The only way for an entrepreneur to claim credit for a big surge of demand no one really saw coming is by responding the way software company founder Joe Welu has.
That’s by stomping on the accelerator.
Welu has concluded, with good reason, that at least one software provider will grow into a big company solving a compliance problem for residential real estate brokerage and mortgage finance companies. By hiring aggressively, lining up venture capital financing and other measures, Welu is working fast to ensure it’s his company that turns out to be that big winner.
Welu’s company is called Total Expert, a technology company with a name so unfashionable that it almost sounds cool. Its product is software that helps real estate agents and brokers, along with mortgage brokers and title companies, manage their marketing to consumers.
Total Expert got its start more than four years ago, founded on Welu’s instinct that residential real estate agents operate pretty independently and need better tools to market themselves and their properties. He gained that insight by being a creator, along with his wife, of a real estate sales team now affiliated with Keller Williams.
Total Expert, based in Eden Prairie, developed software tools to help busy people make and keep track of good marketing materials, from the opening “landing page” of a real estate agent’s website to individual websites for top listed properties.
Welu, of course, knew that residential real estate is a regulated industry. But he hadn’t counted on compliance turning into such a vexing problem that even big companies found themselves ill-prepared.
The rules, among other things, make sure companies in the industry don’t improperly pay each other for referrals, like the title company paying for lunch at an agent’s open house in exchange for the chance to handle the closing.
At the same time, companies in related fields still might want to advertise to the same consumer. But because of concern about who pays for what, marketing agreements between providers can be a target of regulators.
What turned this into a big challenge for industry players was when authority to enforce the rules shifted under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, or RESPA, over to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. You can search on Google for the term “RESPA crackdown” to see what happened next.
Among other regulatory settlements, Wells Fargo & Co. last year agreed to pay roughly $35 million, including payments to affected consumers, to settle allegations its bankers had received improper payments from a title firm in exchange for business.
This was far from the only regulatory case that arose, and by last summer some of the biggest mortgage companies including Wells said they were done with so-called marketing service agreements.
Welu knew that marketing together could be a proper way to pitch services to consumers. The solution was to help Total Expert customers carefully keep track of all their marketing efforts. Regulators needed to be able to see that neither party had paid for marketing costs that should have been paid by the other, the kind of practice that would look like a disguised attempt to pay for referrals.
The module in the software that helps clients comply with the rules keeps track of the marketing assets, everything from making sure the message doesn’t get changed in the field to who created a mailing to who approved it. It also tracks every nickel related to who paid for it.
If an agent and a mortgage banker decide to mail one postcard to homeowners in a neighborhood they both serve, they each need to be able to show regulators that they each only paid for a portion of the expense that exactly matched the amount of space on the postcard that was just about each of them. That means, among other things, measuring the “branding space” on the postcard down to the last pixel.
Total Expert is still happy to provide individual agents and small mortgage origination offices a software package at a monthly fee they can afford, but the compliance problem is allowing Welu to shift the company’s plan to also serve big companies in the mortgage or title business.
“When I was doing customer calls as part of our due diligence, it was the best customer calls I’d ever conducted,” said Patrick Meenan, a partner in Arthur Ventures, one of two firms that recently provided a $3 million venture capital round. “This software solves problems and makes people happy in both compliance and marketing. That’s just super rare. Usually compliance software sucks and everyone just hates using it.”
Meenan said he had only reluctantly called Welu, having learned to be skeptical of anybody proposing to sell software into the messy and highly fragmented real estate industry. It was a short story in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal that sparked his interest, an article that said Total Expert was planning to double the size of its workforce in the first quarter of this year as well as look for larger office space.
Meenan knew the company hadn’t raised much outside capital, he said, concluding that Welu was planning to fund the growth with payments from customers.
“Then when we met with him he was just a total bulldog,” Meenan said. “He said ‘Every single institution that does residential mortgages needs my software. And I’m going to go make it happen.’ ”
There are more 7,000 mortgage companies reporting to the federal government. Getting a big chunk of them could allow Welu to realize his goal of getting to be a $100 million company.
And no one could say that kind of achievement would only be due to good luck.