For several years Johnny Fuerst has been building one of the largest real estate photography companies in the Twin Cities. Next on the to-do list: Launch an app that will compete with his own photographers.
That app, Zota, will offer real-time instructions, tips and color-coded cues that will enable users to take much better marketing photos than the ones most novices are capable of making.
“The goal is to give people the ability to take excellent-looking real estate photos without any skill at all,” said Fuerst. “This really lowers the barrier-to-entry to get someone to shoot decent photos on their phone,” he said.
His target market includes the real estate agents and home sellers who are current customers, but he is also pursuing a relatively new and some say deeper pool of people who own or manage short-stay rentals.
That is a customer base, he said, that relies even more on good photography than the real estate market because unlike would-be buyers that tour a property before they sign a purchase agreement, short-stay renters have to make the commitment sight unseen.
Tyler Olson, founder of a social media company and the owner of a short-term rental-management company, said there is another reason good photos are critical for the short-term rental market: Good photos get lots of hits, and those hits are key to boosting a listing’s prominence on those rental sites.
“This has huge potential in the Airbnb space,” he said.
Fuerst said the name “Zota” borrows the last two syllables of “Minnesota” but is generic enough to represent a broader range of current and future functions beyond the technical aspects of taking the photos.
For now, the focus is on helping users take eye-catching photos using artificial intelligence (AI) that at the most basic level will guide users on how to compose the photo as they are taking it.
And when ready to launch by early next year, Fuerst said, the app will also offer additional layers of technical support, including the ability to take multiple photos at once and combine the best element of all of them to create the best image.
Users will also be able to submit the photos to in-house techs who can make other adjustments, including various enhancements to the colors. There will also be an option to virtually stage the rooms.
“If you want additional things like a blue sky cause it’s a rainy day, or greener grass, or if you want to Photoshop things out — all of this can be done in the app,” he said.
While the basic features of Zota will be free, users will be charged to use a suite of upgraded features, along with other services that are already offered by his company. That includes photo editing, uploading and sharing.
This is not Fuerst’s first foray into the tech world; he has already developed an Android app for internal use. For Zota, which will initially be available on the IOS platform, he is working with an external team of AI experts and developers with a skill set way beyond his.
For a company that already has considerable competition, it seems like a counterintuitive move. Over the years, Fuerst has photographed thousands of houses for real estate agents.
But he has also watched the industry — and technology — evolve.
Smartphones, for example, are far more sophisticated than ever before, enabling consumers and hobbyists alike to take professional-quality photos. Zota is aimed at helping those users compose those photos.
Fuerst said that if he wasn’t building such an app, someone else would.
He said that while he expects the app to appeal to real estate agents and homeowners who are trying to sell on their own, the biggest growth market right now is the short-term rental business, which is dominated by do-it-yourselfers.
That industry, he said, is ripe for a tool that will enable novice photographers to do a better job of marketing their properties on Airbnb, VRBO and other short-term rental websites.
On the real estate side of the business, Fuerst sees opportunity in an industry that is quickly evolving from a full-service model where buyers and sellers depend entirely on real estate agents to one that gives buyers and sellers more control of the listing and selling process.
In the same way that would-be buyers are now able to shop for a house on a third-party listing sites such as Zillow, Fuerst wants to give sellers the tools to help them market their own properties.
“If the pendulum swings more that way, Fuerst will be positioned in a fantastic way,” said Joey Torkildson, co-founder of Voila, a flat-fee real estate brokerage.