A commenter on a recent article accused me of too often having the "narrow perspective of someone who has arrived." I found that statement curious as I was preparing my year-end taxes, gazing at the bottom line which was a tribute to the true awe-inspiring enormity of my success. I almost paid the bills.
Mostly, though, it reminded me of those first years in business. Even in a good market, building a real estate career from the ground up is like scaling Mt. Everest wearing swim fins. It is a painfully slow process, and it is a lot of hard work. And it is a lot like childbirth — you never really forget the labor.
I was doing time in an office meeting a year ago when the office manager asked a handful of "top producers" (whatever that means) to answer a simple question. It was a year ago that we were just starting to feel the squeeze on the market and on our personal reserves as the supply side of our business — home sales — started to head south for the long winter.
So, in an attempt to rally the hungry, frightened troops and unlock the mysteries of success, several of us were asked to answer one question: "If you suddenly found yourself in the talons of a giant, migrating pterodactyl to be dropped in the middle of a new, unfamiliar market area, what would you do to build a business?" (I made up the pterodactyl part because the visual amused me, but you get the idea.)
The answers, not surprisingly, were as varied as the colors of BMWs in the parking lot. (Actually, the cars were mostly of the Lexus variety, but I don’t know what the plural for "Lexus" is. Again, you get the idea.) Build a Web site, join a Bunko group, mail postcards, door-knock, preview property — the list was all too familiar. But there was only one right answer. Alas, my answer was eliminated on technicalities.
"Work hard," it turns out, is too abstract. People, it seems, want a quick-fix prescription.
I wrote once that "Hard work, not a magic formula nor even an ability to predict five out of six Powerball numbers, is what makes a successful real estate career. All of the motivational seminars in the free world cannot replace the experience of one real-life transaction. The fanciest widgets and the sexiest Web site flash intros will never replace feet on the ground. Technological applications augment a solid business plan built on fundamentals, they do not replace it. We work in real estate, and there is a reason it is called work."
At the time, I was sharing the story of my first real estate transaction — my first listing. I am going to take the liberty of dusting off a couple of excerpts which I find serve as a reality check for those mired in a lot of expert advice on how to do this real estate thing.
I’ll title it, "You Have to Start Somewhere":
If I had possessed any formal training whatsoever, I would have never found myself at their kitchen table this weekday evening. I would have been holding an open house for a successful listing agent, I would have been forcing my newly printed business cards into the clinched fists of my "sphere of influence" (formerly known as friends), or I would have been addressing postcards with the much-anticipated "Recipe of the Month" to unsuspecting neighbors (October is "Bologna Shapes with Mayonnaise Dipping Sauce"). Yet, I was unshackled by the encumbrances of actual, practical knowledge.
Now, at this point in my long, illustrious career, it is important to remember that I have NO marketing plan. I have no plan at all. So, I fill my briefcase with a package of listing forms which are as familiar to me as the blueprints for the Hubble Telescope, and I fill in the airspace with random company promotional propaganda leaflets pulled from the shelves of the Rock Solid resource room, one of which undoubtedly involved step-by-step instructions for replacing the toner in the office copy machine. With my remaining free hand, I grab all arbitrary office items within reach (including a two-hole punch and a desk lamp) so as not to look unprepared, and I head for the door.
With the help of my "stuff," and much to the chagrin of Joe and Marge, I was able to stretch my visit into a painful, three-hour presentation. I spent two hours ogling over their most special of special homes while I wisely devoted the remaining hour to discussing pricing, the reputation of my company, and the inherent dangers of continuing the photocopying process with a depleted toner supply. Stocking-clad limbs wrapped firmly around one leg of the casual dinette, I refused to budge. When their attempts at feigning death still failed to send me home, Joe and Marge at last surrendered. "She seems like a nice enough girl, Joe, and I just don’t want to go through this again." Ha! Put that in your testimonial book!
I returned to the office with a listing contract that looked like we had all prepared it with a box of crayons while wearing coordinating oven mitts. Eventually I had to return to rewrite the contract properly, but I had the job. I have since looked back and done the math. This first job resulted in eight subsequent transactions as a direct result of that one yard sign. And don’t feel sorry for Joe and Marge. They got fabulous representation and results. I worked my hiney off. They were all I had, and I had nothing else to do.
Looking back, I realize that my success on this first outing wasn’t a result of what I knew. It was because of what I didn’t know that I was able to earn their business. Call it attitude, tenacity, or naivety, but I wasn’t beating my head against a production board in those first months expecting checklist salvation. My entire thought process, and business plan, involved this: Need to eat, get a job.
Our wired world is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we have so much knowledge and advice at our disposal. On the other, all of the well-intended advice can become overwhelming noise which serves only to confuse, instilling intimidation and fear. The single bit of "wisdom" you can take to the bank is that achieving success in real estate is hard work. Beyond that, there is no one way to go about it. The right way will be what works for you.
How you find yourself with the first client, that first transaction, is not really the point. Most of us come out of the licensing chute with one transaction in us — we all know someone. It’s what you do with that one transaction that will either grow a business or send you back to your day job.
You must blog, you mustn’t advertise in print, you must Twitter, and thou shalt never allow your likeness to appear on a shopping cart. It’s all good advice — for someone. For another, it’s all wrong. Hear it, process it, and cherry-pick the nuggets that are your best fit, ignoring the rest.
It is tempting to point to the established agents and cry "foul." The irony is that it is the newer agents who may be in the most enviable position. Everyone is looking forward, and for everyone behind me, I have a big ol’ target painted on my backside. Veteran agents know that the thundering herd is always closing in, and they have to continually be raising the bar. As a newer agent, it’s all been done before. You need just look at who is achieving success and take a thinking break to consider why. Then emulate, improve on the formula, go forth, and conquer.
How? Again, the how will be dependent on you, your skill sets and the nature of your market. During my first years in business I was the one bringing up the rear. Rather than knock myself out trying to follow the recipe (make 20 calls a day, mail 200 postcards a month and hand out pumpkins at Thanksgiving), I sat down with a map of my community. I looked at who was dominating in each of the neighborhoods and looked for those agents’ Achilles’ heels. I looked at the neighborhoods that weren’t being dominated by any one agent and asked why. I picked what I considered to be the one small, ripest target, and I attacked it with a vengeance, giving myself a year to make hay or regroup. That’s just one way — yours will be different.
We all need motivation from time to time. We all benefit from ongoing training, and we can all learn a thing or two from those more successful than ourselves. If you are able to make a career out of real estate, you will have plenty of time for all the seminars you can eat. But if you are newer to the business, maybe you should consider starting by ignoring all of the sage advice — the noise. Go out there are find your Joe and Marge, and do it in a way that only you know how. You have to start somewhere. The rest will follow.
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