The Real Estate Dish: 20 Minutes with Alex Lange, CEO of UpstreamRE
Join QuantumDigital’s EVP and CMO Eric Cosway as he gets the latest dish on real estate technology with Alex Lange, President and CEO of UpstreamRE—a broker-owned company that focuses on streamlining data management for all real estate professionals. In his role at UpstreamRE, Alex is driving one of the biggest initiatives in real estate today.
Eric: Alex welcome to the podcast. Can you give us a brief overview of your background and your current role as President and CEO of UpstreamRE?
Alex: I was recruited to join the UpstreamRE board of managers and to lead the charge back in June of 2016. UpstreamRE itself, for those who don’t know, is an easy to use data management platform. It helps brokerages, regardless of their size, collect, manage and distribute their data quickly and securely.
Eric: When I once heard you speak, the reference was that UpstreamRE was sort of the “middle floor of the house.” Can you explain that?
Alex: Well, that context was at a LRE conference. We were on a panel with Jeremy Crawford, who is the CEO of RESO, the Real Estate Standards Organization, and Marilyn, who was talking about Broker Public Portal. So, I think the context in her house analogy was that RESO, being the standard for data—whether it’s not only the names and nomenclature, but also trying to move into the rules and how we transport that information—it’s sort of like the foundational groundwork. Then, UpstreamRE would act sort of in this “middle floor,” being this is where the data can be entered and collected, but it’s a back-office tool, so it’s used by the brokers and the real estate practitioners. But there’s no consumer-facing interface. There’s no way that it’s being seen by consumers from the UpstreamRE interface. And then, Broker Public Portal actually is the tool that agents and brokers can use to actually share real estate information and real estate data with their customers and their client. That was the evolution with the levels and how it was described.
Eric: I was sitting in the audience, and it really helped me understand, and positioned what you’re doing in a very clear and concise way. I read in your background that you were a former U.S. Army paratrooper. How has that shaped your career and your leadership style today?
Alex: That’s a big question. It’s actually been a huge part of my life and my career. I went into the military right out of prep school, actually. I grew up in your average American home in California. I had three sisters, no brothers. My father traveled a lot for work. The military was this opportunity for me to go break out on my own. And it was really, really good for me. I’d say, it’s probably been one of the seminal experiences in my life that turned me into who I am today. I learned to not be afraid of anything. I learned that everything was possible. I learned that with a plan, and with practice and rigorous execution, and adjustment along the way, that you can basically accomplish anything you want. That bled into almost everything moving forward. Even when it comes to just leadership style, I lead in that “follow me, we can do it” very positive, focused, but “heads down, let’s get it done” sort of theme.
Eric: You certainly put those leadership skills to work, because I believe you were the co-founder of Roost social marketing platform. Is that correct?
Alex: I was. I came up the technology ranks my entire career. Even to this day, I still spin code. I was a technologist by nature. I was the CTO for art.com and allposters.com. I had been a managing partner with IKON Technology Services back in the dotcom bubble days. I had a team that did pets.com, did real.com, and many others back in that first evolution of dotcoms. But, I got recruited to come over to Roost—It was my first foray into the real estate space—from art.com to help start a real estate portal. So, this was like one of the very first national portals. Even Zillow was only in a handful of markets at that time, still trying to collect data directly from the brokers, had maybe 15% penetration in some markets. That’s how early this was, back in 2007, 2008. Roost—again, brought in to be sort of the technical co-founder with another Alex, actually, who came from walmart.com, but prior to that had a real estate background starting Escape Homes. The two of us were paired together to work for a company called Total Move, which was a venture-backed relocation practice startup that was venture-backed by Cross Country Ventures and General Catalyst out of Boston. And we quickly realized that we both thought it was a really difficult business being a third-party company trying to work in that space of referrals, sending people referrals and trying to get paid, etc.—especially if you were not a licensed practitioner. There's a code between licensed practitioners, but if you’re a third-party company, I’m not sure. It’s a little harder. So, we looked at it very hard and tried to figure out what’s the best thing to do in the space, and this was when we thought there really wasn’t a national portal that was MLS-driven. And so we really wanted to take a crack at that and say, “Okay, how do we create a company that lives in the world of MLS and the compliance, while still giving a brokerage the ability to generate their own advertising and their own leads” and sort of create it as a national portal. We devised the company, convinced the board of directors to allow us to spin the capital away from Total Move to start Roost. Thus, Roost was born, and the rest is history.
Eric: There’s no doubt, looking back at your experience, you’re an entrepreneur. There’s no question about it. But, I also noticed something. I don’t know if it came out of Second Century Ventures, but you have a love for coaching and you do a lot of work around coaching and mentoring. Can you tell the audience a bit more about that?
Alex: Sure. I think it probably came out around the time of starting Roost. Back in those days, I loved working with teams, building up my tech teams, and as I started going into venture-backed startups, you’d meet all kinds of other entrepreneurs at what would today be “meet ups”—back then, we just met for coffee and just hung out, everybody was trying to raise rounds, if you would—but, we’d share information and share ideas. And then, over time, I was doing it more and more. But it was, honestly, haphazard. Opportunistic probably is a better word. Then, after Market Leader was sold to Trulia, I had an opportunity to an operating partner with Second Century Ventures, which is the venture arm of the National Association of REALTORS®, and work with the accelerator, work with various entrepreneurs, and had this great opportunity to formalize what I was doing opportunistically, and create sort of a framework. Now, today, in my spare time, I still—even with UpstreamRE being a full-time role, and being board members in different companies—I still spend time coaching. I try to limit it to two, so usually two people a year, to push them beyond their comfort zone. It could be either the CEO—in fact the two examples this year right now is one’s an individual who is definitely on her way to being a COO or CEO, and try to help this individual put process around what they’re doing, look at things a different way, and the other is actually a CEO of a venture-backed startup, who is working on their go-to-market strategy and their trajectory into various markets, even outside of real estate. I have weekly calls with them, and go through whatever their… what’s their pain point, what keeps them up at night—to use the old phrase—and talk them through it, and try to help them.
Eric: No question. That’s a big shift, from an entrepreneur to more coaching and mentoring. Was there an “aha” moment, an inflection point where you said, “I just have a passion for this, helping others be successful”? If you look back, was there something that happened?
Alex: Yeah, I would say so. Again, in the earlier days when I doing it, and again more opportunistically, it really was… I just loved it. I loved doing it. And I have had coaches along the way as well who were so important to my growth because of inflection points that they helped me get through. It was one of the things I realized. And I think I’m lucky. I’m very lucky because I believe at least that, it was probably like 10 years ago, that I was able to figure out what my life purpose was, right? What makes you happy. Fundamentally what makes you happy at the end of the day. And I just liked helping people be successful. I actually even thought at one point, maybe my destiny will always be the number two man, not the number one man. Because I just thought I’m really good at helping people execute. And then I realized that I had even a little bit more focused expertise on helping smaller businesses—at this point it’s probably sub-$50 million in revenue, some people think that’s small—but like startups especially, when they’re just getting off the ground. Then, as I sat in the space here—from Roost, and then through Roost to Market Leader, and through Second Century, and even through UpstreamRE—I realized that real estate professionals, those brokers and those agents that are out there just humping it every day, they kind of epitomize that entrepreneurial spirit.
Eric: Let’s talk about something else I read, too—patterns, pattern recognition. I get a sense that you have a very strong operational side as a CTO, where you came from, and now as a CEO. Tell us more about your keen sense of recognizing patterns.
Alex: Again, I would say I’ve been very fortunate. I mean, I’ve been in real estate for 10 years, but I’ve been at this for 25. And, prior to that, I’ve been in a variety of industries. When we were doing startups back in the day, and working as a partner with IKON, everything from dog food companies to handbag manufacturers we were working with, and helping them get off the ground. At art.com, very different way of looking at the world when you’re selling Britney Spears posters, back to school time, etc. I think along the way, a combination of not only having the opportunity to have worked in so many different industries, but also have been fortunate enough to have had bosses or CEOs that I’ve worked for who have allowed me to stretch beyond being just the technician. That collective experience over time, you do start seeing patterns, if you will. Like product/market sit patterns, or that velocity problem between the technology team and the product team, and how to solve those things. And I got really good at just sort of recognizing those things over time. But then, when you do it for a while, you start realizing “Oh! Where are the opportunities between the pattern?” I pride myself on focusing on looking for those opportunities that other people don’t see. But, you have to see the pattern first to find the in-between.
Eric: Following your career path, I think when Ian gave you a lot of breadth at Market Leader, that probably helped a lot. Because you were pretty involved in a number of operations during your Market Leader experience.
Alex: Absolutely. I could not have had a more enjoyable time, a period that let me push my own personal growth and my experience, and to bring to bear all of my experience at once into one, single opportunity. When I joined Market Leader, they brought me on as the CTO. We’re talking 2010 when you just came out of the downturn in real estate, and everybody was sort of holding their breath and holding on, and we were like “How are we going to rebuild this business?” And he recruited me from California, from Silicon Valley, to Seattle and said “Here, we’re going to start you off. We need a CTO. We need someone to help us on the product team.” He not only gave me the tech team, but then he gave me the product team. Ultimately, he realized I had this sort of love affair with marketing and sales, and especially copywriting, and gave me the opportunity—because a big part of Market Leaders business was lead generation, and lead sales advertising, right? Then he gave me that organization and let me sort of spread my wings, if you will. That was just an amazing experience. And then I brought my prior experience working in the enterprise consulting space with me, to help develop sort of the enterprise model that led to the Keller Williams deal, that led to the turnaround of Market Leader, to where we ended up selling to Trulia. We 10x-ed our multiple in 3½ years.
Eric: Yes, at the time it was a huge success story.
Alex: Timing is everything, right?
Eric: Yes, timing is everything. How does a CTO, now a CEO, have a passion for marketing? You’ve got to tell me more about that. That cross-ends a technologist to marketer… it sounds like you’re deeply passionate in a number of areas.
Alex: And I am. It’s funny. I started cutting my teeth in tech. I was your old-school Oracle forms programmer in the 80s kind of thing. But, my personality, just who I am, is much more gregarious than your typical Type B programmer who’s sits in a cube. I loved how to see like the “why”—why are we building it? Not just what to build. And, over time, I started building sort of a side skill set. I got involved with J. Abraham and John Carlton, and your old-school direct marketing. Remember those long-form letters that you’d get, like 7 pages long that would convince you to send $9.99 at the end of it, and you would do it?
Eric: Strong call to action, yeah.
Alex: Those were really, really incredible. And there was such a science behind the writing. And I really enjoyed it to where I started looking at, “Oh, that’s what they’re doing in that commercial. That’s what they’re doing in this letter.” I really enjoyed it. So, I started learning it as a side, almost as like a hobby. Then, having you own product teams, you’re so tied to the marketing team, and product marketing, and the sales team, and trying to collect the feedback in order to decide what the right thing to build is. I just sort of wove it together. Like I said, it was a love affair with direct mail and copy that just sort of grew into something more. I would say in the last 7 years—and I’m all about continuing education, I read a book a week, and it’s always non-fiction… I’m sure a million people would tell me “You need to start reading some lighter stuff.” Relax a little. But all that education, and even the courses that I do, and the certifications that I’ve done—everything that I’ve done has been completely outside of technology.
Eric: I’m embarrassed to tell you, those authors and those books, I think I have on my credenza behind me. It’s still valid today! All those tools. So, in closing let me ask you a couple of what I call “forced choice” questions. These are going to be real tough. Tell me where your dominance is, your preference: sales and marketing vs. operations?
Alex: I’d say my second nature is operations. I’ve honed an operational skill set that’s focused on efficiency and efficacy. And that applies across, whether it’s product or technology, or finance. But again, I have a love affair for sales and marketing. I might actually be better at it. I don’t think I am, because it’s just you’re good at what you practice. I certainly have a focus and love affair for sales and marketing.
Eric: Okay, makes sense. How about this: broad strokes or details? Where do you typically live?
Alex: Again, probably this is an evolution. Starting off as a technician, you’re laser-focused on the details when you’re writing code. But I’d say, I think today I’m more focused on how all the aspects of an organization are more interdependent. And like I said, I’ve been very lucky to work across a lot of different areas and a lot of different industries. Because of that learning to see the entire ecosystem, I’m definitely focused on broad strokes now.
Eric: Technology junkie or pen-and-paper guy?
Alex: That’s a good one. I’m both, but for very, very specific reasons. I love, love, love technology. I love all the toys. I love apps and gadgets and stuff like that. I’m the first person to buy the latest tool just to like have it not work. It’s terrible. I’ve probably tried everything. But ultimately I settle on pen and paper for two things. Inbound collections. I take notes on paper. I have little pads of paper everywhere—in my car, in my nightstand, everywhere. And for brainstorming. And thinking time. Because, you actually think very differently with different pens in your hand. And with different mediums—whiteboard, paper, whatever—than you do in front of a computer screen. You think differently. I honestly believe that. Now, once I’ve collected data, or scribbled down my thoughts, I then—once I’ve weeded out the chaff and distilled it to action items—that’s all technology. I keep all that stuff in systems with outlines and to-dos, and things like that. That’s all tech, so I have them at my ready. But, thinking through a problem, I live on a whiteboard.
Eric: Well, there you go. That reinforces the process and pattern recognition that we talked about earlier. Alex, thank you for your time.
Alex: Well, thank you very much and thanks for spending time with me.
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