Trulia announces profitability, I ponder alternative metaphors

Techcrunch posted a story earlier today in which Trulia CEO Pete Flint states that the company became profitable two months ago. He also reiterates (we have heard this before) that the company’s revenues have doubled since this time last year.

First of all, congratulations are in order. Trulia employs 160 people – a lot of them highly skilled (and expensive). Covering that sort of payroll requires significant revenue. And making it happen within this economic environment is something to honor.

But this announcement, which comes on the heels of Zillow’s recent claim to profitability, also throws an interesting wrinkle into the unfolding online real estate narrative.

Let me explain.

A couple weeks back, in the midst of Move, Inc.’s acquisition of ListHub and some traffic numbers that looked very good for Yahoo! Real Estate (and its new partner, Zillow), I told Inman News that it was now a “Two horse race” for the online real estate category. Zillow and Move in a close heat.

I still think that’s true – if you think of what lies across the finish line as the sort of dominance that, say, Netflix enjoys in online movie streaming. Or the kind of fortune-making liquidity event that turned the guys who built YouTube into billionaires.

That could happen. Move could continue to strip off its history and slip into an 800-pound gorilla suit. Zillow could continue to kill at extending its brand into the minds of consumers interested in housing.

But something less dramatic is just as likely: 3-4 companies make viable businesses out of delivering a consumer audience to advertisers interested in reaching home buyers, sellers, owners and renters.

Newspapers die and brokers remain supportive or wary of the online players depending on their own aptitude for digital marketing.

Here, my horse race metaphor doesn’t really work.

The companies compete fiercely. Each offers a different experience to consumers and different online advertising options. Their relative fortunes ebb and flow over the course of years.

It’s more like a prolonged dance than a race. And Trulia is definitely on the floor.

There are all kinds of questions that will determine how this actually plays out. And honestly, I’m in no position to answer any of them.

How does a company that raised $87 million deliver the sort of 10x return VCs desire without explosive growth or clear category leadership? If Google’s not buying Trulia, who out there is a foreseeable acquirer? Can a 15 year-old company still struggling for profitability innovate fast enough? Will investors, notoriously impatient, orchestrate some sort of consolidation?

We’ll see. But horse race or dance, you have to admire the performance