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.”
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.
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.”