Yesterday’s post on the keynote Vision Speech by Josh Team and Gary Keller at this year’s Family Reunion generated, uh, let’s call it “a bit of passion.” The early batch of commenters took issue — and not in a civil fashion — about what I wrote based on the Inman story.
Except for the tone, that’s a fair criticism; if Inman got something wrong or left something important out of its coverage.
Well, because we have the best readership in real estate here on Notorious, I was sent a video (in five parts) of the speech itself that Lori Ballen made and uploaded to YouTube. I linked to all of those in the original post. Then I watched it.
Part 1 of the video is below and the video will auto-play the other parts:
Many thanks to Lori Ballen for recording the session and for sharing it with the rest of us. Hopefully, KW has a better recording of the session and will make it available soon, but this is invaluable to those of us who care about the real estate industry and where it’s going.
What I saw necessitates this follow-up; while I stand by everything I wrote in the original post, what Josh Team and Gary Keller actually say on stage is far more radical, far more confrontational and far more important than I had originally thought.
Inman’s reporting was not wrong in any material respect. If anything, it seriously downplayed what actually happened at that speech.
Like many news organizations, it’s as if Inman tried to drain all of the drama, all of the fire, all of the tone out of the event in an effort to be factual, dry and neutral. I don’t have those concerns here. I’ll just call things as I see them.
And what I saw in that speech is nothing short of the beginning of the end for Keller Williams, and by further extension, the strongest evidence yet that traditional brokerage is dead. The leaders of the old school see the threat, see the danger, but don’t know what to do and how to cope with it.
This speech will go down in the annals of history as the tipping point, when it became clear to those with eyes to see that the age of the traditional split-based brokerage ended. Bold claim, but I intend to back it up. So let’s do it.
Let’s give Gary Keller credit
I realize that many KW people are fiercely loyal to KW as an organization, and to Gary Keller the person, and may see this post as some kind of an attack on either. So I need to make something very clear right at the outset.
I admire the hell out of the Gary Keller. He is truly one of the greatest innovators and leaders in the history of real estate.
In my recent post about leadership in real estate, I said that what is most needed is courage. Well, Keller is acting with enormous courage here and betting his company’s future on it.
He’s not putting his head in the sand, hoping that somehow, magically, things will change. He’s not going to the government seeking intervention to somehow save his skin, to save his company, to stave off the inevitable as taxi operators have and continue to do confronted by Uber and Lyft.
He is exercising true leadership, instead of positionship, and trying something different.
For that alone, he deserves our praise and admiration.
But it’s more than that. He sees very clearly what the problems are on the horizon. I found very little with which I disagree on the problems that the industry faces; where we differ is on the solutions and strategy, but not on the underlying problem.
Keller is absolutely correct that technology is rewriting all of the rules, all the job descriptions, reimagining businesses, creating new industries and eliminating others. He’s not wrong that we’re in the age of “Always on, always learning, always thinking.” (Well, I could quibble with the “thinking” part because machines do not yet think, but I get what he’s driving at.)
And Keller is absolutely correct that AI (that is, expert systems, not self-aware thinking machines) can either be a partner or a competitor. The expert system we’re most familiar with is the common GPS such as Google Maps, and before Google, those black box TomToms and such.
The software provides guidance to human decision makers and makes us far far better at finding an optimal path to our destinations.
The GPS is a partner if you’re a driver; it’s an unbeatable competitor if you make maps for a living. There are expert systems in healthcare, law, finance, engineering, military and on we go.
Industries that lack them today will soon have them as entrepreneurs are working day and night on effective expert systems in various verticals.
He’s not wrong that there is a battle going on right now for the future of the real estate industry because of technology.
Where he’s wrong is that the game will be decided in the next 12 to 18 months; the truth is that the game is already over. We’ll deal with this far more below, but he’s not wrong that there is a battle going on.
He’s absolutely correct that “bolting-on” technology on top of physical platform gives you Blockbuster or Barnes & Noble — or Keller Williams in its current form. (Those are his words, not mine.) Head-to-head with digital native companies, those hybrid wannabes lose and die off.
He’s not wrong that “data is the new oil” (he gets several details wrong, in my opinion that should impact the solution, but we’ll get into that below), in that it is the raw material that is worthless until refined/transformed into some useful product. But without data, there can be no refined product.
And he’s not wrong when he states that in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the one with the most insights wins. Again, I disagree that it means the one with the most data wins because of the “refining/transformation” issue, but you see how Keller is spot on with seeing the problem.
He then states that the coming digital boom will bring opportunities to those who can collect the most data and turn it into insights, and asks: “If someone else has your data and knows more than you do, who’s really running your business?”
Once again, he’s not wrong, y’all.
And finally, Keller is spot-on when he lays out this continuum:
If you can’t read the words, it shows Agent –> Tech Enabled Agent –> Agent Enabled Tech –> Tech.
For what it’s worth, I found this slide to be the most important in his presentation because this is the fundamental underlying problem of the industry vis-a-vis technology.
And Keller said, “This is the game right here.”
In fact, Tego Venturi, a reader, sent me this video which makes the whole thing much clearer:
The challenge is to stay at the “tech-enabled agent” sphere, and prevent the “agent-enabled tech” and the final evolution of just “tech” in which the agent piece goes away completely. Because that is where, for example, the travel industry is today.
I find very little disagree with Keller on in all of this analysis. He sees the problem very clearly indeed. And being a true leader, he acts with enormous courage and tackles the problem head on.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that the strategy he has chosen to embrace is a bad one. It will not work. It has no chance of working. History is filled with examples of what he’s trying to do, which is to defend the status quo in the face of radical change.
But worse still, he then compounds the bad strategy by taking a confrontational go-alone approach that not only does not advance the stated goals, but will also actually help doom KW’s efforts.
That’s not a failure of vision, or of intelligence, or of courage. That’s a failure of strategy.
The fundamental cause: Data?
So before we can get into why the strategy he has picked is the wrong one, we have to think about what the fundamental cause of the problem he has correctly identified is.
To use a medical analogy, Keller has correctly identified the disease. He has misidentified what caused the disease, and as a result, prescribed the wrong course of treatment.
It is clear that Keller thinks the cause of today’s problem is that the real estate agent, and by extension the real estate industry, did not realize the value of data and freely gave it away to outsiders, to third parties, to vendors, to technology companies whose goals were to create first, the tech-enabled agent, and then the agent-enabled tech, and finally, just tech.
This slide from his presentation (and the Tego Venturi video above) encapsulates Keller’s concept:
Again, since the image is a bit blurry and small, what it says is:
- Book: YOU owned data + search and transaction
- MLS: WE owned data + search and transaction
- Public Search Portal: WE own inventory data + transaction data; THEY own search data + eyeballs
- What’s Next: ? Depends on YOU!
He then asked, “What’s left? What do you have to play with, with which to rewrite the rules today?”
- Your database
- Your transaction
- Your proprietary knowledge and insights around real estate
He said that this realization gave him hope, that the patient wasn’t dead! He just needed to be revived.
To revive the patient, what is needed is to reassert control over data — the raw materials of the Fourth Industrial Revolution! Hence, that’s what KW is going to do. Reassert control over data!
And the crowd cheers! Yeah! Take our data back! Take our data back!
The wrong treatment
As a result of this mistake, what Keller and Team are embarking on is a disaster in the making for KW and for the industry.
Let me be brutally frank here, even more than my usual. Because it’s necessary to kill your illusions. No disrespect is meant, but we have to be real about some things here. As Keller himself kept saying over and over during the speech, I’m not picking on him or on Keller Williams. “I’m just telling you the way it is.”
Keller spent a lot of time and energy telling a room full of true believer KW agents that KW is a financial powerhouse, privately held, with “plenty of money” to do what needs to be done.
And what needs to be done is to create a Keller Cloud-based ecosystem into which everybody else will plug under the “line in the sand” terms dictated by Keller Williams based around its new “Data Pledge.”
Along the way, KW will create an AI assistant so advanced together with all of the other productivity enhancement tools, such that KW agents will have all manner of insights that no one else will have, control their data destiny, etc.
As he said in the tech breakout video, “You’re going to have to give the data to us, in order for us to put it all together for you.”
Let’s go through this one by one.
Much has been made about KW’s promise to spend a billion dollars on technology, and Keller made a point of dissing upstart competitor eXp for barely making a million dollars a year.
Team, the CIO, boasted about increasing KW’s tech spend by “tens of millions a year.” So they’ve got the financial resources, and “over 200 people who touch code” to do this grand AI and data thing, or so they say.
Except that “tens of millions” might be a lot of money in the real estate brokerage space, but in technology world that Keller is proposing to play in? It’s a bump on a gnat’s ass. That’s angel investor type of money, Series A VC type of money.
Facebook spent $1.9 billion (with a B) on research and development expense in just the past three months of 2017; for the entire year, that number was $7.7 billion. Do we need to continue on with Amazon, Google, Apple, Oracle, Salesforce and so on?
OK, so that’s big bad Facebook, and the real tech giants, all of whom are hard at work on AI plus data. We already know KW isn’t talking about competing against those guys. Fine. Realtor.com and Zillow came in for a bunch of abuse during the speech, and the audience was more or less told to stop sending their data to Zillow. Keller’s tech breakout video made that even more clear.
Well, Zillow spent $320 million in 2017 on technology and development. In 2016, Zillow spent $255 million on technology. Over the past five years, from 2013 to 2017, Zillow spent a total of $893 million on technology and development with significantly more than 200 people who touch code.
KW had best get to spending that $1 billion, like this year, and buy all the talent it can get its hands on.
Speaking of which, that’s assuming that KW can even hire the top-notch talent that it would need, whether programmers or data scientists that everybody else wants.
Suppose you’re a freakin’ brilliant math and CompSci genius with a Ph.D. from Stanford at the age of 19. You have job offers from literally everybody in the world. Here are four choices:
- Google, where you can work on AI problems with an unlimited budget and get enough publicly-traded stock options to retire by the age of 26
- Tesla, where you get to work on self-driving cars that will literally revolutionize the world
- Amazon, where you can work on making Alexa self-aware, again with an unlimited budget and unlimited potential for personal wealth
- Or you could go work for Keller Williams, to create an expert system to tell agents what they have coming up on their calendar for the day
I mean, for God’s sake, get real for a minute here!
Time, time, time
In another part of the speech, both Team and Keller make a big deal about the fact that they’ve been working on Kelle, the Keller Cloud and all of these ideas for “over a year” to “several months” and that none of these things are mere ideas or concepts. They’re all working products.
Well, Redfin has been around for 10 years. Zillow’s been around since 2006. Do you imagine those boys and girls have been working on advanced toaster ovens for all that time?
Could the KW strategy really be, “Let’s go head-to-head with companies that have been doing this for 10 years longer than we have, with budgets that are significantly bigger than ours, because we’re big bad Keller Williams?”
Finally, the underlying premise of this strategy is that individual agents have valuable data: your database, your transactions, your insights. But the problem is that the dataset is too small.
Keller lays it out. The data and experiences of a single agent is not enough data to glean insights out of, so you should give your data to KW, who will “put it all together for you.”
Except that the critique he makes about a single agent’s dataset applies to KW as well. I guess he thinks the data and experiences and insights of 175,000 agents is enough data. I do not.
One of the more amusing things about the whole big data conversation in real estate is the delusions and hubris of real estate people on how much data they have and control and generate. It infects the MLS world more than anybody else, but apparently, the infection has spread to Keller Williams leadership.
Real estate gets a few terabytes of listing data, CRM data and so on and thinks it’s in the big data game.
Walmart, an actual player in the big data game, has more than one of these giant mysterious buildings:
That’s a Walmart data warehouse. Walmart has a few of these around the world. And Walmart processes 2.5 petabytes of data every single hour. That’s 167 times all of the information in the Library of Congress — every hour.
Note that Keller made fun of Walmart getting into the data analytics game, saying that Amazon is a real AI and data company, while Walmart is “bolting-on” technology.
You could take all of the data from all of the real estate companies that Keller mentions: all of the listings, all of the client databases, and all of the transactions — and you might, just maybe, get into the medium-sized data game.
Point is, Williams is a dollar short and a day late to be jumping into the AI and data game. If you’re going to try to transform your entire enterprise, you need to either a leapfrog the next thing and go for the thing after the next thing that nobody is working on (so-called Blue Ocean strategy) or buy your way into the game by M&A.
So the thing to do is to partner with everybody you possibly can, right? Well, here comes the bizarre.
A big middle finger for all you punk MCs
Finally, we have what everyone else appears to have picked up on: the bizarre hostility and often petty attacks on technology vendors, on portals, on other real estate companies, on MLS and associations — well, on everybody!
It’s why I used “I Am a Rock” as the final video in my original post. It’s KW saying, “We’re going it alone! I am a rock! I am an iiiiiiiiiisland!”
What in the world?
This is exactly the opposite of the approach KW needs to take if its goal is to draw a line in the sand between “tech-enabled agent” and “agent-enabled tech” and defend the former.
As I mentioned with the big data delusion above, if you really want to play in that game, you’re going to want as many partners, as many friends, as many compatriots as possible with you. You’re going to want to do the “We’re all in this together!” thing and go do a giant group hug with the rest of the industry.
You’re going to want to go to Zillow, to realtor.com, to Fidelity and say, “Listen fellas, it’s in your best interest to have tech-enabled agents because they pay you a lot of money today. Let’s join forces and fight agent-enabled tech!”
Instead, you go and alienate every single technology vendor in the industry? Telling them they’re “not safe” for the agent to use?
You’re going to want to go to every single MLS and to NAR and say, “Let’s hug it out, bury whatever hatchets we might have had in the past and work together to defend the tech-enabled agent!”
Instead, you tell your 175,000 agents that “One of your greatest challenges is surviving NAR and your local boards because they’ll sell you out.” You tell them, “You don’t have to [keep giving data away]; you can boycott MLS and walk out.”
You’re going to want all of the other brokers and real estate companies to join in your crusade. That means the classic coopetition model of real estate, as exemplified in the MLS. You’re going to need their data, after all, to achieve what it is you want to achieve.
Instead, you go on a bizarre rant about tiny little eXp saying, “God help you if you go to eXp!” then followup with “A million dollars won’t even pay for two or three good data scientists.” (Uh, let me remind you, what real tech companies and real money guys think of your “tens of millions” every year.) What the hell is that about?
You needlessly insult Compass saying, “They don’t have a technology platform,” which I’m certain will come as a surprise to Ori Allon, an actual technologist with a track record of building and selling enterprise technology to the likes of Yahoo and Google. (Something that KW’s Josh Team is lacking, by the way.)
Then add, “And the interesting thing is that their technology doesn’t actually work.” Why was any of that necessary?
You go on a bizarre rant against Brad Inman who you say “doesn’t know spit about technology.” And the reason you know that is because Inman will “let anybody who will write a check sound like the latest and greatest in tech.” Then you call Inman News a “comic book.” Why was that necessary?
In the end, you and Josh Team tell the entire industry, you’re either with us or against us. This is an actual exchange in the video:
Josh Team said, “The line has been drawn. We’re either going to have partners or competitors. There’s nowhere in the middle.”
Gary Keller said, “That’s exactly right. Lines in the sand. We have to own the data, we have to own the software. And if anyone says no to those two things, we pick up our stuff and walk out of the room. We’re done with them.”
Wow. Words fail me, and that doesn’t happen often.
To pull off the strategy they’ve committed to, to protect the tech-enabled agent against the agent-enabled tech, Keller Williams is going to need everybody else in the industry to get with it. So it goes and decides to piss in everybody’s eyes and throw up a big middle finger to the industry.
I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.
No Keller Williams IPO, I guess
The final bit of bizarreness comes from the insistence by Gary Keller over and over that it can do this because it has no outside investors, no VCs, no Wall Street money to which it’s beholden.
At one point he said, “Keller Williams is a privately held company. We will do whatever we freakin’ need to do.”
Well, cancel that IPO! Outside investors? Y’all can go pound sand, unless you want to finance our quixotic tilt at windmills!
At a time when Softbank is pouring $700 million into Compass, when Warren Buffet owns a real estate company, and Keith Rabois at Opendoor can tap the Paypal mafia for pretty much unlimited funding — KW decides it’s going to be a rock, an island.
Again, I just don’t get it. I really don’t.
Leaders of the old school
Early on in his presentation, Keller said that Brad Inman paid him and KW the most insulting compliment ever by calling them the darlings of the old world. Then he said, “To be honest with you, there’s a little bit of truth to that.”
Actually, Gary, there’s more than a little bit of truth to that.
Talking about taking your data back is about as old world as it gets. The industry’s been yellin’ and screamin’ about that for at least the past 10 years.
Bill Chee’s “Lion Over the Hill” was during the Clinton Administration! You can dress up in a hoodie and wear sneakers on stage, but that doesn’t change the fact that what you’re trying to achieve is to repackage the same outdated ideas that couldn’t be more old skool if it were wearing Kangols and a fat gold chain.
The cause of the sickness isn’t that the industry “lost control” over the data. The cause of the sickness is that the industry forgot what it does for a living because it had control over the data for so long.
By Keller’s own analysis, at one point, “we” owned the data plus search and the transaction. What did the industry do with all that power, all that control?
Here’s one thing brokerages could have said: “We can’t forget that we’re in the business of helping sellers sell homes and buyers buy homes.
“We need to ensure that we’re delivering better, faster, cheaper services to consumers and doing everything we could to make the process easier for them.”
You know what the industry did instead with all this control over data plus search and transaction? First, Dave Liniger started Re/Max and ushered in the agent-centric age, and in so doing, abdicated the role of the broker in the consumer experience.
A decade later, Keller himself came along and took the agent-centric model to the next level, proudly proclaiming that KW was a training company that happened to run a real estate operation. The rest of the industry had no choice but to follow suit.
It was the control over the data and the search that allowed brokers to do this because consumers had no choice but to call a broker, walk into a broker’s office or talk to a Realtor they knew about buying or selling.
When you have a captive marketplace that has no choice but to use your services, you know what you don’t need? Top-notch professionals with deep local insight, marketing expertise and years of experience because those people are expensive (in terms of splits).
So Re/Max and KW and all the others who were forced to follow in their agent-centric footsteps abandoned the consumer and became agent recruiting and retention companies.
Which then led to so many agents forgetting what it is that they do for a living. One Placester survey found that 26 percent of respondents spend several hours a day prospecting.
When do those people have time for anything else? Here’s a Tom Ferry Perfect Day for a Real Estate Agent. You tell me where you see “learn about market conditions,” “study the available inventory” or “improve negotiation skills” on that perfect day.
Instead, it’s prospecting, prospecting, going on listing presentations (which isn’t helping people buy or sell real estate, but closing the sale of one’s services), and if you don’t have enough appointments, prospect some more.
Tell me again, what it is that a real estate agent actually does for a living again? Is it prospecting, or is it helping people buy or sell homes?
For example, how can you offer solid professional advice unless you know the inventory? Does the average agent tour every home that comes on the market in her service area to make sure she knows what it smells like inside? A few do; most do not.
Does the agent keep abreast of local ordinances that would affect the inventory, the market, or her clients’ property interests? A few do; most do not.
No matter how much the experts, brokers, leaders, technologists and others have told the industry time and again that those days are gone, as the information age killed off most of the so-called “information gatekeeper” industries, and no matter how much Realtors and real estate leaders pay lip service to the idea that “We can’t rely on our control over the data as our value proposition,” the fact is we’re all human, and some habits are harder to break than others.
This is the perspective of the vast majority of the real estate industry because it’s their experience coming up in the business. No wonder the message resonates with the audience.
The thing is, you can’t possibly get any more old school, any more stuck on old ways of thinking, any more defender of the status quo than this.
This is Blockbuster; this is Kodak
As a matter of fact, what Keller is trying to do is exactly what Blockbuster tried to do, what Kodak tried to do, what every industry facing massive technology disruption tried to do — and failed.
I have often said before that people at Kodak were not stupid, nor were they ignorant of the impact that digital photography would have on their business. None of the executives at Blockbuster were stupid, nor did they not realize the threat of streaming video, Netflix and so on.
They all knew. They all correctly diagnosed the problem. So why did they fail?
Because they all tried to defend their existing businesses, while trying to cope with the disruptive forces bearing down on them. One can hardly blame them.
Kodak had billions of dollars in capital tied up in film production plants and film processing and so on. How in the world do you tell the board of directors that you plan to cannibalize your own business, give up billions in revenues, because you see the next wave coming over the horizon?
Blockbuster knew that Netflix was coming. But it had so much capital tied up in the existing DVD-rental and physical locations business model that they simply couldn’t adjust fast enough.
You find similar case study after case study after case study in the annals of business. The entrenched companies are not stupid. They see the problem. What they can’t figure out is how to defend what they have while incorporating the disruption.
That is exactly what Keller and KW are trying to do here.
Facing the problem of agent-enabled technology — and possibly the specter of technology alone — Keller and KW are trying to defend their cash cow business: independent 1099 agents paying it a piece of the commission pie, as well as training fees, coaching fees, tech fees, etc.
Because the cause of the problem, in Keller’s analysis, is data, he thinks that by somehow controlling data, KW and its agents can prevent the proliferation of agent-enabled tech.
The problem, of course, is none of that is true. If agent-enabled tech is the future, then there is no way to defend the present day status quo.
Just like taxi cab companies cannot defend against Uber and Lyft by offering a mobile app because the underlying value proposition to consumers is different, KW can’t defend against agent-enabled tech because the underlying value proposition is different.
At one point, in the tech video above, Keller said, “Consumers want the tech-enabled agent. They want the human touch.”
Well, if that’s true, then there’s nothing to worry about is there? Why all this hoopla? Why the investment? Why the fear, uncertainty and doubt campaign?
The bleak reality and the tipping point
I think what we’re seeing is the backhanded admission that the age of agent-centric brokerage is over. This speech may go down in history as the moment when those with eyes that see realized, if Keller Williams can’t cope with what’s coming, then nobody can.
It is exactly as we have foreseen in our Future of Brokerage Black Paper. The agent-centric, commission-split based brokerage is dead.
If KW, the most agent-centric real estate company in history, cannot adjust because of its deep investment in the status quo and the way things are today, then nobody can.
If Gary Keller, with all of his courage and all of his correct diagnosis of the problem, still can’t let go of the “it’s about the agent, it’s about control over data,” then no one can.
The bleak reality of brokerages is that they are 10 years too late to the AI-data game, and they’re a few billion dollars short. KW can throw its entire balance sheet at the problem over the next 12 to 18 months, and it still won’t make it over the top against Zillow, never mind Google and Facebook. Because that battle is not afoot right now, as Keller said, but long over.
Even the whole “control your data” thing could not possibly have been timed worse. At the exact moment when the DOJ and FTC have announced workshops looking at competition and data in real estate, one of the biggest leaders of the biggest brand in real estate is publicly telling 175,000 agents that they need to hold their data back?
Does anybody think that all kinds of regulators, think-tank people and lobbyists didn’t immediately start sending emails to each other upon seeing Keller’s Vision Speech? If you don’t think this speech will be brought up at that workshop, I’m sorry, but you’re delusional.
In fact, the hubris, the self-congratulation, the chest-beating about how rich KW is and how awesome its technology is, the anger, the unnecessary insults, the petty disses on tiny little startups such as eXp — all of those come together to paint a picture that is hardly reassuring if you’re a fan of Keller Williams.
This is not how the strong behave. This is how the formerly strong, realizing strength is lost, realizing that it’s been painted into a corner, behaves: lashing out at everybody and everything, trying to reassert dominance.
This isn’t confidence speaking, but barely suppressed fear.
That is a tipping point. For KW, certainly, but for the entire brokerage industry as well.
Keller is inadvertently telling the rest of us that he does not intend to go gentle into that good night. No, he will rage, rage against the dying of the light.
He might prove me, and all of us, wrong
Let me finish by echoing what Keller said on stage: he intends to prove the industry wrong. He very well might. If anyone could do it, it would be him and Keller Williams.
He has a long track record of success. The industry has bet against him in the past, and lost. He’s a Texan through and through, and we remember the Alamo.
A part of me wishes him and KW the best of luck because I admire so much what he has built and what he has meant to thousands and thousands of really great real estate brokers and agents. If anybody could do it, and prove me and the industry wrong, it’s Gary Keller and the company he has built.
But let’s not forget that as much as we admire the heroes at the Alamo, they all died. It wasn’t a failure of vision or of courage then either.
Like Keller said, I’m not picking on him or on KW; I’m just telling you how it is. Let’s find out who has the right of it when the race is run and the game is done.
Because this strategy, done this way, is not going to get it done. By all means, though, do your thing, and show us what you need to show us.
Robert Hahn is the Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, a marketing, technology and strategy consultancy focusing on the real estate industry. Check out his personal blog, The Notorious R.O.B. or find him on Twitter: @robhahn.