For over a decade I have watched with interest as a company called CoStar became the largest player in commercial real estate data. It achieved this feat – and a market cap of over $13 billion – by old-fashioned data compilation, well-timed acquisitions, and aggressive litigation to keep competitors at bay.
What resulted is an effective monopoly in the commercial real estate space. CoStar achieved this by never cutting corners on primary data collection. As just one example, at one point it had a fleet of trucks snapping photos of every commercial property in the country. CoStar was never shy about getting on the phone too, collecting valuable leasing data from brokers and property owners nationwide. Marry all that proprietary data with public records data and a strong online platform, and you have a business that is highly profitable and nearly impregnable.
Data companies in this privileged position do sometimes suffer at the hands of competitors, but nin times out of ten, it’s because of self-inflicted damage. Companies that become data monopolies have to be endlessly vigilant about not becoming arrogant or charging extortionate prices, because being hated by your customers provides an opening for competitive players. So too does complacency, and a failure to invest in the business to enhance the value of its products and keep up with changing market needs.
It doesn’t seem that CoStar has made any of these mistakes, but it is feeling new competitive heat anyway from another information giant, Moody’s (market cap $31 billion).
Moody’s (through its Moody’s Analytics division) has never been a big player in commercial real estate data, but having decided it wants a piece of this market, it has been spending heavily on acquisitions to buy its way in. The centerpiece of its acquisitions was the $278 million purchase of commercial real estate analytics firm REIS last year. Moody’s also made “strategic investments” in a number of other industry data providers.
So is it curtains for CoStar? I think not. Moody’s has spent huge amounts of money to position itself to compete for only a small portion of the market CoStar serves (think banks and real estate investors). Moreover, Moody’s will be in large part dependent on data it doesn’t own, sourced from companies selling into the same market, meaning that a lot of the data Moody’s will offer will come heavily restricted.
Perhaps most importantly, CoStar’s proprietary data (commercial real estate inventory and listings data) remains proprietary and untouchable. My take is Moody’s has over-spent for the opportunity to enter a bruising battle with an established company whose smarts and street-fighting skills are well established. Moody’s will build a business here, but it will be one much smaller than its ambitions, and one that will take relatively little revenue from CoStar. Data franchises are strong and it usually takes more than a large checkbook to bring them down.