NEW YORK — I’m at the second day of the Inman Real Estate Connect conference in New York.

Thursday’s opening panel explored the need for a single, national multiple-listing system, a recurrent Inman theme, even though  it traditionally gets little take-up by the industry that would have to make it happen.

This time, the timing might be right. The economic crisis has government and industry clamoring for ways to control costs and streamline processes.  And the incoming administration acknowledges that unless the real estate industry recovers, the rest of the economy won’t.  During the housing boom that crested in 2006, there wasn’t much impetus for cost controls. Everyone in the chain was making money.

Brad Inman, host and founder of Inman News, pointed out that there’s been a “Future of the MLS” panel since the first conference in 1997. He and panelists suggested that the current market might finally force a change.

A national MLS was one of several recommendations that Inman opened the conference with on Wednesday. Other recommendations included:
— Revamping the commission model;
— Better federal regulation of the mortgage industry to do away with lending schemes tantamount to usury;
— Better efficiency in the real estate industry to control transaction costs;
— A new regulatory framework that creates tougher, national standards for people who sell real estate
— Removing barriers to innovation and to working together , but doing more to protect consumers against fraud.


Thursday’s keynoter was Gary Vaynerchuk, founder of What’s an online wine retailer have to do with Realtors?

Plenty. If you believe that the key to success is building your personal brand. Vaynerchuk believes it. Not limiting himself to his wine business, he uses all the Internet tools du jour in shameless, gonzo self-promotion  — conducting wine-tastings in daily video blogs. It’s brought him two book deals, a possible TV show, and a good deal of income in public-speaking gigs on the art of self-promotion. How’s he doing? “Hefty seven figures, he said.”

If you think about it, there are few industries that fit the art of self promotion more naturally than the real estate industry.  All an agent has is the trust she or he builds in the community. Their names are their brands.  Or, at least, that’s the way it used to be, before so many of them joined big brokerages and abdicated their own names to ERA, Century 21, Prudential and the like. It might be time to take your name back.

“Building your personal brand is not an option, it’s a necessity,” Vaynerchuk said, adding that it’s a good way to recession-proof yourself. Other things you have to do:  Think about how you can leverage your personal brand to create alternative income sources for yourself  (like speaking gigs), and be “stupid transparent,” in your actions. Your audience will see through you if you aren’t.

His other big suggestion:  Don’t spend another penny in newspapers or radio or with anyone else whose distribution decisions throttle agents’ own control over their brands. He said that over Christmas, he erected a billboard and launched direct-mail and radio campaigns. Each campaign had its own specific discount code. All told, they brought in about 500 orders. He said he put another discount code in a Twitter message and received 1,700 orders in 24 hours. (In fairness, the folks who follow him on Twitter span North America at least, so you could call it a national vs local campaigns. But one that didn’t cost him anything more than a text message.)


One of the sessions we look forward to at Inman is a quick-hit panel  of entrepreneurs and their interesting business start-ups.  Each panelist gets about a minute-and-a-half to do the “elevator talk” of what their new business is about.

—  Xobni is hard to remember until you realize it’s “inbox” spelled backward. It’s a free plug-in for MS Outlook users that takes your personal contacts, quickly scours your e-mail for threaded conversations and attachments, and conducts relevant Web searches. So the next time you get an e-mail from someone you think you should know but can’t recall, Xobni will tell you who that person is, what that person does, whether or not you’ve already corresponded,  whether she’s on  Facebook, her latest blog entry, etc. It will also scrape contact details together from all these sources.  Think of it as a free CRM tool.  It’s free thanks to $12 million in venture capital, according to co-founder Matt Brezina.

— Proxio is an “international MLS” and referral network, said CEO Janet Case.  For a $79 fee, Realtors can upload listings to a database that translates them into seven languages. Agents can work with peers in other countries to list and show properties  — something that might work well for luxury and investment properties.

— Ourbania GbR is a combination of “LinkedIn, Flickr and Wikipedia” for the commercial real estate, including builders, architects, landscapers, contractors, movers  — anyone in that value chain, said co-founder Thomas Vogel.  It will soon launch microsites for property managers and tenants. If you need to report a problem to your landlord, you can.

— MaxUnet is basically a virtual office Web site (VOW) which founder Larry Whited says is ready to go national. He intends to franchise his paperless brokerage, where associated agents only pay a small fee on every sale and can negotiate their own fees with sellers.

— Dwellicious lets consumers collect and compare properties they’re interested in from other online sites, and track price changes. Dwellicious Pro gives agents an in-depth look at how consumers are using the site, where they’re looking, what they’re looking at and the price ranges they’re interested in.

— Giroptic generated quite a bit of buzz on the exposition floor. The French company sells a patented camera that takes 360-degree jpeg images without the expensive production and telltale image stitching that’s evident in other 360-degree technology. About the size and shape of a barroom mini-blender, the camera takes a donut-shaped image that gets straightened out in Giroptic’s online viewer. You can host images on the Giroptic Web site, or for a small fee, brand them as your own. A snippet of code allows you to embed the image player into any Web page.  The cost: $999. It basically pays for itself in about two photos. The camera’s memory holds about 300 images, uploaded to a computer via a mini-USB cable.  The company is pursuing the real estate and tourism markets for now. But really. Who wouldn’t want one?

** *

On Wednesday, Inman invited Craigslist founder Craig Newmark back for another one-on-one “conversation.”  They didn’t break any new ground, covering politics, technology, democracy and the Internet’s effect on culture, some of Newmark’s favorite themes.  The conversation was light and upbeat, between friends who obviously enjoyed each other’s company.

Shortcutting here:  If it’s always darkest before the dawn, things are pretty dark now, so we hope, dawn is right around the corner.

Now that the U.S. elections are over and his guy won, Newmark has traded his Obama lapel pin for one that honors the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.


Some other tidbits:

— Stephen Chip, bizdev director for (pretty clear what they do), mentioned that  the company bought the domain name for an undisclosed mega-sum. Fairly clear what they’re going to do there, but it’s still under wraps with a parked page for now.

— SalesForce has layered a real estate platform on top of its legacy CRM system and is marketing it as Reforce. It will allow agents and brokers to access and manage customer and listing information via the3 Web or mobile, manage inventory in real time, integrate with listing services and run customizable, targeted or mass-market campaigns.

— creates a widget that lets Realtors put dynamic mortgage-rate information on their Web sites. Consumers can click through to apply to the lender of their choice, and get approvals “in as little as 20 minutes.”

— Better Homes & Gardens, the conference’s diamond sponsor, was there not only promoting their century-old brand, great editorial content and fairly new listings site — — but the fact that they capture about 300 points of data on visiting consumers.


The conference continues on Friday, but I’m catching a plane home in the morning.