A few weeks ago, Zillow, one of the leading real estate listing sites, made a surprising announcement: it was going to enter the business of flipping homes, the process of buying a home, fixing it up and quickly reselling it.
This immediately raised two questions in my mind: why and why?
First, good things generally don’t happen when you as a data platform or provider give up your market neutrality. No matter the specifics, you are putting yourself in competition with your customers. That means your customers see you as putting yourself first, which makes them very receptive to taking their business elsewhere.
Second, there’s nothing about this new venture by Zillow that gives it any market advantage. Zillow has no unique insights, no privileged data that others lack. It sees listings only when an agent posts them, so there is no timing advantage. In short, Zillow could have quietly invested in a company that flips homes and nobody would have blinked. But Zillow is integrating this right into its main website. Again, Zillow’s function is real estate discovery. Simply knowing a property is for sale at the same time as everyone else confers no market advantage.
Zillow has a slightly different prism though. It sees this new business as a feature that will differentiate it. Just as eBay went from strictly running auctions to adding a “buy it now” button, Zillow sees itself as adding what is essentially a “sell it now” button on its website. But to appease its advertisers – real estate agents – it plans to pay commissions to agents on every house it buys and sells, eliminating any price advantage it might get from buying directly from the seller. The more Zillow contorts itself to make this new business palatable to real estate agents, the more complicated and less attractive this business opportunity becomes.
Even if this venture is really more about adding some sizzle to drive site traffic than a serious source of new revenue, it’s probably not a good idea. That’s because even the appearance of favoritism or self-dealing can put a real dent in your business. And if this new venture really isn’t about making money, then it’s positioning itself for the worst possible outcome: not making any money while simultaneously confusing/annoying/scaring your advertisers.
Does this mean a data provider or data platform can’t ever consider related sources of revenue? Absolutely not. Had Zillow decided, for example, to get into the mortgage business to streamline the home buying process, it would have been rewarded with more site traffic and happier advertisers – the classic “win-win.”
As a data provider, you should say yes to market neutrality.