Strategic Efficiency: It’s Waiting in the Cloud

Learn how cloud computing services and applications have helped three real estate practitioners organize and grow their business. Then get tips on making your own transition to the cloud.

December 12, 2011

Don’t let the term “in the cloud” intimidate you. The truth is, as a real estate professional, you’ve been working “in the cloud” to some degree for several years.

The “cloud” is just a new label for solutions previously called Web-based apps and service software — tools you access and use through your Internet browser without the need to store them on your computer.

If you sign contracts with DocuSign, manage e-mail through Gmail or Hotmail, subscribe to WindowsLive, back up files to services like Mozy or Carbonite, or manage contacts through Top Producer 8i, then you’ve already got cloud experience.

With Apple’s much-hyped launch of its iCloud service, there’s been a new focus on cloud computing in recent weeks. Many in real estate may be wondering: What’s in it for me? What should I do to take advantage of technology’s latest buzz?

Here are three real estate professionals who are making the cloud work for them:

Leeza Morris, GREEN, SFR – broker-owner – MI Real Estate Cloud – Denton, Texas

As her company name suggests, Leeza Morris runs a cloud-based operation, relying on a variety of cloud solutions for all aspects of her brokerage, from creating marketing materials to sharing and signing contracts.

“It’s all about time efficiency for my clients,” she says. “The biggest advantage is simplicity: My tools are there whenever I need them, and all my information is easily shareable.”

She relies on Google Docs for creating marketing materials, zipForm 6 for forms and contracts, DocuSign for e-signatures, relay for Web transaction management, and Dropbox for organizing and distributing files.

Morris also uses YouTube as a cloud service. “I recorded one client as he walked through a house for sale, commenting on its features. Then we posted it right to YouTube for his family to view before submitting an offer without them ever actually visiting it.

“Once you learn how to use these tools you can save so much time for you and your clients.”

Cheryl Ritchie, ABR, CRS – associate broker – RE/MAX 100 – Dunkirk, Md.

Cheryl Ritchie leaned heavily on Apple Tech Support to upgrade her Mobile Me account to the iCloud service and make it fully functional on her iPad, iPhone, and PC. (Read her recent blog post about this.) Utilizing iCloud will ensure work documents and photos are synced on whatever hardware she’s using.

That’s just one component of her cloud strategy. Ritchie also uses Evernote for saving Web clippings, creating to-do lists, and managing projects. “It’s almost replaced Word for me,” she says.

Ritchie’s Dropbox account allows her to organize and share files; DocuSign handles contract signings, and she’s been beta-testing the latest version of Top Producer, which she’ll rely on for contact management. Once she adds QuickBooks to her cloud, she says she’ll have everything she needs.

“The real benefit of working in the cloud is how it sets you free as an agent,” Richie says. “In the past we were confined to a desk in a brick-and-mortar office. Now, with these cloud services, I can be anywhere and have whatever I need on whatever device I am using. It just makes me more efficient. I am finally truly mobile.”

Tim Venjohn, ABR, CRS – broker-owner – Rhodes & Co. – Southern Pines, N.C.

Tim Venjohn started his transition to the cloud with GoogleDocs and Dropbox. It wasn’t until he subscribed to the SugarSynch For Business service that his migration was complete. “Since I’ve put everything I do in the cloud, my tools and files are there, wherever I am,” Venjohn says.

For a $300 annual subscription, SugarSynch For Business automatically uploads files created on Venjohn’s Toshiba notebook, Samsung Charge Android smartphone, and his Motorola Xoom tablet to its servers. From there, they’re available to him or his team members.

“With Dropbox, I have to manually drag the files to a folder. This takes care of that automatically in the background as I work,” he explains. “As I close a document, it’s synced to the service.”

When photos of a new listing are uploaded to his computer, they’re quickly available for his assistant back at the office to use them in a flyer. When he prints a contract, he scans it and creates a PDF file that he can easily retrieve later on his smartphone.

Venjohn estimates he has 50 gigabytes of files stored with SugarSynch — all the personal and professional files that once resided exclusively on his hardware.

“When a client asks for anything, I no longer have to say, ‘Wait until I get back to my office.’ Whatever I need is right there, in the cloud,” he says.

Making the Transition Yourself

Making the leap from hardware-based tools to cloud-based services doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive; many services are free or offered as an affordable subscription.

Build on Experience: Whether you realize it or not, you’ve already got cloud experience if you’ve ever used a browser-based interface to upload listing information, manage an e-mail account, or build a virtual tour. Cloud services are really just software you access and use over an Internet connection.

Start Slowly:Think of how you can benefit from cloud services, and adopt them in a logical progression. If you work on different computers at home and the office or in the field, something like Dropbox or iCloud could be a good starting point, ensuring you’re always working with the same files. Allow yourself time to master the features of one solution before adding the next.

Integrate:There is no single comprehensive cloud-computing solution yet. So, accept you’re going to have to rely on some combination of services based on what you need and how you like to work.

Investigate:The cloud is the future of computing, and new services are being announced almost daily. Look at the company behind that service. Make sure you’re entrusting your files and business to services with a good track record and staying power.

Think Security: You want assurance your data will be backed up, encrypted, and available in ways you choose, and to whom you choose. Be sure to activate any security features, restrict access, and protect your passwords.

For real peace of mind, continue to back up your files on your own system as well. Most external hard drives now include software for automatic syncing. ioSafe is one of the new breed of storage systems being promoted as an alternative or supplement to cloud services when you want assurance that your data is always safely protected and at hand.