Brown Harris Stevens’ Twitter handle reads, simply, “@Established1873.” The brokerage trades upon its distinguished lineage and generally manages to keep its white-gloved hands out of industry drama. But when real estate startup Urban Compass poached elite broker Kyle Blackmon last week, BHS president Hall Willkie decided it was time for those gloves to come off.
“Kyle has made the decision that the equity proposition offered to him trumps a singular focus on brokerage,” Willkie said in a statement to The Real Deal. He questioned the wisdom of that decision in an internal BHS memo that stated: “The value of Kyle’s or anyone’s equity will be dependent on the success of Urban Compass’ founders implementing their vision of selling their company for substantially more than many industry experts believe is possible.”
Willkie’s statement echoed what many in the industry have whispered – or shouted under the cloak of anonymity – for months. Urban Compass, these sources say, is merely an idea – albeit a well-choreographed, Ivy League and McKinsey-branded one. But even with a $360 million valuation, they ask, is it really the future?
Tech leg up?
Urban Compass has always stressed that its competitive advantage is superior technology, both for the consumer and the broker. “Just the way Apple made buying and listening to music significantly different, I think this company can have the same effect on real estate,” Urban Compass president and top-ranked broker Leonard Steinberg told TRD in June. But it’s still unclear to many in the industry, including former employees, what exactly that advantage is.
“Urban Compass likes to think that from Day One their technology was really differentiated,” said a former broker who left the company earlier this month. “The reality is their technology looked better but was actually behind and they were piecing it together from scratch.”
“It wasn’t a game-changer by any means,” the agent added.
Robert Reffkin, CEO of Urban Compass, acknowledged the difficulty he’s faced in creating believers out of those who haven’t seen the technology first-hand. “It’s hard,” he said during an interview Tuesday night at the startup’s Union Square headquarters. “How would you explain why the iPhone is better than the Samsung? Your users have to feel it and see it.”
While the existence of the technology in of itself isn’t novel, the intuitiveness of its design is — something that even the firm’s skeptics acknowledge. An agent using the mobile app who wants to send feedback to the firm’s engineers, for example, simply has to shake her mobile phone and a portal will pop up. Also via the app, clients who receive a listing from an agent can click to see a street view of the property, courtesy of Urban Compass’ own mapping technology that is similar to Google Street View.
Saving time is at the crux of Reffkin’s agenda. The average New York City agent spends 89 percent of their time performing administrative tasks, he said, citing the firm’s data. He wants his agents to have more time to spend with clients.
Sources said Urban Compass agents purchased up to 15 licenses to Real Plus’ electronic listing exchange. As recently as August, brokers were using popular listing databases like StreetEasy, On-Line Residential and Realty MX in lieu of the company’s own search engine.
Adam Fleming, who was Urban Compass’ head of engineering until he moved to real estate startup Honest Buildings in June, said that Urban Compass’ thesis “is empowering customers and agents to find each other in the right way and right time.”
Fleming, who declined to say why he left Urban Compass, said that the firm had a “pretty nice algorithm” that matches customers with appropriate agents. “Agents receive tremendous support inside Urban Compass,” he said, “that they don’t get anywhere else.”
Blackmon is the latest in a long line of big names to join the firm since ex-Elliman stalwart Steinberg came over in June. These include Julia Hoagland from BHS, Timothy Rothman and Howard Spiegelman from the Corcoran Group, Eugene Litvak from Citi Habitats, Roy Kim from Extell Development and Jay Glazer from Warburg Realty.
Without a concrete advantage early on, Urban Compass offered equity to lure top producers to its ranks. “The only differentiating factor they could offer was equity,” said a former broker. And as the startup continued its phenomenal fundraising run, the appeal of that equity stake kept rising.
Reffkin confirmed to TRD that the firm has offered equity to top brokers.
“Every advisory business I know gives equity to the people that help build it,” he said. “A real estate brokerage should do the same. Some of these agents have built their companies with the brand they [help to] create.”
The head of a rival brokerage cited the equity as Urban Compass’ main draw. “Aside from the ones they [Urban Compass] bought – Julia Hoagland, Kyle Blackmon, Leonard Steinberg – they haven’t attracted any top brokers,” the brokerage head said.
Another former agent who was among Urban Compass’ first hires said that when she left the firm after 18 months, she walked away from an equity stake. “I didn’t believe it was worth anything at the end of the day,” she said. “The idea was that they were going to be different from other brokerages and that was always the plan. Then every time we executed one of the ideas that they had, they realized this doesn’t work.” In May, for example, the startup shifted from a neighborhood specialist-driven model to one more in line with a traditional brokerage’s, and pivoted from rentals to sales, which also put the firm on a mission to recruit top agents.
– See more at: http://therealdeal.com/blog/2014/11/25/is-urban-compass-really-the-future/#sthash.gxcZ3jT8.dpuf