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Realtor Webspeak

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  • | 6:00 p.m. January 11, 2008
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Realtor Webspeak

ENTREPRENEURS by Jean Gruss | Editor/Lee-Collier

Southwest Florida's real estate boom and the growth of the Internet created the perfect conditions for Web-design firm CyberSunshine. Now, the company does business all over the world.

Do you speak Realtor?

The language of real estate can be Chinese to those outside the industry. But those who can speak it have an advantage when selling services to real-estate industry insiders.

Chad Engeldinger is one of those polyglots. The co-owner with his wife Cassandra of a Web development company called CyberSunshine in Fort Myers understands both Web-speak and the real-estate lingo, two distinct languages that rarely cross paths.

That advantage has propelled Engeldinger's company in the field of Web-site design for large real estate companies. CyberSunshine's latest clients include Atlanta-based Solid Source Realty, which has over 2,000 agents, and U.K.-based Mayfair International Realty, which represents 125 real-estate brokerages with 350 offices throughout Europe.

Amazingly, CyberSunshine creates and maintains the Web sites of these vast real estate enterprises with just nine employees tucked away in a small office off U.S. 41 in Fort Myers. CyberSunshine is so successful that some brokerages pay the company thousands of dollars not to work with the competition in the markets they serve.

Behind the success of this young company are Engeldinger and his wife Cassandra, two enterprising thirty-somethings who started their company from their home in 1998. He's the software programmer who creates the online machinery and she's the artistic one who designs the Web sites.

Together, they've created Web sites for over 80 companies in 25 states and countries such as the U.K., Italy, South Africa, Panama, Honduras and the Dutch island of Bonaire in the Caribbean.

But the system the Engeldingers have built can sustain 1,300 customers with the tiny staff they have now. "We have three times more servers than employees," Engeldinger chuckles.

Real-estate politics

Armed with a degree in computer science, Chad Engeldinger, 32, started working for an Internet-service provider in Columbus, Ohio. But while on a visit to Naples for a wedding in 1996, Engeldinger answered a help-wanted ad for a computer expert from the Naples Board of Realtors. He landed the job and moved to Florida.

The Realtors hired Engeldinger to build a multiple-listing service that would stretch from Naples to Bonita Springs. The electronic listing service is the lifeblood of Realtors because it serves as the central marketplace for buyers and sellers.

Typically, Realtor boards hire outside experts to build a listing service because it's such a complex system. "Only five or 10 boards have built their own system," Engeldinger says. But such a system costs tens of thousands of dollars to build and maintain and the Naples Realtors figured they could hire someone like Engeldinger to build their own and do it for less money. They also figured Engeldinger would be more responsive to their needs and when problems inevitably arose.

But getting 10,000 Realtors to agree on a common system would prove to be a gargantuan effort. The demands on Engeldinger were huge because it required him to be a technical master and a savvy politician.

For example, one of the biggest debates revolved around whether the service should include a search for fridges with icemakers (they eventually agreed it should). Other battles included how to list homes on canals that lead to nowhere versus those that lead to the Gulf of Mexico. Now, there are six different types of canals listed in the service. "It was a political task," says Engeldinger, who lets off steam by kite boarding in the Gulf.

Building the Sunshine Multiple Listing Service took Engeldinger two years. The task was like making sausage; the process wasn't pretty, but the end product was delicious.

A premier customer

After his success building the listing service, Engeldinger became fluent in Realtor-speak and had a thorough understanding of the needs of real-estate buyers and sellers. Meanwhile, two trends were coming together in the late 1990s: the Internet revolution and Southwest Florida's nascent real-estate boom.

Engeldinger quickly realized he could capitalize on these trends and formed his company, CyberSunshine, to help Realtors move their business online. He charged his first customer, Naples Realtor Rick Beransky, $200 to build his Web site.

"It caught the eye of the next customer," says Engeldinger, who was still working for the board of Realtors and worked in his spare time from his home. That customer was Premier Properties of Southwest Florida, one of the largest residential real estate companies and owned by the influential Lutgert family.

"He spoke our language and that's a big deal," recalls Todd Kendall, who at the time was president of Premier Properties. "A lot of people were not technologically savvy and Chad helped us through that."

At the time, Kendall says Engeldinger was the only Web developer who could design a Web site and provide the database technology behind it. "That meant a great deal to us," Kendall says. "He had a grasp of what was offered by Realtors and what customers wanted."

Most Web developers didn't even know the definition of a multiple-listing service, he says.

Engeldinger quit his job with the board of Realtors in 2001 and Cassandra joined him in the business. She was an arts and psychology graduate who was then working at the Fort Myers headquarters of women's retailer Chico's FAS, designing their internal newsletter. "Design something that's presentable and I will have that tech working," Chad told her.

Word quickly spread about the Engeldingers' skills. "We were getting calls from all over the country," he recalls. The young couple dove into their work. "You forget there's a Saturday and Sunday," he laughs.

The Engeldingers started their company using their own savings and left the security of well-paying jobs just as the dot-com bust was hitting the technology sector. "We were scared of what was happening," Chad recalls. But CyberSunshine became profitable in its second year.

The couple learned a valuable lesson from the tech bust. They witnessed millions of dollars of venture-capital money flood the technology sector and vanish a few years later. That's when they decided not to seek outside investors to grow the company. The result was that they grew more slowly than they otherwise might have. "We turned down a lot of business in the first couple of years," Engeldinger says.

Slow but steady growth

Because they had limited capital, the Engeldingers carefully grew the business without much overhead. The secret, Engeldinger says, was creating Web software that would let Realtors update their Web sites by themselves. That way, the Engeldingers would only have to provide support when technical glitches arose. That kept them from having to go on a hiring spree.

The Engeldingers also decided to focus on the best customers that would need ongoing support. For example, they turned down Realtors who simply wanted to build a Web site from which to blast millions of random emails in the hopes of landing a few customers. These "e-blasts" were the precursor to spam. "That was very concerning to us and our reputation," Engeldinger says.

Instead, CyberSunshine targets the top 5% of Realtors in each market. That strategy has paid off: Today, 60% of CyberSunshine's business comes from existing customers. The company has stuck to its plan, turning down business from other industries such as automobile dealers. "We have to hold ourselves back," Engeldinger says.

As all Realtors know, real estate brokerage is an intensely local business. "In almost every market you have your family-owned brokerage," Engeldinger says. Even national brands can't provide the local expertise and technological support online, he adds.

It typically costs $5,000 to launch a Web site and more complex sites can cost as much as $25,000 to start. But real estate companies have little choice today because the majority of prospective buyers start their search for a home online.

Engeldinger won't share financial details of his privately held company, but he says revenues have been growing at 10% to 20% annually. So far, the residential real estate downturn hasn't had a measurable impact on his business. "It'll be interesting to see what happens ahead," Engeldinger says.

But he's betting that the larger firms will gain market share. And he's diversifying into markets like Atlanta that are still thriving. In Atlanta, for example, Solid Source is adding 100 brokers a month to its staff. International business is growing, too, and the weak dollar is a big help.

Meanwhile, Engeldinger is working on another technology project he says will revolutionize data maintenance on the Internet. He won't reveal more. Creating new products comes naturally, he says. "That's just our entrepreneurial spirit."


Industry. Technology

Company. CyberSunshine Inc.

Key. Build automated systems so that you can be more efficient and keep your overhead low.


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