Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Settling In at the Concourse

So we have a few days under our belt at VendAsta! We've been settling into our new office space in the Innovation Place research park. Our new surroundings have brought a bright warm spot to the middle of a cold dark Saskatoon winter. Our office is just to the right of the photo below.

There's a ton of logistics behind getting a business going from the ground up but I have to say it's such exciting work. I was just as excited sitting down and putting my chair together as I was getting on to the first day of white board work. We'll have some website updates coming down the pipe shortly. As we prepare to get stuff live for the world to see, we'll try to let people see what's going on inside our walls.



Thursday, January 17, 2008

My Departure from Point2 and all Things New

As most people know now, I left Point2 at the beginning of December along with a number of my colleagues. Together we are embarking on a new venture which has me so excited I can’t sleep. In fact, I have no hope of sleeping with the new addition of my son Jackson! Jack was born on December 8 and he’s our first child. It’s also the reason why I’ve been quiet on the recent news of my departure from Point2 – too darn tired to blog!

To start, I’d like to clarify some parts of the story around my departure which first broke on Inman News on Dec 11. I’ve fielded a few questions on how I left lately because of a Blanche Evans story where she commented:

“the five investors at Point2 cleaned house of about 10 percent of its workforce, including upper management …”

That comment is inaccurate on a couple of levels and so first I would like to clarify that I did indeed resign as Brendan King noted, and as Point2 noted to Inman news and in their own official release.

A Look Back

I’m proud of a lot of things that were accomplished at Point2. I filled a lot of roles since my start in 2002. When I arrived, there were just over 30 people working at Point2, most of them solely focused on heavy equipment software. I was the first person officially hired on to the real estate project by Brendan King.

Prior to my addition to the team, Point2’s real estate endeavors began when John Fothergill, manager of web development at the time, received permission to ‘fiddle’ with Point2’s heavy equipment inventory management system. He was building a solution for Mark Wouters, a local real estate broker. After some adjustments were made and the opportunity began to take shape, Brendan received permission to work full time on a real estate launch. Jason Collins and Eron Wright were working on the initial product while Brendan conducted research. When I started, several dozen local REALTORS were testing a very early platform.

Just prior to Point2, I was working at a real estate management and development company. I also had my own website that sold document templates that I launched in 1998. I was introduced to Point2 by Jason Collins and although I didn’t apply for a specific well defined position, my background in real estate and online marketing seemed a good fit. I started out as manager of market research helping Brendan identify and understand the opportunities in front of us. I helped organize our initial marketing strategies and product launch. There was an exciting atmosphere at Point2, especially for those of us working from a blank slate in real estate.

Shaping a Product

Transforming a heavy equipment product to a real estate product made a lot of sense for a number of reasons. First, the industries were similar in that they were both fragmented and the Internet was proving itself to be a great tool to connect buyers and sellers. In both cases the commodities are large complex capital assets and to leverage the Internet as a power marketing medium, owners and sales representatives need to publish rich content. Point2’s software was very good at that. Lastly, both industries involved complex transactions so it’s likely that there will be a sales professional involved to facilitate the transaction and Point2’s inventory management software was geared toward the sales professionals.

While the core software was the backend inventory management component, our initial research was telling us that it would be impossible to get REALTORS® to enter listing data rather than import data from the MLS. The problem was that MLS data was not rich enough. We knew from our heavy equipment experience we had to provide many valuable reasons to do the data entry. One very compelling reason was to publish it to their public facing website, instantly, and display it in a manner that was superior to typical MLS data display. The development of personal REALTOR® websites not only represented a method to encourage the data entry, but actually represented a large opportunity in its own right. In 2002, few REALTORS® had personal, easy to use, self maintainable websites. Building out that product quickly became our core focus.

One of my first projects alongside industry research was to build a public facing website for our product. Here are the first 2 websites that I wrote:

(don’t be too critical, it was 2002!)

I wrote the content for some of the first sites we developed with the design talent of Sarah Milne making everything work, flow and look pretty. Sarah moved away to the warmer Arizona climate in in 2004 (I think…?) and I have to say I missed her. She’s such a talented web developer and designer. At the same time, we developed a smart tutorial system that triggered messages based on the user’s progress.

Some Milestones

The “Free Idea” - By late November 2002 we had a self-registration built and officially launched Point2 Agent in January of 2003. I think our first bold move was to release our software for free. Back in 2002 and 2003, websites were things that you paid for and most often, you paid a significant price for a good one. Here we wanted to take software with millions of dollars invested into its development and provide it for free while continually investing in its improvement. It was wildly successful and in fact our biggest challenge was trying to convince our target audience that there wasn’t a catch.

We didn’t even have a pay product for the first year. Marketing Point2 Agent was very fun back in those days. I remember going to our first trade show conference for Century 21 in Toronto with Brendan in January of 2003. Our booth simply said “Free Websites”. Out of the 20 or so booths there, ours was flooded. In fact, a local website provide that was across from us packed his booth up half way through and just went home – especially when he saw all of the things our FREE websites could do!

The websites were so success that our core marketing focus revolved around them. Our core benefit became, “The easiest way to create and completely control an astonishingly professional website.” That’s what differentiated us from everyone else.

Handshake and Shared Listings - In the fall of 2003 we released what we called listing sharing where our members could login and see all the listings from all the other local users. Additionally, public facing home search notification forms would send listing results to leads from all local listings entered into Point2, not just that agent’s own inventory. By early 2004 we introduced the extension of listing sharing – Agent Handshake™. It gave our members control to share listings with whom they wanted and allowed them to publicly display listings. I think the idea was a little ahead of its time. The DOJ threat, combined with an industry opening data up and brokers needing better control, we saw Handshake™ starting to gain appeal throughout the past couple of years.

Neighborhoods - In 2005, we saw in that Handshake could truly become a national IDX solution. One obstacle was our reliance on using existing MLS selling areas. These created a couple of challenges. First, we saw that many IDX providers spent so many resources maintaining MLS selling area mapping, that it detracted resources from core product development. National IDX vendors have and still have a burden to maintain these areas for the over 900 existing MLSs in the United States. Secondly, there were so many areas that have overlapping MLSs that compete with one another. One only needed to look at the listing search on Realtor.com to see the mess that it made in many areas. Lastly, many MLS selling areas did not map onto the colloquial neighborhood names that people were familiar with. This meant that both the consumer search experience and SEO could be improved.

We began working on solutions to this problem. It was soon obvious that there was no existing database of all the colloquial neighborhood names. Even if there were, neighborhoods are constantly evolving, amalgamating and in some areas, the concept of neighborhood doesn’t really even apply.

The solution is to build a community based platform where local people can define areas that make sense. In our case, we leveraged our community of 1000’s of local real estate professionals to help get it right.

Even now, this platform at Point2 needs to improve. Looking back, I wish we had done things differently. The biggest regret is that we confused the important aspect of community involvement to build an accurate nomenclature, with our sale of advertising sponsorships on Point2 Homes. With that said, I was proud of the initial work that was done on this front and I’m glad we pushed our development in that direction. I still believe community involvement is the way to manage local problems on a national scale platform.

Data Syndication - In January of 2006 I officially began working as the platform product manager for our listings engine. The focus at the time was to build out a data syndication platform that would allow our users to automatically send their listings to online search sites with complete control and choice. This represented an opportunity for our members to be able to automatically generate free traffic and exposure online. For Point2, it represented the opportunity to create an even more compelling reason for our members to enter their listings.

The concept is simple enough but building a reliable platform is far from simple. Some of the search sites that I’ll call data end points accept different sets of listings types including rentals, residential sales, condos, and commercial listings. This means that one fixed list of data end points will not suffice for all listings. Some data end points show complete listing details while others simply show a search result and then click through to the listing source. This means that different analytics are collected across the spectrum of data end points. Additionally, not all of these end points provide coverage in all geographic areas. Lastly, data feed communication between the data provider and the end points will sometimes fail for various reasons. That means that publishing reports are necessary to understand if listings are being properly published. If there are errors, an error report is necessary so that the user can try and correct the feed.

Together, this all means that the solution requires a sophisticated user interface, requires complete analytics and must provide publishing reports to verify the successful data transfer and publishing.

I was proud that we developed the most sophisticated feed system in the industry. I believe it remains the best one available to real estate professionals. An enormous amount of development work has been put into it with Kevin Baribeau and Hemant Naidu building the core guts of the system and Todd Sturgeon tying it into the backend software UI.

Predictive Marketing - Point2 Agent was so far ahead of its time in 2003 with the ability to capture and track leads. It evolved into the Predictive Marketing solution by 2007 with Brendan and John championing the innovation in that area. It was such a critical part of the overall solution because it strengthened the advertising platform by maximizing the conversion of leads generated.

There is a lot of further innovation that can happen with this platform and I expect that future development efforts will be lead by James Townley and Jesse Redl. These 2 guys worked closely with John Fothergill at Point2 and proved their skills as brilliant business analysts.

NAR Expo 2006 “NLS” Turning Point - When we returned from a successful showing at the NAR Expo in New Orleans, Greg Miller and I were discussing the challenge we had getting our message out to a huge industry with so many service providers. Some of the frustrations surfaced after working the trade show floor which was a sea of 600 booths. Standing out was a challenge. That is, standing out as an idea was a challenge. We had no problem wowing people when they saw Point2 Agent and Point2 Broker, but getting their attention and time to explain the product was more than a challenge. The product was incredible but we needed to have a purple cow.

In an off-site strategy meeting in the week following New Orleans, we decided to amalgamate all of our products and make a bold statement. Our core group rallied around the idea a Point2 Agent, Point2 Broker, Point2 Builder and Point2 Prop Man all became the Point2 NLS or National Listing Service.

Since 2003, we had been working toward a platform that could replace some of the roles MLSs play in data policing; a national platform without overlapping boundaries and where the real estate professional had complete control over the advertising of their listings. Of course, it was an advertising platform that provided analytics over the aggregate marketing effort of the REALTOR® including the cooperative advertising effort of members within a multiple listing service.

The Point2NLS change has created strong and sustained momentum .


My new company name is VendAsta! The origin of the name comes from 2 Italian words for marketing and auction. Tune in to our site for updates on our plans!

Brendan King, President – Former COO, Point2 Realty Solutions
Ches Hagen, CEO – Former COO Point2 Heavy Equipment
Jason Collins, CTO – Former CTO, Point2
John Fothergill, EVP Product Development – Former Director Product Development, Point2,
Jonathan Levesque, EVP Partner Relations – Former Director of IT, Point2
Allan Wolinski, EVP Usability Engineering – Former Director of Client Support, Point2
Jeff Tomlin [Me!], EVP Business Development – Former VP Strategy and Business Development, Point2

More to follow…