• Bigger doesn't mean better anymore.
  • Sometimes jumping on an opportunity deemed too trendy, such as Internet marketing, is the best thing you can do for your business.
  • Taking chances can really pay off -- financially and personally.

The inspiration for this article came about after commenting on one of Brad Inman’s posts few weeks ago. He was asking for different opinions about operating in today’s atmosphere as an independent brokerage aligned with a big brokerage or functioning as a team.

Because I’ve had experience with all of the above, I was asked to elaborate on my journey.

Obviously, there are many roads to being a successful real estate agent. We all know gigantic success stories in each of these categories, which is why it’s not a cut-and-dry answer for any of us.

I’m not about to claim I have all of the answers, but throughout my career, I’ve certainly traveled the course of all of them in some capacity, and I’ve learned what has worked best for me, at least so far.

I didn’t know, what I didn’t know

I think a lot of us can look back and say that about many things we have been through. Life is a constant journey of living and learning along with failure and success.

My journey started nearly 19 years ago when the broker selling my home talked me into getting my real estate license. He said I was a natural and could work part time, have a flexible schedule and make tons of money. Sound familiar? Who wouldn’t give that a shot?

Because I was somewhat new to the stay-at-home mom thing with a 2-year-old and another one on the way, why not work a few hours a week and make tons of money?

So off I went to real estate school and to work for him at a small independent real estate brokerage with about 10 people. It didn’t take long to see I wasn’t a fit for the way he did business, and there was no training to speak of; but in that short time, I did fall in love with real estate.

Bigger has to be better, right?

Knowing nothing about “the business” of the business, I switched brokerages about a month in and transferred my license to the company with the largest presence in my town of St. Louis.

The largest brokerage firm must mean most successful agents, right? It seemed logical at that time. In the course of my time there, just over four years, there were many changes — and little did I know, real estate as we knew it, was about to change, and change big!

This company had started as an independent; it then affiliated with (the first) Better Homes and Gardens, then GMAC, then back to an independent, before merging with Coldwell Banker just after I left.

These were interesting times in the real estate world (the late 1990s), as realtor.com was now on the scene and beginning to turn our world upside down.

I remember the leaders of our company at that time telling us not to invest in Internet marketing — this was way before Zillow, Redfin, Realogy, and everybody else — as it was just a fad and that consumers wouldn’t search for homes online instead of using a local agent.

Luckily, I didn’t take that advice, and I jumped on the Internet marketing bandwagon early — with both feet.

I was also already causing some disruption in my company at the time when I started a small team in my second year to accommodate my not-so-part-time and not-so-flexible booming business.

Other than husband and wife teams, there wasn’t anyone modeling this way of doing business at the time, and quite frankly, they didn’t know what to do with me. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do with me.

A team is born

I stayed with the company for a couple of years working as this guinea pig team because although it was an independent at the time, it had the largest market share in the area.

It was all I knew; change is scary, and I was probably a little bit brainwashed that I needed them. Maybe they were the reason for my success. Maybe it wasn’t me. Maybe I was just a good instrument for them.

So fear and lack of knowledge held me in place for a bit, but my mind told me if I left the largest brokerage in town, my business would surely decrease.

Then I did the math, but because there weren’t any team compensation plans developed yet, I calculated that I was leaving behind over $100,000 in lost commission because the bonus structure was designed for individual agents.

Those numbers were concrete enough for me to consider taking the risk of making a move, so I cheated — or at least, that’s what it felt like. I talked to other brokers. I weighed my options. I negotiated better deals for my team, and I went for it.

I prepared myself to offer lower commission rates to get people to go with me because I was leaving the big guns in town. Although I decided on Re/Max, which was a national broker, it had a reputation for being the discount company in my area at the time.

At least, that’s what I was always told at the big brokerage, but times were changing, and little did I know just how much the Internet was about to change the industry.

By week two at my new broker, business was coming from every direction. Did people care who I was associated with so much that I was suddenly getting way more business overnight?

“Hey that real estate girl finally left and went to Re/Max, so let’s call her now to sell our house,” said no one ever.

And I didn’t have to slash commissions to get business. So what did happen? After a little time, I realized I had the freedom to explore marketing.

I wasn’t relying on what the broker was doing for me, but rather what I was doing for myself. Re/Max agents were known as the independent agents, so I set out to drive business to myself, through these new Internet marketing strategies.

And the difference was that I received all of the calls, emails and inquiries back directly — they weren’t going through the phone duty desk at my old brokerage. I could effectively measure ROI. Now I had a real estate business, and I began to run it like one.

See more of my journey tomorrow in part two of my adventure.

Kathy Helbig is the co-owner of Keller Williams Realty West. Follow her on Twitter.

Email Kathy Helbig.

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