EXCLUSIVE: CoStar CEO Andy Florance Speaks Out On The Fall Of Xceligent, The Rise Of CoStar And His Personal Reputation
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Andy Florance has built an empire.
CoStar, the company he founded in 1987 by selling hard disks full of property data in Washington, D.C., is worth $11B today, has 30 million online visitors a month and is considered a set of tools so vital many in the commercial real estate industry say they cannot function without it.
On Sunday, Florance spoke to Bisnow for his first extended interview since CoStar sued Xceligent, another online property data business, in December 2016. Xceligent countersued this summer, accusing CoStar of anticompetitive practices and stifling information and innovation. Xceligent filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy last week, laying off hundreds of employees with 30 minutes of notice.
Florance spoke at length about CoStar’s place in the commercial real estate industry, his history with Xceligent and his company’s reputation for being litigious with those it accuses of stealing its intellectual property.
“How many legal engagements do you think Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Best Buy are involved in for shoplifting? Do you think Saks Fifth Avenue has 10 shoplifting cases a year, and would you call that litigious? No,” Florance said. “My job is not to win a popularity contest, but to be a good steward of the company for my investors, my clients and my employees. I sleep well at night because I’m doing the right thing in my view.”
Florance, 54, spoke to Bisnow via telephone from the Blue Ridge Mountains, close to CoStar’s new office in Richmond, Virginia. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Bisnow: The big, 800-pound gorilla in the room is everything that’s been going on between you and Xceligent. I know there are aspects of this that you can’t discuss because of ongoing litigation. But I just had to ask, where were you when you heard Xceligent filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy?
Florance: The company Christmas party.
Bisnow: Was this news that shocked you?
Florance: I think it’s important to put things in perspective. You know that it’s the holiday season. It’s Christmas time. I respect and am empathetic for the staff who were laid off, or terminated, just before Christmas, and that’s sad. You are mindful of those people. I think that obviously it’s disruptive to a lot of companies when something like this happens, when a key vendor fails.
It’s not a surprise. Xceligent is not a terribly big company. In a competitive sense, day-to-day competition, it doesn’t really change our economics one way or another if they’re in business or out of it. But it’s not a surprise because I am aware that, for the last two decades, Xceligent has not been a profitable business. Pretty much for years, it has been selling products that cost $3 to produce for $1 and has been relying on investments from people to try to bridge the gap. It’s only so long a company can go losing money, and this doesn’t take rocket science [to figure out].
Bisnow: Look, it’s obvious to me and many others that you all have dedicated a large amount of resources to battling Xceligent. It’s not the first time that you’ve gone up against a competitor. And I think most of your competitors would paint CoStar as Goliath to their David. Is there any truth to that? Is CoStar a Goliath? Are you a monopoly in your eyes?
Florance: There’s three questions compounded in there. If you invent something, the day you invent it you have a monopoly in it, in theory.
We were the first company to produce online listing services for commercial real estate. We were the first company to ever put assessor databases online. We were one of the very first, if not the first, company to put a real estate picture online digitally. We were the company that invented the boundary search function for searching for real estate online. We probably invented about half of the analytics that people use in commercial real estate. Forbes named us as one of the 10 most innovative software companies in the world. And if you’re constantly innovating and doing new things, if you invent something, you’re the only one doing it. So we’ve certainly worked very hard and consistently for 30 years.
We’ve operated an ethical and successful company through hard work and innovation. We by no means are ashamed that we’ve been a successful U.S. company creating 4,000 jobs for people and providing very useful services to 30 million people a month that use our websites. Thirty million people come to the websites. We believe we provide them good value.
So now, in the context of the question: We are half the size of the people that actually own Xceligent. So, it’s not true and it’s misrepresentative to say that. In this particular case, David and Goliath doesn’t work because the Daily Mail Group is twice our size and has 260 million unique visitors a month. It has twice our revenues. It has wealth way beyond our wealth. This is not a David and Goliath story.
There was another compound in there about litigation. We think commercial real estate is not like residential real estate; we think it’s very different. It’s a $50 trillion global asset class. It’s larger than the equities market. There are trillions of dollars of debt involved in it. It’s securitized. It’s massive, it’s complex, and shrewd players do analysis and need pretty deep and rich data. In order to get that deep and rich data, you have to invest a lot of money and you have to hire people to do that work.
We [are] approaching 2,000 researchers out there collecting information. So we have people in the field visiting buildings, photographing the buildings, mapping them out. We have people calling and interviewing tenants, we have people talking to the apartment communities to get information and update the portfolio of research. We have economists and analysts writing content. We invest a lot in building that content.
The laws of the United States and common ethics say you don’t steal someone else’s work and represent it as your own. You learn at school that you don’t just take someone else’s paper and write your name on it and submit it as your work. That’s sort of a common ethical ground. Unfortunately, a number of folks periodically — and not surprisingly, it happens in a lot of industries — come up with the idea of, ‘Wow, if I can take content from another company and resell it as my own, I have no cost and then I can resell it.’ But that doesn’t work. We can’t keep investing and producing products for our customers if other people just copy our content and our work and resell it as their own. It just does not work. So when people engage in wholesale theft of our product, you have to do something about it.
It goes back to the year I started the company. I got my first 10 customers. I sent a diskette to those customers each month and they paid a fee. I paid my researchers and our software guy. About a year in, I got a call from three customers saying they were going to cancel. I asked why, and they said, 'Because customer No. 5 is going to just send us their data each month and we’re just going to split the cost.' You learn early on that you go out of business if you spend the money and other people sell your product.
So my shareholders, my employees, my customers expect me to be a good steward of the company and keep the company in business. If I was a store manager at Best Buy and I witnessed people stealing TVs, if I’m a good store manager I would be required to stop the theft, or I’d be a bad manager or a bad steward of the business.
Bisnow: And on that front, you have not been shy to defend yourself. But you have this reputation that precedes you. A lot of people think that you’re a litigation-happy CEO, and beyond competitive, vindictive. [Xceligent founder] Doug Curry in an interview with Bisnow in June called you ‘the most aggressive and litigious CEO in our industry’s history.’ What do you make of that reputation that you have? What did you make of that quote from Doug when you read it?
Florance: I didn’t read it. First of all, you have to consider the source of the quote. This is someone who is actively engaged in illegal theft on an industrial scale saying that the person stopping them from doing something wrong shouldn’t stop them from doing something wrong. So going back to that Best Buy example, if you see someone stealing TVs from Best Buy and the store manager says, ‘Hey security, stop this guy from stealing the TV.’ And the guy stealing the TV says, ‘Oh my God, you’re the most litigious store manager I’ve ever seen,’ you don’t put much weight on it. So you have to consider the sources.
CoStar has probably identified 500 to 1,000 instances where people are at scale copying our data and stealing it. And probably 95% of the time you call the people up and you say, ‘Hey guys, you can’t steal the password to our service and download our data and resell it.’ And 95% of the time, good people, when you point it out, will stop doing it. An overwhelming majority of the time, people are responsible and people can settle things as mature adults just having conversations on what people agree is the right behavior. So, we have 30 million users a month. Thirty million users a month. Bisnow would characterize 10 lawsuits as a lot. It’s not true. Given the scale and number of people, it’s actually small.
The other important thing is we won virtually every lawsuit we’ve engaged in. So, when you look at the record we have had, federal judges who aren’t going off gossip or rumor or not fully informed positions, but who under rules of evidence have ruled in CoStar’s favor again and again and again. We’ve got a number of judgments in cases where people were stealing our content, a judge heard it, decided in fact it was happening and took steps to stop it. We’ve never lost one of these cases. And so that’s pretty compelling, right? It’s a dozen different judges in three or four countries who have ruled in our favor — and that is a small, small, small, teeny percentage of the folks we work with.
We’ve worked with, for 30 years, as many as 30 million people a month, and you’re talking about a dozen lawsuits and every one of them we won. So how many legal engagements do you think Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Best Buy are involved in for shoplifting? Do you think Saks Fifth Avenue has 10 shoplifting cases a year and would you call that litigious? No. It gets back to my job. This is not to win a popularity contest, but to be a good steward of the company for my investors, my clients and my employees.
I sleep well at night because I’m doing the right thing in my view. The reputation you referred to is always the same people. It’s people generally saying these things, they get sourced again and again — [people] who have lost in front of a judge under rules of evidence and have been found to have committed copyright infringement, license violations. So, it doesn’t really bother me.
Bisnow: You mentioned being a good steward of your company for your clients. In October after the RE BackOffice break in the case, CoStar sent out a mailing. I think it was an overnight FedEx to a large percentage of your subscribers all over the country. It was 25 pages and it was filled with news clippings and anonymous quotes from former Xceligent employees. My first question is, how much money did you spend on that and how many people did you send it to?
Florance: No comment.
Bisnow: What was the purpose of that? What was the impetus behind sending that mailing to your own customers in the middle of this dispute?
Florance: No comment.
Bisnow: I mean, would you say that sending out a mailing like that is being a good steward of your clients’ fees? We’ve heard from people who are CoStar customers — and do love using your product — that they felt it was a bizarre move and they felt that they were paying for that mailing. And we’ve heard that from a number of CoStar customers.
Florance: I have no comment on that. I can’t comment on that.
Bisnow: Shifting gears, you talked about when you started sending out diskettes to a handful of people. How would you say you have changed in 30 years of running the same company from that moment to now, where I think you have a market cap around $11B?
Florance: The crazy thing is I don’t think I’ve changed much. I probably have, but it feels similar. Today, like then, the thing that motivates me is building products, building cool software products, building innovative tools, trying to produce useful tools for our customers. It’s my favorite thing about coming to work. Whether or not we’re a company that’s doing $10K in revenue or doing $1B in revenue, that’s what motivates me. Certainly, if you stop and look at the organization, I never would have dreamed that we’d be operating in half a dozen countries and have 30 million people using our products.
I’m happy if I’m doing software design and product design building products. I used to write the software myself. Now I don’t write the code anymore.
Bisnow: I know you admire Bloomberg. Is that a company whose business model inspires you?
Bisnow: To that end, I don’t know if a lot of our readers know this, but you are making heavy investments in your editorial presence. Do you want to become like a Bloomberg where you have an editorial platform that is working hand in hand with your data platform?
Florance: I would go way beyond that, because what Bloomberg is is an information environment or it’s an information platform. It’s not one-dimensional. It is very multidimensional and what they’re trying to do at Bloomberg is they’re always trying to find a new meaningful stream of data that can help their customers. They’re always trying to find some new component of information that will apply to their customers. They’re not charging for each individual element of information they have on there. They have a different philosophy from, say, a Thomson Reuters, where you buy each little module. By and large, at Bloomberg you pay one fixed fee for a terminal, and Bloomberg keeps reinvesting into creating more streams of data that might be valuable to someone in the hopes that they might be able to overall sell more terminals.
That’s sort of what we’re doing. News is like the smallest component of that effort. If you look in the last year, we added 100 new researchers in the field so we could add drone footage into the product, and so that we could add 3D matter images and 3D VR images of larger properties in the product. We’re working with doing infrared drone footage so that you can the see the energy envelope of the building. We added 600 new researchers, probably 250 net new researchers, in the last year or two in order to get deeper data about the companies that occupy commercial real estate. We added 60 economists to write more content narrative about what’s happening in the Washington office market, another economist specializes in Richmond and Norfolk. We’re hiring more analysts.
The investment we put into content in CoStar has doubled every 18 months for the last five years. So we’re doubling our investment in content at CoStar every roughly 18 months, and our prices move at a cost at the rate of inflation. So that’s sort of what Bloomberg does.
Bisnow: So your efforts editorially, from a news perspective, that’s just a small value-add for CoStar?
Florance: I think that for 30 years we’ve had some news component in the product. Very few people remember this but when we first produced a digital product for commercial real estate we found out that no one had a computer so we had to print a book. We had a directory for commercial real estate. We had articles in there. And then when people started buying computers we migrated online. And we always loved that connection. Just like Bloomberg, we always loved the connection of content and editorial and analysis — a lot of that being analysis. But we grew so fast we went from one city to 400 cities in like seven countries. So we just couldn’t keep up — even just trying to get the basic content in there as we were growing.
Now that we’ve caught up with that growth a little bit, we’re trying to deepen the breadth of data that we provide. A lot of the content in CoStar is pull content, where the user has to go in and ask a specific question. We’re trying to do more to serve up a sea of information. Obviously, we’re big data so our content is measured in petabytes. So, we’re hiring analysts to go in there and look at the commercial real estate market and figure out, of those 2,000 analyses you can do of Washington, what are the five most striking trends that someone who’s investing in retail should know about. We’re trying to pull the information out and serve it up.
Bisnow: I’m sure you’ve read the headlines like I have. We live in an era where there’s fake news. The fact you’re even acknowledging that news is a value-add for your platform is interesting. But what is your news philosophy? Are your journalists going to be able to independently cover commercial real estate without fear or favor?
Florance: For sure. It’s not a major revenue stream for us. Remember, our single biggest customer is about 1% of revenue. CoStar has always been independent and unbiased. We had a number of instances where big brokerage firms tried to invest in us or control us or boards want to control analytics. In the early days of CoStar, I can’t tell you how many times boards of Realtors in major cities asked us to change our basic statistics to make the market look more favorable. We always refused to do that. We won’t let anyone list a listing we know to be not true. We won’t let anyone change a geography that we know not to be true. It’s always been our mantra that it has to be true, and it’s got to be unbiased. In so much as I’m aware, or any of our leadership is aware, we do not alter any content because of a customer.
Having said that, we put a high priority on accuracy and quality research or quality analysis or quality reporting. Certainly no mudslinging, low-end work. I opened up CoStar’s website the other day and saw an article about the Xceligent-CoStar lawsuit. Nobody talked to me about running that article, and I had not read that article before it ran. I still have not read the article.
Bisnow: You talked about accuracy. One of the things that Xceligent accused CoStar of was that you all have a practice of changing minor data points in listings that brokers publish so that you all can claim that you own the information. Is there any truth to that?
Florance: That statement is so ludicrous I can’t even figure out how to begin to address it. It is weird is all I can say. Remember, CoStar is tracking 5 to 6 million properties, and we’re updating them every month and we track about 2,000 fields per property. We’re tracking billions and billions of pieces of information each month. We have 2,000 researchers and we’re always trying to find the best information possible, even though it’s an imperfect world and you can’t get everything all the time. So, here’s the big shocker: We’ve made a mistake once or twice on our data. Thirty years, 10 billion pieces of information a month, yes we’ve made an error.
So, an example that I am talking about is a building that was built in 1914 and renovated in 1975. OK, so we missed the renovation and we said it was built in 1914. That was used as an example of how we modified the data so it's fingerprinted. We are not making any material modifications to our database. That is a simple error.
Another example given is the parking ratio on a gas station is wrong. So, CoStar takes an aerial photo of a gas station and does the parking area. We have a software tool that counts stripes on the ground for parking and takes the building area of the gas station. And we determine the parking ratio is 3.149764, and we publish that. Nobody at that gas station ever told us what the parking ratio is to five or six significant digits. And no one who sells the gas station ever reported parking ratio before on a gas station. It’s not even used on a gas station. It’s more of an office-type thing.
So, Xceligent replicated all those values and there’s no explanation for why they replicated them other than the fact that they created or sold 3,000 passwords and hit our servers 10 million times and copied data on 3 million buildings. The question is, by putting out that four-significant-digit parking ratio on a gas station, the claim is that CoStar is somehow modifying the data so the industry can’t share data. No. It was taken to the extraordinary bizarre [scenario] where a broker, because of this kind of thing, because CoStar has made mistakes in the data, a broker no longer knows how much they’re selling their building for. They no longer know how big the building is. Well, that’s silly. That’s really, really silly. That goes in the history books of 'off the wall.'
Bisnow: On Friday, CoStar put out a statement that said despite the bankruptcy, CoStar will continue legal efforts to hold accountable those involved in the theft of its intellectual property. What do you hope to get out of continuing this fight against DMGT? What is the end goal?
Florance: We didn’t say DMGT.
Bisnow: The comment from [CoStar’s lead attorney] Nick Boyle from Williams & Connolly said, “We’ll continue to litigate across multiple jurisdictions and intend to hold to account every person who participated in this wrongdoing. There’s no question that it will include individuals and entities beyond Xceligent itself.”
Florance: There’s no DMGT in that statement, right? Here’s the thing: There is a criminal investigation into the hacking ongoing in the Philippines. It’s clear that the majority of Xceligent’s research was being done offshore and they created thousands of passwords and on at least 10 million occasions these offshore research locations and domestic locations hit our servers and copied content. The Philippine Department of Justice launched a criminal investigation into the activities of Avion in hacking into CoStar’s servers on behalf of Xceligent. That’s ongoing. There could be many other things ongoing. And then the other thing is that this is a fact these things happen. So there was large-scale copying of massive volumes of content. 3.8 million buildings. Ten million hits. Three thousand passwords. There was a lot of content copied out. That content that was illegally taken cannot be resold. So if someone takes that content and tries to now resell it, it still belongs to us.
Just because somebody stole it and then goes bankrupt, doesn’t mean that someone else can then use that stolen content. Going back to the Best Buy thing, if someone’s stealing a TV from Best Buy and store security arrests the person stealing the TV, the TV is not available for anyone to take now. It goes back on the shelf.
Bisnow: Right. So it sounds like you would go after any company that takes Xceligent’s assets and tries to resell them. Do you still plan to go after DMGT? You filed several subpoenas and depositions of people who were at DMGT, but not Xceligent specifically. Do you plan to pursue the ownership group for any involvement they may have had in this alleged wrongdoing?
Florance: I can only tell you that DMGT is my wife’s favorite news source, and I have no comment beyond that.
Bisnow: I don’t mean to harp on this. But look you have a reputation and it’s a reputation that you’re litigious, perhaps vindictive, that you act with malice. And you’ve said a lot of things today that push back against that notion. Do you think you’re misunderstood?
Florance: For sure. Absolutely. If you go back to Bisnow and you take all the times you guys have written those sorts of comments or similar media have written those comments, you uniformly source or talk about people who are a teeny minority of the players in the industry and a teeny minority of the people that use our systems. Virtually every single one lost in a court of law when a judge looked at what happened and found that what they had done was illegal. Then what these people do is they tend to go out and say, ‘Wow, that’s so unfair.’
CoStar does not have a litigation problem. CoStar has a theft problem. We’re not talking about CoStar litigating in 10 cases over 30 years and losing them. We’re talking about CoStar litigating in 10 cases over 30 years and winning them all. So all the motions. We went back and forth and settled with LoopNet and eventually merged. Virtually everything is really simple. You guys have sourced people before who have been involved and have been found guilty in multiple digital thefts across multiple industries.
And then like RealMassive, before we sued them, Craigslist sued* and they were found guilty and they had to pay a very large fine. And they had to intentionally relocate offshore to avoid U.S. laws. And then they get a good voice in the commercial real estate industry saying, ‘Wow, CoStar sued us, isn’t that bad?’ I would just re-point to these people engaged in illegal behavior, isn’t that bad?
It’s black and white. It’s not hard to figure this stuff out if you actually look at the facts. I go back to what I said before, it’s the same five or six people that are quoted again and again, and people have lost cases where they did what we said they did.
CLARIFICATION, DEC. 18, 10:45 A.M. EST: Following publication, CoStar requested a clarification to Florance's original comments: "Craigslist had sued RealMassive's then-CEO, Josh McClure, based on his work at a company called Troopal. Craigslist obtained a multi-million-dollar judgment against him under the copyright laws and the federal computer fraud and abuse act. And then McClure started RealMassive and we found lots of copyrighted pictures on that site."
Bisnow: I want to ask one forward-looking question. Xceligent was viewed by many people as your biggest competitor before Thursday. CoStar has won a lot over the years, be it in court or just in the marketplace. Do you think you have other competitors now? Who are they and do you thrive on the competition? If you don’t have any competitors, what do you do now?
Florance: Well, if you’re a data scientist, CoStar does really well where we have competition. Markets with competition we tend to sell more than markets where we don’t have competition. We welcome competition. The people who look at Xceligent as our primary competition don’t share my view of the playing field. I do not view Xceligent as our primary competition. I don’t measure competition in PR. I measure competition in what’s the world going to look like in two years or three years and what kinds of solutions will be meaningful and who’s going to be able to bring those innovative solutions.
From that perspective, Xceligent isn’t 2% of our revenue. Xceligent isn’t a big innovator. They never really made a profit in two decades. There was a time when we actually helped Xceligent make payroll. On one or two occasions when they were about to go under because they couldn’t survive, I actually helped them make payroll a few years ago. And I did that because someone who’s a much smaller competitor is not a real threat to us. I have people who I think are competitors. I’m not going to call them out. They’re innovative, thoughtful people who produce real value and innovation and profitable business models.
I remember the first time that I met Doug Curry was in a demo in Kansas City. We were settling up our market in Kansas City, it was at the Encore affiliate and there was a person I know taking copious notes as to what we were doing. He saw the product, took notes and then launched a copycat edition of it. That’s not your competition. This industry didn’t exist 20 years ago or 10 years ago and the real competition are the real innovative people who are building the kinds of solutions appropriate for a $50 trillion asset class like commercial real estate.
Bisnow: So what do you do next?
Florance: I [have] competition everywhere. So remember we’re in the apartment space. We’re in the lease management space. We’re in the land space and the business for sale space. We compete in Canada, we compete in England, we compete in France, we compete in Spain. We’re in Germany, we’re adding additional companies. CoStar Group has 20 different product lines. We have 20 different companies in here. We have competitors all over the place. So take New York City. This is a big 'nothingburger' on the real changing of the competitive front. In New York City, Xceligent had 88 clients in New York City, in Long Island, New Jersey, Westchester, Stamford, the whole area they had 88 customers. We have 9,000. So it wasn’t like that’s not where the competitive world is. That’s not. The real story here is that the Bicknells, the LoopNet guys, DMGT, the whole sequential line of investors have lost $200M on a bad business and 500 people lost their jobs right before Christmas. Twenty-two boards lost their information system. That’s the real story. It’s not a change in competition, it wasn’t that real. Real competitors are elsewhere.
Bisnow: There are some smaller companies and independent brokerage shops that have told us they can’t afford the price of CoStar and they used Xceligent because it was cheaper, and now that [Xceligent is] gone they’re worried that they won’t be able to access this information or they’re concerned that your price will now go up with Xceligent out of the market. What is your most affordable option for small companies like that? And does your price make it difficult for these small shops to compete with the big firms?
Florance: Our pricing has come down dramatically over the last couple of years. One of the things we’re doing, we recognize that a lot of people have been left in a lurch especially right here at the end of the year. We actually have the lowest prices we’ve ever offered. We never really put CoStar on sale. We’re actually putting it on sale and we’re offering people aggressive packages.
We have to produce the level of product that the folks who are doing hundreds of millions of transactions or developing hundred million dollar-buildings — our goal is to produce the high-quality reliable powerful tools, analytics and information. We can’t define the business by ‘What’s the cheapest thing we can possibly make?’ So affordable is important to us, but the reality is that about half of Xceligent’s customers aren’t actually really in commercial real estate. I’ve looked through the client list that I’ve got now, and a lot of these folks are really residential brokers. They might have 100 residential listings and they might have two or three commercial listings. We’re not free, we’re not trying to be free, and, again, Xceligent probably had a cost of $300 per user to provide data and for two decades they charged $100 per user and went out of business because of that. So we don’t want to go out of business and I don’t think our customers want us to go out of business. So we do the best we can.
Bisnow: Are you going to make an appeal to the Xceligent user base in the coming days to try to absorb them into CoStar?
Florance: For sure. I mean there are a lot of people whose business just got disrupted by this. To be clear, it was not the lawsuit that disrupted their information system, it was the $3 product being sold for a dollar, and then the investors were done with it. So we have reached out and any Xceligent users we got on the phone we’re renting free surveys for them if they’re in the middle of a deal. We’re running comp reports, we’re running space availability or for-sale or analytic reports. So we’re helping people out.
It’s not something that really moves the dial for CoStar. If a ton of these folks were to all the sudden sign up, you would barely notice it in our revenue numbers. The numbers in New York City illustrate that. We’re more doing it because we have the information and can help people out quickly.
CORRECTION, 8:40 A.M. EST: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Kansas City, Missouri, investor Bicknell. This story has been updated.