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7 notes about this year’s Realogy FWD Innovation Summit

Technology to watch this year
  • The 2016 Realogy FWD Innovation Summit is over, and there was a lot of amazing tech featured.
  • New Story took the grand prize, and of course it did -- so virtuous.
  • Three companies were there to compete in the lead follow-up space: Riley, Call Action and Skyler360.

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The 2016 Realogy FWD Innovation Summit is now in the books, with the top prize going to New Story, an amazing nonprofit that crowdfunds homes for needy families abroad.

So what did we learn? I have seven observations about what we can learn about the state of real estate technology from FWD, but first, three quick comments on the event itself:

1. Figure out the tech

I love my friends at Realogy, and this is truly one of the tech highlights of the year, so I say this with affection: Hire an exorcist, a shaman or some sort of witch doctor to clear out the technology demons that plague FWD.

Every year, we have tech problems at this premier tech conference, like some ironically inclined gremlin has gotten too much food after midnight at the Realogy cafeteria. This year, it was the microphones, which kept cutting out. Not a big deal, but it’s tough enough to present on stage without having to worry about stuff working right.

2. Show, don’t tell

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A message to the presenters: Stop talking. You have five minutes, which means you don’t have time for a windup about how your idea is going to change the industry. Just show us what you’ve got.

The best presentations this year were by Riley — which provides online lead management and demonstrated the product by starting a funny text message conversation with one of its operators — and by Roofshoot, which demoed its video maker app by, you know, making a video!

3. Picking a winner is too easy

Every year, it’s too easy to guess the winner of FWD.

The format is fine — the judges pick their top three companies, and then the audience votes via text message (which worked great — no gremlins!) for the winner.

The problem is that almost every year it seems like there’s an obvious audience favorite that ruins the suspense. The first two years, it was Floored, which blew everyone away with — what at the time was technology that no one had ever seen work — immersive 3-D listing videos.

The second year Matterport presented basically the same technology, and the judges threw them into the final three again — where the same tech won for a second straight year because it still blew everyone away.

This year, the problem was that the winner, New Story Charity, was too virtuous a contestant — how are you supposed to vote against the company building homes for people who live in slums? I don’t know what the judges could have done, but as soon as New Story was in the mix with the audience, it was a done deal.

With that out of the way, here are seven observations about the state of real estate tech that came out of this year’s FWD Summit:

1. More diversity

I’m not sure if this is a particular feature of FWD, and maybe something that Realogy pushes, but FWD was refreshingly diverse. It wasn’t just the typical tech parade of white guys in hoodies. Indeed, the first four presenters were two African Americans, a pair of women, and a Latino.

Of course, that progressive approach made it a little jarring when one of the white guy presenters later made the poor decision to adopt a “Charlie Chan accent” to tell a story — something the judges should have called him on — but the overall feel was very diverse.

2. More integration

As Brian Boero observed at the end of the event, one of the hallmarks of this year’s FWD class was how the companies are working harder to provide an integrated solution for brokers and agents, rather than requiring them to adopt a more comprehensive technology solution wholesale.

For example, the preclose app, which is trying to automate contract-to-closing, indicated that it’s integrating with e-signature companies like dotloop, rather than forcing agents to make a choice between platforms.

That’s smart, because in the field we are increasingly seeing that one-stop-shopping solutions are less successful than targeted tools that integrate with existing ecosystems.

3. Greater team focus

I was a little surprised by how overtly companies such as preclose and Riley targeted their tools for teams, rather than individual agents or brokers. Everyone marketed to brokers 25 years ago.

Five years ago, everyone marketed to individual agents. So it’s telling that only a few of the companies were targeting (or at least emphasizing) their broker enterprise solutions.

That makes sense, though — follow the money!

4. Lots of smart attention to lead follow-up

I wasn’t surprised, however, by the number of companies that are trying to solve the lead follow-up problem.

Three companies were explicitly competing in that space, Riley, Call Action and Skyler360, all in different ways: automation, live 24/7 call centers, artificial intelligence.

That makes sense — too many agents, teams and companies are spending fortunes generating online leads, and then doing a terrible job of handling them.

5. And lots of somewhat-less-smart attention to showing issues

If the lead follow-up companies were addressing a pressing need in the industry, we had a couple of firms who seemed to be solving a problem that doesn’t really exist. I mean, do we really have a problem finding agents willing to show a house?

We had two startups in QuickShow and Toor that seemed to think that agents are eager to offload the role of showing their listings to other agents: not the agents they work with, but agents that just happen to be nearby the listing.

In an era of big brokers and teams that provide networks of available in-house agents — and one where people are spending ungodly amounts of money to generate buyer leads — I don’t see a lot of agents handing out their showing opportunities to strangers.

(Toor did, though, have some interesting tech relating to lockbox and agents security; they should develop that more.)

6. More ‘portals’ that are actually features of portals

Every year, we get companies that have really interesting or creative ideas for listing portal features, but they make what might be a mistake to build an entire portal around them.

This year, I liked the voice-controlled search provided by Ask Doss, and the agent listing commentary promoted by Relola, but I’m not so sure that you can build a portal around either feature.

And for a company like Relola, the whole system depends on network effects of having enough agents providing enough free content in return for exposure.

These are the kinds of features that might be better as integrated tools for company websites or other portals than as competing standalone sites.

7. Good ‘small stuff’

I love game-changing companies such as First, which is a really sexy predictive analytic tool that was a finalist and would have won the “non-non-profit” category had such a thing existed.

But my favorite FWD startups are the ones that aren’t trying to change the world, they’re just trying to creatively solve a “small” problem in the industry.

In the past, I’ve loved firms such as Updater, Amitree and Lumentus Social that narrowly target a particular inefficiency and solve it elegantly and creatively.

This year, we had some promising startups attacking small but intractable challenges in our industry:

  • MILLIE: Squarely and intelligently addresses the needs of military families
  • Roofshoot: Helps agents take easy, cheap and good listing videos
  • Gabriel: Automates the sphere client follow-up process
  • HipPocket: Promises internal communication and collaboration platform for brokers.

None of these companies are going to change the industry, but they could make it a lot better for agents and clients.

All told, it was a great year for tech startups. Now, I have a few weeks to rest up for Real Estate Connect’s Startup Alley in August.

And I need it.

If you missed the event, you can still watch the whole no-longer-live stream here on Inman.

And if you’d like to see my live-blog-like collection of tweets about the event, you can find that here.

Joseph Rand is one of the managing partners of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate – Rand Realty in New York and New Jersey and blogs about his local markets at the Rand Country Blog and about the industry atClientOrientedRealEstate.com.

Email Joseph Rand.