As we wind down Real Estate's Annus Horribilis, and look forward to 2009, I am struck by a wholly unreasonable sense of optimism. Some experts are predicting that if 2008 was the Year of Horrors for the markets, then 2009 will be the Year of Horrors for the overall economy. But I work in the real estate industry. The problems of the economy and the markets began with us, a couple of years back, and I feel that we've already suffered through the worst.
But even if that were not true, and 2009 ends up being the worst real estate market since Thag traded his warm cave to Konk for two woolly mammoth cloaks (with Dhool taking a commission for helping Thag market his cave), I can't help but feel that 2009 will present the industry, Onboard Informatics, and our customers with enormous opportunities.
Part of the reason is that we have some new products in waiting that I can't wait to announce and discuss with the industry. But the larger part, frankly, is that I feel that this downturn, this crisis, comes at a perfect time.
Although the Internet was introduced to the public sometime in late 90's, the real estate industry hasn't fully embraced technology until the last few years. While there are many who might take issue with the claim that the industry has embraced technology, I urge them to take a wider view. Today, you can't find a broker, an agent, a manager who isn't thinking about technology, thinking about the Internet, thinking about websites, blogs, Twitter, social networks, etc.
Mere four years ago, when I first proposed to Coldwell Banker that it should launch a blog, the suggestion was met with Legal Department's version of "BWAHAHAHAHA!" while pointing fingers and such. Today, Colbert Coldwell has a Facebook profile.
The industry has definitely opened the Pandora's Box that is technology. In some cases, it took third parties such as Homegain, Trulia, Move, Zillow, Google, and Microsoft to provide the leadership, and for that alone, those pioneers deserve our thanks. But whether the industry charged ahead, or was dragged screaming into the 21st century, there is little doubt in my mind that we are here now.
The embracing of technology also coincided with the longest and largest boom cycle in the history of real estate. We now know that much of that was fueled with what one might call not just stupid money, but dumbass money. Nonetheless, while the going was good, there's no denying that we were awash in easy money. Truly suspect business models were tried, because it looked like everything was just going up, up and away.
The downturn, then, is the first real challenge to the newly empowered real estate industry. We now have access to technology and tools that would have sounded like fantastic science fiction a mere decade ago. Computers and telecommunications have absolutely revolutionized how work is done on a day-to-day basis. And now, the storm has come.
The Next Innovation
Thanks to the computer and telecommunications equipment industries, we have had an explosion of innovation in hardware. My cellphone has five times more memory than my first desktop's hard drive that weighed about 10lbs. My little laptop has more processing power than the computer that sent Apollo 11 to the moon and brought it back. In every conceivable way, improvements in hardware have been nothing short of sci-fi.
Companies both in and out of real estate have created tremendous innovation in software. Databases of today make the cutting-edge databases of just ten years ago seem like a batch of old index cards. AJAX, Flash, mapping software, instant messaging, mobile applications... the innovators working in software have been hard at work to continually improve user experience, efficiency, and speed.
And I have no doubt that both hardware manufacturers and software programmers will be hard at work to give us things we can only dream about. I happen to think that Onboard Informatics will be in that conversation, but that might be hopeful, wishful thinking. Time will tell. :)
But one thing I do believe is that neither hardware nor software will provide the real estate industry with the next big leap in innovation. No, the next innovation will come from upgrades in wetware, otherwise known as human beings.
Real Estate Wetware 2.0 The prognosticators in Real Estate talk alot about Web 2.0, about Real Estate 2.0, and social media and so on. But so much of the conversation feels empty, feels too 'technical'. I believe it is because we rarely talk much about the people who will be operating the software on the advanced hardware platforms.
As we, at Onboard, have been strategizing about 2009 and beyond, something that struck all of us with its obviousness was that for the past six years, we have not actually been in the "data business" as much as we have been in the "humanizing" business. Marc Siden, the CEO of Onboard, recently discussed this in a video.
As a result, we have decided that our message, our theme for 2009 is the "Human Touch". Real Estate websites of today lack the human touch, being entirely too property-centric. Few of them are able to answer real human questions and concerns of real human beings. We think our clients do better than most, of course, but even they can do better, and we are committed to helping them continually improve with new and improved tools, new and improved data, and new and improved services.
At the same time, there is a real danger that this focus on "humanizing" the real estate web could become too externally directed. Studies by NAR, for example, tend to focus on buyers and sellers of real estate. We think a whole lot about the consumer, the user experience, and how to make connections with consumers.
Thing is... even though information and advanced technology can humanize the web, at the end of the day, it takes a human being to actually relate to a human being.
This is one reason why we have never subscribed to theories about disintermediation. The real estate agent will never be completely replaced by algorithms and super-powered computers. A diligent consumer can research neighborhoods, get all manner of info, find homes online, and do all of those things... understand which school systems offer the best value, know how safe an area is for her family and so on, but at the end of the day, a website can no more relate to her than I could feel my iPod's pain when forced to play the Backstreet Boys.
While manufacturers could continuously improve hardware, and software giants could continually give us programs that astonish, neither with much involvement from the real estate industry, the improvement of wetware, of the human professionals who make this industry what it is, simply cannot be done by outsiders or third parties.
That is a task for brokers, for agents, for REALTOR associations, for franchisors, for technology providers... in short, for all of us.
Dell can provide the latest quad-core Xeon servers. Google and Microsoft can provide the latest in mapping technology. We at Onboard can provide you the latest and most accurate information to humanize your website and your tools. But without upgrading your wetware, your people, to take advantage of the new power that technology unleashes, none of that will be of much use.
And the current market conditions will provide the perfect test. Just as a company in today's market operating on old IBM 486 machines, or running a circa-1998 website, cannot expect to compete and survive, a company that is operating outdated wetware cannot compete against one that has trained its people to take advantage of new technology, new data, and new methodologies.
We'll do our part -- deliver you the best data and content in the industry, and some of the finest technology tools and guidance to implement them. But we need you to do your part, especially in these troubled economic times.
The next innovation breakthrough will come from Real Estate Wetware 2.0.
Image Credit: Rachel Sarai on Flickr.com