Matthew Ferrara, Philosopher

For Sale: One New Lexus, One Aging Olive Tree

If you’re rooted to the past, it’s a whole lot harder to catch a ride to the future.

This week, while watching a Twitter stream from a real estate conference in San Francisco, I was struck with a single thought: Are they really talking about this? On stage was a debate between a real estate Association and a technology vendor. The argument:

Who can use whose pieces of paper.

Haven’t we done this before? Beta versus VHS? Chocolate versus peanut butter? Harry versus Voldemort?

The Lexus versus the Olive Tree.

nelson nevada bw-5

The argument is almost tedious: a vendor wants permission to incorporate a form, owned by an association, into its software platform. They’ve done this with other groups, who preferred to partner rather than run their own software platform. Trouble is, this Association already has its own software. So there’s little interest in empowering its competitors.

Ah, yes; another marginally interesting, if not excruciatingly esoteric saga in the angst-laden struggle of the housing industry to leave the farm and come to the big city.

Along the way, we’ll be treated to the usual cast of characters: The lions coming over the hill, in the form of the scrappy, cool-to-use software vendor. The tin-man, as in, the Association’s tin-ear to progress. The straw-man, particularly the privacy-scare, because fully licensed real estate adults aren’t able to manage their own privacy.

A Story As Old as the World

In the 1999 book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman describes a world divided by two views: One group of people is manufacturing Lexus automobiles: they represent progress, invention, innovation, and prosperity. Another group is content to sit under the Olive Tree they inherited from their ancestors, and protect the past, tradition, history, and wait for fruits to bloom. It’s a metaphor, of course, but you can see its usefulness for analyzing all sorts of issues in the world, from national politics, to industrial globalism to culture wars.

But paperwork?

Just imagine how much time, energy, thought, and money are being wasted in this fight.

Once again, the real estate industry will be balkanized with brokers, agents, vendors and talking-heads picking sides, then picking on each other. Much good-will will be wasted over an argument that has no resolution.

We already know the ending: The Olive Tree keepers will not share. The Lexus will make its own form, then use it like a GPS to go around the tree.

But not without much damage in the meantime.

Golden Arches or Golden Handcuffs

Most of us fight the history-versus-progress argument all the time; mostly against ourselves. Sometimes we project the problem: against competitors, and even consumers. When confronted with something that challenges our established, comfortable history, we circle our wagons and defend against the men with axes, coming to chop down our trees.

The danger, of course, is that we become so busy fighting that we forget to water the tree. The tree then dies, all on its own.

In Friedman’s book, he proposes an idea that says “no two countries who have McDonald’s have gone to war with each other.” In other words, once both countries accepted progress, it made more sense to be get along, rather than fight. Progress makes both countries better, and the need to fight over scarcity diminishes. It’s too bad the real estate industry continues to struggle with this idea.


Now it’s Saturday, and hundreds of tweets a few articles, a video and comments across social networks have turned the debate into a debacle. It’s like watching history repeat itself: Substitute the word “email” or “internet” or “app” or “portal” for the word “forms” in the claims or counterclaims, and you’ll see we’ve done this all before. We’ve shouted ourselves hoarse, when we could have been saying encouraging words to each other.

For every moment spent fighting these inane battles, we could have been doing something creative: Writing something to a client. Making a video to help a new salesperson. Educating young people against excessive debt, that will stifle their dreams of owning a home. Every time we let ourselves get pulled into these arguments over false scarcity, between aging olive trees and futuristic flying cars, we waste energy filling leaky buckets.

The end of the story is already predictable: The Olive Tree will resist until the bitter end; the Lexus will tire and simply go around. They won’t share, but they don’t really have to: there are plenty of customers for both.

But there is an opportunity for one of them – and likely the Lexus – to do something important: Move on. Not in defeat, but in the realization that fighting against the keepers of the Olive Grove is senseless. You’re holding the keys to a space-car in your hand. Go make your own forms: feed them into your cloud-based computer; and fly around.

In a sense, same goes for us all. Sometimes you just have to stop trying to replant the past. In fact, you need to stop talking to it, even thinking about it. You just need to decide to go around. Only then can you hitch a ride into the future.


  • I’ve missed the whole social media knock-down, drag-out you refer to and I suppose a form is really nothing to fight about. On the other hand, instead of substituting “form” for “internet” or “app” or whatever, perhaps you could substitute “intellectual property”. People fight over that all the time. That’s why I don’t take you blog post and put it on my blog with my name on top. That’s why things like licensing agreements exist

    I tend to agree that large organizations are slow to adapt and adopt. On the other hand, I’ve also seen them spend tons of money on the latest shiny object only to be burned by useless fly-by-night technology that become obsolete before it has a chance to be implemented.

  • Hi Ken! Thanks for the comment. I believe in intellectual property as much as the next guy – but the trouble in this case is “whose” intellectual property? That’s the problem with a “group” or association holding intellectual property rights – you can’t be sure “whose rights” are being looked after. Apparently some members of CAR would like to license those rights and let vendors use them; others would not like to; thus, the problem. Another reason, perhaps, why people might think twice about their memberships in the future.

    Of course, it’s really the “theater” that dismays me most; it doesn’t make any party look good, and it’s a huge distraction to the people who get sucked into it, yet again.

  • dave_hanna

    A great article, and completely off the mark. This may have been the most important discussion at Connect, and if you are not in fhe business, are a real estate wonk or outside all NAR and association business, you were clueless as to why it has such importance. Find an association AE and ask this question:
    What would it mean to you if the only legal contract form for use in your jurisdiction was the one you created and controlled?

  • Hey Dave, I’m not sure I’d consider myself exactly clueless. In fact, in full disclosure, my company used to be one of two call center help desks for CAR’s forms software long before DotLoop away a gleam in anybody’s eye. But your question is interesting: if the only legal form in a jurisdiction is the Association’s form, then you could possibly argue that the Association has a “monopoly” which would be another good reason for the vendor to make their own and get it approved legally. Monopolies often exercise undue control over things in a market, such as innovation, in this case.

    However, this entire event is akin to something we might call an “energy vampire”. DotLoop isn’t going to look good attacking an association’s purpose for existence, or right to its own property. And the Association isn’t going to look good because it won’t share its toys. Meantime, the realtors are going to break into sides and a lot of name calling will occur. That’s just bad, bad, bad, and something not wrth the entertainment value of a closing spectacle at a conference focused on adding something positive to the industry. Just my take.

  • dave_hanna

    Matthew, you still miss the point because you are not looking at the bigger picture. The legislature made the decision on the form. So CAR is more of a utility than a monopoly. What does that mean for CAR?

  • Ok, it means lots of things: CAR is a government tool. CAR has no control over its own property. CAR is a private property organization that can’t manage it’s own property? CAR is an association of small businesses that support the concept of monopolies and cartels? Take your pick. But I didn’t write the article to pick on CAR, just to be clear, but it does raise a bigger point

  • dave_hanna

    This all relates to the number one talking point in any Realtor Association in the US that is forward looking and thinking about its relevancy and survival in a world where data is completely accessible to consumers and members alike.

    That is not the world today, but it is not too far away, and MLS execs all know from their member surveys, the most compelling reason for membership to many, many of the 1 million Realtors in this country is MLS access. What will keep members tied to associations (read paying dues and funding PACS) in that future many see?

    ANYTHING that ties a member as tightly as those forms do to CAR has huge value and is going to be vigorously defended.

    I am a big fan of the NAR, and my own local and state associations. I am a volunteer leader and a major donor to RPAC. I do this because I believe in the advocacy mission of the associations, and I don’t see how our business survives without it. I also know nationwide less than 20% of all NAR members voluntarily give any money to this, the most important mission of associations today.

    I guarantee state associations have begun to approach their legislatures about the possibility of having the same protections for their forms and contracts.

  • Great… More government authorized monopolies… just what the housing market consumer needs…. ;>

  • You’ve ralley captured all the essentials in this subject area, haven’t you?