Innovation Without Distraction

You want to be plugged in, but you don’t want to sacrifice your business for tech solutions that are just shiny objects that don’t perform. Learn how to pull it off.

January 28, 2014

You’ve probably heard of the dreaded “shiny object syndrome.” Something new comes into your line of vision, and you think it will change everything. But before you know it, you’re way offtrack, and that amazing new tool is not delivering what you thought it would.

Perhaps the best illustration of this constant tug-of-war is a technology-focused conference like Inman Connect. You’re there to hear about all the neat new technology that might make your life better. Yet you’re also looking for the big picture: How do you innovate without being distracted by these shiny objects? We brought back the most-focused tips from Inman’s January event to help you do just that.

Determine What Matters

The first thing you have to do is separate the wheat from the chaff. Which new tools will help you do your job better and which are distractions? It’s not always so easy to know.

“Agents are totally overwhelmed,” says Ginger Wilcox, director of industry marketing for Trulia. “The thing that’s a challenge is to determine how much to execute on.”

Wilcox told the crowd at Inman about a broker she spoke with who conducts a “shiny object audit with his agents.” He asks them to explain all the tools they’re using and why. The broker told Wilcox he saved one of his associates some $20,000 by helping eliminate redundant technology.

Of course, it’s not just agents who are sometimes unsure of which solutions are truly hindrances. Berkeley Hills Realty broker-owner Tracy Sichterman suggests that, at the same time they are asking how a new piece of technology might fit with their strategic plan, brokers should also be willing to slow down and try new things.

“In order to be a successful entrepreneur, you have to play,” she says. Noting that early adopters don’t always get a new tool right, she adds: “Sometimes slow is fast.”

Doorsteps founder and CEO Michele Serro agrees. “Just try stuff. … You don’t have to abandon your existing site,” she says. In creating Doorsteps, a platform that helps educate and empower home buyers, Serro says she and her team were often prototyping and trying things. “We’re going to spend a little money to learn [what works].”

In one of the conference’s general sessions, Realogy President and CEO Alexander Perriello talked about creating “innovation summits” where tech entrepreneurs could show their wares to the franchise. He says they had 94 applicants through a solicitation site that was only up for 30 days, from which they picked 15 to invite in. They are still working with about half of those developers. 

“You can’t expect the innovation to come to you; you have to go look for the innovation,” Perriello says.

Other times, innovation is just a web search away. Michael Gold, who runs, a company that creates meet-ups for entrepreneurial types, says that making your life easier is just a click-and-scroll away.

“Think about the things that are taking you the most time to do, and try to automate them,” Gold says. “Google: ‘How do I automate ____.’”

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

The technologies that govern the way business is done online change so often that sometimes the best way to innovate is to take something you’re already doing and bring it up to speed.

In some cases, sticking with the status quo for your online presence after the rest of the web has moved on can actually hurt your business. The latest developments in the world of search engine optimization are a perfect case in point. Google released its new search algorithm—known as Hummingbird—this fall, and the changes have serious implications for your business’ stature online.

Google “wanted to get away from people gaming the search engines,” says ActiveRain CEO Nikesh Parekh. The search giant is trying to weed out those spammy, copycat content sites that tried to climb the search results ladder with their useless pages full of links. “All these changes have made it harder and harder for individual real estate professionals … to keep pace.”

But there are a few things you can do to separate yourself from the search gamers. Patrick Ambron, CEO and cofounder of BrandYourself, warns against copying and pasting content onto your site. Doing your own writing tells Google you’re contributing something unique to the conversation. Also, Parekh suggests focusing your site content on engaging images, how-to articles, local reviews, and time-sensitive event information. This will set you apart from listing portals and other aggregators.

“Zillow, Trulia, and® are computers. … Write about things only a person would know,” he says.“What can you do to provide service to your community?”

And even if you’re outsourcing this sort of content creation and SEO management, you still need to pay attention to these updates.

“If you’re working with a firm, be very careful and make sure they’re being transparent,” says Ambron. He also suggests usingGoogle’s Webmaster Tools to find out who’s linking to your site to make sure that’s not hurting your standing with Google. “If any of those [incoming links] look like they are spammy… you can disavow them.”

Shift Your Point of View

One way to avoid being pulled off-track by new technology is to avoid the shiny objects altogether and focus on the experience.

“I see the biggest innovation actually not in technology,” says Susana Murphy, founder and CEO of Alante Real Estate in Plymouth, Mass. She sees the true brokerage innovation happening in “the shift from a self-centric approach to a consumer-centric approach.”

Indeed, customers are perhaps the best people to explain what brokerages or agents are missing. Joseph Rand, general counsel and managing partner at Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, says you can tap into the innovation you need by shifting your mind-set when you look at the tools you’re already offering to clients.

“Use your website; use your tools as a consumer would,” he says. “You learn from that.”

And who knows? Your past client could be your new tech partner. Realogy’s Perriello noticed something about the entrepreneurs he saw coming to his innovation summits.

“They were all customers in recent history,” he says. “Something about the process concerned them or aggravated them.” 

That’s what happened with Jonathan Aizen. He says he cofounded his company, Closing Time, after being frustrated with the lack of tools available to consumers who had entered the last phase of the buying experience.

Aizen remembers that there were plenty of tools to help him find a home, but “when I went into contract, it was kind of like I walked off the edge of the Internet.” So he created a tool to help buyers move smoothly through the often-harrowing closing process. Now he’s looking to partner with brokerages so that their clients won’t feel like he did.

“[We’ve arrived at] a pivotal moment in real estate,” Aizen says. “How do brokerages adapt? How do they partner with companies like ours?”

To find the right kind of innovation for the future of your business, dotloop founder and CEO Austin Allison suggests taking the mind-set shift one step further: Don’t just think about your clients as real human beings; think about your company that way.

“You have to think about your business like a human being,” he says. “Think about it like your son or daughter. … What do you want it to be when it grows up?”

Meg White

Meg White is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.