Detail from realtor.com home page as captured by Internet Archive's Wayback Machine Dec. 23, 1996.
In September 1996, a small real estate and technology conference held in a redwood grove north of San Francisco brought together some important members of real estate and technology at a momentous time in real estate’s history.
The Internet was on the early side of its Big Bang, and the National Association of Realtors (NAR) had just decided to move the operation of its online listings portal to a separate firm.
Real Estate Connect, said Brad Inman, the founder of the conferences and a real estate journalist at the time, was a chance to get a community of his readers together to talk about real estate and technology.
The 55-person guest list included Joel Singer, then CEO of the California Association of Realtors (CAR); Richard Janssen, founder of the firm that became Move Inc. and who was working on the technology that became realtor.com at the time of the conference; Saul Klein, operator of the real estate community RealTown and involved in the first iteration of realtor.com with Janssen; and Ward Hansen, a Stanford professor specializing in marketing on the Internet.
“It was an exciting period of time,” said Singer, who remains the CEO of CAR today. “The atmosphere of having open dialogue accelerated what all of us were doing.” At the conference, he said, he got a sense that the Internet would not only change business, but culture. “It was the first time we got that insight,” he said.
“Every presentation was exciting,” Singer said. “(The conference) foresaw what the Internet would become.”
At the conference, it became clear that the Internet was an “always-on” technology, a realization Singer said was “eye-opening.”
Janssen, who was working on securing the contract with NAR to operate realtor.com, said it was an intense, interesting meeting, since some of the people at the conference were against his firm’s bid to take over NAR’s real estate search portal.
Everyone was trying to figure out who was friend and who was foe at the conference, Janssen said, but the conference’s atmosphere — redwood trees, rustic setting and forward-thinking ideas — made it hard to get bent out of shape.
Janssen’s firm got the bid to operate realtor.com and signed a 9-inch-thick document that December securing the deal. When Move went public in 1999, Janssen left the firm. Today, Janssen invests in early-stage technology companies.
“It was a critical moment,” said Klein, who is currently the industry principal for real estate syndication and software firm Point2 Technologies. Netscape, one of the most popular early consumer Internet browsers, had gone public just a year before and NAR had just decided what to do with real estate listings on the Internet, he said.
“The conference got people together,” Klein said, “who had channels of their own, and that got the messaging out there.”
Ward Hansen, a Stanford University professor, led a two-hour forum on Internet marketing, a subject he’d just taught for the first time at Stanford. “It was one of the first places I talked about these ideas in a business setting,” he said.
“There was an air of excitement,” said Hansen, who is currently a member of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
The gathering was small enough for attendees to be able to focus on the ideas of the conference, Hansen said. Discussions revolved around how the Internet was a network that never shut off, allowing users to connect with each other at any time, and the likelihood that it would make real estate professionals obsolete.
The big question was — and is — who would control the data.
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