Before a breakup, there’s usually trouble.
The splitting of broker data management firm Upstream and its technology vendor, National Association of Realtors’ subsidiary Realtors Property Resource (RPR), is no exception. NAR has spent $13 million of its members’ dues on Upstream and the platform has little to show for it, according to an Inman probe.
Seven months ago, Upstream announced the official launch of its Realtor-funded platform, two years behind schedule. Soon after, the company sent out a jubilant May “birth” announcement for the first listing entered into a multiple listing service from Upstream. Upstream CEO Alex Lange said he planned to launch in five or six MLSs per month after that.
But since then, only one other listing has been entered into that first MLS, RMLS in Portland, at least in part because the platform was defective. And after reaching out to pilot brokerages and MLSs nationwide, it appears brokerages may not be using Upstream at all. While some elected not to respond to Inman’s inquiries, those who did said they are not using the tool.
“We have no one currently entering listings using the Upstream input module,” Kurt von Wasmuth, president and CEO of RMLS, told Inman via email.
“We have had a total of two listings entered into our database using Upstream – one of which has been canceled and the other one sold. Both were entered by Keller Williams in Eugene, Oregon in May of this year.”
Asked where the Upstream platform had launched, who was using it and how many listings it had handled, Upstream’s Lange did not respond, despite repeated requests over phone, text, and email over the course of eight days. (On Friday he asked for, and got, an extension and then never replied.)
“As Upstream anticipated a new approach for 2019, it did not make sense to push for launch in more MLSs and bring on board more brokers, agents and vendors,” Upstream Vice Chairman Craig Cheatham said via email late Tuesday.
“At the same time, this is, in many ways, a ‘reset,’ so an aggressive sign-up push and work on fixing glitches would not have been a good use of anyone’s time, as we will not ‘copy and paste’ code from one vendor to another, but will incorporate the formats and functions that proved best,” Cheatham added.
Lange did not respond to questions regarding whether Upstream was satisfied with RPR’s development and delivery of the platform.
NAR allotted $6 million to Upstream in May 2015 and approved an additional $9 million in funding for Upstream in May 2017 — $1.5 million guaranteed and another $7.5 million as a backstop if Upstream did not bring in that much in revenue. Upstream is expected to repay the funding approved in 2017 once it achieves profitability.
Cheatham said Upstream didn’t know the actual cost for which RPR billed NAR in any of the years of its agreement with the trade group, “but along the way it was clear NAR and RPR worked together to manage, to plan for and to set the budget for RPR’s work on the project.”
Lange did not respond to questions asking whether Upstream had begun to bill brokers for using the platform in the fourth quarter, as he previously said it would do, and on how much Upstream owes NAR.
In a Facebook post Monday, NAR CEO Bob Goldberg said the trade group had spent about $13 million on Upstream.
NAR — which has touted transparency as one of its operating values — declined to answer questions about RPR’s development of Upstream, NAR’s funding of the project, or what NAR members are getting for the money spent now that Upstream will be working with a new vendor.
“NAR is thrilled with the progress Upstream has made and excited for this next phase to begin,” Goldberg said in an emailed statement.
“This project has been an incredible opportunity for our brokerage community to be involved in the conversation surrounding and help with the innovation of the tools that they use daily in their businesses, and we are proud to have been so crucial to the project’s development.”
Upstream gained “valuable experience and ideas for making Upstream more effective” from RPR’s most recent phase of Upstream development and will use them through Upstream’s new vendor, according to Cheatham.
For instance, Upstream will work with the new vendor to include a feature that adjusts data input to the specific business rules and vendor requirements of its eventual destinations — a function brokers use multiple tools to accomplish today, Cheatham said.
“We also were able to incorporate a mode that prompted users to add or correct data fields impacted by changes they made to data destinations or applications, and we plan to incorporate this helpful feature, too,” he said.
Upstream’s founders “remain committed to seeing the project through,” according to Cheatham.
“Many brokerages and franchises have been spending money to address [data management] issues on their own, but Upstream promises a better use of those resources that will deliver major improvements to brokerages of all sizes and remove many of the limitations small firms, medium firms and large firms currently encounter related to data,” he said.
“Vendors should enjoy more ease of use, more accuracy, greater speed and a reduction in costs to connect with the data when Upstream is up and running.”
‘A lot of glitches’
Danielle Wilkinson, listing manager for the Stephanie Coats Team of Keller Williams Eugene and Springfield, entered that initial listing — a high-end home originally listed for $525,000 in Woodburn, Oregon — into Upstream for listing agent Stephanie Coats on May 23.
“There was a lot of glitches,” Wilkinson told Inman in a phone interview.
She had spent a lot of time entering photo features into Upstream — descriptions of each room in the house, i.e. “Bathroom No. 2” or “View from hallway” — but when she first started using the platform the descriptions didn’t transfer over to the MLS. Wilkinson said that problem was “fixed fairly quickly.”
But on August 6th, after the list price had gone down to $499,000, the seller requested that it rise again, to $535,000. Wilkinson made the change in Upstream, but it didn’t make it over to the MLS. Wilkinson thinks it “confused the computer” that the price was raised after it had been lowered. The problem took three days to fix.
To top it off, the listing kept showing up online as sold — for a seller that obsessively checked her listing online every day. Since Wilkinson hadn’t used Upstream to syndicate to third-party portals she doesn’t know why it kept happening. She said Upstream blamed Keller Williams’ internal listing service, KWLS, and KWLS blamed Upstream.
“We ended up having a seller that was a little bit perturbed [by the glitches]. Your first impression is your last, so I think the seller was a bit irritated,” Coats told Inman in a phone interview.
The seller ended up pulling the listing off the market and it was cancelled on Oct. 30. The problem of an unsold listing showing up as sold has not re-appeared, according to Coats.
Asked whether the glitches played a role in the seller’s cancellation, Coats said the seller had tried to work with other agents before to sell the listing and “didn’t have a good taste in her mouth,” which the Upstream glitches didn’t help. But she thinks the seller ultimately decided not to sell for personal reasons.
Either way, Wilkinson and Coats have not used Upstream for any other listings.
“We just find our MLS input so much more convenient,” Wilkinson said.
“I think once Upstream is 100 percent up and rolling it will definitely be a tool that we will use, but for now we’re sticking with our MLS syndication. So that we can keep providing the same quality customer service to our clients, we don’t want to throw something in the mix that might glitch.”
Coats agreed, noting that when Upstream didn’t syndicate to the MLS correctly it had added a lot of work for Wilkinson. “Once we’re sure that all the kinks have been worked out and we’re not going to get angry phone calls from our sellers, we absolutely will use it,” Coats said.
Wilkinson thinks the full launch of Upstream is “still pretty far out” because she couldn’t access many of the tools the company touted in training sessions, including real-time syndication to third-party portals such as Zillow and Trulia.
Ward Spears, Oregon regional manager at Coldwell Banker Bain — a brokerage Upstream has previously named as a pilot in RMLS’s market — said his firm was not using Upstream because other technology initiatives had taken priority and the brokerage didn’t want to “overwhelm the agents with new stuff.” He didn’t know about the KW brokerage’s experience and said it “isn’t very encouraging,” but that his firm would “do a little bit of testing on it before launching it to the general office,” which he anticipated would be in the new year.
The other Upstream pilot brokerages named in RMLS’s market were Re/Max Equity Group and Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Northwest Properties.
“I can confirm that some offices [have] access to Upstream, but it would be premature at this time to comment on the degree to which they have used it and their opinions on it,” Kerry McGovern, spokesperson for real estate franchisor Re/Max, told Inman via email, declining to comment further on its affiliates’ use of the platform.
BHHS did not responded to requests for comment for this story regarding affiliated pilot brokerages.
Whither direct input?
Upstream aimed to shake up the broker and MLS world by becoming the “single point of entry” for broker data and changing the flow of listings from Upstream to everywhere else, including the MLS. Currently, the MLS tends to be the starting point.
Last year, Upstream scaled back its plans and said it would launch “direct input” (the Upstream-to-MLS route originally conceived) in only two markets at first, RMLS in Portland and MLSListings in Silicon Valley.
Whether Upstream has actually launched direct input into MLSListings is an open question. MLSListings declined to comment for this story, deferring to Upstream. Upstream has previously named Pacific Union International and Keller Williams Los Gatos Estates as the pilot brokerages in that market, but Pacific Union declined to comment for this story and Keller Williams did not respond to requests for comment regarding affiliated pilot brokerages’ use of Upstream.
MLSs providing feeds, but are brokers using them?
Upstream’s plan in the short term was to launch broker direct feeds in markets across the country. Broker direct feeds are listing feeds MLSs provide to Upstream upon broker request, as they would with any other third party a broker wants to work with. At the time of Upstream’s debut in May, the first MLSs to launch these feeds were Arizona Regional MLS (ARMLS) and North Texas Real Estate Information Systems Inc. (NTREIS).
California Regional MLS (CRMLS), NorthstarMLS in Minnesota, the Austin Board of Realtors’ MLS, the Ann Arbor Area Association of Realtors MLS, and West Penn MLS were to launch soon after, Lange said at the time.
With the exception of West Penn MLS, which declined to comment, the remaining six MLSs said that they were providing the feeds, but most either said Upstream was not pulling in listings from the provided feed or was doing so so infrequently that it was unlikely that brokers were actually using Upstream to manage the listings.
At the Ann Arbor Area Association of Realtors, the broker direct feed is up, but Upstream and the pilot brokerages in that market have not begun to use it yet, according to the association’s CEO, Tom Renkert.
Art Carter, CEO of CRMLS, told Inman that, despite initial interest from several brokerages in his market, only one firm with less than 100 listings in CRMLS had signed up for the Upstream pilot: Pacific Union International.
CRMLS can’t tell how many of Pacific Union’s listings Upstream is pulling in, but it can tell that it’s doing so intermittently.
“Logging in every two to three days and pulling data down, doesn’t seem to me like they’re trying to actively sync the database for use,” Carter told Inman in a phone interview.
By contrast, some IDX website vendors pull data from CRMLS every five seconds, according to Carter.
“You want syncing to be fairly fluid and make sure you’re hitting that server as often as you can. [Upstream] may have been done with their development work, but I don’t know that they’re in production as of yet. And given that fact that they’re not logging in, I would guess that they’re not in production,” he said.
“Three days between logging into a server would mean that your data would be getting stale. I can’t see that stale data would be of much use to anybody.”
It took CRMLS mere hours to set up the data feed for Upstream’s use, but it took months for Upstream to actually integrate with it, according to Carter, who said Upstream started asking for the feed in April or May but didn’t finish the integration until about six weeks ago.
Carter said he had expected more brokerages to sign up for the pilot and wasn’t sure why they hadn’t.
“I’m not really sure if it’s technical challenges at the RPR-Upstream level or if it’s [lack of broker interest],” he said.
The Austin Board of Realtors set up a broker direct feed for Keller Williams’ use, but neither Upstream nor Keller Williams have requested further action from ABoR since then, according to CEO Emily Chenevert.
“While the feed was authorized over a year ago and access granted to both parties, we are not aware if the feed has been made fully operational and is being leveraged by Keller Williams in a production environment,”she told Inman via email.
“We’ve observed increased activity in the feed since early fall. I cannot offer any comment as to the extent of how Upstream and Keller Williams are using the feed at this time.”
In NTREIS’ market, the MLS set up a broker direct feed in October 2017 for Keller Williams Arlington for a single office of over 500 agents. Upstream began pulling listings for the brokerage “at regular intervals” in March, according to Cindy Miller, chief operating officer for NTREIS. She did not respond to a request for comment on how often “regular intervals” was. KW Arlington did not respond to requests for comment.
In West Penn MLS’s market, the previously named pilot brokerages were Howard Hanna, Re/Max Select, Northwood Realty Services and Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices The Preferred Realty. The latter two announced a merger earlier this year. Only Howard Hanna responded to a request for comment, saying the brokerage was not using Upstream “because Upstream doesn’t integrate with any of the other vendors that we are using.”
‘It’s not rocket science’
Matt Consalvo, CEO of ARMLS, knows ARMLS is providing Upstream with a “development feed” that includes the listings of three pilot brokerages — Russ Lyon Sotheby’s International Realty, Berkshire Hathaway Arizona Properties, and Long Realty — in order to help Upstream build its product, but doesn’t know if the firms are actually using the feed. No other brokers have asked for a feed to participate in Upstream, he said.
ARMLS can tell that Upstream is using the feed for something, but doesn’t know if it’s for development work or if the pilot brokerages are using Upstream to manage their listings.
“[The pilot brokerages] haven’t approached me to ask me additional questions or engaged me in the discussion. I would suspect that there would be excitement or questions if they were actively [using Upstream], but I can’t say that for sure,” he said.
ARMLS also provides brokers with their own data back for their back-office systems at their request, so it’s possible brokers have distributed that data to Upstream and ARMLS wouldn’t know, according to Consalvo.
BHHS and BHHS Arizona Properties did not respond to requests for comment. Long Realty said it was not participating in Upstream because its main MLS in Tucson had not signed on. Russ Lyon Sotheby’s also said it was not using Upstream, though it plans to do so in 2019.
Consalvo said he expected Upstream’s development process to take the feed from the MLS would be faster than it has been.
“It’s not rocket science. [Distribution of listings is] pretty established technology. What they’re doing we have a lot of folks with the capacity to do the same type of thing,” he said.
Upon hearing that only two listings had been entered into RMLS from Upstream, Consalvo said he was surprised by Upstream’s lack of traction.
“The concept of an MLS meeting the brokers where they are and receiving content from the broker … is a great, great goal and is exactly what MLSs should be doing,” Consalvo said.
“The concept is not bad. But two listings seems like a lot of effort. On the part of everyone. As an industry, if we’ve produced two listings through this process that’s a lot of effort.”
Upon hearing about the glitches Coats and Wilkinson witnessed and the subsequent frustration of the seller, Consalvo said, “That’s just tragic.”
“That’s bad architecture. Anyone who’s in an alpha population should expect some glitch, but it sounds like architecture that’s not solving the problem,” Consalvo added.
“You should be insulated in your alpha testing in a way that it’s not exposed to a seller of a home. That would be like taking you into a self-driving car that you haven’t driven an inch and putting you on a mountain road.”
NorthstarMLS has been providing Upstream with a broker direct feed since late last year, but Upstream hasn’t pulled from it since February and not at a frequency that would indicate broker use, according to John Mosey, the MLS’s president and CEO.
“We’re providing the data they would need to perform the functions of Upstream on behalf of the broker. It doesn’t appear that they’re actually pulling any of those brokers’ listings,” Mosey told Inman in a phone interview.
NorthstarMLS provides two of the pilot brokerages, Edina Realty and Re/Max Results, with their own data back, so they could be sending it to Upstream, but he hasn’t heard of the firms doing so. Keller Williams Classic Realty Northwest is the other pilot brokerage. Edina Realty did not responded to a request for comment.
Mosey said Upstream’s goal was “noble,” but faltered in the execution with an “unfortunate marriage” between Upstream and RPR.
“This was almost stillborn from the earliest stages,” Mosey said.
“The brokers who were behind the Upstream movement saw an opportunity to feed off the NAR tap for funding … through RPR. I think NAR saw an opportunity through Upstream to advance their AMP cause,” he added, citing a now-defunct RPR program.
Brokers started this “hugely expensive” project, Upstream, because they were worried about “obstructive MLSs,” particularly those who refused to provide brokers with their own data, Mosey said. But the MLSs who were participating in the pilots were not among them.
“[The brokers said,] ‘That’ll show those damn MLS guys because we’re sitting in the driver’s seat.’ That never mattered to me because you still have to get the listing into the MLS,” Mosey said.
“This was additional steps and additional expense just to show who’s in charge. As far as we’re concerned you’re always in charge of your own data.”
“None of it had to do with the technology associated with the Upstream solution,” he added.
The whole situation reminded him of the princess and the pea story, he said. “I think the brokers are all princesses and the pea is under 17 layers of mattresses, but they overreacted.”
Contrary to what NAR and Upstream have previously said, the pilot MLSs did everything they could to help Upstream achieve its goal and Upstream’s progress — or lack thereof — is on the leadership of Upstream and RPR, according to Mosey.
“At the end of it, it was you guys who were in the execution capacity and we were the enablers who gave you what you need or you said you needed. If you need more or different, let us know,” he said.
Upstream’s new launch will be in multiple phases, including a broker direct feed offering before a direct input offering, “among other steps toward realizing the original vision of the project,” Cheatham said.