REA Group, Domain, and the non-battle for top spot

It's earnings season! In the past week, a number of portals announced their financial results, including REA Group and Domain, the two top Australian portals.

Why it matters: The numbers reveal interesting trends and insights, significantly around the difficulty of building meaningful adjacent businesses, and the non-battle between the #1 and #2 players in various markets.

Adjacent businesses are tough

Like many portals worldwide, REA Group and Domain each launched adjacent businesses, with goals to expand along more of the transaction, reduce consumer friction, and capture more revenue.

But as I've written before, the businesses have very different strategies. REA Group acquired a majority stake in an existing mortgage broking business, while Domain launched a number of joint ventures and partnerships. Different strategies, different outcomes.

REA's finance business continues to chug along, building revenue and generating meaningful earnings ($5.8 million EBITDA over the last six months).

 
 

By comparison, Domain's adjacent businesses (finance, insurance, and utility switching) generate similar revenues but with continued -- and mounting -- losses. The latest six months show a loss of $4.3 million.

 
 

REA's strategy is delivering a positive financial impact, while Domain's businesses are still in a heavy investment phase after more than a year.

The "battle" between #1 and #2

The battle between the #1 and #2 portal in each market is fascinating, and Australia is no exception.

One metric to compare portals is overall revenue generation. In general, the #2 portal generates between 25 and 40 percent the revenue of the leader (read my portal report), and that number doesn't fluctuate over time. In fact, in the case of REA Group and Domain, the leader is growing faster than the number two.

 
 

Domain is the underdog in Australia, and the evidence suggests it will remain that way. Overall situational awareness is important: It would be a mistake to assume Domain will overtake REA in any capacity.

U.K. portal wars -- what's changing?

Along the same lines, the real estate portals in the U.K. recently released traffic figures for the start of the year. It offers yet another fascinating glimpse into the competitive tension between top players -- and the complete lack of movement.

The figures released are for January 2019. And while the absolute numbers are generally rubbish, it's the comparison between portals and the year-on-year growth that's insightful.

 
 

Rightmove's numbers have hardly changed, and the delta between the number one and two is still the same. For all the investment on product, marketing, and inventory -- the all important consumer habits haven't shifted.

The variable, however, is the upstart portal OnTheMarket (read my past analysis). OTM has raised over £30m and is aggressively spending on marketing in order to drive traffic to its site. Its traffic has doubled since last year -- but does it matter?

For all of the tens-of-millions of pounds spent to build an alternative to the established portals, what impact is it having after launching four years ago? Zoopla's traffic is marginally down, but it reports that leads are up over 30 percent. The top two portals are equally and exactly as dominant as they were a year ago.

Strategic implications

There are a number of key takeaways for portals around the world:

  • Launching successful adjacent businesses is hard. It takes an incredible amount of investment, and there are a variety of execution strategies.

  • The evidence doesn't suggest that the #2 portal can overtake the leader -- let alone make a dent in its leadership position. It's not a horse race; it's static trench warfare.

  • Trying to launch a new portal and compete against the leaders is at best expensive, and at worst futile. Consumer habits are hard to change.

Zoopla's private equity strategy shift

Zoopla recently announced that it has removed all non-property advertising from its listing pages. This is one of several significant strategy changes after its acquisition by private equity firm Silver Lake.

Why it matters: The benefit of being a private company is that Zoopla can be more aggressive, focus on longer-term opportunities, and be less sensitive to a stock price that focuses on short-term earnings growth. This move is an example of that strategy in action.

The advertising revenue dilemma

A number of real estate portals generate revenue from non-property advertising on their listing pages. Zoopla's move puts it in line with arch-rival Rightmove by banishing banner ads from listing pages.

Note : REA Group and Domain do not have advertising on featured property listings, but do have non-property advertising on "normal" listings.

Note: REA Group and Domain do not have advertising on featured property listings, but do have non-property advertising on "normal" listings.

Banner advertising can be an important source of revenue for portals. However, it comes at the expense of the user experience. If a visitor clicks on a banner ad, their attention is diverted away from the property listing, reducing its effectiveness.

Often times user experience loses out to finances, especially for publicly listed companies under pressure to deliver revenue growth. And given that core revenue growth is slowing at a number of mature portals, the decision is even harder. But for a private company that's focused on the long-term opportunity, the decision is easy.

A shift in strategy

Aside from jettisoning nearly its entire management team, Zoopla has been up to quite a bit post-acquisition; there is the appearance of a significant change in strategy.

Zoopla's aggressive diversification strategy has been a leading factor making it unique in the world of real estate portals. It's been a world leader in acquiring adjacent businesses to dramatically grow revenues (for more on this, check out my 2018 Global Real Estate Portal Report).

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The company's narrative has centered around a cross-sell strategy, where acquisitions are deeply integrated across Zoopla's network of web properties.

I've questioned the effectiveness of the cross-sell strategy, most recently in my Future of Real Estate Portals Report. The evidence didn't suggest a runaway success when it came to integration and cross-sell synergies.

Notably (and here's the big strategy shift), Zoopla's new managing director recently stated that, "Going forward, the former comparison and property businesses of ZPG will be managed largely separately, but we will continue to achieve synergies between the two wherever it is appropriate and relevant.”

To me, that sounds like a "back to basics" approach with a deep focus on the core product: tools for agents with a fantastic consumer experience. Cross-sell synergies and deep integration across the portfolio are taking a backseat.

Which is an interesting development for Scout24, which recently purchased financial comparison site Finanzcheck for $330 million, and Domain, which has been running the Zoopla diversification playbook for some time. Oops?

Strategic implications

Public companies that are focused on short-term revenue growth are at a distinct disadvantage to private companies backed by private equity. And private equity is getting more involved in the sector:

  • 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.

  • Apax Partners offers $2.5 billion NZD for Trade Me, December 2018.

  • Rumors circulate that several private equity firms are looking at Germany's top portal, Scout24.

It's going to be difficult to compete with private equity-backed portals given their fundamental advantage: they can be more aggressive, focus on longer-term opportunities, and be less sensitive to a stock price that focuses on short-term earnings growth.

Axel Springer goes all in on hybrid agents

How many international media conglomerates -- that own a number of leading real estate portals worldwide -- have “hybrid agents” as one of its top strategic priorities? Just one: Axel Springer.

Why it matters: Axel Springer, the $6 billion European media house, is going "all in" with online hybrid agents, through its investments in Purplebricks and Homeday. It's making a calculated bet that competing with its real estate agency customers is the best long-term strategy.

Making hybrid agents a strategic priority

Dozens of the largest real estate portals around the world are owned by a small collection of international media companies: News Corp, Schibsted, Naspers, and Axel Springer. But of them all, only Axel Springer has taken the step of investing in a potential sector disruptor: the online hybrid agent.

Axel Springer owns major real estate portals in France, Germany, Belgium, and Israel. In March 2018, it made a bold, £125 million investment in Purplebricks. The investment is notable because Axel Springer owns several top portals whose customers are the same real estate agents that Purplebricks is trying to disrupt (albeit in different markets).

Furthermore, Axel Springer is the only major international entity that has targeted online hybrid agents as a future growth priority. In its latest presentation to investors, hybrid agents are included as a top priority for the core classifieds business (which generated revenues of over €500 million in 2017).

Disrupting its biggest customers

Axel Springer's strategy offers a fascinating juxtaposition: Adding value to traditional agents by providing more services (seller leads), while "satisfying even more consumer needs" with its hybrid agents -- which directly compete with traditional agents.

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Axel Springer is wonderfully upfront about its motivations. Its move into the hybrid agent space is designed to tap into a much larger revenue pool: agent commissions.

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Continuing to serve your customers while entering into direct competition with them is a delicate balancing act. It's a move reminiscent of Amazon promoting its own products in direct competition with many of its sellers.

This is the nightmare scenario that U.S. real estate agents have been predicting for years. But in this instance it's not Zillow, but one of Europe's most powerful players, taking active steps to disrupt agents.

Winner take most

It's been clearly illustrated in the U.K. market that the online agent space is winner take most (market share). Access to capital is the single biggest predictor of success.

There is no first mover advantage in these markets (Purplebricks was not the U.K.'s first online hybrid agent). Rather, there is a rich first mover advantage: the business with the deepest pockets generally wins.

In this regard, Axel Springer and Purplebricks form a powerful combination. From a competitive standpoint, the most dangerous thing about Purplebricks is its investment risk tolerance. It is willing to invest tens-of-millions of dollars year after year to build market share -- incurring big losses along the way. And with Axel Springer and its deep pockets along for the journey, it's a hard combination to beat.

Strategic implications

Axel Springer and Purplebricks are quickly building a potentially insurmountable lead in the online hybrid agent space globally. There is no runner-up in the sector; it's a one horse race.

Purplebricks has proven the online hybrid model works in the U.K., and is aggressively launching in other markets. Copycats are popping up around the world. What's stopping News Corp, Schibsted, and Naspers from entering the space? It's either capital, ambition, or fear of upsetting their agent customers.

Real estate portals are moving from search engine to service engine; they are moving closer to and becoming involved in more of the transaction.

There is undeniable momentum in this direction. While not every portal is seeing success, the shift is clear -- and unyielding. Axel Springer's bet on online hybrid agents, in direct competition with its real estate agent customers, is the latest example of this evolving strategy.

2018 in Review

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What a year! In 2018, I published a massive amount of insightful, data-driven analysis of the global real estate tech landscape, and started as a scholar-in-residence at the University of Colorado Boulder. I'll cover the highlights below, but first a look ahead.

Themes for 2019

Next year, my work will focus on three main areas:

  • Big real estate portals aggressively launching new revenue streams in adjacent businesses, moving from search engine to service engine.

  • New models continuing to gain traction, with accelerated expansion in mature markets and start-ups launching everywhere else.

  • Traditional real estate incumbents around the world taking note and reacting -- some better than others.

2018 Highlights

Three huge reports

I released three reports: the 2018 Emerging Models in Real Estate Report (33k views), the 2018 Global Real Estate Portal Report, and the Future of Real Estate Portals.

Zillow and iBuyers

I conducted a deep analysis of Zillow's strategic shift, how Zillow and Opendoor are controlling the consumer journey, and the billion dollar seller lead opportunity.


Disruptive new models

Looking broader, I asked if Compass really is a tech company, and
analyzed online agent consolidation in the U.K. and how psychology is holding back real estate tech.

Strategy consulting

I've worked exclusively with the world's leading and most promising real estate tech companies and portals (you know who you are, and thank you), conducting strategy reviews and ongoing advisory work.

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Keynote presentations

From San Francisco to Oslo, Dubai to Berlin, I've delivered top-notch insights in person to the biggest companies and leaders in the field. Read some testimonials.


University course

I started teaching real estate tech at CU Boulder, with amazing industry guest speakers from companies like Trulia, Opendoor, UDR, Open Listings, ATTOM Data, and more.

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Investments in real estate tech

During the course of 2018, it's been my pleasure to join world class investors like Axel Springer, Kleiner Perkins, Stereo Capital, Lightspeed Ventures, Breyer Capital, and Schibsted Media as a personal investor in or advisor to real estate tech companies ZumperFastfoxKodit.ioTall Poppy, and AirDNA.

An exciting year ahead

I'm looking forward to exploring new opportunities and applying my expertise to new challenges in the year ahead. I'll drive myself to continue to be -- in the words of one of my readers -- "the most reliable source for data-driven, strategic insights in the industry."

My Proptech CEO Summit Presentation

It was my pleasure to present at the invite-only Proptech CEO Summit in San Francisco, hosted by former Trulia execs and current venture capitalists, Paul Levine and Pete Flint. There were over 100 proptech CEOs present, including Glenn from Redfin, Eric from Opendoor, and many others.

I want to share my entire presentation from the event, in addition to highlighting a few key points.

PropTech and PropPsych

The first point deals with the critical role of human psychology in real estate transactions, and the concept of loss aversion (for more, check out How Psychology is Holding Back Real Estate Tech).

Human psychology is the single biggest obstacle to mainstream adoption of new technologies in real estate. The point I made in my presentation is this: every venture capitalist should be asking proptech start-ups how they are going to address loss aversion.

And the inverse is true: each startup should clearly explain how its product or service is designed to minimize loss aversion in consumers.

Building the technology alone is not enough. Real estate tech companies need to assure consumers their product is just as "safe" as the status quo. PropPsych is just as important as PropTech.

Solving problems with money

The second point relates to the massive amounts of money flowing into the ecosystem. To quote Glenn Kelman, "If we can afford to lose money for five years, how can we ever make money?"

The biggest players in the space -- Opendoor, Purplebricks, and Compass -- have raised hundreds of millions to over a billion dollars each. The next tier of start-ups have raised tens of millions of dollars each.

But none of these companies are actually doing something new; they're doing what's possible with massive amounts of capital.

Yes, there are novel aspects of the business models that allow these business to realize gains in efficiency, or provide a superior customer experience. But all are underpinned by massive amounts of capital.

The reason that Compass can buy market share, Purplebricks can generate tons of leads through advertising, and Opendoor can buy thousands of homes is access to vast amounts of capital.

My presentation

Attached below is a link to my presentation on Slideshare (you can also download the PDF). Unlike my numerous industry reports, this is designed to be delivered in person. But hopefully it helps you and your business.

Purplebricks' H1 2019 Results

Last week, Purplebricks released its half-year financial results. The top line results include an overall group loss of £27.3 million for the period, with a slight reduction of its full-year revenue guidance. But the top line numbers don't come close to telling the full story (hint: it's not as bad as it sounds).

Why it matters: Purplebricks' core U.K. market continues to grow and is meaningfully profitable, proving that the model works. Key performance indicators in its other three markets reveal a deeper story of investment, growth, and challenges.

Continued growth in the U.K.

The popular narrative is seductive, but factually incorrect: With massive losses at Purplebricks and the demise of online agent Emoov (which, by the way, was not the second largest online agent in the U.K.), the entire online agency business model is near collapse. Not quite.

Purplebricks is an international collection of businesses at various stages of growth. In the U.K., Purplebricks' most mature market, it continues to grow revenues and operating profit. At maturity and scale the business model absolutely works; there is no evidence to support otherwise.

Yes, growth is slowing in the U.K. But at nearly 80,000 instructions per year it can't be expected to keep growing at historic rates. The key is that even in a challenging economic climate, growth continues.

Bumpy ride in Australia

While progress in the U.K. is consistent and positive, Purplebricks' Australian operation has endured a turbulent year. Senior management changes, a business model pivot, and its fair share of negative press has resulted in a "bump in the road" over the last six months.

Revenue growth is up year-on-year, but down from the previous six months, with a corresponding hit in operating profit.

One data point does not make a trend, so all eyes are on the next six months as Purplebricks executes its Australian turnaround plan with a new team and new pricing strategy.

Deep investment in the U.S. market

Purplebricks continues to invest heavily in its U.S. rollout. Over the past six months, it has spent over $20 million on sales and marketing across seven States -- more than double what it spent last year.

Purplebricks managed between 1,200 and 1,400 instructions in the U.S. over the past half-year, or around 200-230 per month. The cost per instruction has dropped from around $21,000 to between $14,000 and $17,000 (each instruction is worth $5,205 in revenue to Purplebricks).

At the current rate, Purplebricks will need to go from 200 to 650 instructions per month to reach breakeven with its sales and marketing costs, and to 1,000 instructions per month to reach profitability.

To achieve profitability, Purplebricks will need to get all of its launch markets performing well, not just L.A. One example is the lackluster performance in Phoenix, as I wrote about last week.

Marketing efficiency

At its core, Purplebricks is as much an advertising company as it is a real estate company. The business model relies on a massive marketing expenditure to generate leads for its network of agents. Thus, one of the most important metrics for the business is marketing efficiency.

For every £1 spent on marketing, Purplebricks generates revenues of £3.60 in the U.K., £0.92 in Australia, £0.36 in the U.S., and £4.38 in Canada (Purplebricks' Canadian acquisition was a fantastic deal).

Strategic implications

The core Purplebricks business model -- and profitability at scale -- is sound. The market failure of smaller players, or the fact that Purplebricks is deeply investing in new markets, doesn't diminish that fact.

From a competitive standpoint, the most dangerous thing about Purplebricks is its investment risk tolerance. It is willing to invest tens-of-millions of dollars year after year to build market share -- incurring big losses along the way. If you're a traditional real estate agency, or a listed company, are you willing to do the same?

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.

Purplebricks struggles in Phoenix

I had high hopes when Purplebricks launched in Phoenix earlier this year. It was the first U.S. market in the "sweet spot" for the Purplebricks proposition. However, the latest numbers show quite modest traction: 75 listings and 26 sold properties over five months.

Why it matters: This data presents a healthy counter-balance to Purplebricks' rapid, national expansion. Launching in a new market is very different than gaining meaningful traction in a new market.

Mid-market America

In July, I analyzed Purplebricks' FY18 results. The analysis highlights the massive investment the business made with its U.S. launch, with an effective cost per listing of over $21,000.

There's also the question of if Purplebricks launched in the wrong markets. Southern California and the New York metro area are expensive markets, while the data clearly shows the Purplebricks proposition resonating with mid-market customers. Phoenix is that market.

After a slow start, Purplebricks is averaging a few dozen new listings per month in Phoenix. With a listing fee of $3,600, that's around $75,000 in revenue for November.

Purplebricks is also struggling to recruit and retain brokers in Phoenix. Agent numbers are stagnant, and the average number of listings per broker is two. If we assume a broker is paid $1,000 of the $3,600 listing fee, that's a very low effective annual pay package. (Broker numbers can be tracked on the Arizona Department of Real Estate web site.)

The right market

I still believe Phoenix is the right market for Purplebricks. The 75 Purplebricks listings are right in line with the median average for the Phoenix market (Maricopa County), which is a positive sign. This -- not more expensive markets -- is the sweet spot for the fixed-fee proposition.

Growth is the name of the game

The U.S. real estate market is undergoing significant change. New (and existing) players like Redfin, Compass, and eXp Realty are rapidly growing market share -- at the expense of traditional incumbents.

All of these players, including Purplebricks, have raised massive amounts of capital to grow market share. Growth is measured in tens-of-thousands of new listings.

Phoenix is just one market out of several in the U.S. where Purplebricks has launched. In its first eight months, Purplebricks had 582 total listings nationally. After five months in Phoenix, 75 total listings is a comparative drop in the bucket. If Purplebricks wants to make a dent in the U.S., these numbers need to be in the hundreds and thousands.

Another data point: A quick check on Zillow shows 288 active listings for Purplebricks (primarily in California); it had 289 back in June. By comparison, Opendoor grew from 721 to 3,163 active listings in the same period.

Strategic implications

Purplebricks' success in the U.S. market is not assured. Raising a lot of money doesn't guarantee success. And an organic pathway to growth takes large amounts of time, patience, and capital.

Execution of this model is very much market-specific, and a lot of hard work. The business model scales linearly with people; technology is just an enabler.

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!