Trade Me's private equity adventure

In recent weeks, Trade Me, New Zealand's leading classifieds and marketplace portal, has received two, multi-billion-dollar buy-out offers from private equity firms.

Why it matters: There is a growing trend of private equity getting involved in portals around the world, which allows these businesses more freedom of action as private companies -- but with significant change.

Private equity and portals

Trade Me is New Zealand's leading portal, with property, automotive, and jobs classifieds and a general marketplace business. I worked there as head of strategy between 2012 and 2016.

British firm Apax Partners and American firm Hellman & Friedman have both offered around $2.5 billion NZD for the business, a 25 percent premium to the existing share price.

This news follows several other examples of private equity getting into the (property) portal business:

  • General Atlantic acquires a majority stake in Hemnet, December 2016.

  • Silver Lake acquires Zoopla for £2.2 billion, May 2018.

  • General Atlantic invests $120 million in Property Finder, November 2018.

Slowing growth

Since its public debut eight years ago, Trade Me has grown revenues 100 percent and net profit 39 percent.

Revenue growth has slowed over the years, especially recently, in a story reminiscent of Rightmove's growth dilemma.

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The stock price has seen a steady rise with its ups and downs, but has been relatively flat since 2017.

In August of 2018, Trade Me announced a special dividend to return $100 million in capital to investors. This comes on top of the normal dividend, which represents around 80 percent of profits. Returning capital at that scale can be a signal that the company has run out of ideas.

Many businesses believe it is more beneficial to reinvest profits to improve efficiency, expand reach, create new products and services as well as improve existing ones, and further separate themselves from competitors.

Like Rightmove, Trade Me is in a difficult position. With growth slowing, it is less likely to make big investments for fear of depressing earnings and upsetting investors. It's a delicate, public-company balance. Enter private equity...

Upside potential, with change

Private equity invests in businesses for one and only reason: to make money. It's clear that these P.E. firms have evaluated Trade Me's business and believe there is significant upside potential under new ownership and management.

But significant growth comes with significant change. When Silver Lake acquired Zoopla in the U.K., nearly the entire executive team was let go as part of the restructuring. It's the same story in Sweden, when General Atlantic appointed a new management team after acquiring a majority stake in Hemnet.

Strategic implications

If consummated, a private equity takeover of Trade Me would have a number of implications for the business, competitors, and the entire online ecosystem:

  • A private ownership structure will allow Trade Me to be more aggressive, focus on longer-term opportunities, and be less sensitive to a stock price that focuses on short-term earnings growth.

  • Private equity firms demand a return on their investment, and this transaction will be no exception. Expect costs to be trimmed, earnings maximized, and a more aggressive posture on pricing and monetization.

  • If you're competing with Trade Me, expect a dramatically different business to emerge that's tougher, less conservative, and more willing to throw its weight around.

Trade Me has long had a friendly, home-grown feel in New Zealand. New owners -- and new demands on the business -- may change the equation.

Zillow's billion dollar seller lead opportunity

Last week, Zillow announced its latest financial results, and the stock dropped 25 percent (losing $2 billion in value). But the story everyone is missing is the Zillow Offers iBuying business, and the huge potential of seller leads.

Why it matters: Last week I was quoted on MarketWatch saying, “If you’re thinking about Zillow doing iBuying and you’re not thinking about seller leads, you’re thinking about it the wrong way.” Seller leads are the real billion dollar opportunity.

Slowing premier agent growth

Here's the reason why Zillow's stock tanked 25 percent last week, in one chart:

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Zillow's premier agent program accounts for over 70 percent of its revenue, or nearly $1 billion. Growth is slowing down. I'm not sure why this surprised anyone on Wall Street; I've been writing about it since early this year (Zillow's revenue growth slows and Zillow's strategic shift to iBuying and mortgages). I believe it's the primary reason Zillow has aggressively expanded into adjacent businesses.

The value of seller leads

Zillow's iBuyer business continues to grow, and the latest results crystalize the opportunity in seller leads.

Zillow says that since launch, nearly 20,000 homeowners have taken direct action on its platform to sell their home. Of those, it has purchased just about 1 percent of homes (around 200). That leaves about 19,800 leads who remain interested in selling their homes.

If Zillow simply sold those leads at $100 a pop, they're worth nearly $2 million.

But the real opportunity is giving those leads to premier agents in exchange for an industry-standard referral fee, about 1 percent, if the property sells (similar to the Opcity business model).

Here's the kicker: Zillow claims about 45 percent of consumers that go through the Zillow Offers funnel end up listing their home. That's a high conversion rate reflective of a high intent to sell; about 10 times higher than Opcity's conversion rate.

Assuming a 1 percent referral fee, a $250,000 home, and a conversion rate of 45 percent, those 19,800 leads are worth $22 million in revenue to Zillow, almost all profit.

Compare that to the estimated profit of its iBuyer business (1.5 percent net profit), which, on 200 houses, is $750,000. The value of the seller leads is worth almost 30 times the profit from flipping houses!

Total addressable market

Zillow says that based on its current purchase criteria, if Zillow Offers were available in the top 200 metro areas in the U.S., sellers of nearly half of the homes sold in 2017 across the entire nation would have been eligible to receive offers from it to buy their home directly. That equates to around 2.75 million homes annually.

Last quarter, Zillow said that it received offer requests from around 15 percent of the total for-sale stock in the Phoenix market. Interestingly, that number increased to 25 percent in September and 35 percent in October. That's a reflection of the strong lead generation power of Zillow Offers across its various web properties.

Based on these numbers, if Zillow goes national (200 metro areas) and sees 35 percent of the for-sale stock, it would receive 962,500 offer requests each year.

The billion dollar opportunity

Taking the latest numbers, which have been validated to the tune of 20,000 offer requests over five months in two markets, the total opportunity becomes clear with a national rollout.

Seller leads can be a billion dollar business for Zillow if you believe the current numbers. Even if a national conversion rate is lower, or the % of for-sale stock fluctuates, it's still worth several hundred million dollars in revenue annually.

Should Zillow even buy houses?

Given the value of the seller leads, should Zillow even be in the business of buying houses? Yes, if it wants a credible product for consumers. The real question is: What proportion of houses should Zillow actually buy?

Zillow's "big picture" is 5 percent national market share, which equates to buying around 10 percent of all offer requests (it is currently buying around 1 percent of offer requests). At a 1.5 percent net margin, that's around $1 billion in profit.

But to reach that scale, Zillow would need to spend $68 billion to purchase 275,000 houses annually. Assuming an average holding time of 90 days, it would need a credit line of $17 billion to fund the effort. Big numbers.

A more realistic target would be to only purchase around 1 percent of requests. Nationally, that would be 27,500 homes, which is only around double what Opendoor is currently doing, so it's feasible.

In any case, the point is clear: Zillow doesn't need to actually buy and sell a lot of houses for this model to generate significant profits for the company in a national rollout.

Strategic implications

Zillow is a lead generation machine, and its recent foray into iBuying is no exception. 

If you're in the industry and your value proposition to agents is seller lead generation, there's a new game in town. Zillow will be able to generate a massive volume of seller leads with higher intent than almost any other source. If successful, this will have significant implications across the industry.

Further analysis

If you're looking to dive deeper into the world of iBuyers, consider the following:

Mobile contact form analysis

Inspired by a recent talk on the importance of mobile experiences, I've conducted an analysis of the mobile contact forms for the big real estate portals. These are the forms that turn visitors into leads.

Why it matters: Mobile is huge. My research of the top real estate portals shows that, on average, 70 percent of leads come from mobile. Mobile contact forms should be optimized to be as efficient as possible.

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Notable UX highlights

Pre-selecting checkboxes is a real-world example of behavioral science (specifically nudge theory) in action. In the U.S., Zillow and realtor.com take different approaches to encourage (or discourage) users to request additional financing information. Overseas, Propertyfinder, PropertyGuru and Otodom do the same when it comes to signing users up for property alerts.

Trade Me has the unique distinction of having the easiest and most difficult mobile form. On the positive side, it is the shortest form from my survey, simply asking for a message. On the negative side, it requires users to sign in to send a message. Luckily, almost the entire population of New Zealand is a member of Trade Me, but in the case of a new user (or someone who isn't logged in), this introduces a significant form completion hurdle.

The more required fields, the more difficult to complete a form. I know Germans can be formal at times, but does salutation really need to be a required field for ImmoScout24?

Redfin has split its form across three screens, each quite simple. But the additional effort to click a submission button three times instead of one, plus additional page load time, adds significant (and unnecessary) overhead.

Hemnet has decided to do away with forms all together and simply list an email address, leaving communication entirely in the user's hands!

Mobile usage

Many thanks to the portals that were willing to share their data with me (both anonymously and on the record). The collective intelligence is a benefit to all!

The percentage of leads that come from mobile (native app or mobile web) varies greatly: from 40 percent in Poland (Otodom) to 91 percent in Singapore (PropertyGuru). 

The biggest markets average somewhere in the middle: around 65 percent in the U.K. (Zoopla) to 72 percent in Australia (Domain).

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On average, around 70 percent of all leads come from a mobile device, underlining the importance of a smooth mobile user experience.

User experience best practices

Best Practices for Mobile Form Design is an incredible resource for designing simple and effective mobile forms. Looking at the mobile forms from this survey, there are several best practices to remember:

  • Avoid dropdown menus (dropdowns are especially bad for mobile).

  • Don't slice data fields (when asking for a first and last name).

  • Mark optional fields instead of mandatory ones (don't use asterisks).

A number of real estate portals do a great job at keeping the mobile experience simple and easy by following best practices and keeping the form as short as possible. My hope is that next year the forms will be even easier for users to complete. And if you're wondering just how important leads are, just ask Zillow.


Before entering the high-octane world of real estate tech strategy, I was a product guy. My master's degree was in human-computer interaction, and I spent the first years of my career as a user interface designer. So I'm passionate about great design!

Why incumbents can't beat Zillow (and the power of network effects)

Recently, several large incumbents have announced big consumer plays aimed at Zillow: Rocket Homes' new consumer portal, and Keller Williams acquiring SmarterAgent as part of its consumer strategy.

Why it matters: Zillow benefits from practically unbeatable network effects in the consumer space. Both of these moves ignore basic strategic principles of playing to your strengths, and picking battles you can win.

Network effects and wide moats

In his best-selling book Zero to One, Peter Thiel provides an elegant definition of network effects: “Network effects makes a product more useful as more people use it. For example, if all your friends are on Facebook, it makes sense for you to join Facebook, too.”

Online marketplaces such as Craigslist, LinkedIn, and eBay are classic examples of businesses that benefit from network effects. The more people that use them -- buyers and sellers -- the more valuable the service becomes.

Businesses that have the benefit of network effects are incredibly difficult to displace. As Tren Griffin writes on a16z, "Nothing scales as well as a software business, and nothing creates a moat for that business more effectively than network effects."

Zillow benefits from the power of network effects. By developing the most popular means of searching for real estate, it attracts buyers and sellers in a virtuous cycle. It has cemented an incredibly strong position with a near-impenetrable moat from competition. This is Zillow's key strength.

Comfortably number one

Logically, the most likely competitor to challenge Zillow's dominance is realtor.com. It is the runner-up portal backed by a multi-billion dollar international media company (News Corp) that also owns several top portals around the world.

But as I've shown in the past, Zillow's ever-important traffic dominance remains constant, undisturbed by realtor.com or anyone else.

 
 

If anyone could dislodge Zillow's dominance, it would be realtor.com. But it hasn't; not for lack of trying, but rather an understanding of network effects and the futility of such an effort (remember, it owns the top portal in Australia and knows the power of network effects better than most). News Corp doesn't want to overtake Zillow because it knows it's impossible.

Strategy basics: play to your strengths

Sound strategic planning requires two key elements: leveraging your strengths, and playing where you can win.

A business should build its strategy around an understanding of its key competitive advantages and operational strengths. Those strengths should be applied in areas where it can win (typically where its competitors are weak).

To illustrate this point further, the following chart looks at four examples of Zillow and realtor.com smartly leveraging their strengths and exploiting their competitor's weaknesses.

Less experienced strategists can be reactionary. They see a threat and attempt to counter it, on a battlefield where they are at a distinct disadvantage to a competitor. Keller Williams and Rocket Homes have done just this; choosing to do battle with Zillow on its home turf, where it is strong and they are weak.

Keller Williams and Rocket Homes

Zillow's strength lies in its massive consumer reach through its search portal. This business benefits from strong network effects and has a wide moat to protect it from competition.

Keller Williams is building a new consumer-facing app to "compete directly with search giants like Zillow and Redfin." Rocket Homes is launching a portal to "rival Zillow," which will "let consumers search for homes and apply for loans."

In their efforts build end-to-end homebuying platforms, both businesses have decided to go from positions of strength (mortgages and agent reach) to ones of weakness (consumer listing portal). It's the most difficult battle possible.

What Rocket Homes and Keller Williams are missing in their end-to-end platforms -- the consumer search portal -- is nearly impossible to deliver because of Zillow's dominance and the power of network effects. There's a certain futility in going after Zillow (or Facebook, or Ebay, or Craigslist).

Strategic implications

Keller Williams and Rocket Homes (part of Quicken Loans), are both incredibly large and powerful businesses; Keller Williams has the largest network of agents, and Quicken Loans is the largest retail lender in the U.S. But in the changing world of real estate, they aren't playing to their strengths.

All businesses should know their strengths. Deeply understand your competitive advantage and what value you offer -- and focus on that. 

By going directly after Zillow, Keller Williams and Rocket Homes demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the power of network effects. There's simply no purpose for these new consumer portals to exist, because they don't meaningfully benefit consumers.

In the accelerating race to build end-to-end real estate ecosystems, businesses should focus on leveraging their strengths to gain advantage over competitors and deliver true value to consumers.

Opcity, lead conversion, and the journey down the funnel

Last week, News Corp, owner of realtor.com in the U.S. and the majority owner of REA Group in Australia, announced the $210 million acquisition of lead qualification service Opcity.

Why it matters: With this acquisition, realtor.com dives deeper into the lead conversion funnel in a major way. Opcity features a referral fee business model where customers are worth 36x more than a lead -- which highlights why the U.S. portals are diving deeper into the funnel.

Lead generation vs. lead qualification

Zillow and realtor.com are both lead generators. They drive traffic to their web sites, advertise real estate agents, and generate leads in the form of consumers who are looking to buy a house. This is the lion’s share of their revenues and the core of their business models.

The conversion of leads to actual, paying customers is left up to individual real estate agents, and nominally occurs offline. But this is changing.

In Zillow’s last earnings update, it shared its goal of "moving beyond lead generation and actively evolving toward being a deeper funnel real estate industry partner.” It launched a new, super-charged concierge service where Zillow sales reps qualify leads before matching them with a premier agent.

News Corp’s acquisition of Opcity is the same move: deeper down the funnel. Opcity takes raw leads, qualifies them, and then matches them with an agent. It does not charge per lead, like Zillow or realtor.com, but charges a referral fee for any leads that turn into paying customers (typically 30%-35% of a buyer’s agent commission).

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The cost per lead on Zillow ranges from $20 to $220. I estimate the average to be around $55 per lead. For Opcity, assuming a $250,000 home, a buyer’s agent commission of 2.75%, and a 30% referral fee, each customer is worth around $2,000 — or 36x higher than the value of a lead.

Providing a superior experience, to everyone

The rationale for Zillow and realtor.com to move deeper down the funnel is simple: a better experience.

In the case of both Zillow's concierge service and Opcity, consumers are able to speak to a human being faster, and are matched (not just sent) to an agent faster. Agents are matched with pre-qualified consumers, saving them time and energy. Plus the return on investment for the concierge model is far superior to simply buying leads.

At first glance the Opcity and referral fee model may seem like a bad deal. Why would an agent pay 30%-35% of their commission (around $2,000 for an average transaction) for a referral when they can buy leads for a fraction that price? 

It comes down to the math. Buying leads and converting them to customers costs an agent, on average, around $7,500 per customer -- compared to $2,000 for a customer through Opcity.

It all comes down to the conversion rate. Operating at scale and singularly focused on doing one job, Opcity and Zillow have the scale and technology advantage to convert leads more quickly and efficiently. They have call centers, teams, data, and a long list of agents if the first one contacted doesn’t answer the phone. It's no surprise their conversion rate is higher.

A big revenue opportunity

So how big is the opportunity from a revenue standpoint? (The analysis below is based on Zillow, simply because there is so much more data available, but the same logic applies to realtor.com and Opcity.)

Back in FY16, when Zillow last reported the figure, it generated around 17 million leads during the year. If we assume Opcity’s 4% lead conversation rate (between 3x-5x the industry norm of 1%) and a 30% referral fee, those 17 million leads are worth $1.4 billion in revenue to Zillow (about 50% higher than the ~ $930 million in current premier agent revenues today).

Both Zillow and realtor.com can better monetize their leads if they qualify them and adopt a referral fee structure. Realtor.com now has that option through Opcity.

Given the industry upheaval it would create, it's unlikely that Zillow would change its fee structure. Rather, it will likely approach the same commission rate through the existing premier agent program and share-of-voice bidding system (similar to Google AdWords). Zillow will get there in the end, but through a different path: by providing more value to agents and growing the revenue per lead.

Implications for real estate portals

The core of this entire model is the buyer lead, which only works in markets where there are buyer’s agents. In international markets like the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand — where there are only listing agents — buyer leads are not nearly as valuable.

A similar lead qualification service still has merit for seller leads, when consumers are looking for a listing agent (see HomelightOpenAgent, or REA Group’s Agent Finder service). But real estate portals generate significantly fewer seller leads with a lower intent.

To sum it up for portals: Pay close attention to lead qualification if you operate in a market where you can monetize buyer leads. It's a superior experience with a big revenue opportunity.

Strategic implications

For anyone involved in this sector, there are a number of key takeaways:

  • A concierge, lead qualification model provides a superior experience for consumers and agents. And for agents, it delivers a superior return on investment.
  • Real estate portals like Zillow and realtor.com can monetize qualified leads much better than raw leads. More value to agents = more revenue.
  • The recurring theme here, which I discuss often, is the importance of people in the process. Augmenting -- not replacing -- humans with technology is the winning formula.
  • Lead conversion is important! Small teams can't compete, but the larger platform plays (Keller Williams, Compass, etc) can absolutely build products (technology + people) that improve lead conversion at scale. But are they?

If you work for a real estate portal or lead generator and want to capitalize on the lead conversion opportunity, I can help. I currently advise a select number of real estate portals on an exclusive basis (to avoid competitive issues). Drop me a line if you’re interested in exploring the opportunity for your market.