“Your Klout Score has dropped”. When that email lands in my Inbox I usually say something like “Klout is pointless. This doesn’t mean anything.” And then, guess what I do when the opposite happens? When there is that perky little green arrow indicating that my score went up? You know. I think “Wow this Klout thing is pretty cool, it thinks I am smart and that people listen to what I say!” This is brilliant!
Someone told me once that people who like you are almost always smarter than other people. I think that’s true. People who don’t like me are probably not very smart, or at least dramatically under-informed! Well, none of those things are true of my friends at Clareity (they actually are friends, not just using that pejoratively), or for my customers who answered the annual survey. It was released on Friday and we didn’t fare as well as we’d hoped and with this blog post, I want to tell our customers that we’re aware of the situation, and that you are being forced to answer survey questions about a system that we’re in the process of retiring. We really don’t expect them to be super happy with it, that’s precisely why we are replacing it, as all of our customers are very aware.
As I told another industry friend, Greg Robertson, while walking over the crosswalk to the Orlando County Convention Center in November, we are in the middle of a renovation at Solid Earth. Stretching the real estate analogy, it’s hard for a listing to “show well” when the renovation is still ongoing. Let me explain.
By renovation, I mean that Solid Earth’s technology infrastructure is undergoing a total overhaul. Two years ago we split the company into two teams working under one new Chief Technology Officer, Robb Dempsey. About the same number of people are working on our longtime MLS product called “LIST-IT” as have always been assigned to the project. At the same time, we are in the process of building an entirely new platform called Spring. It’s designed to eventually replace LIST-IT so we hired a new team of programmers to build the new system, all managed by the new CTO. In addition to the new software, Solid Earth also built a new redundant virtual network with servers in Alabama and Illinois featuring an automated failover, so the old “backup.yourmlsname.com” sites will no longer be necessary.
By the projected completion in June 2013 the team will have virtualized the entire network including over 80 physical servers, a total investment of over $2 million. The project will materially improve performance and reliability for LIST-IT and will provide a firm foundation for Spring. But, doing the work caused disruptions in some MLS operations. 17 MLS systems out of our total of 24 experienced some sort of outage in 2012, due to some aspect of the improvement project. Some of the outages were serious and resulted in the systems being off-line or slow to respond for hours. Most outages were only a few minutes long and some systems were not affected at all and had 100% uptime. Still, if I personally worked in those markets affected by an outage, I would not give Solid Earth an “A” for reliability in 2012, there was too much “construction” going on.
Everyone acknowledges that the LIST-IT platform is aging. Major consequences include a gradual reduction in reliability, a lack of deep usage analytics, a lack of compatibility with new mobile and tablet devices, a lack of an advertising network, etc. Most of those things were not on the radar when we built LIST-IT of course. Tablets are only three years old this month. So, at the 2010 Solid Earth Client Summit meeting in Pensacola FL, Solid Earth described this predicament to our customers. At the meeting, they encouraged us to extend the life of the LIST-IT system by reworking the code and focusing on their enhancement requests, to focus on “LIST-IT now, not LIST-IT next”. Solid Earth did just that, and increased the number of enhancements released by 20% the next year (2010-2011), and we did pretty well on the survey that year too.
By the next year however, June 2011, the backlog for requests has grown still larger. In an effort to make an informed decision, Solid Earth retained a national software consultant called Peter Saddington from Atlanta. With his help Solid Earth decided it was time to strike out and build an entirely new system from the ground up, a project now called Spring.
So in June 2011 we gathered in Atlanta for our annual Solid Earth Summit. At that meeting we announced the development of the new platform and demonstrated early search functionality on a tablet, a technology then only a year old. At that meeting Solid Earth also introduced our new Chief Technology Officer and a new Technical Management Process called Agile Development. In the sessions the team used Agile small group techniques to collect requirements, thoughts about what is “core” in an MLS and more. About 80% of Solid Earth’s 45,000 subscribers were represented. At that meeting it was also decided that Solid Earth would continue to support and extend LIST-IT as long as the customers wanted, there will be no mandatory cutovers. And, at the same time, a parallel development effort would be added alongside the LIST-IT team to develop the new system. Solid Earth pledged to keep customers informed of our progress as work continued on the new system, bringing them in when we had questions.
The next opportunity for the group to come together was five months later at the NAR 2011 Expo in Anaheim, where the team had promised to demonstrate Spring with four core features, working on all platforms. The features were: Comprehensive Search and Mapping, Add/Change listing from a Mobile Device, Support for Multiple Subscriber Roles (i.e. Consumer, Broker, Staff), CMA reporting and Usage Analytics. That goal was reached and demonstrated at the Expo in Orlando, where the next goal was set: to have a beta site up and running by Summit 2012 seven months later in Charleston, SC.
At the Charleston Summit the group again discussed which features would be next and demonstrated the beta site, then being tested by over 150 stakeholders. Stakeholder testing began during the spring of 2012 with over 200 testers participated from a dozen states. The stakeholders validated many early decisions and created a large number of suggestions which improved the user experience and workflow.
The next deadline was the 2012 NAR Expo in Orlando, Solid Earth demonstrated the first Viable Release Candidate of Spring and received lots of industry attention. After the Trade Show, our long-time customer in Chattanooga formally selected Spring to power a new regional MLS website for their area, to be called GCAR.net. At that time, Solid Earth announced that the first Spring site would be GCAR.net and would be launched in mid-2013, that brings us up to the present. Since then the Birmingham MLS , the Charleston-Trident MLS and several other MLS customers have scheduled installations to follow Chattanooga this summer.
So that brings us up to date. The next deadline is March 31 when the Chattanooga site will launch. The site is a powerful new mobile-friendly, ad-driven consumer portal that will attract leads for the membership and route those leads according to the business rules of the association and their Brokers (not Zillow). When launched the site will feature a comprehensive set of features for the consumer as well as a login for existing MLS subscribers that provides access to the site’s Professional Features. Professional features include:
- Secure Access Control: Fully logged Consumer Login, Broker/Agent Login and Staff Login
- Built using Responsive Design that supports all form factors and operating systems, including Apple, Windows and Android.
- Built using HTML5, leaving no Flash content in Spring, so it is ready for the next phase of web development.
- Quick Search, Pro Search and Inventory (reinvented, easier to use and all on one page)
- School Performance Comparisons, Neighborhood Demographics, Tax Assessment Data, Mortgage and Conveyance Data, and Parcel Boundaries, provided through a new national partnership with Digital Mapping (licensing fees may apply)
- An Ad Network that is already producing revenue for several Solid Earth clients
- Search Engine Optimized results and reporting (no frames, full address in the URL)
- Customizable Lead Routing System to direct inquiries to the right person in the organization
- Full system redundancy with automatic failover (mirrored between Huntsville AL and Chicago, IL)
- An Application Programming Interface (API) for outside developers to integrate with the MLS including: property data, agent and office data, public records, traffic counts, prospecting and other aspects of the Spring system.
The Chattanooga system, containing all of these features, is scheduled to be released at the end of Q1 2013, and then to receive regular enhancements every other week as part of our Agile release schedule. Over the next 12 months, as both Consumer and Professional features are added, the new Spring platform will become a viable replacement for LIST-IT. As Chattanooga progresses, then the others start to come online, Solid Earth will engage each customer to determine if and when they want to convert. Done in this way, Solid Earth can help the MLS avoid a traditional Cut Over to a new system by gradually introducing the new platform to both consumers and to the subscribers. Since all traffic will be on one site, it seems logical that the professional subscribers will gravitate to the site where the leads are located.
While Solid Earth is very excited about the new platform and while we are confident it will attract many new customers, we are intensely aware of the contracts in place for LIST-IT. So far, every MLS customer has extended their agreements so they could have access to Spring, before making a long-term commitment to either LIST-IT or to another new system. However, we acknowledge that the conversion will take time so we are still doing enhancements to LIST-IT.
Looking at last year, Solid Earth has completed and posted over 100 enhancements to the LIST-IT software in addition to doing all the regular tax record updates and bug fixes. Plus, the technical support service at Solid Earth added a new more interactive and accountable Ticketing system based on the popular ZenDesk platform to help provide better service to the MLS staff.
So we are moving lots of things around at Solid Earth to be ready for Spring. We understand it has been somewhat turbulent but we look at it as physical therapy. It is difficult work but, on the other end, we will have a viable Zillow-competitor in each of our 24 markets, ready to help our longtime customers (and hopefully new customers) to use for another round of growth. Everyone at Solid Earth is working very very hard to make this transition and we are confident we are headed in the right direction. Even when our Klout score takes a dip.