Tomorrow, I’ll be on a panel with some smart people—Russ Bergeron, Bob Hale, and Merri Jo Cowen—at Inman Connect in San Francisco to offer “a candid look at the technological, legal and business issues that need to be addressed to update outdated practices and remove some of the limitations facing MLS users and vendors today.” (Inman session schedule.) I think FBS’s Spark Platform could move us quickly to overcoming some of these issues, if FBS’s industry partners—the MLSs—can overcome one likely set of obstacles.
I’ll do four posts on the Spark Platform. This first post provides an overview of how I understand the Spark Platform will work. The second and third posts will discuss how the Spark Platform can solve legal and technical problems for the “MLS app store” concept. The fourth post discusses an obstacle that the Spark Platform itself cannot overcome, one that MLS boards and executives will have to tackle.
Overview of Spark Platform
In principle, the Spark Platform is simple:
- FBS operates the Spark Platform.
- A product or service provider (PoSP) signs up with Spark Platform. FBS refers to PoSPs as “Developers.” The relationship between FBS and PoSP is governed by an agreement between them.
- MLSs sign up with the Spark Platform.
- The Spark Platform provides standardized data to participating PoSPs subject to MLS access and display policies.
- Any subscriber of any participating MLS can buy any product or service of any participating PoSP.
- The Spark Platform collects payments from subscribers. PoSPs receive 70% and the remaining 30% is split between the MLS and FBS.
This simple view overlooks much complexity, but we’ll deal with some of that in later posts. Why might this approach be a “very big deal,” according to Brian Boero’s take or a “game changer,” according to Greg Robertson’s take? Brian and Greg summarize some of the reasons. I’ll offer my own summary here.
For PoSPs, there are at least four benefits of the Spark approach. First, the Spark Platform means being able to reach 250,000 real estate agents and brokers while working with only one data interface, the standardized Spark API (see FBS’s overview). Deploying your product in a new MLS should be very easy from a technical standpoint. Second, the Spark API includes standardized means of describing MLS policies with regard to data display, on IDX sites, for example. Think of it as a kind of data standard for MLS policies. This leads to another benefit: the PoSP receives a description of MLS display policies for 120 different MLSs in one standardized format through the Spark API. Why does this matter? Well, in our experience, many MLSs (even some of our clients) do not know their own MLS policies very well, and that means they are not very good at communicating them to IDX vendors and the like. Many of the issues and disputes that arise between MLSs and PoSPs are the result of miscommunications. The Spark API offers a chance to clear many of these miscommunications up quickly.
Third, the Spark Platform includes payment processing services. FBS collects payments form service subscribers, deals with “collections,” credit card processing, and remitting payments to PoSPs. It also deals with cutting off services for non-payment. Fourth, the Spark Bar (described in more detail here) puts the Spark Store and the PoSP’s application conspicuously on every page of the MLS system, without being obtrusive. We all know that brokers/agents don’t like to learn new interfaces, and once they do, they often forget to keep going back to them. But you can almost always count on them using the MLS system itself, and the Spark Bar will be there to remind them to buy and use PoSP products; it will also allow the PoSP to provide notifications to the subscriber any time she is logged on to the MLS.
For the MLS, the Spark Platform means more access to more innovative products and services. Even very large MLSs face challenges attracting and integrating new services from third-party PoSPs. Spark “automates” that process for them. For smaller MLSs (which many of FBS’s MLS customers are), Spark may be the only way for them to get third parties to work with them; most developers do not want to spend weeks of development time and loads of money to deploy in an MLS with only 300 subscribers. The MLS also benefits from the ability to describe its display policies through the API; this means that the MLS can set the policies up once and not have to explain them with every new PoSP. Finally, the MLSs stand to benefit from the revenues generated by sales of products and services through Spark.
Broker and agent benefits
For the brokers and agents, the Spark Platform potentially means vastly more product and service options. Because there is a single standardized marketplace for these products in the Spark Store, brokers and agents can compare products on features and price in a way that is difficult if not impossible now. What’s more, the ability of brokers and agents to rate and comment on products in the Spark Store means that they can buy products with a greater level of confidence that the products will meet their needs.
But for the Spark Platform, or anything like it, to work, it will need to build three very important frameworks: for law, technology, and business culture. I believe that FBS has succeeded or shortly will succeed in the first two of these, but the third may prove difficult.
The next three posts address each framework in turn.
P.S. Though our law and consulting firms don’t to work for Spark’s creator, FBS, I’m biased toward proposals coming from FBS’s CEO Mike Wurzer. I think he’s a smart and honorable guy. I therefore likely suffer a little “confirmation bias” when it comes to evaluating his project. Consequently, I’m counting on readers here to post ideas about why Spark might or might not work. That’s not as important on this post as it will be on the next three, but please speak up.