agree with that. I think that we went through this phase where real estate tech was a big point of focus in the industry. There’s a lot of buzz around it. I think for a while, real estate tech was, your right, Zillow and lead gen. It’s shifted into, I mean, you go to these conferences and there’s a thousand different options out there for different technology platforms that do a lot of different… that offer agents a lot of different services. But you’re right, none of them really focus on just the basics. How can tech help an agent run their business more efficiently? How can tech help agents build relationships? Those are two big components that I don’t think are being focused on a lot by vendors because it’s not that sexy.
Jonathan: Yeah, we’re in total agreement with you. I think that technology, you can overexpose agents to technology and really, agents start to freeze. If you give them too much tech and they’re focused too mu- and you stress the importance of tech too much, the agents just start to free. So I like your idea of just having your vision of having agents just be tech literate. It’s really smart and not trying to overextend yourself too much. So kudos for that. What would you say was the most underrated tech and overrated technology for realtors?
Greg: Oh, perfect. I think the underrated tech and something I’m really hoping we’ll be able to solve soon with the consolidation in the showing services is I think the showings tech is so important because you collaborate between the agents, the office and the clients to make sure the showing process goes smoothly, everybody’s informed. One of the big things that I miss from the operator standpoint is I really don’t have great visibility into how many showings our agents are performing and how our listings are doing. I can go in and pull that stuff out, but to me, those are some of the most important metrics that exist is I love to see if we’re sort of meeting a threshold of how many people are out and about in the community.
Greg: Then even more importantly for our firm is how our listings performing. So I think just having a very smooth and seamless way to select all of those options that people need to be mindful of in getting homes exhibited to the public and to actual consumers out there, is so important. I don’t think it’s bad, but I think if I was going to spend my time and effort on something that would change the way I view our business would be that. I would love to be more dialed into our low performing listings and maybe activate advertising and campaigns that’s sort of bringing those listings back to the top and that sort of thing. I think showings really could use some innovation.
Greg: On the overrated side, it’s definitely lead gen. I think we’re at the very end of… And there’s a whole bunch of different ways that lead gen comes through, but what I mean when I say that is Google ads for cities, and real estate in those cities, and pointing that traffic to a software platform and charging agents a bunch of money to feel those things, there’s just so much missed in those connections. What we’re missing is, we know consumers still don’t understand how real estate works, but we’re in such a rush to make it so quick and easy to just be looking at listings online and then connecting them with someone. We’re just missing so much in the middle of how the process works, how to select somebody that’s going to provide agency for you and how to do all those things. So I think that’s the most overrated thing. I think it’s anything added to the confusion surrounding traditional real estate and how it works. It would be lead gen technology for sure.
Speaker 4: Greg, if I can ask you to kind of go back to the showing data because I agree with you, that there’s a lot of information that can be gained from learning about who is showing the properties, what’s going on. I’d like to ask though, if you look back five years, seven years at the information that realtors were sharing and are now sharing either voluntarily or involuntarily through the different technologies we use, what are the psychological hurdles that are going to need to be kind of jumped over. When I asked that, I’m thinking, in showing I don’t necessarily want everybody knowing how often my listings have been shown. Sure, I want to know how often theirs are shown, but what is it going to take for people to share that data for brokerages to share within the brokers who are outside of the brokerage? Or how do we begin to start collecting enough support for that type of information to be shared? Or what are we going to need to do to overcome that?
Greg: Yeah, that’s fair. That’s a good question. I guess it has to be anonymized perhaps in a way. Opening these things up to discussion is step one, in committees and conversations like this, right? We don’t want to isolate or anybody or expose data that they don’t want to have exposed. But at the same time, we have to be able to talk about how the whole market benefits when we share information. That’s the entire premise of the MLS in the first place. I think showing data as an extension of the listing data that we commonly share in the MLS. So there has to be a way. There has to be a way to be able to say, “Three beds, two baths in this zip code built in this year.” Right? We can pull some of the basic characteristics if we need to. That’s more for if we’re sharing amongst brokers or whatever.
Greg: Me, as the broker and operator and our other leadership staff looking at that stuff, of course I need to know exactly which listings, but I think you’re right. If we’re exposing it to the market and sharing with competitors, there probably is a way we need to kind of mask or truncate some of that data. But I just it’s so valuable. What people are trying to sell now in the technology space is that web traffic is so indicative of forecasting the market. I just don’t actually believe that based on my years of experience working in real estate search. I don’t think that search has a direct correlation, but I do know what does have a direct correlation; it’s showings. I think it’s that important.
Keith: Yeah. So I will say, Greg, years ago we engaged with our local association with a lockbox provider to give us every 30 days. We got a dump of how many lockboxes were open on every single day within a time period. Our feeling was we look at sold data as the most important thing in our MLS to know and see what’s happened in terms of of traffic and volume, right? But in order to predict closings, you need to be able to see how many contracts have been written. Our feeling was to be able to predict how many contracts are going to be written, you have to see how many houses are being shown. That lives in the lockbox data. It was fantastic. I remember looking at one day where we had a crazy 15 inch snowstorm, which in Denver, may not be a whole lot, but in Charlottesville is ginormous. We had one lockbox that got opened in the entire MLS in one day and it was hilarious to see things like that.
Keith: But you would be able to look at trends within kind of two week time periods and see people are showing a ton more properties than they had been the year prior, and this is what spring looks like. Or we could track when spring, when that selling season was starting and when the kids are back in school and the parents are starting to about moving again, that fall bump. We could see when it was occurring and with what kind of level of intensity and that didn’t tell us anything about where those houses were or what sizes they were, whether they were townhouses or detached, but that information, if we could start drilling it down, it’s incredibly valuable for every agent to be able to predict, to know how do we adjust on prices? How do we manage all of the sales?
Greg: By the way, real quick as a closing point on that. The tech providers will tell you that data exists. What I’m sort of saying is like the UI doesn’t exist. These platforms that are baked into the MLSs and living off subsidies of having nationwide accounts with hundreds of MLSs are not innovating on the UI. I can sort of pick through there and pull some reports, but it’s not built in a way that helps me run my business or understand anything.
Jonathan: Yeah. I think there’s an analogy here with what’s happening in the food service industry with all these delivery companies that are out there, and if you’re just a pizza joint that delivers food through GrubHub, I could order from that same pizza joint 25 times in a month and GrubHub knows that information, but the pizza joint doesn’t know that Jonathan is ordering from them 25 times a month. Now they’re starting to become… The point is there’s all this data that’s being held and I’m not picking on picking on Grub Hub, but Grub Hub has all this data just like these showing these lockbox companies and showing time has all this data that they’re not really sharing with someone who could really use it.
Jonathan: This pizza joint would love to know that Jonathan’s ordered 25 times in the last month and they’d probably flag me as a VIP customer. So now some of these food service, food delivery companies are coming out with more dashboards that you’re talking about it from a UI standpoint, these dashboards that is helping to give these restaurants, coffee shops, you name it, more data that’s going to help them build relationships with our clients. It’s the same thing as a listing agent. If I’m listing a house and it’s $350,000 and I have no idea why it’s not selling, I can call agents that are listing the houses in the same neighborhood and find out… Or ask them how many showings they’re getting. Probably not going to get the right, the truthful, truthful information from them. So the point is, the more that that data can be exposed in a way to realtors to help them look at it and analyze it, the better that they can build, the realtor can build a relationship besides when… I’ll go back to that 350,000 our house analogy.
Jonathan: Somebody calls you up and your listing that house and says, “What’s going on in the market.” You really don’t know until… We don’t know what’s happening in the market until six months after. So the showings and lockbox openings is more predictive versus reactive. Yeah. I like your concept with that.
Jim: I’m going to change the tack a little bit, Greg. When we’re talking yesterday about how you shifted to the indie broker where you’re on now, what was the rationale for choosing that brokerage and what is your take on the indie versus the big box, if you will?
Greg: Yeah. I just love indie brokerages so much because I feel like the kind of person that goes out there and says, “I’m going to start a business in my community and I’m going to create its origin story from scratch,” is the type of person that I want to work with. I just think it shows so much grit and resilience and a desire to compete. Then I also think it is one of the best mediums to collect other people who are community minded and focused, who want to work with entrepreneurs who are providing services to the community. It’s not that big box brands don’t do that, but they come with so much baggage attached to them. I just think and indie brokerage has this amazing opportunity to decide what it’s going to be, what it’s going to stand for, what type of people are going to be there and really make it contextual to the areas that they’re in. Then also not be bound by slow thinking.
Greg: I’ve worked at very large companies before and it’s like turning the Titanic to get something to move and the change in to happen. I don’t know if we have time for that. Our business moves so fast. Gosh, circumstances around deals change in moments. So I think just having a culture of constant innovation, flexibility, focus on the community makes the most sense for real estate company too. I honestly believe that having the ability for local business people to start up these companies is very entrepreneur based thinking and very American in a way.
Greg: Anybody who thinks that they can compete and run a business well can do it. I actually think that’s really cool. I think that counteracts some of the thinking in the big box space, especially with new companies where the goal is to wrap everybody under one umbrella and one giant entity will benefit. I think it’s much cooler, to be frank, that Nest has 14 or so offices on the East coast and employ these different people to help to do that and we can run a brokerage here in Denver and someone else can do that in Dallas. I just think that’s cool, honestly.
Jonathan: How do you build culture with it within your firm? You talk about culture and community service and everything. How do you facilitate that across your 110 agents and four offices?
Greg: Have to show up. It can’t just be lip service, it can’t be headlines on marketing or on recruiting. You have to be there and create experiences that agents remember and that matter to them. That means showing up from a managing broker perspective and helping people navigate complex transactions. It means actually showing up in the community, donating time, donating resources and participating. It means having standards of who actually gets to wear the jersey. I think sometimes brokers and owners are so happy to pass out jerseys to whoever walks in the door and flatters them and the people who work for you see that. The people that you hire are a reflection of them.
Greg: So I think having those standards of what kind of person and what level of professionalism they’re going to exude and how they’re going to represent the company, I think the brokers own that and has to keep an eye on those standards. I think all of those things combined, I think showing up is the most important thing. We try to be in the offices, at events, at closings, bring our new people into those experience with our agents and just be there. I think showing up and sort of living the brand or the truth of that culture is probably the most important thing.
Jonathan: That’s great. I love your, your passion for that and for your culture and for your indie brokerage. Sticking on the topic of indie brokerages, what do you guys see as the biggest challenges for indie brokerages over the next five years?
Greg: I think it’s mostly capital based. There are definitely some services that I think are compelling that are being tested in the market with larger companies. The idea of coming into homes and doing some light repairs and remodel work before you place them on the market is compelling. That’s a 5,000 to $10,000 clip per house. For an operation of our size, that’s quite a bit of capital. So I think access to capital is going to be one of the big ones. How can operations of our size and similar to yours react quickly and maybe get access to half a million dollars or $1 million to launch programs like that because a lot of times, indies are bootstrapped and running off the revenue that they earned last year. So that’s really a big one for me. How can we test some new services that require capital. I think if disruptors or new entrance into the space has shown us anything, it’s just that wow, you really can have an impact if you dedicate some capital and try to create services for people when it comes to housing.
Greg: So I think that’s it. I think if indie brokers could figure out a way to get very easy capital to maybe try some of the things that have already been tested and look compelling, I think that would be awesome. I also think the biggest challenge to indie brokers and everyone else is just going to be explaining the services that they offer because study after study continues to come out that says, consumers don’t understand how our business works. So if anybody’s going to get it right, I think it’s going to be indies. I think explaining what our services are in a very clear articulate way, is probably another big challenge and opportunity coming up.
Jim: We agree with that too. A lot of those, I think both points are on our radar and something that we’re thinking about all the time. Do you have within Western Maine kind of a incubator type of aspect of it where you’re thinking about new ideas? Or maybe I should ask the question a different way. How do you and your team come up with new ideas about how you continue to push your brokers forward? You talked about earlier about being in a big company and it’s like trying to move the Titanic. I’d love to hear your process about innovating and coming up with new ideas, whether it’s marketing or tech or operations or agent services.
Greg: Sure. It’s a blend of process and then talent. Working backwards, I am just fortunate enough to have talented people that know how to execute the ship that I get to work alongside and that’s critical. There are so many ideas and people with projects that they want to hatch and nothing ever gets done. I think that’s definitely the most important thing is having people who know how to bring something from start to finish is the most crucial thing and then carving out that time. We carve out time to look at past performance, question what we could do differently, sort of do retrospectives on a quarter or an actual business process that we did.
Greg: We like to kind of put all of our managing broker feedback together and see if there’s common trends that are causing problems for our people. Then just staying super plugged into what’s happening in the rest of the industry to give us ideas, test thesis, or to write something off that we don’t think it’s going to work. So it’s carving out the time, but I just wouldn’t under emphasize how much it means to have people who just know how to bring projects to the end state. It’s the most important thing.
Jonathan: Yeah. We talked a couple months ago in one of our podcasts with someone, and one of the big focuses was execution and it really is like… Anybody can come up with ideas, but how do you execute and how do you bring something to the finish line? So that’s great. Last question here and thanks again for joining us, but last question for you is this podcast is Sweat the Details and we can tell at Western Maine that you’re focused on details and at Nest we’re focused on details. What’s the one detail that you’re sweating when you wake up every morning? What’s that one detail that you’re sweating every day?
Greg: Is everybody pumped about what they’re doing? Because enthusiasm is contagious and can completely rub off and multiply and has an exponential force. So having people who are excited about the work in front of them, that’s what I sweat every day. I try to keep people pumped.
Jim: That’s fantastic. Greg, that’s a probably one of my favorite answers that we’ve had so far. I really appreciate you taking the time early on a Denver morning to chat with us. Fantastic conversation, but I want to say thank you so much for taking the time.
Greg: Thanks for reaching out to me. It was fun.
Keith: Great chatting with you, Greg. Thanks.
Jim: Thanks, Greg.
Jonathan: Have a great day.