Zillow Launching Mortgage Offering to Compete with BankRate

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There is no doubt that BankRatehas the most powerful business model in the online finance world.  They have established themselves as the “gold standard” web site for consumers when checking interest rates on home mortgages.  BankRate provides objective information on interest rates and loans and then has rate tables where they list the rates from local banks and mortgage brokers.  Just like movie trailers, the best part of their business model is that the advertisement is the entertainment or the content that consumers are looking for.  Tom Evans and Steve Horowitz engineered an Internet Hail Mary for BankRate in 2005 when they shifted their business model from a paid listing business to a pay per click business that really scales with traffic.  Since early 2005, the BankRate stock has soared from about $10 to $40-50 a share.  It would probably be higher if not for the real estate and mortgage mess the country is facing.  Interestingly, BankRate is one of the only companies in the space that is not seeing wide spread defection from customers. 

Though it has been rumored for months, Zillow just announced that they are getting into the mortgage business.  It is unclear what the business model will be.  VP Jorrit Van der Meulen posted on the Zillow Blogthat mortgage brokers and banks can apply for FREE access to Zillow traffic.  Mortgage brokers have to pay a $25 application fee.  Limited additional details are available.  This is certainly an interesting opportunity for Zillow.  The Zestimates has been very powerful in the real estate industry enabling consumers to do some homework when considering refinancing their house.  Now it seems like Zillow is looking to either commoditize the mortgage lead generation players like LendingTree and LowerMyBills or go straight after the BankRate rate tables

Maybe they won’t charge the brokers for it and just make money from the advertising around it.   Zillow is a bold company.  They have taken the unusual approach of not charging the industry for advertising, but trying to surround the information with banners from Lexus and Pella windows.  The online real estate industry has always believed that best monetization of those eyeballs are from the real estate industry players (real estate agent, brokers, mortgage brokers, banks) and not the associated services. 

Zillow may just prove conventional wisdom wrong…  Or not.

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Great Overview of Online Local Advertising Options

Here is a great run down of all the major models for local advertising and the current pricing of the major players.    It is probably the most comprehensive list that I have seen.  Note the variety of models from slotting (monthly subscription) to pay per click to pay per call to search engine optimization for a fee.  Take a look.

Internet Advertising Matrix

YouWalkAway.com Encouraging HomeOwner Foreclosure?

Was listening to NPR this eveing on the way home from work and they covered an interesting new business that is taking advantage of the rising tide of foreclosures on the market.  Two San Diego lawyers have created a new web site called YOUWALKAWAY.com that provides consumers with a foreclosure kit so that they can literally simply leave their houses in eight months after foreclosure.  Interesting business, but may not be a great thing for the real estate or mortgage industries to promote to consumers.

What do you think?  Interesting and innovative business model, but may be a tough one for the real estate industry to swallow.

Real Estate & Mortgage Round-up: Zillow Gaining Recent Traction

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I thought I would follow-up my previous January post covering the real estate January Effect with a February update.  As interest rates decline and we are entering prime home buying season (spring to early summer), we are seeing suprising resilience in the online real estate and mortgage category.  The BIGGEST surprise is that Zillow traffic has ramped significantly in the month of February.  This is very interesting.  Zillow has made a number of big announcements around acquiring more listings.  There is a high correlation between traffic, nationwide coverage, and the number of listings that a web site has.  Zillow recently broke through the 1 million listings barrier which is a major milestone for the company.  I wonder if the recent uptick in traffic has to do with increased refinance traffic.     

In Tier Two of online real estate, HomeGain appears to be on a tear growing reach nicely over the past three months.  This is largely due to HomeGain’s significant affiliate network and SEO investments.  BuyerLink is the growth engine for that business and is probably doing well in this environment.   

All players in the mortgage lead generation industry (BankRate, LendingTree, LowerMyBills) are seeing increased consumer demand for information around refinancing their mortgage ever since the Fed made its aggressive rate cuts in January.   Notice significant traffic increases in January which appear to have declined in February.  LowerMyBills and LendingTree seem to be experiencing steadier traffic levels.  It is clear that both LendingTree and LowerMyBills have reduced their ads spends significantly over the past six months.  I have been impressed by Experian swapping out LowerMyBills ads with ClassesUSA where appropriate in their banner advertising strategy.

Tier One Real Estate Reach:  real-estate-tier-1-reach.gif

Tier One Real Estate Page Views: real-estate-tier-1-page-views.gif 

Notice how Zillow reach (or unique visitors) seems to be increasing but pageviews have been declining.  Interesting trend.  Maybe an indication of more people checking the value of their home versus spending increased time searching for homes for sale or neighborhood information.

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Tier Two Real Estate Page Views: real-estate-tier-2-page-views.gif

Mortgage Reach: mortgage-reach.gif  

Mortgage Page Views:  mortgage-page-views.gif

Launching a Product on FaceBook: The Bacon Salt Story

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This is the story of Bacon Salt or J&D’s Down Home Enterprises – the most successful Seattle start-up that you have never heard of.  Or maybe you have.  In 2007, Justin Esch and Dave Lefkow developed a zero calorie, vegetarian, kosher certified bacon flavor seasoning and decided to start selling it on the Internet.   Within months, they had a significant business making hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2007 revenue.  Today they are at a run rate of millions of dollars in revenue.  How did they do it?  Social media, particularly Facebook.

I met with Bacontrepreneur Justin Esch several weeks back where we talked about their strategy and how they developed a grassroots following for Bacon Salt through online guerrilla, Seth Godin-style Purple Cow marketing.  Here is Justin’s recipe in launching a physical product on Facebook:

  1. Create a Group on FaceBook:  Check out the Bacon Salt group on FaceBook.   Before broadly opening up the group to the public, Justin and Dave went and made sure that there was plenty of content, pictures and videos to keep people busy and make it a fun experience.
  2. Invite 100 or so Friends and Let the Newsfeed Do It’s Magic:They then invited 100 or so friends to start populating the room leaving comments on the wall, etc.    Make sure you invite the popular people who have lots of friends on FaceBook.  As everyone knows,  FaceBook users can watch what their friends are doing on the newsfeed.  When friends see other friends join the Bacon Salt group, they get curious, check out the Bacon Salt group, and join the group.
  3. Make Sure There Is Lots of Fresh Content:  Just like good blogs or communities, groups on Facebook need lots of care and tending.  Justin and Dave made sure that there was a constant stream of interesting Bacon Salt related content and encouraged the community to place or promote Bacon Salt in interesting places.  The result was hundreds of pictures and videos of Bacon Salt all around the world.  There are some amazing pictures and videos in the group.   They also filled the group with Bacon Salt recipes and random bacon musings.
  4. Target the Rabid Fans: Justin and Dave then used the interest tagging on FaceBook to target every Bacon Fan and every group that was about Bacon.  They reached out to all these individuals to make sure they are aware of Bacon Salt.  They sent them free samples to get the early adopters to talk about Bacon Salt, tell their friends, or wrote a blog post on Bacon Salt.  The ground swell started.  Here is hilarious video that someone put together.
  5. Do Some Good & Sell Some Bacon Salt – OPERATION BACON SALT:  Justin and Dave encouraged rabid fans of Bacon Salt to take pictures and post them on FaceBook and around the Internet.  J&D came up with the brilliant idea of sending free samples of Bacon Salt to soldiers in Iraq.  Iraq, being a Muslim country, does not have any pork products, let alone bacon.  The soldiers in Iraq were incredibly appreciative of the generosity of J&D and loved the taste of Bacon Salt.  They took TONS of pictures of Bacon Salt in military vehicles across Iraq and the world.  Word got back to the States of their good deeds resulting in more and more press coverage of the Bacontrepreneurs.Operation Bacon Salt

They have basically replicated this strategy on MySpace as well.  Their business is doing extremely well.  Bacon Salt is knocking on the door of distribution through major grocery retailers and they are slated to appear on QVC at some point in the near future.

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What’s even more amazing to me is that they have bootstrapped it 100% to date.  Now that’s what I call a story of two Seattle boys done good.

Would you like some Bacon Salt with that?

To Refi or Not? – That Is the Question

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Since I have a decent amount of experience in the real estate and mortgage industries, a number of friends have been asking me if it is time to refinance their ARM or fixed rate mortgage or if they should lock-in a rate on a house they are purchasing today.    Summary thoughts: Rates seem pretty good right now.  There is a chance that they will fall further by the end of the year, but the likelihood is 50/50.  Most experts seem to think that rates will actually rise due to tightening lending standards and a deteriorating US housing market / financial system.

Here are my thoughts:

1) Further cuts likely:  Based on Bernake’s commentary today, further rate cuts are likely before the end of the year due to a slowing US economy.  My sense is that these rate cuts are on the mid-term horizon (maybe three mos or more).  If you are thinking that you want to refinance sooner, my sense is that rates are pretty compelling today.

2) Experts Feel Like Rates Will Rise:  I generally check out the BankRate mortgage expert index to get a sense of where the market is.  Since there was a sense that the Fed was going to cut rates, mortgage rates dropped pretty dramatically and experts have felt that rates were going to rise.  Since I have been watching this index, the experts have been right in that rates have gone up slightly over the past month or so.

3) Watch the Fees:  Terri Cullen of the Wall Street Journal has a good article this week here in Fiscally Fit – WSJ.com saying that banks and lenders are increasing their fees in light of financial weakness.  It’s worth shopping around and then negotiating the fees with the bank or broker.   Pay closest attention to the lender fees as they are the ones that are most negotiable.

4) Personal Financial Decision:  Here is a good post from Active Rain on when you should think about refinancing your mortgage.  Lee Zacharczyk of Atlantic Home Loans in Freehold, NJ says that you should think about 1) How long do you expect to own your home? 2) Where are interest rates from an historical perspective? 3) How long do you expect to be in this mortgage, i.e. will you be able to pay it off early?   

Just like the stock market, experts have long said that it is impossible to time the market.  Home mortgages are the same way.  I would make sure you are comfortable with the long-term rates and the fees you will need to pay to refinance.  If you are getting a good rate with reasonable fees, locking in a lower rate for peace of mind is a worthy trade.  As always, it is important to shop around. 

If have questions or are interested in a recommendation, feel free to email me at nparekh00 `at` gmail

Kodak to Enable Microprinting of Newspapers

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Kodak has staged a major turnaround of its business by transitioning from film to digital technology.  They are looking to enable another industry hit hard by the Internet – newspapers.  Kodak is developing a high-speed printer that will enable newspapers to microcustomize their content and ads in newspapers at the neighborhood level.  Interesting idea that would require major change from the newspapers.  My gut tells me that this is a technology that is searching for a market.  The real challenge to micronews in my opinion is local sales and service to small businesses, not the printing. 

Kodak Knows a Little About Dying Business Models – Bits – Technology – New York Times Blog