Aaron Farmer became an icon for innovators of low-cost real estate business models when he battled regulators and legislators in the state of Texas to block state-imposed restrictions on brokerages that offer limited services to clients, such as a flat-fee option to place a home in a multiple listing service.

But he is lesser known for his creation of an innovative brokerage company, the National Agent Network, that gives agents the freedom to create and promote their own brand of real estate business while offering assistance when it’s needed.

As the founder of Texas Discount Realty, a company that offers a range of service and pricing options for real estate consumers, Farmer has witnessed the firestorm over the real estate industry’s backing of minimum-service measures in several states. His clashes with industry and government officials in Texas led him to testify before Congress, participate in a panel during a U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice workshop on real estate competition, and meet Canadian antitrust enforcement regulators about industry actions in that nation.

While Farmer ultimately lost his challenge to the creation of minimum-service legislation in Texas — which sets a specific list of duties that all licensed real estate agents must perform for their clients, whether or not the clients want or need the services — his agent network is founded on the principles of fewer restrictions and abundant independence.

Farmer said he conceptualized the agent network in 2000, two years before the launch of Texas Discount Realty, and he began to actively pursue the concept in 2004. Farmer named Don Shirey, one of the original agents at Texas Discount Realty, to serve as chief operating officer for the network.

Since then, the network has grown to over 100 members and serves as an umbrella brokerage company for Texas Discount Realty.

In January, Farmer said he gave all agents stock in the company based on their production and tenure. New agents start out with an 80-20 commission-sharing agreement with the company, he said, with agents keeping 80 percent of their commission income. That split moves to 90-10 and 95-5 for more experienced agents, he said.

“They can work under whatever business model that they want to work under,” Farmer said, as long as it complies with state requirements. “We facilitate them in competing and using our knowledge and our experience to help them set up whatever business model they want to create. We offer training. If you have a problem, call us. We’re accessible pretty much 24-7,” he said.

Farmer has also obtained a mortgage broker’s license and set up a mortgage company called Doorway Lending to provide mortgage options for members of the network.

Most of the agents in the network have worked for other real estate companies, Farmer said. “It’s about 70 percent experienced agents — experienced agents are the ones who get it.”

Kathy Block, who joined the network about five months ago, received her real estate license about two years ago and was working with another company in Central Texas.

“I really wanted an arrangement where I would have more direct control over how I marketed myself, more control over my business in general … which leads I would work, which ones I would not, which ones I would refer out, (and) more control over pricing and the ability to market a flexible pricing schedule,” said Block.

She learned about the network from Farmer, who had listed and sold her home before she earned her real estate license. Block, who also works as a computer programmer, performs some programming work for Texas Discount Realty.

Her Web site details the variable price and service plans she offers.

“I feel much more so that I am my own boss,” Block said. In her previous job she had to attend sales meetings and other events at the office and “that was pulling me away from my market area. In this situation I feel a lot more independent, I don’t feel that I have the demands of the brokerage on me.”

She said she believes the network’s business model could be expanded to other areas. “It’s very flexible. I think that’s really appealing to a lot of people. Real estate is probably one of the few businesses you go into and operate your own office, but under the supervision through the brokerage it’s difficult to reconcile those two forces. This model allows for the most comfortable reconciliation of those forces for me.”

Mickie Blackmon, an agent who joined the network in February 2006 and brands her business Blackmon Realty, has worked in real estate for eight years and had served as a broker in Minnesota before moving to Texas.

Joining the network, she said, “was a way for me to run my business the way I wanted to run my business, but to have the backing of a broker who had that same vision, because it gave me the freedom to work as hard as I wanted to.”

Obtaining a broker’s license in Texas can be a time-consuming process, she said. “It takes a very long time and a lot of classes to get your broker’s license in the state of Texas as compared to other (states) across the country.” And even if she does obtain a broker’s license, Blackmon said she plans to remain with the network. “I own this part of the company, I own the company name,” she said. Blackmon works with two full-time and two part-time agents under the Blackmon Realty brand.

While the network is a good fit for her, Blackmon said it may not be for everyone. “It depends what type of real estate (agent) you are. I’m a self-starter. I’m very motivated. I know how to market myself. If I were just starting out in real estate I wouldn’t necessarily go this route. If you don’t know quite what your niche is, I think you should go out and get your feet wet first.”

Even so, she said that the network’s leaders are “very supportive and are always prompt to answer any questions I might have. I can go with this wherever I want to go with it.”

The National Agent Network is not a discount company, Farmer said, though it does allow agents to offer a range of rates that some traditional brokers may not allow. “I’m the broker setting the rules and saying, ‘There are no rules on the pricing.’ We allow agents the freedom of flexibility to do whatever they want.”

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