Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of real estate industry profiles, titled, "About Us: People in Real Estate." These profiles will reveal rich anecdotes, historical tidbits, and personal insights that will introduce — and perhaps reintroduce you to some of the real estate industry’s most colorful and storied characters. Got a suggestion for someone who we should profile? E-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject line: "About Us: People in Real Estate."
A friend recently ribbed Greg Robertson that his Vendor Alley blog was "the TMZ of real estate."
Likening Robertson’s frequent postings at VendorAlley.com to the wildly popular but often-notorious celebrity news site is a stretch, he says.
Nonetheless, he does get attention in the industry — like the time just a few weeks ago, when he adapted the subtitles in a clip from "Downfall," the German-language film about the last days in Adolf Hitler’s bunker, to poke fun at efforts by the calREDD subsidiary of the California Association of Realtors, which CAR aims to build into a statewide MLS.
"I sat on my couch, uploaded (the "Downfall" parody), and went to bed," said Robertson, whose day job is co-founder of W & R Studios, a Web software company for the real estate industry. "I woke up, and it was like, freaking nuts."
"Nuts" meant an avalanche of comments, not all of them happy — particularly among viewers who criticized it online for its insensitivity to the Holocaust.
Robertson says he meant no offense and points out that the film clip is all over the Internet in all manner of other guises, from subtitles that make fun of English grammar zealots to razzing celebrities who are trying to get tickets to Michael Jackson’s memorial service.
He says he doesn’t track the numbers of visitors to his site every day, but others in real estate — particularly those with ties to multiple listing services and MLS technology, Robertson’s niche — say they regularly check in. In 2008, Inman News named VendorAlley.com among the "notables," or runners-up, to its top 25 list of influential industry blogs.
Most of Vendor Alley, which he began in February 2007, is chatter (often very pointed) about developments in the MLS community and broader real estate world, plus assorted press releases that come his way.
Robertson also sees it as a way to give real estate vendors a forum to vent about their business.
"I try to keep it funny, though, mostly," says Robertson, whose myriad contacts in the business translate into a steady stream of information for the blog. He’s good at getting people to open up, he says — a skill learned early in life. …CONTINUED
Originally from Seattle, his parents divorced when he was a child and the custody arrangement sent him to spend a year at a time with one parent, then with another.
His father, an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, was transferred often, Robertson said.
"For every grade, I went to a different school," Robertson recalls. "In eighth grade, I went to three schools, in ninth grade, to two schools. When you’re the new kid in school every year, you learn how to fit in."
"Today, I can sit with a table of 10 people and get them laughing and talking within 10 minutes," he said.
It’s a skill that translates directly to sales and marketing, where he has made his career, though real estate is a world removed from his beginnings.
In the early 1990s, right out of school and armed with a degree in electronic engineering technology, he was working weekends as a "sound-and-lighting guy" in Southern California for musical performance venues and business conferences.
In 1992, a college buddy, Eddie Ureno, chatted him up in a bar about joining him and two others in a startup that was going to develop an interface for two Orange County, Calif., MLSs — choosing that kind of product because they reasoned there were just so many real estate agents out there and it seemed to be a likely market.
"I remember driving home that night and it just jumped out at me how many freaking real estate offices I passed," he said.
Those were the golden, early years of tech startups, many of which didn’t operate by the old rules. The foursome’s company, IRIS, was no different. It took, for example, a certain amount of pride in its loose organization — each of the four principals was considered a co-chief executive officer. Robertson handled sales and marketing.
"I was driving a ’67 VW bus," he recalls. "And I used to park it down the street so I wouldn’t be seen driving up in it" when making sales calls.
IRIS’ product, called Lightning MLS Interface, did very well. In 2000, IRIS was named to Inc. magazine’s list of 500 fastest-growing private companies and was spotlighted in a lengthy feature in its pages. …CONTINUED
IRIS was soon after acquired by Homeseekers.com, where Robertson stayed on a few years, until its acquisition by Realigent.
Robertson (and his IRIS business partner, Dan Woolley), were recruited by eNeighborhoods, where he became director of marketing and relocated to Florida. In 2007, Dominion Enterprises acquired eNeighborhoods; Woolley and Robertson decided to return to their tech startup roots and moved back to Orange County.
Early this year they launched Dwellicious, a social bookmarking site for house hunters.
"We thought about this idea that maybe 90 percent of people are going on the Internet, maybe going to eight different sites," he said. "There are so many things out there — you could put in an address and get information, go to Zillow for an estimate, or Google Street views, or WalkScores — that kind of thing."
Dwellicious, he said, is an online way for house hunters to keep track of where they’ve been online and what they’ve liked and learned (see Inman News article). Next up, he said, is a soft launch (at the National Association of Realtors annual meeting in November) for a Web-based competitive market analysis product called Cloud CMA (for comparative market analysis).
"Real estate has been a great business," says Robertson, who adds that one of the best parts of his career has been getting to know other vendors, plus the entrepreneurial blending of marketing and technology.
His first career as a "sound guy" set him on that entrepreneurial path, he said.
"I used to do the sound for these conferences — computer-industry shows where they have panels of speakers," he said. "I would listen to these guys all day, and I got an incredible amount of knowledge of all these different industries (while) sitting there for days on end.
"I was always into computers, and these guys, these big software companies, were doing serious, interesting stuff," Robertson said. "That drove an affinity to be just like them."
Mary Umberger is a writer in Chicago.
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