Meet a high-touch underdog taking on the search portal Goliaths

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The real estate portal wars have been simmering for years at this point, with parent CoStar regularly taking shots at rivals such as Zillow and Occasionally, those rivals fire back.

But as those goliaths have duked it out for the top spot, another potentially familiar name has quietly been marching onto the battlefield. That company is Movoto.

Long-time real estate pros will likely recognize the Movoto name as part of a cohort of industry websites that were once players — Trulia also comes to mind — but which gradually receded in prominence over the years. However, in 2020 real estate tech firm OJO acquired Movoto, and earlier this year rebranded to make it the company’s public-facing identity. Movoto now is to OJO what Facebook is to Meta — except that in Movoto’s case it’s a consumer-facing home search portal in an increasingly crowded world.

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John Berkowitz

Inman recently sat down with John Berkowitz, CEO of OJO and Movoto, to get a sense of how he envisions the company competing in the portal space, and what he thinks of the David-and-Goliath struggle for a slot in the sector. During the conversation, Berkowitz was candid about his ambitions; unlike CoStar, he isn’t trying to unseat the bigger companies or take the crown as the number one search site. Instead, Berkowitz wants Movoto to offer a higher-touch, more useful experience than its rivals. He wants to focus on more serious consumers. And he argued that none of the existing portals have significant differentiation today — something that CEOs such as himself now have to change.

Berkowitz plans to start re-introducing the world to Movoto this year, and the company certainly has its work cut out for it. For now, though, the Movoto’s argument is that it may never be the biggest portal, but Berkowitz thinks it can potentially be the most useful.

What follows is a version of Inman’s conversation with Berkowitz that has been edited for length and clarity.

Inman: Talk to me about the lay of the land here. What are the most important things happening in the portal space right now?

John Berkowitz: You know, it’s funny. When we started the company, my investor pitch was, “the world doesn’t need another Zillow.” And now clearly today we are operating, at least as far as other people look at the category, another Zillow. I believe from the outside that consumers didn’t need another place to search for homes. But when you look at the data, clearly consumers do want multiple sites. But really, I think that’s more about nobody yet has differentiated enough to keep people just captive in their platform.

Inman: When you say you look at the data and it says people do want more sites, what exactly are you seeing?

Berkowitz: Consumers have Movoto, Zillow, Redfin, Realtor, Homes, a combination of apps on their phone. Almost none just have a Zillow app, or just have a Movoto app, or just have a Redfin app. A majority of consumers are using all of our sites. And it’s because even though the vast majority of the data is the same, we display it differently. The experiences are different.

I think it’s on all of us to deliver the thing that means the other ones aren’t required. That’s all of the CEOs’ jobs.

Inman: You say it’s up to the CEO’s to create that differentiating factor that sets them apart. What is that factor? What are you doing?

Berkowitz: Our view is we can’t compete on mass marketing dollars, nor should we. We’re spending all of our energy into user experience and what happens when a consumer actually raises their hand and says, “I need help.”
We think that’s the differentiation. Our platform can not have every single person going to it. But every person that does go to it has a better shot at getting the right information faster, and then meeting the right professional faster, and then getting whatever they came for. We can do those things faster and more often.

Inman: How are consumers encountering the Movoto brand? For example, CoStar made a big deal of their Superbowl ad and their billion dollar spend. Whether you like their product or not, I understand how I might encounter it in the wild. What’s your strategy?

Berkowitz: The main way people meet us is typing in, “house for sale in [a specific location].” Google’s been ranking us and we are the only company that ranks in the top 10 of search — sometimes we’re positioned two, and sometimes we’re positioned eight — nationwide at scale that is not a publicly traded company. That’s the main way.

Agents are also starting to introduce us to consumers. So there is some brand awareness to Movoto, but not anything compared to our competition. So really the main way is the search engines.

We will change that this year. We will start telling the world in very small specific ways who we are. We’ll do radio, we’ll do these other things. Nothing on a mass scale but in places that we have really good agent coverage we’ll do specific campaigns to build awareness.

The average house that people find on our platform and transact with our real estate agent partners are average Americans. First time home buyers. People who have the odds stacked against them in housing. And some of that may be that we’re not the biggest brand.

Inman: Talk to me more about being the portal for the common man. I’ve never heard anyone make that pitch when it comes to this space before. Why isn’t Zillow the portal for the common man?

Berkowitz: Look the American dream, is alive more than ever. The dream part of it. But we know statistically, the barrier is higher than it has been in a very long time. And consumers know that.

So I think the more authentic you can be, the more consumers are like, “oh, I’m gonna take the leap to fill out a lead form, ask a question, message somebody.” If you’re seeing all of the expensive ads bumping in your face, that doesn’t scream, “oh, I’m gonna be able to talk to someone and afford this.” None of that screams to an average American who’s busting their butt, worried about their job, who wants to buy one bedroom more for their growing family or their first home, that a $300,000 house is gonna be attainable to them.

Inman: What specifically is your ambition? Other portals have openly talked about being number one. Do you want be to number one?

Berkowitz: I don’t. I don’t want 100 million Americans utilizing my website, candidly, because I don’t think we have value for 100 million Americans. What I want is people that own homes, or aspire to own homes, coming to us and getting the most help.

Inman: Talk to me about the focus in the portal space on consumers versus agents. Where should the energy and investment go?

Berkowitz: I think the fundamental flaw of portals to date is some have been wildly consumer-centric. I think Zillow, really great, had an attitude of, “we’re gonna be super consumer-centric.” But they did it at the expense of the real estate agent. They’re trying to fix it, but they burnt a lot of trust in the industry by saying, “we’re gonna do it our way for the consumer.” What they just failed to look at was, the consumer needs the agent.

On the other side, at it’s a total disregard for the consumer, leaning hardcore into the agent. I don’t think that’s going to work either.

You add no value to real estate professionals if you don’t have consumers. And you add no value to consumers if you don’t have great real estate professionals dialed in. And I just think most people have lived in the extremes.

We are the only player in the space that is run by a true real estate operator. I, the CEO, have no real estate background. I am a tech entrepreneur. My superpowers are resourcefulness, creativity, and finding great people. I’m Nick Fury from the Avengers. But I’ve got Tony Stark, AKA Chris Heller. He’s the only executive at a portal that is actually a real estate professional. And the guy is as consumer-centric as it gets.

Inman: CoStar just bought Matterport. I’m curious what you make of CoStar, because their decision to get into the residential space is kind of what incited this whole intensifying portal competition in the first place. Do you seem them as a disruptor? Are their ambitions realistic?

Berkowitz: Disruptor in the innovative tech sense, I haven’t seen that yet. But disruption’s disruption. They are changing the space. So yes, they’re a disruptor.

I think the Matterport acquisition is genius. They’re a commercial company. [CoStar CEO Andy Florance] wants unique content. I think it’s a good business move, though I don’t think it’s very disruptive.

I like their idea of putting the hardware in their agents’ hands. I’m fully supportive of that.

But I question the validity of [CoStar’s marketing strategy of] “my listing, my lead.” I think it is a misunderstanding of how the internet works. Most of the lawsuits and the government have been trying to remove dual agency. But “my listing, my lead” promotes dual agency because you’re introducing an unrepresented consumer to a seller’s agent.

Listing agents who are real professionals, we’ll put their contact information up but then they’ll ask us to take it down because mostly the people calling are sales people. It’s not consumers calling to go see a house most of the time. So you need systems to connect people. I think the current model isn’t that.

But CoStar is a pretty big company and Andy Florance is a serious executive. So my assumption is that what he’s doing now is not what he’ll be doing in two years. He’ll evolve, and like most great entrepreneurs, he’ll iterate and find something that works. But I don’t buy that the current strategy is right for the consumer or the agent.

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