Seattle’s newest online real estate upstart: Windermere?

Windermere Solutions CTO Brett Eddy: Can this man help get Windermere's tech 'mojo back?'

Windermere has one of the most recognizable brands in the Pacific Northwest. But when it comes to innovating online, the Seattle real estate company has been forced to play catch up to fast-moving upstarts like Estately, Redfin and Zillow.com. Windermere is setting out to change that through Windermere Solutions, a new entity formed on January 1st and led by former Microsoft and Visio manager Brett Eddy.

Tucked on the fourth floor of Pioneer Square’s Commuter Building, Eddy is leading the charge to not only revamp the public facing portion of Windermere’s Web site, but also the back-end tools that will help the company’s more than 7,000 agents do their jobs in a digital era. It’s a huge bet for the 39-year-old real estate company.

Since the beginning of the year, Eddy has hired close to 50 people at Windermere Solutions, drawing talent from companies like Microsoft, Amazon.com and AT&T. And the CTO is still looking to hire even more, half-jokingly saying that he’ll buy lunch for any Seattle area Ruby developer.

“We’ve grown like weeds, and we have some people sitting three to a desk,” said Eddy, who joined the company in August before it was even formed.

In Eddy’s first interview, GeekWire got an exclusive look at Windermere’s plans to reinvent itself online. Visitors to the site will start to see major changes in the design, navigation and social media functionality by the end of this year, a huge overhaul which Eddy admits “is a big deal.”

“We are replacing the site with a modern Web framework so we can have a robust platform that’s much faster than what we have today and enables a lot of the top-tier features that are kind of expectations these days. And then we are making some investments on things that don’t exist yet,” he says.

Eddy is a charismatic technologist who bleeds Windermere blue, noting that it is his goal to help the real estate company “gets its technology mojo back.”

“There have been a couple of chapters where Windermere has really been on the cutting-edge of real value, but something has really shifted in the last four or five years,” explains Eddy, pointing to the rise of heavily-funded companies like Redfin and Zillow. “It is not just how do we compete with other real estate brokerages. It is a different game now.”

Brett Eddy

Eddy is focusing on getting Windermere  back into that game. And his playbook includes focusing on the people — the agents who make up the real estate firm.

“What we haven’t done the best job of in the past, and we are fixing that now, is investing in technology that really empowers those agents,” said Eddy. “Because we consumers, we go house shopping and we have this massive amount of data.”

With Zillow, Trulia, Redfin and others, Eddy says that home buyers and sellers don’t really need more data. What they need today is something, he believes, Windermere has in spades: a trusted brand and experienced agents.

And with agents now using smartphones and tablet computers and social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, Eddy said it is his goal to help “bubble up” the data in compelling ways.

“It is significantly more than just a great Web site,” he said. “It is about helping the communication between the agent and you, the buyer, or you, the seller.”

Eddy was reluctant to disclose exact plans. In true stealth-mode fashion, he showed a few mock-ups of the new Windermere Web site but did not allow GeekWire to take photos.

But there are some areas where the company is spending a lot of time innovating, and one of those is mobile. Eddy said that many real estate companies — including Windermere — have been late to the game when it comes to mobile. (The company, for example, doesn’t have its own iPhone app).

The amount of data now available — combined with mobile platforms that are now location aware — makes real estate, more than ever, a business where people need to be able to react on the go in the moment.

“This is an industry that is really being changed, and we are watching it right now,” he said.

Windermere Solutions has a different feel than many startups, in part because of the investment from the corporate parent. It also has a dual mission — not only building tools for Windermere agents and brokers but for the larger real estate community as a whole.

Eddy declined to disclose the amount of money that’s been invested into the entity, but it is a substantial amount given the growth plans over the past four months.

Windereme Solutions’ first goal is to strengthen the online relationships between the franchise owner and the agents. Eddy notes that the job of the agent has gotten more “complex” in recent years, and it is his goal to package data in a way that makes it easier for them to be more relevant to home buyers and sellers.

One idea is to create real-time communications between the agent and his or her clients, with Eddy pointing specifically at ways to incorporate social media tools into the equation. (He declined to offer specifics on what that would look like).

Windermere has a big platform — albeit an outdated one — on which to operate. The company’s Web properties attract about 1.2 million visitors per month.

But even though Windermere has established itself as a major player in real estate over nearly 40 years, the company has challenges ahead.

After all, Eddy is the first to admit that changing the culture of an established organization is not an easy thing to do.

Eddy said that Windermere is currently wrestling with that cultural question. But he said there’s a big commitment by the company — through Windermere Solutions — to make the transition to the digital world.

“We were a little bit behind the game in investing in technology. And now that’s fixed,” he said. “We are back at it.”

John Cook is co-founder of GeekWire. Follow on Twitter: @geekwirenews and Facebook.

  • http://profiles.google.com/robransom Rob Ransom

    Interesting…Windermere has a great brand and franchise in the greater Seattle area…however, I don’t think technology is the problem nor is it the solution for traditional brokerages like Windermere. Businesses like Zillow and Trulia have largely solved the information asymmetry problem that was the historical source of value provided by agents/brokers to buyers/sellers. The real challenge is an antiquated business model in which the few customers who actually do a home transaction are asked to subsidize – at very high rates – all the time/effort spent with the customers who don’t transact. I know many agents who can add a lot of value in the buying and selling process, but there is a big leap between adding value and paying someone $30-60k+ for a few dozen hours of work… I used to be skeptical that Redfin and their model would be able to break down the incumbent model, but at least in the segment that is going to be buying expensive and larger homes over the next couple of decades, I think they are on to something…

    • Tonya Tye

      $30-60K+ for 12 hours of work? Sign me up! Why am I still at work on a friday night with no weekend in sight.

    • Fanning

      I would challenge anyone to leave there 40+ hour as week job where you get a pay check twice a month and become a real estate agent. Believe me they work hard for everything they make. Go walk in their shoes for a month then come back and talk to me. I think you would have a very eye opening experience.

    • Glenda

      I challenge anyone to do what I do as a real estate agent – and then walk away saying ‘what an easy way to make money’! The money does not come easy – the costs have gone up considerably to do this for a living, but the pay has not. If I got paid for every hour I work…that would be great. The fact is I don’t. Try it. See if you thik this is as easy as youhink.

    • Guest

      Keep in mind that almost all listings shown on Zillow, Trulia, etc are directly or indirectly provided by brokerages. Althought the information appears to be provided by the third party companies, in most cases it is not. Agents and/or their brokerage are the ones allowing the third party sites to display the information as a means to market the property. In my opinion without agents/brokerages Zillow, Trulia and the others would be hard pressed to exist. I don’t see folks in any price range, particularly higher price ranges, using a website (including Windermere’s) to make any buying decision. Not to mention that most buyers or sellers do not “subsidize” “$30-60k”, at least not where I’m from.

  • http://blog.findwell.com Kevin Lisota

    Surprised it took this long for Windermere to get back in the online game. I am quite certain that they when the vast majority of their agents said “my clients search using sites like Redfin,” that was a wakeup call for the region’s most prominent real estate brand. While their agents obviously retain market credibility, their website has become less and less relevant to consumers over the past 5 years.

    The biggest challenge for any of these long-established brokerages is that the online mindset has never been there. In an online world, data rules the day, and the old-school real estate thinking is to hide the interesting data behind lead generation. “Contact a realtor and they’ll get you the info” has been the modus operandi and the reason for the popularity of transparent sites like Redfin and Zillow. No amount of technology will make a difference unless this fundamental shift in their attitude towards consumers happens.

    50+ people for this seems excessive, given the manpower that other real estate startups have applied to similar efforts, but I suppose it helps to be well-funded.

    Hello to Brett, BTW!

    • Anonymous

      Interesting comments, but not sure if I agree. Windemere can’t change the MLS rules — so it’s a bit of “hate the game, not the playa”. But they could make it better within the current MLS established environment.

      For example what if you could Live Chat with a realtor as you are looking at a listing? That would certainly help chip at the information wall you are describing. I know that Live Chat has really had an impact in making the online shopping experience more productive – perhaps it could do the same for real estate.

      Also – even a basic feature such as letting your agent send you a online “folder” of the info on all the properties you looked at today would be awesome. Why do I have to manage this all myself, bookmarking URLs to various real estate sites for properties – my agent should do that. I do think of Windemere creates an awesome interface, they could give their agents some awesome productivity / relationship tools.

      Part of what cripples the Zillow etc crowd is they are operating somewhat outside of the real estate process. “Click here to be referred to an agent” is the closest they can get. I think it’s very exciting to think what Windemere can produce by combining a real software team with a bunch of agents.

      PS: Also realizing once Windemere builds this they can resell it to other agencies in different territories. How can we invest?

      • http://blog.findwell.com Kevin Lisota

        The Northwest MLS is broker-owned, and the largest broker in the area is Windermere. By nature of being the largest controlling interest in the NWMLS, indeed they do control how the local MLS operates to a very large extent.

        Ask yourself why some of these older sites don’t show data like sales history or listing price history? Or why they only recently added data like Days on Market? By leaving out certain key pieces of data, they try to entice a phone call to an agent to learn more.

        I’ve been in many meetings with other owners of real estate offices, and there is a clear desire to hold back data from consumers so that agents can remain the expert. Many who have been in the business for decades believe that access to this data is their “competitive advantage,” Problem is that other forward-looking sites have already let that cat out of the bag, and now the older companies have to play catch up.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Glenn-Roberts/1029551430 Glenn Roberts

        Live chat, Slagggg? We call that showing. First an agent/client relationships develops. Then the agent and the client go look at homes. That really works well. Why would you want to “chat” with an agent while you are looking at a listing online. What agent? Whose agent? It probably works if your asking about caribiners at REI, but nothing works like being in a home with the realtor you’ve decided to trust.

        Do you want a folder online? It’s there.

        Buyers and sellers that make the decision to work well with the agent of their choice usually have a terrific experience. Those who want to get something for nothing usually get noting for something.

        What you say about information on line is totally true. Zillow, Redfin and Trulia spend 100′s of thousands to outdo each other. Why bother to compete with that? Quality service is what pays off in the long run, and there are agents with all sizes of companies who know how to do that.

        • Slaggggg

          Wow so snarky.

          I’ve bought real estate to I get showing.

          You may be familiar with “floor time” – where agents answer the phone and greet office visitors in an attempt to obtain new clients (generally buyers) That is who you would chat with — agents on their floor time. If a relationship develops, then it might turn into a showing and a sale.

          Why does every relationship with an agent have to start with a phone call? Why can’t it start with a chat? Teach me, bro.

          • Nate Scott

            There are a few companies, Windermere companies even, with live chat via widgets on wordpress or similar programs. We had it at our Windermere office for about a year and never had anyone take us up on the chat part. I suspect it’ll happen someday and become a useful tool, but as of yet, it’s not. @Kevin, most Brokers and firm owners DO want all the info there. We understand what the public wants on a site and have been asking for it for years – glad to see Windermere is listening and acting on it. The majority of owners I talk to do not think of our business as a protect the information business, rather we see it as a customer service/enhance the homebuying/selling process business.

          • http://tands.mywindermere.com Shannon Richardson

            Great insight, Nate! This is so exciting, and I do see it as a customer service/enhancement for the homebuying/selling process. We need to always be at the top of cutting edge technology, that gives us the advantage to show buyer/sellers that Windermere knows the value of investing in ways, as to, provide the best tools and training for our agents that unrival any other. Another step forward in serving our clients, and being the best there is. Windermere, not only supports and gives back to our communities, this also applies to our amazing agents. Most of us work extremly hard and need more balance. This new advancement will give us that, and will ultimately bring more success to our Windermere Family. I, for one, am greatful and inspired. Welcome to our new tech team and Mahalo, for the “mojo”!

  • Fanning

    I find it interesting that everyone talks about Redfin and even a findwell CEO chimes in. The reality is that Windermere agents are as cutting edge as the next and to this day do not hang their hats on hiding information from the client or living in the world of old school. They know better than anyone that you aren’t going to get a customer because you have an amazing search tool. What they do know however is that you have to provide value. Value comes in many different packages, and has different meaning to different people. For me it happens to be the Windermere foundation that has been in existence for 22 years and has raised 22 million dollars to give back to the communities that Windermere serves. The biggest portions of these dollars are contributions directly form the Realtors themselves. Today any sucessful business needs to look in the mirror and ask how are we providing value to our customers. Having great technology is just one of the pieces. Windermere is a high integrity, community driven company that prides itself on making sure we are serving our clients that best we possible can.

  • http://www.windermere.com Brett Eddy

    Thanks for the great words John. I do want to call out that there are so many hard working and passionate people in the greater Windermere Network, including the service areas, individual offices, and awesome agents. I have the pleasure of getting out and spending a huge amount of time with folks who have spent years developing their real estate acumen, delighting their customers, and fostering deep and trusted relationships. Technology is simply the enabler. The real power lies in the people. And for this incubation “startup”, we have some amazing developers, program managers, testers, remarkable customer service folks, production ops uber-geeks, and a ton of tireless people who are making it all come together. 2011 is going to be an awesome year.

    • http://tands.mywindermere.com Shannon and Ted Richardon

      Aloha Brett, You and your team are giving great value to our Windermere Family. Staying current and being at the top of our industry in our constantly changing world of technology is not only essential to our success, but the ultimate success of buyers and sellers quickly finding the best fit for their individual needs. Resulting in a great experience and future business. Welcome and Mahalo. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/adam.griffin.name Adam Griffin

    “The company, for example, doesn’t have its own iPhone app”

    Windermere has a mobile version of their site, mobile.windermere.com, that’s optimized for iPhone and Android. It’s been around for a while now. It works well with the iPhone. Not a dedicated “app”, but instead it’s platform independent solution.

  • http://frugalmechanic.com/ Eric Peters

    With Zillow, Trulia, Redfin and others, Eddy says that home buyers and sellers don’t really need more data. What they need today is something, he believes, Windermere has in spades: a trusted brand and experienced agents.

    OMG this is a load of crap, I just closed on my house in January after trying to sift through various web 2.0 technologies to monitor the types of house I want and trying to do searches on features of properties. It’s hard shit. /hattip to both @estately (My Investor Founders CoOp is involved with them) for part of the process but the big /hattip was to @redfind who notified me of the new listing the day before it was on the market, and I was there on the new open house (timely notifications do matter!) Both sites had OK requirements but it still requires too much human interaction to find a house, especially if you know what you’re looking for.

    data = good either way you slice it, I don’t care about the agents rep

  • Matt Stapleton

    Interesting comments. I have been an agent for 23 years and I am with Windermere. Thechnology has been a huge help for agents, sellers and buyers but it is just one part of a multifaceted equation. First to be clear I do believe all information should be available and yes there are parts Real Estate business model that are antiquated, just as there are with any business including tech companies. Thanks to technology I can do detailed legal research but I will still pay an attorney to represent me, I can do the same with buying a car or any other major purchase but I will interact with a person to close a transaction. Real Estate is a high touch, high trust relationship between clients and agents in addition to being a very emotional event for most people, technology does not change that. There are so many details involved in a Real Estate transaction that technology has nothing to do with, just the legal aspect alone and keeping up to date with it is a constant challenge. Just as in any business the best people make the most money and a good Real Estate agent is worth every penny they earn and just like any business if you want services for less you can get them, although as the old adage goes “You get what you pay for”. I truly like Zillow, Redfin and Trulia etc. because as with all competition and change it forces you to be alert and up to date. My favorite part of all of the new technology and new companies helping our business is I am making more money now then I ever did before and that was always my biggest fear in the past, that I would struggle to make a nice living, thanks to technology and experience the opposite has happened.

  • Matt Stapleton

    Interesting comments. I have been an agent for 23 years and I am with Windermere. Thechnology has been a huge help for agents, sellers and buyers but it is just one part of a multifaceted equation. First to be clear I do believe all information should be available and yes there are parts Real Estate business model that are antiquated, just as there are with any business including tech companies. Thanks to technology I can do detailed legal research but I will still pay an attorney to represent me, I can do the same with buying a car or any other major purchase but I will interact with a person to close a transaction. Real Estate is a high touch, high trust relationship between clients and agents in addition to being a very emotional event for most people, technology does not change that. There are so many details involved in a Real Estate transaction that technology has nothing to do with, just the legal aspect alone and keeping up to date with it is a constant challenge. Just as in any business the best people make the most money and a good Real Estate agent is worth every penny they earn and just like any business if you want services for less you can get them, although as the old adage goes “You get what you pay for”. I truly like Zillow, Redfin and Trulia etc. because as with all competition and change it forces you to be alert and up to date. My favorite part of all of the new technology and new companies helping our business is I am making more money now then I ever did before and that was always my biggest fear in the past, that I would struggle to make a nice living, thanks to technology and experience the opposite has happened.

  • Anonymous

    Strengthening the ties with agents isn’t going to do much. Have you bought or sold a house lately?

    Agents don’t do much to sell your house unless you have one of top priced properties they are representing. Oh, and after you sign a contract for an agent to represent and you’re not happy with their efforts to sell your house or you’re not getting any updates, what is another website going to change when an agent isn’t returning your calls or emails?

    When I bought my house my agent sent me MLS links, however I accomplished the real searching through my own searches.

    The signifigance of the agent is becoming more and more the paperwork/process/negoating middleman or the one person who can get the code to the agent lock box of a house that the buyer found that buyer wants to see. I’ll also throw in they give recommendations for other services (inspections, loans, etc…), but be careful there cause it is sometimes just to their golf buddy or something they get a kick back on.

    The days of the agent controlling which properties got viewed disappeared long ago. And while they still have some influence on that with less savvy buyers, that is diminishing more and more.

    While their article didn’t go into much detail on their business plan, it seems they focusing on a part of the process that is shrinking. I don’t know Windermere from beyond this article, but I do wish them success.

    • M Fanning

      Yep I just bought a home and I’m getting ready to sell two homes. I would be crazy to go at it on my own without great representation by a professional Real Estate agent. I, like you am very tech savvy, been indirectly in Real Estate for over 15 years.
      I’m sorry but sounds like you might of had some poor representation, but having a full services top notch professional real estate agent can be worth their weight in gold. That said everyone has their own opinions.

  • Kjlange

    I appreciate all the data that is available to people. There’s a lot of medical and legal information, too, but most buyers need a professional to help them know what all that data means to them. Information without wisdom and experience might not be all that useful. I love that Windermere is adding tools for our toolbelts. I know Brett and I am one happy Windermere Realtor knowing he is at the helm of this venture.

  • Dave Watkins

    I love technology and the quick and easy ways to communicate with buyers and sellers that can eliminate personal face to face communication. I understand it is the way of the future and it is here to stay.
    However to thrive in this business individually and as a Company, we must be committed to be face to face with people every day. In their homes listening to their story finding out who they are, before they care about our who we are ( The Windermere story ). The old saying rings true ( no one cares how much you know until they know and see how much you care ). Training and shaping Brokers how to think out of the box and become excellent communicators with people face to face will ultimately set us apart.

    Even though it appears we are playing catch up with others in the technology arena, it should never be the priority. It will always just be a tool in our toolbox ! I love quick access to solid factual information because it arms us with what we need when we are face to face cultivating relationships. So keep pushing that envelope but keep a balance on who we are and who they ( our customers ) are.

    Informative web access to information is great but .. we must be careful not to make it to easy for the public to do it all themselves.. pretty soon they will not need us and your 7000 agents are scrambling to to establish the value of their service to the customer. And that never has a good ending, usually it ends up in a reduced commission due to us having a much smaller role in the buying and selling process, except writing contracts.

    We may look good on the web but for our Brokers to sustain themselves in any market a paradigm shift needs to continue to take place …..like we are doing with Ninja Training…

    ( ….Information is all we have in our toolbox… how and when we give it out is in direct proportion to how we get paid… dave watkins 1989 )

    Please be careful not to give away the information Farm we own right now.

    a concerned broker in the area……

    • SCarns

      I agree that we are a face-to-face business and relationships are important. But I disagree on the roll technology plays in this business.

      I teach our companies tools and technology to my firms agents and I’ll say the same thing here I tell them: With 90% of home buyers beginning their search for a home online and with 80% of those buyers using the first agent they come in contact with, technology is quickly becoming the front door of our office. In fact, your online presence is becoming so important, you must give your web customers what they want immediately upon visiting your site, or risk them going somewhere else. I recommend we’re open/honest with everyone and give the information freely. The main reason is the information is out there. You can either be the one providing it, or those clients will go somewhere else. There’s great value in being the source of easily accessed information.

      I’m very happy Windermere is stepping up and looking towards tomorrow. I see everyday how technology allows me to provide better service to our clients by streamlining their transactions and saving everyone time. I make a difficult process easy and it’s all because of technology. The tech wave is growing faster and faster and it is having an impact everywhere.

      I am considering working out of state as a full-time agent, because technology will allow me to do so without actually having to be present for most of it. In our local firm, we are considering expanding by opening virtual offices across our area, giving us more places to work, but with much lower overhead than maintaining a brick & mortar structure.

      With all the complexities of a real estate transaction and the never-ending flood of online info, I see the roll of a real estate agent growing. There will always be a need for professionals in any industry.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rob-Graham/584838653 Rob Graham

    Great discussion guys. As a member of the newly formed team to meet monthly with the techies and report back to the Windermere agents, the info is priceless. Keep the suggestions coming. The goal is to provide tools for agents and clients that make the experience of buying and selling easier. The more suggestions from you guys, (where the rubber hits the road) the better. Happier more productive agents, and better informed and connected clients is the goal.

    PS – Slagg – I think the messaging floor time idea is a good one.