10 Questions: Matthew Beall, Principal Broker, HawaiiLife.com

HawaiiLife has been on my radar screen for a few years. It was one of the very first real estate sites that really blew me away when I first saw it. All the more impressive because it had been built by a small team that hadn’t raised millions in VC to do so. Over the last couple of years, the company has transitioned from a pure online play to a full fledged brokerage that’s taking the islands by storm now. I talked to Matt Beall, HL’s Principal broker and co-owner to learn how they got there.

Joel: Tell me a little bit about HawaiiLife, what’s the elevator pitch?

Matt Beall: Smart marketing and solid representation. That’s the elevator pitch. We’re a locally-owned real estate brokerage serving all of Hawaii.  We started in June of 2008. Our website, hawaiilife.com is Hawaii’s most-trafficked real estate website. We have 125 (very cool) brokers/agents working with us in (now) 7 offices throughout Hawaii. We’re not affiliated with any national franchisor, and we’re currently the #5 residential real estate brokerage (buy sales volume) in Hawaii.

JB: How did the company come about?

MB: My partners, Justin Britt and Winston Welborn, were running a marketing and design company called Wasabi Marketing Elements. In the early to mid 2000’s, they were advising their real estate clients (local brokerages, franchisees, etc.) to invest in their respective websites, because they could see how quickly the real estate industry was moving towards the internet. The brokers didn’t listen. So, Wasabi started hawaiilife.com as a referral site, selling leads to agents. I was a Broker-In-Charge for a local C-21 franchise, and just before the market turned I began to realize how backwards their business model is. I was looking to make a change. The referral idea didn’t do so well, but the website (as you know) was kick ass. Even when the market turned, in 2007-2008, I was hiring Wasabi to promote my listings (a lot of which were grossly over-priced) on hawaiilife.com, and they got so much traffic that I was selling stuff that really shouldn’t have sold (especially in that market). We put our heads together and realized that we need to be a full-service brokerage, to leverage the power of the website to attract and sell listings, and to create a culture that’s decidedly different than the ‘big-box’ brands. That was June of 2008. It’s been a pretty incredible 4 years. It feels more like 10, considering what we’ve learned and accomplished.

JB: In 2008, I named you one of my top 10 kick ass real estate sites – four years later, how are you different? The same?

MB: Wow. That’s a big question. Probably the only thing that’s the same is the level of excitement that we all still feel about what we’re doing. What’s different…well, for starters, we went from about $10m/year in sales in the referral model to $344m/year presently. Specific to the site, though: We’ve built a ton of very cool stuff on the back-end of our website. We have a fully-automated marketing and distribution system that makes it super easy for agents to send out relevant and tasteful marketing pieces. I can pretty confidently say that we’re integrating the most advanced and flexible CRM in the industry (PropertyBase, plug intended). Our blog is kicking ass, too, and we’re starting to do the same thing in the rental market(s) that we did for residential real estate.

JB: As a site that does real estate search really well, what have you learned that works? What doesn’t work?

MB: The people who visit hawaiilife.com have made is very clear what they want: Search. In fact, to say that they ‘want’ it is really an understatement. They’re entitled to it, and they’re entitled to it working seamlessly, staying current, and not spamming them with pictures of me or other agents. So, a lot of our focus is on building the best tool possible. There’s so much on the site that we want to change. Over these past few months, we’ve been obsessing over the back-end, implementing our CRM and tying it to the website, etc. So the front-end has been a little neglected. What doesn’t work (for us) is forced registration, spam, or cluttered mental space.

JB: You seem to be conspicuously absent from the mobile space… what’s the deal?

MB: Know any good programmers? We have a ‘lead with revenue’ philosophy. Our immediate focus is to get our main site as mobile compatible as possible, which we’re very close to. We’re not looking at developing an app (yet), but we have a ton of ideas for when we do.

JB: As a brokerage, how do you balance the needs of your agents with what you want to do online?

MB: A lot of the time, it’s by showing the agents that those things are often one in the same. We keep our eye on the ball when it comes to sales. We don’t turn our agents into profit centers, and we don’t develop stuff online just because it’s pretty. Function and conversion are as important as ease, beauty and taste, both online and offline. There are zillions of beautiful websites that don’t make brokers any money. Ours isn’t one of them, and our agents know that. We also have a great division of labor. I focus on the brokerage, Justin focuses on the website and SEO, and Winston focuses on Creative Direction. So, there are internal checks and balances that prevent us from turning into a crab with just one big claw. We also have a brilliant leadership team at the brokerage level, which helps a lot.

JB: What’s biggest challenge you face in your day to day operations?

MB: Funding all of the cool stuff we want to do.

JB: You have built a very recognizable brand locally in HawaiiLife. What’s your secret…

MB: Authenticity. And Winston Welborn, our Creative Director.

JB: How is your website going to be different in two years time? What trends are you keeping an eye on?

MB: Are you willing to sign a NDA? Hawaiilife.com will become even more of a hub for real estate and rental information in Hawaii. We’re working on the VOW feeds, and creating different levels of intricacy and sophistication. We’ll start showing sold property data to our clients, for example, in very cool ways. Our CRM will turn into rocket-fuel, as we build out all the cool stuff we can do with it. Things like that.

Justin Britt (adds): We follow the Analytics and give our user base what they want. The current trends are towards simplicity. Meaning, we see higher pages views and time on site as we take things away from search. We also predict less focus on map based search and more focus on photos.

JB: Totally makes sense. Any other advice for other real estate technology entrepreneurs?

MB: Get coaching. I don’t know how better to put it. I’m a real estate broker at heart, so I’ve been fed a steady diet of “you can do it all” crap from everywhere: inside the industry, from vendors, etc. It’s just not true. You can’t do it all. We (Hawaii Life) have the benefit of covering a lot of bases in-house, but we’re all still constantly learning. We attend conferences, read (a lot), get training, etc.. It’s invaluable.

JB: Thanks Matt! You can also keep up with what Matt and his team are doing on Twitter (@hawaiilife) and on Facebook.