Cloud campus: eXp Realty's virtual office pays off

In 2008, When Glenn Sanford’s real estate business went from closing $7 million a month in sales to $700,000, he closed offices in Seattle and Phoenix, leaving a remnant of the former business in Bellingham.

Sanford wanted to rebuild the company but he thought brick and mortar offices were too expensive. When an agent asked him what real estate offices would look like in five years, he came up with a vision: Agents would meet with staff and other agents online and never set foot in an office. Then he realized — that was already possible.

Sanford started a new brokerage, eXp Realty, based around the idea of a virtual office. The virtual office software of 2009 wasn’t great, but Sanford was adamant that his 25 agents and brokers use the cloud office for meetings and filing paperwork.

Now, when Sanford logs onto his cloud office, his avatar can chat with agents and brokers from all over the country. Virtual Glenn Sanford walks through his firm’s campus using arrow keys, stopping to attend meetings, discussions and training sessions in glass buildings, at rooftop tables or under umbrellas on the beach. It’s like a video game but he’s playing it with hundreds of real estate professionals from 30 states and two Canadian provinces.

In its fifth year, eXp Realty is becoming one of the largest national brokerages and attracting talent from established companies. eXp started 2014 with 340 agents and ended with 480, and Sanford expects to have 600 by the end of April. Last year eXp Realty closed $500 million in sales and turned a profit for the first time. Sanford attributes the success to the company’s virtual office, which saves money and attracts forward-thinking people, he said.

“We’re starting to hit a little bit of a hockey stick curve in terms of growth because we’ve finally validated the virtual office,” Sanford said. “Agents are looking at it as one of their choices as a place to go.”

Debbie Biery recently joined eXp as a broker. She has worked in real estate in Whatcom County since 1999 and heard about eXp’s virtual office years ago, but she thought the idea was too futuristic.

Biery likes the social aspect of working in an office and she was afraid she would miss it when starting with eXp. So far, that’s not the case, she said.

“You can pop in anytime and connect with agents on the East Coast and everyone wants to share their ideas and what works,” Biery said.

eXp has attracted other talent recently. Brad Andersohn, former national industry outreach manager with Zillow, joined eXp in January to be the company’s director of industry and outreach. In April eXp announced that Gene Frederick, one of the industry’s top recruiters, joined the company. In four of the last 10 years, Frederick was the top recruiter at Keller Williams, the largest real estate franchise in North America in terms of number of agents, according to an eXp press release.

Andersohn, Frederick, and others in the cloud campus still get to have the water cooler conversations that happen in physical offices, and that’s important to Sanford.

“You can do your work anywhere, but the value of the office is the conversation that takes place there,” Sanford said. “Conversations, collaboration and community—those three things are the core of our organization.”

On campus, Sanford’s avatar walks past a rooftop meeting table and then takes a direct route to the transaction room by jumping off the roof. (teleporting is also possible in the cloud campus.) He walks into the transaction room, where two avatars sit at a desk. One is labeled “Brenda,” and the other is “Miracle.” Once in earshot, Sanford speaks into his computer’s microphone.

“Hey Miracle, hey Brenda,” he said. One of the avatars stood up and waved.

The five-person transaction team handles transactions and property listings for the entire company. They each cover a specific region, but it doesn’t matter where they live.

“Brenda, you just moved, right?” Sanford said.

“I’m in northwest Maine still,” her avatar replied. “I traveled the whole winter. I was in Virginia, Georgia, Nashville and now I’m back in Maine.”

The ability to move and stay with the company helps Sanford retain talented agents and employees, he said. Employees who started with eXp in Bellingham have since moved to Everett, Seattle, Port Orchard and Las Vegas, but still work for eXp.

The cloud campus, which was upgraded in March to allow more people to use it, has an amphitheater with space for 80. Several times a week real estate professionals discuss trends in the amphitheater. Five skyscrapers have a variety of meeting spaces. The whole campus is surrounded by water and once Sanford’s avatar gets to the beach, seagulls sound through his computer speakers.

At an investor kiosk, investors can see a live updated stock chart. eXp went public in 2013 so that agents and brokers could become stockholders, Sanford said. Every agent who does a transaction with eXp gets a few shares of stock through the company’s revenue sharing program. They can get more shares by recruiting successful agents.

Despite eXp Realty’s success, other real estate brands haven’t adopted the model. Sanford thinks eXp Realty uses its cloud office more than any company in any industry. He wouldn’t say who makes the software, but even its developers don’t use it to the extent that eXp does, he said.

Established real estate companies would have a hard time adapting to the virtual office, Sanford said. The median age of a realtor is 56, according to a 2014 study by the National Association of Realtors.

“Baby boomers weren’t born with technology,” Sanford said. “You can’t take a legacy organization and send everyone home and say, you’re not coming to the office anymore, you’re going to log in as an avatar. Fifty percent of their agents would leave because they’re so locked into that paradigm.”

A 2012 Swanepoel Trends Report, a yearly industry report, said there’s room in real estate for both brick and mortar offices and virtual offices. But reducing the amount of office space per agent is an industry trend and the virtual model does so most efficiently, the report said.

“It’s showing all the promise of being a powerful new innovation and eXp is leading that charge,” the report said.

Glenn Sanford, CEO, started eXp in 2009 when he realized an online office was possible. [Oliver Lazenby Photo | The BBJ]

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