John L. Heithaus, chief marketing officer for Metropolitan Regional Information Systems (MRIS), the largest multiple listing service in the nation, with about 46,200 active subscribers, 15 years ago participated in the first-ever Inman News Real Estate Connect conference in San Francisco while working for Coldwell Banker Relocation Services.

At the time of the first Real Estate Connect event, Heithaus recalled, he was working to digitize some real estate transaction processes to expedite the sales process for relocation-related properties as a vice president of real estate services for Coldwell Banker Relocation Services.

Heithaus has also served in executive positions with SentriLock, Prudential Real Estate, Realogy,, Virtual, and the Employee Relocation Council.

He participated in a Q-and-A with Inman News about the past 15 years of real estate technology and innovation, and what lies ahead.

1. What was most memorable to you about your participation in the early Real Estate Connect events, which launched 15 years ago?

I was director of real estate services and also our supplier networks (at Coldwell Banker Relocation Services). My team was buying about 15,000 houses a year across the country and reselling them, and … managing the supply chain. We were just starting to experiment with … digital photography, basically automating what was a manual process for appraisal and closing docs.

Through Inman (conference) connections I met with some people from Kodak and Polaroid, and we started to implement (digital photography). Compared to taking the pictures, leaving them at Walgreens, printing them, having an appraiser and home inspector then have to glue them to legal paper and put them in the mail to us — it was a massive improvement.

I was part of the team that built the first There were five or six of us who were on the team. I remember talking to people at the conference (about it). It was really more of a billboard. The resistance on this thing was huge. I would literally go into the brokerage offices to sell this (website as a referral source). They said, "You’re going to steal my customer with this website." That same fear was expressed (in those days).

I was on a panel (at Connect) with … an editor for Wired magazine, which was pretty much just a startup then.

The business networking that went on … all these years later I still appreciate it. Other industry conferences aren’t this way — they aren’t this collaborative — "How can we actually get stuff done?" It’s been good that way.

2. What was most unexpected to you about how technology has transformed the real estate industry in the last 15 years, or has technology transformed society in general?

I think, to a degree, social media has really taken the industry by surprise, as it has with other industries … (even becoming a factor in how President) Obama was elected.

Things have gotten micro, miniature and mobile really fast. (Fifteen years ago), social networking and mobile (Internet) certainly were (not yet on the scene). There were big, clunky desktop (PCs), and we were just doing laptops at that point — the miniaturization and the personalization of things really wasn’t foreseeable at that point.

3. What has surprised you about things that haven’t changed as much for the real estate industry in the past 15 years? What do you believe are barriers to change, if any?

The consumer empowerment that we hoped would happen hasn’t even happened yet — the idea that everything is open on the Internet; sunshine and transparency. Full empowerment still hasn’t happened.

I think back then (15 years ago) we really thought it was going to be a much wider, pervasive world. Back then we didn’t have high-speed dial-up. (Now), I still think we have a ways to go. If we decide to buy stock, we can get everything we need to know (online). We still don’t have that perfect information flow (for the real estate transaction process).

I call (the present state) TMBI — "too much bad information," this proliferation of stuff from everywhere.

4. What current technological trend is most interesting to you, and why? is building a real estate and insurance and financial adviser referral network inside of Facebook. You have the ability to find out about (services) almost peripherally. You see some pretty cool stuff that’s been bootstrapped up.

5. What are the red flags with increasing use, reliance of technology in real estate and other industries, if any?

What about privacy and data-mining? And reselling mouse clicks to advertisers? I don’t think anybody could foresee the threat and the implications. The law of unintended consequences has been huge here.

6. What is the as-yet-untapped potential and what does it represent for technological innovators? For industries such as real estate?

I can see (real estate matching technologies — like an eHarmony for real estate) getting better. It’s only a matter of time.

7. What are some overarching trends in technology innovation/adoption that you would expect to see continued/evolved or launched in the next 15 years?

I think the monetization of data — at least technically the broker owns the data and the MLS owns the aggregation of the data — that’s the battle royal. Data ownership needs to be sorted out. (Brokers have) got to make operations more efficient. Once the deal gets signed, you have to speed (the closing process up): 45 days instead of 60 days.

The next Real Estate Connect event is scheduled from July 27-29 at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square hotel.

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