Zillow whistleblower talks

Cast as a disgruntled fired employee, Chris Crocker explains his actions and the consequences

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Chris Crocker

Chris Crocker

Brad Inman talks to the affable and controversial Chris Crocker, the former Zillow employee who sent an anonymous letter to Move lawyers two days before he left Zillow, at the peak of the ugly Zillow-Move lawsuit. He now works as COO of Pacific Sotheby’s International Realty, San Diego.

Fired from Zillow, Crocker alleged that the Seattle firm stole data from agent websites and scraped listing information form realtor.com. Failing to hide his identity, Crocker used his signature sign-off, “good hunting,” in the accusatory screed. He said he did not expect his identity to be revealed.

Whether it is judged as reckless, bitter or bold, the letter added to the already nasty lawsuit between the two portals. He sent the letter by snail mail and was subsequently caught up in a swirl of legal events. He then received the cold shoulder by some in the tech and real estate industries and was embraced by others.

The courts said his letter was not admissible evidence, though it left a detailed trail of how Move might discover dirt on Zillow. In a deposition, lawyers for Zillow attempted to trip Crocker up about some of his claims.

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Zillow cast Crocker, who was Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, as a disgruntled employee who was canned. His job was to cultivate relationships with real estate brokers.

Prior to joining Zillow, he was with NRT, the brokerage arm of Realogy.

Read the transcript of the Inman/Crocker interview

Brad: Greetings, Inman news readers and listeners. Today I am really excited to have an interview with Chris Crocker, who is the COO of Pacific Sotheby’s International Real Estate in San Diego. Chris is also somewhat famous this year for an anonymous letter that he sent regarding activities at Zillow — and so welcome Chris, very good to have you today.

Chris: Thanks for having me, Brad. I appreciate being here.

Brad: So let’s go back, you sent a letter making quite a few charges at Zillow and how they operated and you sent an anonymous, snail-mail letter to lawyers at Move. What inspired you to do that? What happened that you said “Gosh, I should do this”?

Chris: It’s a good question, because I’ve been accused of all manner of things in regard to what I’ve done and of course been asked numerous times, “Now that you know how this played out, would you do it again?” The inspiration came largely from wanting to see people play clean. I love the real estate industry. I love that the industry is involved in all aspects of American society. We get some pretty big crossroads, and data has some really interesting challenges.

I love the innovation that’s here, but we’ve got some really messy stuff going on with real estate data, by both the industry, by outsiders in industry, by people using it for good purposes, for bad purposes, and I sort of just felt like I wanted to sleep well at night.

Brad: Let me ask you this: The charge is you’re a disgruntled employee and you sent this two days before you’re leaving the company and you’re parting ways with Zillow. What do you feel about the charge that you’re just a disgruntled employee who didn’t like the fact that he was being laid off?

Chris: Normally, I would say you go back to someone’s motivation, right? Normally, something like this would have a financial incentive. And in this case, there’s absolutely no financial gain for me whatsoever. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’ve been dragged through the mud. I’ve been dragged through the media cycle. I’ve been accused of all manner of things. I’ve sat through numerous depositions. I’ve actually gained absolutely nothing. So I think if you want to look at my motivations and say “What did he have to gain?” and if he had absolutely nothing to gain then why did he do it?

Brad: But did you do it out of anger? Like you just said, if you could do it all over again, would you do it again?

Chris: Yeah, I think I would. I probably would’ve done a better job and probably would’ve understood the discovery laws better. I never intended for that to be a public document, I intended it to be a private document. And of course, it was used against me to become a public document.

Brad: I guess the lesson in that Chris is that everything is transparent today.

Chris: Yeah, you go out and advocate for transparency, you better be ready to deal with it.

Brad: You’ve landed on your feet with one of the leaders in the industry, Steve Games, who owns Pacific Sotheby’s. Often, whistleblowers — I’m not sure that’s the exact word to describe sending an anonymous letter, but I think you probably fall into that category — are shunned. Personally, what was it like? Did you get isolated by folks? Did you find that people weren’t picking up the phone when you called them? Tell me a little bit personally over the last six months after you sent this thing and it went public.

Chris: Well I can certainly understand why, having now been labeled a whistleblower, why people don’t do it. There’s no question that without the protection of the law — even with the protection of the law — there’s a gargantuan incentive to just keep your mouth shut and do nothing. And I now understand why people in other industries who were thinking they were doing the right thing end up personally harmed. I went through a great deal of personal harm as a result of this.

No question it closed lots of doors and it has created a situation where someone really has to ask, “Do I have to worry about trusting this person because of your actions and behaviors elsewhere?” In my case, fortunately with the partners I’ve joined, not just Steve Games, but two other partners, Nyda Jones-Church and a gentleman named Brian Arrington, the three of them had to assess me and say “Is this something we’re going to have to worry about with you?” And my reply to that was as long as we’re playing fair and ethically, by the rules, no. I’m a very principled guy and they actually respected that in this case. So, it worked in my favor in the brokerage community, it worked against me in the technology community.

Brad: I guess maybe it’s a strong word, but “nobody likes a rat” and this is kind of — you ratted out your employer, and this would create a level of distrust I would imagine?

Chris: No question.

Brad: So you overcome that by trying to explain your actions. Let’s get into it. You wrote this anonymous letter, why didn’t you send it to regulators? Why send it to Move attorneys while you worked for Zillow, a Move competitor? Why not send it to a regulator? Because in this letter you make some charges that would seem to fall into the regulatory domain?

Chris: Well, I guess that goes into the question of “If you had to do this over again would you do a better job of it?” No question, I think it was a little bit messy how it was executed and your question is a good one. At the time, I didn’t give it as much thought because I didn’t intend it to be public. What I intended was to make sure that the proper discovery was happening. And in my observations, it wasn’t. Everything was not on the table that should’ve been on the table. And all I was trying to do was to make sure that everything was on the table for discussion and then they would sort it all out.

Brad: What you really did was gave the recipient of this letter a roadmap of how to get information on the management of Zillow and some of the actions they took. You gave a very detailed roadmap, like which admin to contact, and so you were trying to give them some sort of direction as to how they could uncover more information, correct?

Chris: I just wanted the full light of the facts to be brought to the table, as opposed to a partial amount of the facts, because if you play “hide the ball” it’s relatively easy to impede the discovery process. In my observation, the discovery process, they weren’t being truthful, and I wanted them to be truthful.

Brad: Did you get legal advice before you sent it, Chris?

Chris: No, and I probably should’ve. Note to self, to any other listeners out there, if you’re going to contemplate this, seek comprehensive counsel in advance.

Brad: Do you know if you’re protected under the whistleblower laws? Because obviously, whistleblowers are protected.

Chris: Yeah, and there’s an actual definition, and I’ve since been educated on the definitions by legal counsel. And, a lot of it has to do with whether you’re violating confidentiality or, of course, if you’re disclosing illegal behavior. And if you’re disclosing illegal behavior, in general concept, you’re protected.

Brad: So what happened next? You send this letter. You actually said in the letter to shred it. Obviously that didn’t happen, because Inman News got a copy of it and so did the court. What happened next? Was everything quiet for a couple of days and then you moved down to Southern California, or what went on? When did this become raucous and crazy for you and for the folks at Zillow and Move?

Chris: Well, ironically, the very first person to phone call me was you. So I have to say that your reporters are pretty darn on it, no question. And we certainly appreciate the coverage you afford to the industry keeping it on the straight and narrow.

Brad: By the way, to explain that call, my gut was, I went around the industry and said “Who did this?” you know, and my gut said “Maybe it was Chris.” And then we found out it was Chris, and I wanted to interview you, of course. So, but go ahead.

Chris: Obviously, at the time I was not at liberty to have that discussion with you. And it’s fun to talk with you now about it, since the dust has settled. I actually — it’s safe to say, I got dragged across the coals. Went through a series of depositions. Was accused of all manner of things. Stuck to my guns. My intent here was not to be an instigator, it was to bring the light of the truth to the equation. And that was really it. My only motivation here was to make sure the truth was in the discussion. I cherish this industry and I really want to see that it thrives in the future. We’re kind of at a crucial point on how data is used and I think it should be used, and you can win cleanly, but I don’t like when people are trying to win not cleanly.

Brad: I just want to ask you again, disgruntled employee. That takes a little of the credibility out of your argument. That was not your motivation?

Chris: Not at all.

Brad: These charges about management. Do you really think they broke the law? Because this is an unbelievably successful company, with management that gets accolades throughout — not necessarily in real estate industry at times, but in the tech world and Wall Street. Do you really think they broke the law?

Chris: You know, that’s a question I’m going to say is probably better answered by other people. And I’m going to reserve my personal opinion on that. You know, the note that I wrote was largely, as you mentioned, a roadmap. And the idea of the roadmap was just to make sure all the information was found, and I’ll let the court system and the other parties decide what was right and wrong. I think it would be better for me to reserve judgement on that. I think we’ll see when the case goes to trial, as it’s slated to, the duty of the American court system is that this will likely be all unfolding on public display, in the courtroom. And I imagine the Inman reporters will be in the front seat and make that opinion for themselves.

Brad: Yeah, we’ve got an award-winning reporter, Andrea [Brambila], who follows this story very closely. How much did this cost you, financially and personally?

Chris: I haven’t actually tallied up numbers yet. Emotionally, priceless. Financially, a great sum of money. Lost sleep and thinking about it, I don’t think you can calculate those — I’m sure there’s an accountant somewhere that probably could — I couldn’t. In the grand scheme of things, when you ask the question of “Would you do it again?” and the answer is “Yes.” Obviously the greatest part about America is that we dust ourselves off and pick ourselves up and we move forward, and in my case I had to make a decision: Was I going to wallow in this or was I going to move forward with my life? And I had a bigger decision: Do I leave the real estate industry or do I stick around the real estate industry? And I chose, with great reflection, to stick around and try to do something about it and improve the industry for the better.

Brad: You’re obviously feeding the Zillow fears here. You know, Zillow’s this “evil empire” which is — from my observation — it gets insane, some of the conspiracy theories around Zillow. There’s a part of the industry that loves feeding those fears. Did you do this for personal benefit so you could get a good job offer from the industry that seems to perpetuate these fears?

Chris: No, absolutely not. And forgive my finding your comment amusing because it would be quite the contrary. It raised more concerns about my viability as an employable person in this industry than anything in the future.

Brad: Why did you go work there [Zillow]? If Zillow was so bad, were you kind of enamored with them and then you got the cold shower and felt differently? What happened that you seem to want to go work there, move your family to Seattle, and then suddenly discover all these things? What transpired from beginning to end?

Chris: I’ll tackle the first question, which is, you know, I don’t view Zillow as so bad. It’s a very well-run company. Serves an amazing need to consumers. They execute very well. From my time there as an employee, it’s a phenomenal culture to work inside of. They really get stuff done. They work as a team. And they’re building cool and useful products. I mean, that’s a cool thing to be a part of.

My goal was to be a facilitator and negotiator between the industry and the management team of Zillow. And that’s a really difficult spot to be in, you’re right, there’s a great deal of fear, resentment, anger, and love coming from the brokerage community, and I was at the friction point. You know, I was calling upon major broker-owners around the country and sitting in their offices and getting yelled at by them as they’re expressing their fears of how the industry is evolving and how fast it was evolving. Very difficult place to be as the interface between two parties that are really unsure and wary of each other.

Brad: You must know, you’re on the inside for years, one of the fanatical fears — I’ll call it — is Zillow wants to become a real estate broker. At some point you have to believe people when they say no. They’re making a fortune — it looks to me — and a great valuation off advertising. They’re not planning to become a real estate broker, are they?

Chris: Well, I can’t tell you what they’re planning to do. I can tell you that Spencer Rascoff has been very consistent about his statements to the outside world. I’ve seen that consistency, I’ve witnessed that consistency inside as well as outside, and I think it’s pretty darn clear that’s their intention both verbally and through their actions. You know, I think Spencer’s primary gripe when I recall hearing about it was “How many times am I going to have to say this until they’re going to get it?” And I believe that’s an accurate statement.

Brad: Your concern was data and these accusations about scraping and other things. You bring up Spencer, and again, esteemed CEO, highly regarded, impeccable record. You infer in your letter that he did some — that he was in collusion with all these guys that left Move. Do you really think that’s true? It looks to me that that’s not a danger zone that Spencer Rascoff would even consider entering.

Chris: Well, I think this is also one of those ones — because of the ongoing litigation — that’s probably not appropriate for me to comment on. I think the evidence will show what it shows. I can tell you as an employee who worked under him and for a brief amount of time, reported directly to him, he’s an amazing individual, his work ethic is second to none, he’s the hardest-working gentleman inside that firm. Normally, the higher up the food chain you go the company the more of a country club atmosphere you find. I think you would not find anybody inside of Zillow who works harder and puts in more hours than Spencer does personally. At least that was my observation. And he’s an amazing individual to work with. He’s leading a good outfit with a lot of really talented people. So, you’re right, it is sort of a perplexing question.

Brad: You would do it again. This comes full circle for me, Chris. Would you like to have an opportunity to edit that letter before it went public? Some of the things you said, would you back off some of the specifics?

Chris: I really don’t know. Maybe I would’ve been smart enough not to do it. It’s just one of those things. You’re faced with a decision, and you make a decision, and then you have to live with it.

Brad: And once you put it in the mailbox you can’t do much about it, right?

Chris: Correct. I was faced with a decision and I thought, you know, are you willing to proceed with this even though it might come at a great personal cost to you personally with no actual benefit whatsoever? I chose the answer as “yes.” I had a discussion with my wife one night and we said “Are we going to do this? Yes. OK.” Dropped it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, shipped it off and it’s a one-way ticket and then the rest will be what it will be.

Brad: Let’s kind of wrap this up, Chris. One of my questions: What’s your advice to the industry in terms of how to think about Zillow? And not the fat cats that run big companies, but the everyday Realtor, the everyday person that’s trying to make a living in real estate?

Chris: I think it’s time to actually wake up and pay attention to where our data goes. And that’s at all levels of the industry, from the smallest individual practitioner up to major corporations, you know there’s a lot of discussion around who owns it, where’s it go, why? And for the most part, most of the practitioners are just sort of blissfully unaware of what’s really transpiring and where we’re heading.

And if you don’t want to — it’s been Zillow’s intentional stated goal outside to replicate models they’ve seen overseas. Some of those models are where you have 100 percent market share of a dominant portal and the dynamics of the industry change. And if the real estate industry is not looking forward to that, they certainly better be aware of what’s going on around them. One of the chief culprits right now is IDX (Internet data exchange). The question floating through my head right now is should we even have IDX?

Brad: But Chris, that’s not — the evil empire here isn’t Zillow, it’s Move, it’s all the companies. It’s the company you mailed this letter to, they have the data and it’s owned by Murdoch, it’s not owned by the real estate industry anymore. That’s an industry-wide problem, you can’t really put completely at the doorstep of Zillow.

Chris: Correct. My role, at the brokers that I work for now, is to say what’s in the best interest of our clients, the homeseller or the homebuyer in San Diego, specifically. Putting that listing into a database that then gets sent to other places where the actual experience of the customer who might inquire about that property is controlled by some outside third party that is reselling that to someone else is a problem. Problem whether it’s Zillow, problem whether it’s realtor.com, it’s a problem whether it’s an IDX broker, it’s a problem if it’s another real estate broker mishandling our data.

Ultimately, in our company, we believe that you should be able to have that be a controlled experience, where you’re talking to somebody who’s actually knowledgeable about the marketplace. It’s not a commodity to be resold. Now, there’s plenty of room for advertising models in our business, but we’re kind of at a really interesting crossroads. Around, “should we be doing this?” Right now, most of the industry seems to just not care and to be tuned out. This is not a time to be tuned out.

Brad: Are you looking for a microphone to tell the industry what to do or are you satisfied being the COO at a company in San Diego? What’s your future?

Chris: Well my future right now is that my day job, when I wake up in the morning everyday, is to say how do I make our customers have an actual better experience? And I think one of the key problems in real estate is we all sorta look the same these days and the value props are all sorta the same and the fees are expensive.

So we’re working really hard here in San Diego at Pacific Sotheby’s to differentiate this company and actually do something actually unique and different than other companies in town. Because if you don’t, you’re sort of all a “me too” commodity, and then why am I paying you so much money?

So that’s my day job, and I’m not seeking a national spotlight, I’m not on any of the national committees. I’ve been called for all manner of things to get involved in the anti-Zillow campaign and I’ve respectfully declined. I don’t have it out for them. I just want the industry to play clean.

Brad: It’s interesting what you said about your goal is to make customers happy. I think that’s exactly what Spencer and Amy and the gang there say. They’re trying to make the consumer happy, but maybe we’ll end by putting a bow on what’s been a very controversial part of your life. Certainly for a news company watching this, we’re always flabbergasted by the drama, and one thing, whether you view Chris as a bold and courageous person or you view him as a bitter person, he’s always been outspoken and direct and clear about what he thinks should happen to the industry.

So I’d like to thank you for being on the show, Chris. We wish you luck and hopefully this doesn’t bring any dark stuff for you. I think you’ve had enough for a while.

Chris: I’ve had enough for a while. Thanks Brad.