Keller Williams hopes to become the Amazon of real estate


When Amazon opened for business in 1995, Jeff Bezos hoped to create the biggest bookstore in the world. Over the course of the next two decades, Amazon not only accomplished that feat, but also expanded its reach to become a one-stop online shop for everything from clothes to toys to groceries and even their own line of electronics — starting with Kindles before moving onto tablets and Fire TV, and later software with Alexa and the Echo.

Keller Williams hopes to take a similar trajectory. The real estate company, which started as a single firm in Austin, Texas, in 1983, now has more than 170,000 associates worldwide and enjoyed its best year yet in 2017 as it ranked No. 1 in agents, units sold and sales volume in the United States. But at this year’s annual Keller Williams Family Reunion in Anaheim, California, Gary Keller made it clear to everyone the company is shifting gears.

“We are a technology company. Number one, that means we build the technology. Number two, that means we hire the technologists,” Keller announced from the stage. “We are not a real estate company anymore.”

In previous years, Keller would speak on the state of housing — focusing on how the market and home sales were doing and what Keller Williams agents should know and how they should respond. This year he abandoned that and focused solely on technology and where the company will be headed moving forward.

“Today, technology must be the business of every business,” Keller said.

“Today, technology must be the business of every business.” —Gary Keller

At last year’s Family Reunion in Las Vegas, Keller Williams announced a shift in its focus to become a technology company that supported agents and built real estate tools. That included leveraging outside partners like chatbot developer Ojo and accounting software company ProfitDash.

This year, however, the big push was toward more technological independence. Keller Williams is hoping to build as much technology in-house as possible. Why? Because of the data.

Keller called this current moment in our society the “fourth industrial revolution” — the time of big data and artificial intelligence.

Keller spoke to agents about how when partnering or utilizing other technology platforms, whether it be something like Facebook or potential rivals like Redfin and Zillow, agents no longer own their information. Amazon is so successful because it has the data behind people’s buying and browsing patterns, and optimizes that information to target customers and become the best e-commerce solution.

“In the fourth industrial revolution, the one with the most insights wins, and that means the one with the most data,” he said. “Let someone else have your data and soon they’ll know more than you do.”

“Let someone else have your data and soon they’ll know more than you do.” – Gary Keller

Now that Keller Williams has the highest number of agents, units and volume sales, it technically has the most information — and keeping that information in-house is important.

Last year, Keller Williams unveiled the KW Cloud and announced its artificial intelligence program, Kelle. However, rather than partnering with another company to create and teach Kelle — as it seemed might be the case last year — Keller Williams is now working on it all in-house.

In October 2017, Keller Williams officially launched KW Labs, which offers Keller Williams agents the opportunity to take part in the building, testing and refining of technology that is created by the company.

Led by Josh Team, the company’s chief innovation officer, agents will be able to provide feedback on what tools they need and how they should function. Rather than utilizing “bolt-on technology,” Keller Williams hopes to create customized tools to serve its agents.

In fact, Team said during a Q&A session after the announcements that the Labs are now mainly in charge of letting the company know when products are finally ready to roll out to the rest of the company.

The most important questions now are:

  • “How well will this technology work?”
  • “Will agents actually use it?”
  • “Will Keller Williams’ data be able to compete against giants like Zillow and Redfin?”

Team compared Kelle to a toddler: Even though it’s out of the Labs stage and available for download by the general public, it’s still a relatively new technology that will have glitches and flaws and will not be able to do everything perfectly.

A big part of Kelle — and all AI technology — is that it requires continual use in order to learn and improve.

“She’s a two-year-old. She gets confused. Help us break it and be patient with us,” Team told the crowd.

The agents at the Family Reunion seemed to be excited about the possibilities of not just Kelle, but other products and features that were teased at the event, most notably KW Command. Agents are cautiously optimistic.

“It’ll change our business if we can integrate it the way they say we’ll be able to,” said Roscoe Ford, an agent from Sugar Land, Texas, who was attending the Family Reunion.

“It’ll change our business if we can integrate it the way they say we’ll be able to.” – Roscoe Ford

Through the Labs process, Keller Williams is hoping to bring the agents the technology tools they need as opposed to rolling out software and then receiving feedback. One of the new technologies announced at the Family Reunion, the referrals platform, was a feature multiple agents had requested. The Labs team admitted that it was not an initial priority, but they moved it up the list as they continued to hear how much agents wanted it.

In the end, Keller emphasized that this shift to keeping technology completely in-house focuses on helping agents and is in alignment with previous company changes like its profit sharing option. The company also announced its new Data Rights Pledge: “We will always respect your data as your business and we will always allow you to take your database with you.” It’s a commitment that the company is making to agents and will require any future technology companies that they partner with to agree to before signing on with them.

Will this shift from Keller Williams actually create change in real estate a la Amazon and commerce? It’s too soon to tell, but Keller Williams is looking to leverage its success to be a part of the shift rather than following other companies hoping to disrupt the industry.

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