It’s been a scant three months since Zillow and Trulia announced their pending nuptials, which will bring together the No. 1 and No. 2 players in online home search.
Now No. 3 — realtor.com operator Move Inc. — is about to become part of News Corp, with a nearly $1 billion price tag that represents a 35 percent premium over what the company’s shares had been trading at.
It wasn’t that long ago that Steve Berkowitz mused in Amir Efrati’s piece in The Wall Street Journal that he “liked” being the underdog. My guess is Sir Rupert doesn’t like being the underdog.
What’s interesting about this move is that smart money is so eager to get in on the real estate technology game that even the beleaguered “underdog” gets to be a billion-dollar company. News Corp is making a big bet that Move was undervalued by the market, despite realtor.com’s widening gap behind “Zulia” in search market share.
If we look only at search market share, we miss the big picture here: In the story of real estate technology, search is only the first chapter. Investors see that we’re only in the beginning stages of moving real estate — and the the money associated with it — online.
With deals like the Move acquisition, investors are saying that the upside of revolutionizing the consumer online real estate experience is far greater than a few billion-dollar price tags.
My friend, Monty Smith, and his colleagues over at NRT seem to know this, too. Their plans for NRT’s own real estate search technology — and parent company Realogy’s acquisition of ZipRealty — are a reminder to us all that the sacred relationship with the consumer isn’t just for the portals to fight over.
Let’s remember who actually holds the consumer’s hand when they’re buying or listing a home. While they may currently lag behind the innovation of their online counterparts, the franchisors and brokerages have significant resources and motivation to catch up quickly.
And they have one thing the portals don’t: the tremendous financial upside from the transactions themselves, and all the ancillary services that go with it. Yes, search alone generates nine-figure revenue across the industry. It’s a good business.
But, as Joseph Rand has aptly noted, it’s all about leads, and that needs to evolve. Moving leads back and forth is only the first and quite possibly the smallest way of extracting value from our multitrillion-dollar industry.
So, when we think about the recent rash of M&A in our industry and ask ourselves whether it can continue apace, let’s think beyond just the search wars of these early 2010s. When Zillow announced it was buying Trulia back in July, I asked whether Trulia was cashing in too early — just as Google would have, if it had accepted Yahoo’s overtures in the early 2000s.
In hindsight, we can see that in the early days of online advertising (which is where both Google and Yahoo make money), the pie was destined to get exponentially bigger over the next decade.
Likewise, our real estate tech pie is tiny compared to its potential. As the large portals and large real estate brands grow, they’re going to seek out bigger and better partners in innovation. Some of these will be acquired, and brought in-house.
Others will grow into large independent companies and buy yet more startups. The cycle continues, on and on, until we look back and wonder how we ever could have doubted that the pace of innovation and M&A could continue.
But back to Sir Rupert. He, like his fellow octogenarian tycoon Warren Buffett, got into this industry to make billions. They, like few others, have the ability to see when a business and an industry have the long-term potential to grow many times in size. And they, like few others, have the ability to provide the capital (both directly and by influencing others to compete) to unfairly stack the deck in favor of that runaway growth actually happening.
Venture capitalists are seeing this, as evidenced by their ongoing investigation of and investment in the space. Looking at News Corp’s move as simply a change in management of a 17-year-old, third-place search portal is to miss a critical piece of insider intelligence on where this industry is going.
We ain’t seen nothing yet.
Jonathan Aizen is the founder and CEO of Amitree Inc., the developer of Closing Time, a tool to help home buyers and their agents navigate the process of buying a home, organizing the dozens of tasks into an easy-to-understand checklist that is customized for each buyer’s unique situation.