Jim Casey, Someone Moved the Cheese

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Jim Casey
Active Realtor and CRM Guru

When I entered the residential real estate business in 1986 there was no computerized MLS, no fax machine, no e-mail, no PDA’s , and certainly no World Wide Web. Contact Relationship Management (CRM) consisted of a Rolodex, manila file folders and for the really organized, 3 by 5 cards in a recipe card box with monthly “tickler” cards to remind us when to call prospects, past customers, friends and family.When I entered the residential real estate business in 1986 there was no computerized MLS, no fax machine, no e-mail, no PDA’s , and certainly no World Wide Web. Contact Relationship Management (CRM) consisted of a Rolodex, manila file folders and for the really organized, 3 by 5 cards in a recipe card box with monthly “tickler” cards to remind us when to call prospects, past customers, friends and family.

My first computer was a 386 desktop computer running DOS applications that all but wore out my enterandbackspace keys. Word processing and desktop publishing were just making their way into the world of real estate and I was the first in my office to create property flyers on a computer instead of an IBM Selectric typewriter.

In 1993 I was invited to attend a two-day, hands-on computer class for Realtors to see the latest in real estate productivity software. At the class being held in Madision, Wisconsin I got my first look at the DOS version of Top Producer software. I also got a look at two other DOS programs, PREP and Financial Keys. I was being recruited to teach the class for Superstar Computing, an independent training company that was sponsoring classes around the country to real estate agents with the offer of considerable commissions from the sale of these software programs along with the first laptop computers ever to tickle the fingers of real estate agents. I was blown away by the goal setting module in Financial Keys, the property flyer templates in PREP and most importantly, by the organizational capabilities of Top Producer.

What most people didn’t know about me at the time was that I had recently been diagnosed with a raging case of adult Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). My doctor had recommended the usual battery of ADD medications and I tried several of them to no avail. His second recommendation was to become a “list maker” so I could keep track of my goals for the day and to stay focused. The only problem was that I kept losing the lists. Finally, he recommended a change in careers as it was his understanding that residential real estate was about the most distracting business on the planet as so many people who came in for ADD testing were, in fact, real estate agents.My doctor said that most people who get into real estate don’t have ADD, but the business seems to give a lot of people the “experience of ADD.” I was having both the “real ADD” experience and the “real estate ADD” experience and it was taking its toll on my life and my marriage. A career/personality evaluation pointed me toward teaching as a much better path for my skill set and my disorder.

ADD might explain my excitement about seeing my first CRM. “A place for everything, and everything in its place,” was the only way to describe it. Top Producer had a place to store every possible piece of information I could ever need for all my customers, listings and sales. I was mesmerized with the idea of “activity reminders” and “recurring phone calls,” not to mention the concept of “action plans” that would assign important activities in their correct order, over the days, weeks or months it took to sell a listing or close a transaction. Automated follow-up plans could perform mail merges to past customers so they would receive a form letter every month from me with the click of a mouse! I was sold and I couldn’t wait to learn how to do everything so I could start teaching this amazing class.

Little did I know that a full week of transcribing the videotapes of the class to document all 3500 keystrokes over the two day class would be for naught. Three months later, Top Producer released its first Windows© version and everything I had learned how to do in DOS was now different. Sad to say, Top Producer for Windows was in a word:disastrous. It turned out that Top Producer had been selling its Windows version for almost two years, but had continued shipping the DOS version with promises of a FREE upgrade to Windows when it was due for release in “six weeks.” Six weeks turned into six months, and six months turned into two years and finally, a class action lawsuit was threatened so Top Producer released its Windows Version on December 31st of that year to avoid litigation. I remember this because I was forced to spend my New Year’s Day cramming on Top Producer for a hands-on class I had to teach two days later. Short cuts and cobbled together applications from multiple, unrelated vendors made Top Producer for Windows the most “crashable” software on the planet. I managed to navigate my first hands-on class without any problems by demanding that students not wander anywhere around the software without my specific direction. Two of my fellow instructors had disastrous classes on the same day because their students felt compelled to “mouse around” the program and locked up dozens of laptops in our portable classrooms.

After 90 days of failed promises to fix all the bugs in Top Producer, I resigned from the training company I was working for and began looking for an alternative. I thought it was immoral if not illegal to sell a product that I knew didn’t work. Ironically, it was one of my students that ran into me on an airline flight that introduced me to not only a better product, but a career changing direction in my life. My former student was a technology trainer who had been hired to train agents on a new application called The On-Line Agent©. I had seen the private labeled version of the product called Agent 2000© at a recent RE/MAX convention, and after a battery draining two hour demo on his laptop, I had agreed to meet with the company to discuss training opportunities. Within a year I was hired as On-Line Software, Inc.’s “Technology Evangelist” and spent the next four years traveling North America teaching thousands of real estate agents how to use their productivity software.

At On-Line Software I had the pleasure of meeting my first computer programmers, Larry Colson and Dave Schilling. Many hours of brainstorming, collaboration, conversation and argument helped me to understand the thought processes of these truly gifted programmers. I can make that claim now because, fourteen years later, that same product is still handling the businesses of some of the most successful real estate agents and teams in the world. Top Producer had shown me how comprehensive a software program could be, but The On-Line Agent showed me how important workflow is to creating a truly exceptional user experience. It’s true that you can do just about anything in Top Producer, but how you do things has always been its greatest weakness. To this day I love to demonstrate the workflow of AgentOffice (the latest in a long line of name changes given to The On-Line Agent) to a Top Producer user. They just shake their heads and laugh at how difficult it is to do the same things in their software. In those four years at On-Line Software I learned what it was like to have loyal customers who couldn’t wait for our next release chock full of features they had requested, and I especially loved reading the tech support department’s “wall of fame,” covered with fan letters from appreciative users.

As with all good things, On-Line Software, Inc. was acquired by Moore Data, and within a year the original programmers had left the company. I went back out on my own teaching about websites, virtual tours, digital cameras, and cell phones. But, for the past ten years, the one product I have always continued to sell and support has been AgentOffice. I’ve watched as each new company acquired the product and then tried to figure out how to sell it or how to integrate it with other products they had to sell. One thing’s for sure. The more times a software company gets bought and sold, the less feeling of “ownership” remains with the employees and developers of their applications. Bottom line thinking replaces innovation and there is a definite loss of “pride” associated with the product. Perhaps this is inevitable in the technological world, but it doesn’t make it any less disappointing. I’ve also watched dozens and dozens of startup companies trying to compete with AgentOffice and Top Producer, and I’ve watched just as many disappear off the radar screen.Several years ago, with the advent of web-based applications I even watched as some of my former colleagues raised money to build “the next best CRM for real estate” and ultimately went bankrupt in the process.

Having taught tens of thousands of real estate agents how to get organized and productive with CRM software, I was convinced that between the PC based AgentOffice and the web-based Top Producer, there just wasn’t any need for another CRM software program in the real estate industry. Either there wasn’t enough room in the market for a third brand or there just wasn’t anything more an agent could need beyond the features and/or workflow of these two products to justify taking them on. But then someone moved the cheese(See Dr. Spencer Johnson’s bookSomeone Moved My Cheese).

Top Producer users have always had a love/hate relationship with the product. I know this because so many of my AgentOffice customers switched over from TP. Top Producer has always been good at marketing, but not so good at providing great products. They proved it with their tumultuous release of the first Top Producer 6i for Windows and again when they launched their web-based version 7i. I was told the underlying platform of 7i was obsolete even before they brought it to market. This seems to be confirmed with their recent, abrupt release of version 8i which actually reduced features from the previous version. Once again, Top Producer users are not happy.

AgentOffice, after almost two years without an upgrade, was just sold (again) to a Canadian based company called Emphasys. They are new to the residential real estate market and have also acquired the web based transaction application, SettlementRoom.com. It appears their plan is to migrate the current AgentOffice users to some future web based application that should dovetail with their transaction management product.What has been the strength of AgentOffice all these years is the underlying code of the original C++ application and the workflow that I am afraid cannot be recreated in a web-based environment. In other words, what was the basis for the considerable life of the product all these years (after the departure of the original development team) is about to be lost, forever. AgentOffice users will soon be facing a forced migration to a product that doesn’t even exist yet.

Enter MEGAfy.

This past July 2008, I was speaking at Craig Proctor’s Superconference in Orlando. As I was leaving the event, attendees for Howard Brinton’s Starpower Conference were just arriving for their event at the same hotel/conference center. (I used to participate at Howard’s conferences as a “Star Supplier” teaching contact management before they closed their doors to outside vendors. A majority of Brinton Stars still use AgentOffice as their CRM having learned it from me 10-14 years ago. I stay in touch with many of the Stars and some of them have used my on-site consulting services to train their teams to use AgentOffice effectively). Before I had to leave for the airport I ran into several Stars who were excited about a new CRM they had been hearing about called MEGAfy. The owner of the company was supposed to be attending the conference, but unfortunately I was unable to extend my stay. A week later I followed up with the name I had been given and began a several month journey discussing the product and finding out about the company. I am pleased to report that the more I probed into the MEGAfy company and product, the more excited I got about what they were doing. Even more promising was the fact that several Stars had already invested in the company and were contributing ideas toward the final product. Any software program that is designed with the end user’s input is far superior than the one that some random group of programmers comes up with.

MEGAfy is different in several fundamental ways that should prove to shake the foundations of the competition.First, MEGAfy is neither a PC based program or a web-based application. This hybrid application leverages the best of both platforms. The program is small by comparison and runs on either a PC or a Mac, and it can be installed on any smart phone or even be carried around on a memory stick if you want to run the program on someone else’s computer. Instead of having to synchronize devices, MEGAfy leverages the Internet, or “the cloud” to seamlessly update the master database and all other remote copies of the software. If your assistant schedules an appointment for you on her desktop computer at the office, your smartphone will receive the update almost instantly with or without an alarm to notify you of a change in your schedule. Like iTunes, the product can run without being connected to the Internet. When a connection is established, MEGAfy sends updates to the other remote copies of the program without the need to perform a formal “synchronization” of each device.

Unlike the competition, MEGAfy “plays well with others” with an embedded web browser that allows you to access your local MLS, pull data from county records or simply surf the web. All the while you have access to your MEGAfy contacts, listings and sales without having to toggle between applications or open a new browser window. Instead of dumping all of your contacts into one huge database, MEGAfy employs a “sales funnel” process that allows you to track contacts from inquiry to prospect, prospect to appointment,appointment to customer, customer to close, and closed to past customer. And, as you “promote” contacts from one stage to another, MEGAfy tracks your production and compares it to your annual income and production goals to keep you on track.

More importantly, MEGAfy challenges my paradigm about what a CRM should look like. AgentOffice and Top Producer both use the old school format of displaying countless fields and pull-down menus for every contact, listing and sale record. Instead, once you’ve entered a contact’s information, MEGAfy only displays the information you have rather than giving equal emphasis to all the fields of information you haven’trecorded. Unless you’ve seen an iPhone you probably don’t understand what I’m talking about, but the result is a much cleaner and easier to disseminate record with a simple edit option to record additional information in the future.

Team leaders will love the way MEGAfy allows you to “partition” the database so individual team members can only access contacts you want them to see, and the security options insure that no one has the ability to export information without permission.

MEGAfy workflow leverages “best practices” behavior to make sure important activities don’t slip through the cracks. Traditional “action plans” are improved with the option of completion notifications going to key team members whose responsibilities include monitoring the activities of others on the team. Searching for contacts no longer requires multiple search criteria or indexes used in “old school” CRM’s. “MEGAfy searches” incorporate single word or key word criteria that instantly scour the entire database to find all contacts, listings, sales, correspondences, documents, and appointments associated with that word or words. My current AgentOffice students will love to know that it no longer takes a two hour class to teach them all the different ways you need to know how to find a contact!

And finally, this 48 year old feels like a kid in a candy store again. It’s been over a decade since I was able to work directly with gifted programmers to get the results my customers want instead of waiting to hear what new features the programmers thought might be “cool.” The environment at MEGAfy is filled with excited, experienced, business minded professionals who want to create a “Tribe” of loyal users who can stop wasting time trying to figure out their contact management software and take control of their businesses to increase their profitability and squeeze more productive activities into their days. That should leave all of us with a lot more free time to pursue the higher priorities of life like raising a family, travel, spirituality, sports, charity, hobbies and leisure.

I am proud to be an investor in MEGAfy. I especially look forward to communicating with you as we bring this product to market and begin changing the old CRM paradigm in the real estate industry and beyond. Hang on to your seats, it’s going to be an exciting ride!MEGAfy is different in several fundamental ways that should prove to shake the foundations of the competition.