Matt Widdows, HomeSmart CEO and Founder, Talks Revolutionizing the Industry Through Tech and Building the Brand That Will Change the Game
Editor’s Note: This is the cover story in the October issue of RISMedia’s Real Estate magazine. Subscribe today.
Just shy of its 20th anniversary, we asked HomeSmart International’s tech visionary, CEO and Founder Matt Widdows, about the rapid growth of the Inc. 5000 Hall of Fame company. Here’s what he had to say:
‘We’ve had the tech this whole time!’
“We always hear about new technology entering the space, or funds raised to develop back-end systems and more tech. We read articles about ‘firsts’ in the industry, and we shake our heads, as we’ve had a full proprietary tech stack this whole time,” says Widdows.
Maria Patterson: How did you know tech was going to be so critical to the future of real estate?
Matt Widdows: I spent years working for various real estate brands and felt technology was lacking in the industry. I started HomeSmart in 2000 because I knew there had to be a better way to serve agents. The traditional way of reviewing a file was antiquated and inefficient. As a small brokerage with one broker and a receptionist, I needed a way to eliminate redundancies and give real-time status updates to agents. This need led to my first web app. It was rudimentary, but it did the job. I then hired developers to continue what I had started.
MP: How has your technological approach to real estate provided long-term growth and stability for the brokerage?
MW: My vision was to utilize technologies that supported systems and services to make both the agent and brokerage successful. By using tech in our day-to-day processes, we can be more available for answering calls and helping our agents. The software reduces the number of team members needed, therefore allowing the brokerage to be profitable with a flat-fee model. In short, we hire people to service agents. We build technology to serve the business.
MP: How is HomeSmart’s technology driving the company’s success?
MW: HomeSmart is an industry leader in innovation. Our proprietary technology provides an efficient and systematized structure to the real estate brokerage. It allows for operational excellence through efficiencies and enables agents to have successful careers without paying high fees. We provide our franchisees the systems and support they need, from marketing to transaction management to training. This allows them to function with low overhead. Franchisees in almost 30 states wouldn’t be able to leverage our Centralized Services team, which provides a national level of consistent service and support, if they weren’t all running on the same tech platform. Investing in creating technology that moves us forward is part of what makes us successful.
MP: Why did you build RealSmart Agent and RealSmart Broker?
MW: I knew allowing agents to keep more of their commission was the model of the future. Technology was the only way that could happen while still being profitable. I built RealSmart Broker and Agent as a way to differentiate HomeSmart from the rest of the industry and innovate the way real estate was being done.
In general, if it’s a repeatable task—or something that can be forgotten or prone to human error—I program it. Our technology stack has allowed us to do just that and made it easy to scale due to the automation built into our systems. I wanted a way for agents to manage their entire business in one place, using a single login. That philosophy remains today, and when you look at our tech, it isn’t just a bunch of fluff that slows you down. It makes the jobs of our agents and brokers easier and more efficient, while allowing them to provide outstanding customer service in a consistent, repeatable and profitable manner.
MP: What does it mean to be fully integrated, and what does an end-to-end platform look like at HomeSmart?
MW: Fully integrated means not bolted together. No APIs, no multiple logins or windows, no double entry. Just seamless workflows. Our systems are built in the same platform and are inherently integrated. On top of that, we aren’t held hostage to a third-party company and its development priorities and contract renewals. Our technology is in-house and end-to-end, from the listing or buying appointment to post-closing.
MP: How do you use technology to improve service to your agents?
MW: Often, technology is created for the sake of creating technology, not to solve specific problems. We create technology to imitate human processes. If we’re doing something manually, we take those “human” steps and translate them into an automated solution. Our goal is to remove manual processes for our agents and make it simple with a more error-free digital experience, saving them time and making them look better in the eyes of the consumers. Through automation of tasks, what one person can do manually in 120 hours, they can now do in 40.
‘We’re poised for explosive growth operationally, technically and culturally.’
“We’re business first, real estate second. We understand what it takes to accomplish our goals. We focus our team in four key areas: growth, operational excellence, technology and culture,” says Widdows.
MP: There are a lot of brokerages and technology companies in real estate. What makes HomeSmart different?
MW: Integration and adoption. Our end-to-end technology is built in-house, allowing HomeSmart to seamlessly integrate every aspect of our tech stack, from transaction management to CRMs to marketing tools. If we see a tech need in the market, we build it and integrate directly into our existing platform. And because we developed it in-house, we provide most of it for free across our entire brand. This provides a consistent experience and offering for every HomeSmart broker, agent and consumer across the nation. When I see other brokerages who are just now rolling out proprietary tech, I think, “Good luck!” We’ve been doing this since 2002, and it’s not easy.
MP: What sets HomeSmart’s culture apart?
MW: Our focus on outstanding customer service for everyone we serve. We’re heavily motivated by metrics. They’re part of our company fiber. We expect a lot from everyone at HomeSmart, but we also give back and take care of our people. I want a place where people come to work to work hard, have fun and make an impact. I never want to dread coming to the office or working with people that I don’t enjoy being around. It never ceases to amaze me when I go to functions and everyone is relaxed, casual and fun to be around. HomeSmart is not a place for stuffiness or egos, and those qualities generally don’t last long within our culture. I love that! We treat each other as family and with respect. Preservation of that culture is hugely important, and we protect it with a vengeance. It took a long time to get here, but it’s real and company-wide.
MP: How can HomeSmart brokers manage such a large volume of transactions with such a lean staff?
MW: Technology allows our departments to maximize their output by focusing on their specific roles within the transaction. This keeps our brokers on high-level calls, file review and legal matters while the rest of our team handles the other aspects of the transaction. We also have a dedicated support team to answer calls about anything non-transaction-related. When each team is hyper-focused, we can do more with less.
That’s the beauty and one of the key differentiators of our proprietary end-to-end systems. As the fifth-largest brokerage in the United States, we’re able to manage a 9,788-plus agent brokerage with 100-percent agent tech adoption. We processed 36,064 transactions last year, answering our phone 92 percent of the time before going to voicemail with a team of only 38 brokerage employees. We’ve figured out a smarter way to run a brokerage.
MP: I get the 100-percent model and why it’s a benefit to agents, but how can you run that model, still make a profit and provide leading-edge technology?
MW: It’s all about scale and smart business. We run a business that happens to be in the real estate industry. I think that’s a unique viewpoint. We build business processes that allow us to be efficient and lean without sacrificing service. Then we scale it. The technology is what enables us to do so at a profit.
‘HomeSmart is THE company to watch the next 20 years.’
“We’re not interested in a few key stories or wins. We’re in this for the long game. We know the industry, brokers, agents and consumers. We’re here to ease the path to homeownership while revolutionizing the industry as we go,” says Widdows.
MP: Why push yourself so hard? What are you trying to accomplish?
MW: I’m working to revolutionize the real estate industry. I want HomeSmart to be the brand that does so—the brand that made real estate better for brokers, agents and consumers. HomeSmart will stand the test of time and will continue to innovate through the ever-changing industry landscape.
MP: What is your day-to-day involvement in HomeSmart’s tech and systems?
MW: Technology is one of my passions. I’m heavily involved in the design, development and implementation of our software. I meet with the team regularly and strategize with our leadership group about what’s needed to improve our technology. I have a clear vision of the different areas in our business that have processes that can be made better and faster for clients. As the industry continues to change, brokers, agents, buyers and sellers all experience different pains, so we adapt our technology to keep up and relieve them. Creating productive and useful tech is my most significant focus. It’s the biggest impact I have on the company today—and has always been a large part of what I do.
MP: What are some of the recent changes to your proprietary technology?
MW: We recently rolled out a complete rewrite of our RealSmart Broker and Agent platforms and released the RealSmart Agent Mobile app, which allows agents to track transactions, listings, contacts and documents, and perform anything they would do on their desktop in the field. We will soon incorporate our eDocs and signing platform into RealSmart Agent, creating a completely server-based transaction for both HomeSmart agents as well as agents with other companies. Our newly released tools provide an upgrade from our previous offering and strengthen our foundation.
We’re working on building technology for the consumer to connect all aspects of the transaction. We want to take the same positive impact our tech has had on our brokers and agents and bring it to the consumer. This means not only providing the typical home search capability, but also better insight into the transaction process. Integrating with other vendors such as title and mortgage will allow our platform access to past transactions and electronic documents with any of our brokers or agents. It’s all about thinking of tomorrow and implementing today. That’s how we will win with our disruptive model in a rapidly changing industry.
MP: There are critics of the 100-percent model that call companies who use it “discount brokerages.” How do you respond to that?
MW: Most of those critics are now scrambling to figure out how to either switch to our flat-fee model or maintain a value proposition with high fees. We’re seeing a shift away from the traditional model. We provide the tools you get at a split-fee brokerage, plus proprietary tech that makes it easier for our agents and brokers to run their businesses at maximum profits.
We’re agile and efficient, and no matter if the market is good or bad, the model is profitable…and it’s working. Twenty years ago, we were looked down upon in the industry, but that’s not the case anymore. I invite anyone to come by our headquarters for a tour. HomeSmart offers everything a traditional brokerage provides and then some. We have beautiful offices with conference rooms, technology and private workspaces. We have broker support seven days a week and a department approach to servicing our agents quickly and efficiently for their specific needs. We provide mentoring and training, including CE, and offer community impact events for our agents to participate in. Our agents receive excellent support, training, marketing tools and free technology—and keep their commissions.
MP: Next year marks the 20th anniversary of HomeSmart. Two decades later, how do you see the company today?
MW: What started as an idea to offer a low-cost, technology-forward real estate company has grown into a technology company operating in the real estate space. For us, this is a substantial competitive advantage. HomeSmart’s technology is the best-kept secret in the industry. Other companies are getting billions of dollars in valuations for technology that we have had for years and that our agents and brokers are currently using to streamline their businesses. They’re focused on bells and whistles, whereas HomeSmart focuses on technology that makes people’s lives easier. Agents need technology that helps them move faster and increases their transaction velocity. Other companies want it and are trying to get it. We’ve had it and continue to improve it.
It’s important to understand that we’ve always been about continuous innovation. We created virtual reception technology in 2002 to allow for scale of service to multiple branches. We went paperless in 2008 when everyone said it would never happen. A year hasn’t gone by where we haven’t created or improved what we offer from a technology perspective, or any perspective, for that matter. I think that’s part of the secret to our success. The status quo has no place in our organization.
For more information, please visit www.homesmart.com.
Maria Patterson is RISMedia’s executive editor. Email her your real estate news ideas at email@example.com.