In the mid-1990s Joel MacIntosh and his brother launched a company that was supposed to help sports teams sell unsold seats using the latest, greatest technology available at the time: voice recognition software.

During a make-or-break, boardroom demo with key executives for a team they hoped would use the system, a call that was supposed to connect to computer software was instead picked up by an answering machine inadvertently connected to the same line.

“It was one of the most spectacular failures of my life,” said MacIntosh.

It was also a turning point for the struggling tech company, which MacIntosh wasn’t willing to abandon. A few days later his dad introduced him to an internet service provider, and it quickly became clear that the internet was going to change the world.

“The rocket ship was taking off,” MacIntosh said, “and I decided to latch on.”

From the scraps of that failed venture, MacIntosh has spent the past two decades building one of the most influential real estate companies you have never heard about: WolfNet Technologies, which now manages and processes property data and photos for more 99 percent of the real estate listings in the U.S. and Canada.

The company is now embracing another cutting-edge technology after being acquired by Ojo Labs, an Austin, Texas-based artificial intelligence (AI) company. Ojo hopes to transform the home buying and selling process with an interactive digital assistant that’s conversational and intuitive. Both companies will retain their current operations and leadership.

“Nothing like this exists in real estate,” said Kenneth Jenny, a California-based expert on the residential real estate brokerage industry.

At the time of the product demo debacle, MacIntosh couldn’t have imagined his next move.

The internet was in its infancy, so he started by teaching himself coding and programming, then launched a website development company.

“It dawned on me that everyone was going to be online,” he said.

The company eventually built and maintained sites for more than two dozen industries, including a national website for dude ranches, but their first real estate client hired them in 1997. Their big break came in 2000 when Roger Fazendin, a small, family-owned real estate brokerage in Minnetonka paid WolfNet $7,000 to build a website for the company.

An upended industry

It was a time of enormous change for the industry, which for decades shared its listings via printed directories that were updated only periodically and were as thick as a telephone book.

The industry was on the verge of its own digital revolution. The advent of broker reciprocity agreements resulted in what’s called the internet data exchange (IDX), a blanket term that refers to the software and policies that enable the more than 800 listing services across the country that manage property data to share their information.

Big brokerages had the resources to build their own IT departments, but smaller companies had to hire companies like WolfNet to build and maintain their sites.

WolfNet launched its first IDX “solution” in 2000, and is now able to update 16,000 to 20,000 listings per day. That includes millions of data fields and images, including standardizing addresses and geocoding the listings so that agents, brokers and third-party websites are able to share listing information and consumers are able to conduct their own searches.

Despite WolfNet’s considerable influence on the industry, the company retains a low-key presence in its new headquarters on the 11th floor of a nondescript office tower along Shelard Parkway in St. Louis Park.

Management of listings from more than 600 multiple listing services is now done by a stable of 43 programmers, salespeople and administrative staff. That includes MacIntosh’s wife, Jennie, the chief operating officer, and his sister, Lee Wilka, the business and human resources manager, who are all hunkered down in a warren of cubicles and modest offices decorated with wolf memorabilia, including the framed pen-and-ink drawing that inspired the company name. It’s a black-and-white print that shows a pair of wolves cresting a hilltop, but pausing to glance backward.

It’s an image could serve as a metaphor for MacIntosh’s willingness to learn from the past, but keep moving forward.

“Expectations change over time,” he said.

A better search process

Though WolfNet has virtually no competition, MacIntosh said the future depends on innovation. The merger with Ojo Labs is a case in point.

The main goal is to use Ojo to improve the search process via an interactive digital assistant that will use mobile messaging and the Web to conduct property searches and answer the many questions that come up during the buying and selling process. Ojo is expected to eliminate the need to ask an agent or waste time looking at listings that don’t match a buyer’s search criteria.

“At the end of the day, the search bot will deliver you a property you want to look at,” said Jenny, the real estate brokerage expert.

Many buyers are simply reluctant to ask an agent a question for fear they might be pressured into buying.

WolfNet, which will continue to build and manage websites for agents and brokers, will feed the listing data it processes to Ojo, which is “training” its digital robots (bots) in its AI laboratory in Vieux Fort, St. Lucia.

House shoppers will be able to send a text to Ojo to inquire whether a property has a particular feature. The Ojo bot will then comb the listings and respond in a conversational two-way dialogue.

Ojo will also use image recognition software and AI technology to quickly learn what a buyer likes and doesn’t like about homes, then search through millions of photographs in seconds to find homes that match a buyer’s personality and style. Would-be buyers will have the option of contacting a real estate agent, if they find a listing they’re interesting in touring.

WolfNet recently announced an initiative that enables it to update property listings in real time, and Ojo will continue to roll out its digital assistant to more markets.

“This will be another chapter for the company,” MacIntosh. “And it will be an important chapter for the industry”