Redfin is the company everybody in the traditional real estate industry loves to hate. “They’ll go bankrupt just like all discount firms do when the market turns bad.” “Can you believe how they force listing agents to do all the work?” “Their agents don’t have a clue about the market!”
Deride Redfin if you want, be skeptical of its business model, take potshots at Glenn Kelman all you want…but whatever you do, don’t dismiss Redfin out of hand, at least not before hearing what this man has to say.
Clayton Christensen is a professor at Harvard Business School who has become well-known for his research into how technology disrupts industries. His theory, put forth in his books The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution posits that new entrants into an industry often take advantage of a disruptive technology to enter the marketplace at the lower end, catering to the low-margin customers that the established players aren’t that interested in serving. He gives examples in many industries, including financial services (Charles Schwab came into the brokerage business catering for the budget stock investor), steel manufacturing (mini-mill technology), and hard drives.
While Redfin is by no means the first entrant in the discount brokerage space, it is arguably the one that has generated the most attention. Redfin’s technology — its slick real estate search site, its semi-automated offer-writing system — may not appear too disruptive, but its technology and associated business model have struck a chord with a growing market segment that is disenchanted with the traditional real estate industry, and, not coincidentally, the industry has returned the favor. That market segment — initially diehard do-it-yourself’ers who just don’t see the value of schlepping around town with a real estate agent — is one the traditional industry isn’t too fond of catering for, on the assumption that if we let clients out on their own, they might discover it’s not that difficult to plan an afternoon’s home-shopping around an open house schedule, and then they might question our overall value. For the most part, the traditionalists aren’t too sad to see this type of client defect to Redfin. “They think they know everything, they don’t see the value of a Realtor, and then
What is common about the customers of these new lower-end entrants in any industry is that they’re not interested in a gold-plated product or service — they want something “good enough” and cheap.
If the new entrant succeeds, it starts to take market share from the incumbents, who finally wake up — often too late — and discover that the “cheap, undesirable” part of the market is both larger and more lucrative than they previously thought.
Even more interesting is that as the new entrant grows, its clients’ needs often change over time — to the point where the new entrant now also provides more of a “traditional” experience. Think back to Charles Schwab: its early customers were drawn in by the prospect of significantly less expensive stock brokerage services. The Charles Schwab of today still provides that, but also provides a higher-touch, higher-cost service, akin to that of the Merrill Lynches.
Might this happen to Redfin? Nobody knows…but if they are successful in what they’re doing, don’t be surprised if five years from now Redfin offers not only a discount real estate experience, but also a full-service one.
How can established companies lessen the risk of a low-cost competitor coming in at the lower end, then working its up the value chain? One of Christensen’s suggestions is as audacious as it is — for most companies — implausible: spin off a separate lower-cost business unit to learn about the lower end of the market.
So, how about a “Coldwell Banker Lite” offering? Want a full-service, full-fee experience? You can use the Coldwell Banker you’ve always known. Thinking of using a discount service, but unsure about Redfin’s brand? Then you can go to the Coldwell Banker Lite offering. Either way, Coldwell Banker can serve you. From the company’s point of view, they’ve retained a client; sure, it’s a low-margin client — for now. But five years down the road, the customer’s good experience may lead him back to the Coldwell Banker name, and perhaps this time using the full-service, high-margin option.
Skeptical of Redfin? That’s fine — but just don’t write them off until you look at the uncanny resemblances between our industry today and the industries Christensen describes in his books.
Tags: Alternative business models, Clayton Christensen, Coldwell Banker, Glenn Kelman, Redfin, The Innovator's Dilemma, The Innovator's Solution