On March 13, 2020, Glenn Kelman, the chief executive of the online real estate broker Redfin, was biking to work when he got a call from Henry Ellenbogen, a longtime investor in Redfin who had started his own fund.
At Harvard, Mr. Ellenbogen majored in the history of technology. One big thing he learned, he has said, was that technology is developed well in advance of people’s ability and willingness to use it.
“Tell me something,” Mr. Ellenbogen asked Mr. Kelman, according to an account the chief executive posted on Redfin’s website. “When people start touring homes via an iPhone, won’t a lot of them decide, even after this whole pandemic ends, that this is just a better way to see houses? And if this whole process of buying and selling homes mostly goes virtual, how will other brokerages compete with you?”
Mr. Kelman, a little preoccupied by how Seattle’s normally bustling streets were eerily empty, said he didn’t know.
“I do,” Mr. Ellenbogen said. “The world is changing in your favor.”
This was not a general view then, and it certainly was not what Mr. Kelman was experiencing. The first confirmed coronavirus death in the United States was a nursing home resident in a Seattle suburb on Feb. 29. Within hours, home sellers decided that maybe they did not want strangers breathing in their living room and bedrooms. Buyers began to pull out as well.
For Redfin, that was the beginning of a crisis. Within a few days, it shut down its 78 offices around the country. Its stock plunged, losing two-thirds of its value.
“The magnitude of the decline was increasing every day,” Mr. Kelman said. He agreed to sell Mr. Ellenbogen more stock for $110 million, thinking Redfin might need cash to make it through a long drought. In early April, Mr. Kelman furloughed 41 percent of the company’s agents, who were salaried employees. More than 1,000 people were affected.