Gary Keller, the co-founder and chairman of Keller Williams, reportedly explored buying VirBELA, the vendor and operator of rival brokerage eXp Realty’s virtual cloud campus, before the latter scooped the company up in an acquisition, Inman has learned.
Reached by Inman, Keller Williams did not confirm or deny it was at one point interested in purchasing VirBELA, but said it never publicly announced intentions to acquire the company.
The Bellingham, Washington-headquartered eXp Realty has expanded rapidly in recent years to over 15,000 agents based in all 50 U.S. states, D.C., and Canada, in part using the online, 3D virtual campus VirBELA created, which lets agents create digital avatars of themselves and navigate a video-game like world to attend training seminars and communicate with colleagues.
VirBELA, a software vendor founded in 2012 and based in San Diego, also services other clients in different industries — education, military and other enterprises — with similar virtual training grounds.
EXp announced its acquisition of VirBELA in late October. Had VirBELA instead been acquired by Keller Williams or another company, it may not have crippled eXp Realty. But it would have likely have harmed the company’s growth significantly, forcing them to find a new vendor and transfer their entire system, or otherwise line a rival company’s pockets.
It also would have been a jab by Gary Keller against eXp World Holdings CEO Glenn Sanford, a former highly productive Keller Williams agent and team leader from 2004 to 2007.
A Keller Williams agent who spoke on condition of anonymity told Inman that Keller told a crowd at a Keller Williams conference in November that he explored the process of buying VirBELA. The agent says that Keller told the crowd he posed as a buyer and went through the process to see what it looked like.
Josh Team, the chief innovation officer at Keller Williams, denied Keller Williams ever announced any intention to acquire VirBELA, but did not rule out that Keller Williams was interested.
“We have made no such announcement,” Team said in a statement, responding to a question from Inman asking if Keller ever announced he attempted to buy VirBELA.
“We evaluate and perform due diligence on lots of companies every year,” Team added. “Every technology company and/or product that we liked and met our standards we have successfully acquired.”
Keller’s inquiry would make logical sense. Keller Williams announced in August that it would be creating virtual brokerages for its expansion franchises.
“What the virtual brokerage allows [expansion business owners] to do, is there will be one system,” CEO John Davis told Inman at the time of the announcement. “So they don’t have to go, ‘if this market center has these sets of rules and this market center has these sets of rules and this market center three different rules — this allows them to streamline, it allows them to be efficient with their expenses, it allows them to be efficient with their decision making.”
The move could also be viewed as a slight to a major competitor. If Keller Williams owned VirBELA, it could have forced eXp to move its entire system to a new vendor. VirBELA hasn’t been eXp Realty’s only virtual world vendor, but the brokerage has operated on its system since 2016.
Keller spoke with Inman Founder Brad Inman at Inman Connect in San Francisco over the summer, in a wide-ranging conversation covered by Inman reporter Andrea Brambila. The conversation briefly touched on eXp Realty.
Inman asked, on stage at the event, “Does eXp scare you? Does anyone scare you?”
“No,” Keller said.
“By the way, [eXp Realty founder] Glenn [Sanford] speaks so highly of you,” Inman said.
“Love it, great. Good for him,” Keller deadpanned. “I don’t care.”
Sanford, in a latter session at Inman Connect San Francisco, gently jabbed back at Keller Williams’ cloud technology.
At the time of the acquisition’s announcement, eXp World Holdings CEO Glenn Sanford told Inman that acquiring VirBELA will allow the company to operate the virtual platform in a more flexible manner. For example, it could now, for example, create different campus for its United States and Canada offices.
When asked about Keller Williams’ alleged interest, why it might have been interested in acquiring the platform and if a theoretical acquisition would have hurt eXp Realty, an eXp Realty spokesperson provided the following statement.
“Nothing comes close to VirBELA’s virtual world technology, and we are excited about the incredible value it provides our agents today and the possibilities for tomorrow. Our more than 15,000 eXp Realty agents across North America use VirBELA’s platform for virtual collaboration, education and support to help grow their businesses.”
Fred Weaver, a former Keller Williams agent who is now at eXp, also confirmed to Inman that he heard a rumor that Keller was interested in possibly acquiring VirBELA.
“Gary Keller worked hard to own VirBELA, and therefore, control the technology that eXp World is built on — it was a smart business move on his behalf and one I’m grateful he was not able to pull off,” Weaver wrote on his Facebook page.