The Real Estate Dish: 15 Minutes with Inman's Morgan Brown
Join QuantumDigital’s EVP and CMO Eric Cosway as he spends 15 minutes getting the latest dish on real estate technology with Morgan Brown, COO of Inman and co-author of Startup Growth Engines. Morgan really has a passion for helping companies out, especially when it comes to thinking about and implementing growth. He has been involved with Inman for some time now and has used his passion to help drive the success of the new Inman Select subscription services, that are designed to help people in the real estate industry get smarter about real estate with information they can't really get anywhere else.
Listen to the Interview [Audio]:
Eric: Can you tell us a little bit about your past and current role with Inman? And how your passion is now helping the real estate industry as a whole?
Morgan: Sure, absolutely. It's great to be here, Eric. Thanks for having me. As you mentioned, I'm the COO of Inman and we are the news service of record for the real estate professional out there. We really cover the industry and try to hit on the issues and trends that impact real estate professionals and their success. I've known Brad Inman, the guy with the name on the door, for quite a long time. I was his head of marketing at one of his previous ventures called TurnHere which was an online video platform. After reconnecting with him a few years ago to help revive Inman web traffic and events and that type of thing, I joined as a consultant back in 2013 to help Inman with those initiatives. And then we built Select, the subscription product that you mentioned, in 2014 and then joined as COO about 8 months ago. My background since college has been with startups in the marketing and growth roles. And so, it's not only my career but also my passion, sometimes to my wife's dismay. I love helping companies grow; I love marketing and how technology enables that. So, that's me in a nutshell.
Eric: Yes, neither of us is a Realtor, agent, or broker. But you actually spent some time with a mortgage company back in 2005, I believe.
Morgan: Yes, absolutely. A couple of my good friends started a mortgage company and needed help launching that brand and that business from the marketing perspective. So I joined that company—one of the three kind of cofounders and I was responsible for the marketing functions—driving leads and growing that business from a brokerage to a mortgage bank. And a successful one, until the housing market kind of imploded there in 2007. But that's actually where I met Brad, through a consumer finance blog that I had about how not to be taken advantage of in the mortgage industry. And that really got me my start on the social media side of things. So this is my second stint with the industry, but definitely from a different angle than before.
Eric: What would people in the real estate industry be most surprised to learn about you? Is there something specific that you're holding back that you've never told us before?
Morgan: I think you've kind of hit on it that my background, you know, that I’m not an agent. I've never been an agent or broker. My background is mostly from technology and startups in the marketing side of things. So, I’m still very much learning every day about the industry, about the issues, and about the opportunities that are ahead of professionals, agents, and brokers alike. I think some people are surprised by that.
Eric: You recently had a very successful Inman Connect 2016 in New York. What were some things you learned or found really inspiring as you came out of that event?
Morgan: Absolutely, now that you mention it… it was the biggest Inman conference that we’ve had. There was a lot of optimism, a lot of positive energy, which was exciting to see—brokers, agents, technologists all together. I think one of the main things that I came away with, and it's not maybe the newest thing, but there’s been a notion that technology is out to replace the professional in our industry. And the people at the Inman conference looked instead at what opportunities technology created for them to grow their business and differentiate. So, some of the things that people told me are that, rather than looking at technology from maybe something to be wary of or concerned about, these people are really looking at it through the lens of ‘How do we take this, make it our own and create an advantage for us? How do we get smarter, better, faster, and provide a better service to our clients through the adoption of the technology that we're seeing here?’ And that discussion and that kind of marriage between the analog, the personal, the high touch responsibilities and role of agents and brokers with their customers, and the new technology that's coming down the pipeline… it's always at the heart of Connect, but it was very evident this year for sure.
Eric: So, technology's a big piece of it. What would be the most important area for real estate and brokers to invest in this year as they look forward from what they’ve learned from Inman?
Morgan: I think there were a couple of key areas. And I think the two biggest ones are investing in team and in data. And those go hand in hand, but on the team side. In a lot of brokerages there’s a lot of talk about using technology to improve training, to improve the delivery of the consumer experience. Both elevating the individual agent and raising the bar for the people working for brokerages and transacting real estate to the infrastructure that they use and the tools that they use to do that successfully. Whether it's improving CRMs or improving follow-up or improving transaction management… those types of things. And then on the data side, big data has been a buzzword for so long, but I think what’s interesting now is that there is really a focus on ‘Okay, we have all of this data coming at us from all these different directions. How do I take that and apply it to making my business better?’ Right? So, using data to evaluate customer experience. Using data to understand what works to grow my business and what consumers want. And so there's so much data out there and so many services delivering data now that it can't be avoided, and now business leaders really need to figure out how to make that a competitive advantage. Again, numbers aren't always the most sexy thing. But it's certainly foundational today.
Eric: Was there one question that stood out this year from the audience that led to an aha moment for you?
Morgan: I don't know if it was a question so much as a statement, and it kind of goes back to what I was saying before. You can either be disrupted by technology or you can grab technology that is potentially disruptive and make it your own and make it your advantage. And I think we see a lot of that from very large corporations buying interesting startups and companies that are kind of approaching things differently… down to the individual agent who is adding new technology to stand out in their market or build out a team around them… that type of thing. So, that was really the key takeaway for me.
Eric: Knowing you guys are a neutral body, did you see any game changing technology for Realtors and brokers? What technologies will change the playing field?
Morgan: As Brad likes to say, ‘We're right about half the time and we're wrong half the time.’ But, some of the companies that were really interesting to me focused on some of the trends that we see and the broader technology landscape, and the consumer interest in these things. So for example, one of the things that I'm very interested in and intrigued by is this notion of machine learning and using computer algorithms over very large sets of data to deliver insights, and uncover new opportunities. So I think companies like SmartZip, who are using that kind of algorithmic data crunching to understand signals about ‘Which buyers are getting ready to sell?’ and ‘Which home buyers may prefer which homes?’ are very interesting and I think we’ll see a lot more of that in the coming years. Companies like RealScout are using data signals, and the home search to assist agents in recommending the right homes for their buyers, and OpenDoor… very interesting new model, driven off of a whole new type of machine learning valuation process. So that whole field has wide ranging implications I think for real estate, and I’m really interested to see where that goes next. I think another emerging part of the business or technology is this idea of invisible apps. Invisible apps are called “bots” or applications that run through things like email or through text message. So for example, Eric, you and I set up a call earlier using a bot called “x.ai”, and there's no app you install on your phone, but it's all automated and it works through your email. There’s a very early-stage company called “Vyooit” in real estate that works through text message but lets you set up viewing appointments, view properties, and that type of thing through there. So I think this idea of messaging as a platform is really kind of fascinating. And then lastly, on the complete 180 from the invisible apps is the highly visible stuff. And I think some of the things that companies are doing to democratize really high-quality video—like the 3D walkthroughs at Matterport, HouseLens, do-it-yourself aerial photography with DroneBase, and that type of thing—are really impressive of course, too.
Eric: Yes. To help a real estate broker/agent, what two or three factors should an agent or broker be thinking about or keep in mind?
Morgan: That’s a great question and it's really important because there are so many shiny objects out there and it's really easy to get allured by something that isn't super critical to your business. So, I think the lens that I use for technology adoption, I would say consumer and client first. So, look at the technology and the benefits of that technology from the end customer perspective and say, ‘Is this something my customers want or could really benefit from?’ And starting there, always first and evaluating it from there. And then second is, utility. So, beyond kind of the shiny and the oohs and aahs… really figuring out how this piece of technology is going to help grow my business or improve my business. And then finally, as a broker, adoption is really important. A piece of technology isn't any good if your team isn't using it. Are your agents really going to use it? How easy and intuitive is it to pick up? And can it be widely adopted so that it's deployed out to your team and to the ultimate end customer? So those were the three ways that I would look at it.
Eric: With top brokers and agents we talk about the top 10%. Are they doing something unique or different that others aren't doing in terms of a technology advantage?
Morgan: Yeah, I definitely think so. I think it's really simple. They have chosen technology and then implemented it in a way that helps them scale what they do best. So, the top agents and brokerages have always been known for great service or delivering great value to their customers. And I think what they've been able to do is choose technology that really helps them scale that. And grow that so they can grow their business based off those core principles. Whether it's marketing or customer service, or data, or transaction management—they've adopted tools to help them do what they're already great at. On a broader scale and a bigger scale. I think they do that through choosing the right tools and not just choosing shiny objects, but looking at their business and what they need through training their team. And by ensuring that the people that they do work with “get it” and know how to make technology a differentiator while delivering that best-in-class service.
Eric: To close us off, as you look forward in 2016, what industry-wide technology should brokers and agents absolutely stay abreast of in the next 12 to 24 months?
Morgan: Yeah, that's a great question. I think it comes down, as it does in real estate, to the people. To the professional delivering service and to the consumer, the homebuyer, and home seller who needs that service. And so I think paying attention to consumer trends and their engagement around different platforms, different technologies, different channels… is really interesting. So, whether people are doing more through text message, or are losing interest in a particular social platform—keeping on trend with what's happening there. I would pay attention to machine learning and data. If data is scary to you, I would go out and try to learn more about it and how it can become an advantage. I think I would also look at how other industries are connecting different people together. Whether it's through platforms or networks or apps, or whatnot, how people get and give service in different industries can be interesting, leading indicators to the types of technology that might make its way into real estate and can create a competitive edge for people who can adopt it and make it part of their business model and use it to differentiate. So, those are kind of broad, but I think if you stay on trend, if you understand what the consumer is doing, if you understand how people are transacting with one another in general through technology, and you understand how all of these very large networks of people and the information that's created from them, the data that's created from them, work… then you have a very good insight into where the ball's going in the next 12 to 24 months.
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