New ‘lean MLS’ platform pitched as a ‘broker-centric alternative to Zillow and Trulia’

Solid Earth's Spring software lets brokers opt in to services

Real estate tech vendor Solid Earth believes it has a solution to conflicts between multiple listing services and brokers that have recently preoccupied the industry: a new “lean” platform the company sees as an alternative to the traditional MLS.

Solid Earth’s “Spring” platform first launched in May as a public-facing MLS website for the Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors.

Screen shot of homes.gcar.net.
Screen shot of homes.gcar.net.

With a mobile-compatible responsive design and a common home search interface for consumers and real estate professionals, the website offers real estate pros a separate login to access their MLS’s back end, Solid Earth’s legacy MLS system, LIST-IT. Huntsville, Ala.-based Solid Earth has built a similar site for the Greater Alabama MLS, also a LIST-IT customer.

But Spring is not designed to be just a public-facing MLS website. It can be that, but it can also be a mobile real estate portal, and has just launched as a full-fledged MLS system built on top of an application programming interface (API).

This combination, which seems to be unique among MLS system providers, allows for a versatile, “a la carte” offering that Solid Earth contrasts to “one-size-fits-most” systems offered by other MLS vendors.

Basically, Solid Earth has developed an MLS system that offers a “core” set of features, but also allows brokers to opt-in and buy any additional products they want from vendors that use the Spring API.

MLSs that use the Spring MLS system may choose to also adopt Spring’s consumer-facing website or mobile portal, but they don’t have to.

Spring is meant to provide a national-level, broker-centric alternative to Zillow and Trulia.

Bill Fowler, Solid Earth’s chief marketing officer and vice president of new business, likened Spring to a car manufacturer that offers different models.

“Spring is Honda. There’s a Civic, an Accord and a Lexus, depending on [each customer’s] need. There are hundreds of permutations of what it might look like. Features vary with each audience,” Fowler said.

For instance, Solid Earth announced its third Spring deal, with the Lafayette, La.-based Realtor Association of Acadiana (RAA), in early November. Set for deployment in early 2014, Spring will serve as an agent-facing mobile real estate portal that connects to RAA’s LIST-IT MLS system. RAA does not have a public-facing website, and Spring will serve as a member-only tool for the trade group’s more than 1,000 members.

MLS and broker conflict

Up until the Council of Multiple Listing Services (CMLS) conference in early October, Solid Earth had a hard time explaining the concept of a single “lean MLS” platform with a public-facing website component and certain core features that could be built upon through an API, Fowler said.

“Not everybody gets it — not everybody wants to do something this innovative and new,” he said.

But at the CMLS conference, Craig Cheatham, president and CEO of large brokerage network The Realty Alliance, issued an ominous-sounding warning to MLSs and Realtor associations, detailing a long list of MLS practices that some brokers — particularly large ones — take issue with.

Many MLSs, The Realty Alliance’s members have complained, offer an ever-expanding menu of services that compete with the services brokers want to offer their agents and consumers.

Fowler said he understood frustrations expressed by The Realty Alliance’s members. Solid Earth, he said, was as guilty as any MLS provider of joining in an arms race to add ever more features to its MLS platform.

“Early on, we felt that it was the MLS’s job to provide as many services at the lowest cost possible,” he said. “We can appreciate the biggest brokers’ contention with that. MLS is arming every single member with the tools … (and the big brokers think it) should be more of a capitalist approach.”

Solid Earth has built Spring to address that tension.

“We don’t sit on either side,” Fowler said. “We just want to provide a tool that will ease that stress.”

Spring, which is now available as a stand-alone MLS platform with or without a LIST-IT back end, has some “essential” features that have been carefully crafted to “stay out of the broker zone,” Fowler said.

These are features identified by brokers that Solid Earth has consulted as essential to facilitating cooperation and commission sharing.

This includes the ability to add, edit, search and manage listings; local schools information; tax history data; maps; saved searches; a basic comparative market analysis (CMA) tool; lead management; lead generation; user management; listing analytics; sales and inventory reports; and member messaging, among other features.

“It’s like a realtor.com with an MLS back end, and not a whole lot else,” Fowler said.

In a blog post in May, Matt Cohen, chief technologist for real estate consulting firm Clareity Consulting, noted that Solid Earth was trying to find a new balance between having a deep, feature-based platform and providing ease of use.

“Will agents want to give up having a feature-rich system? Some will, I think,” Cohen wrote. “But isn’t feature-richness one part of what differentiates consumer-grade tools from professional-grade tools and part of what professionals are paying for?”

While Fowler “admits that the new system will be a tough sell for some,” Cohen said, “I’m keeping an open mind. I’ve always had respect for the creativity of the Solid Earth folks, and I’ll be keeping a close eye on how Spring evolves toward completion over the next half year and how the full deployments go for their customers in the year that follows.”

After the CMLS conference, Cohen told Inman News he didn’t think Spring had anything to do with the conflicts between MLSs and brokers.

“None of the core MLS functions in existing systems are on the brokers’ hit list,” he said. “It’s not like Matrix or Paragon or any of the existing systems provide items by default that are on that list.”

“Some MLS systems do have as an option, as secondary products, items from the list,” Cohen said. CoreLogic, for example, offers a Web-based customer relationship management tool, AgentAchieve, “but that’s not something they bundle with the MLS system.”

While all software is evaluated on user experience, ease of use, cost and, yes, features, none of the features generally included in MLS platforms (which mirror many of the features included in Spring) are on The Realty Alliance’s list of grievances, Cohen said.

“Brokers aren’t saying, ‘Don’t have financial calculators, a basic CMA report, professional-grade search. Don’t have reports.’ That’s the stuff that’s in these MLS systems,” he said.

Fowler said he didn’t know enough about other systems to evaluate them according to the items on The Realty Alliance’s list, but that in Solid Earth’s case, LIST-IT is almost entirely the result of enhancement requests from various client MLS committees over the years.

“In the past, we haven’t dictated product direction, but rather allowed our clients to drive development through monthly change requests. We perform hundreds of changes and feature additions each year on LIST-IT, very few of them of our own creation,” he said.

What Solid Earth hopes to address with Spring is the attitude change among MLSs that The Realty Alliance has pushed for.

“You’ve probably noticed that many of the items [on the list] are MLS policy-based, not so much MLS product-based,” Fowler said. The Realty Alliance’s members appear “to be demanding that MLSs dial back services and reset their position relative to their broker members — remember who’s really in charge, so to speak.”

“They seem to be suggesting that a ‘lean MLS’ system centered on pay-up options might be more appropriate than a one-size-fits-all approach,” Fowler said.

Spring is designed specifically with this concept in mind, he said.

Spring’s “pay-for-use” business model

While every MLS that adopts Spring as its MLS system will have access to its core features, Fowler says it’s the Spring API that will change how they do business. Through the API, brokers and approved vendors will be able to access the MLS database to build any additional product an MLS or broker would want, the company says.

“In the new model, if brokers want something outside of the MLS vendor’s product line, they can opt in and buy from the MLS or from their MLS vendor, or from any of myriad vendors active in the real estate technology space,” said Fowler’s brother, Matt, president and CEO of Solid Earth, in a blog post.

In most MLS markets, features are offered on a “table d’hôte,” or prix fixe, basis, Matt Fowler said.

“[B]rokers all pay the same fee to the MLS in return for a big box of services, some of which they would not want given the option of choosing. Some services are even in direct competition with the broker such as agent marketing packages and agent websites,” he said.

“It’s the opposite of choice-driven,” he added.

Spring, on the other hand, offers a “pay-for-use” business model. The vast majority of MLS members need only the base MLS system with its core features, Bill Fowler said, using basic cable as an analogy. An MLS that chooses Spring may choose to offer these members the MLS at a base price, likely lower than what members are currently paying.

But if a big broker would like to add “premium channels,” i.e., more features or services, for a competitive advantage, it can use the Spring API to independently build them itself or buy them from third parties.

“The API is a very open, yet very malleable plumbing system and it’s really the modern means of data transport. It’s a ‘plug and play’ data solution. There has not been anything this easy, at least not in our universe,” Bill Fowler said.

The Spring API is compliant with the Real Estate Standards Organization (RESO) Data Dictionary, a standardized set of MLS data definitions designed to allow technology vendors to develop streamlined tools that don’t require separate coding to be used by any of the nation’s more than 900 multiple listing services that adopt the standards.

That “means if you build it once for one of our clients you’ve technically built it for all of them,” Solid Earth said in a Web page aimed at tech developers.

The API allows vendors such as showing services or CMA firms to access MLS data in real time at the request of brokers and MLSs or to draw from a single database for all of their Solid Earth MLS clients instead instead of having to manage separate feeds for each, Bill Fowler said.

For instance, a broker in a small market like Anniston, Ala., that wants to use a transaction management platform from dotloop may not be able to afford the service on his own, but may not want his MLS to offer it to everyone either, he said.

“With the Spring API, dotloop’s expenses for coming into a market like Anniston decrease dramatically,” Fowler said. “A good chunk of the state of Alabama’s MLS data is within the API, including Anniston, so the amount of data processing  — expense and time — just got a great deal smaller for any developer wanting to come in and provide services. Dotloop only has to perform a single data conversion to their system to accommodate this data.”

Now, he said, “Any broker in the Anniston market can purchase dotloop individually without placing the burden — and political hot potato — on the entire MLS organization.”

The API allows for virtually unlimited opportunities for additional applications and offers the foundation for an “app store” approach to MLS, he said. Solid Earth has no impending plans to build a formal store, but that could be “a natural kind of extension,” he added.

Solid Earth currently has relationships with 28 outside vendors, including one, Planwise, whose financial planning tool will soon be integrated into the Spring platform itself.

The cost of Spring’s MLS is expected to be 40 to 50 percent less than that of a traditional MLS system. MLSs should pass on those savings to their customers, the company said, and it anticipates MLSs will make up the difference through the API.

“We are very confident that brokers and approved vendors will want to use the API to access all manner of content. Listing information, agent information, broker information, as well as new content such as leads, in-app analytics and traffic,” Matt Fowler said.

“Solid Earth’s projections predict that there will dozens of these accounts in each MLS market, returning (around) $300 to (around) $1,500 (per) month per account. Depending on the size of the market, these fees could easily exceed current ‘bloatware’ subscription revenue.”

The money, therefore, will come from the same place as before, but on an opt-in basis, he said.

“The HomeServices brokers with whom I have spoken don’t have a problem with opt-in services — they object to the leveling of the playing field that overfeatured MLSs create,” Fowler said in commenting on a recent Inman News article.

“And it’s not just HomeServices, most large and even medium and small brokers agree with this position. It’s the agents who want more, more, more.”

Spring also offers a Google ad network to supplement MLS coffers. It includes two ad placements within the user interface, and the Google network auto-places ads based on strict criteria from Solid Earth and the MLS client, Bill Fowler said.

“(Solid Earth) offers a generous ad revenue split, typically 70-30 in favor of the client,” he added.

The Spring API will cost third-party vendors between $400 and $1,950 a month. There is separate pricing for broker members and developers representing broker members, which the company declined to disclose.

Last week, Solid Earth announced that its API was available to the brokers of Greater Alabama MLS, whose public-facing website Spring powers. The same day, the company announced that it had signed a deal with GAMLS and a member brokerage, RealtySouth, for the Spring API.

Currently, RealtySouth is forced to take data feeds from various sources and throw them into a single database to create a digestible format for their purposes, “which is expensive, time-consuming and difficult,” Bill Fowler said.

With the Spring API, RealtySouth’s development team will be able to “combine data from multiple in-state markets — even non-Solid Earth clients — and do all sorts of creative things previously impossible with their back-end platforms,” he said.

RealtySouth is a HomeServices of America subsidiary, a member of The Realty Alliance, and the largest brokerage in the Birmingham, Ala., area by transaction sides and sales volume, according to Real Trends.

“We currently use APIs from other technology companies and getting one from our largest MLS is a new opportunity, and we look forward to exploring the possibilities of real-time access,” said Lee Vivien, RealtySouth’s vice president of information technology, in a statement.

The Birmingham Association of Realtors, which owns and operates GAMLS, deserves “kudos for offering this advanced technology at Alabama’s largest MLS to the benefit of their member brokers,” she said.

The future of Spring

Currently, Solid Earth has 23 MLS customers in 10 states representing about 45,000 members. The company plans to peel back its LIST-IT platform over the next few years and make Spring its de-facto MLS platform. The Greater Chattanooga AOR, which rolled out Spring’s public-facing site first, will make that transition in 2014.

In second-quarter 2014, Solid Earth plans to roll out yet another component of Spring: a broker product targeting medium to large brokerages. The product will include white-label branding, lead routing and lead management, but the specific tool set to be offered is still being defined, Bill Fowler said.

In launching Spring, Solid Earth’s main goal is not just on solving problems between industry players, but also to help solve them to focus on serving consumers.

“Infighting is only doing a disservice to the consumer,” Bill Fowler said.

Spring is meant to “provide a national-level, broker-centric solution to promote Realtor use as an alternative to Zillow and Trulia,” he added.

On that score, Solid Earth may clash with The Realty Alliance, which has been a vociferous opponent to public-facing MLS websites and listed them among the items the network thinks MLSs should not offer because it perceives such sites as competition to broker websites.

But Fowler thinks the traditional MLS is a “fast-decaying concept,” because consumers are keen to do their own research.

“As they go research, there is an understanding that there is data that they are not privy to and that is MLS data, and we have to give up the idea that there’s information that’s only ours and data they can’t see,” Fowler said.

“I think we have to stop thinking about us and them and start thinking about we. Because the consumer is already in charge of the transaction, anybody who thinks otherwise has their head in the sand.”

In offering consumers the same property search experience as real estate professionals in its public-facing website, Spring satisfies that craving for data, but has a Realtor with access to the MLS at the other end, Fowler said.

“We really see this as the future of MLS,” he said.


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