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Inside Ben Kinney’s flourishing real estate empire

Real estate's folk hero owns 6 brokerages, 6 tech companies, a training firm and a real estate team
  • Keller Williams broker-owner and agent team leader Ben Kinney runs a burgeoning real estate and tech empire out of Bellingham, Washington.
  • Integrity, smarts, relationships and coaching fuel Kinney's success; a peek inside his empire and modus operandi provides real estate brokers and agents a blueprint to turbocharge their careers.
  • Among Kinney's many broker, agent tips: Invest more money into training and coaching, embrace teams, and provide classes on hiring and compensating team members.

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Rain dripping from cedar trees comforts a child huddled in a 300-square-foot remote cabin outside Arlington, Washington, deep in the Pacific Northwest.

He’s on a broken couch, which serves as a bed that he shares with his single-parent father, who sleeps on the opposite end. And he might be as surprised by his real estate, entrepreneurial future as he is mesmerized by the languorous patter that lulls him to sleep many nights.

Ben Kinney's childhood home.

Ben Kinney’s childhood home.

Ben Kinney, 37, grew up in that one-room shack (sans electricity) with his dad from age 3 through middle school. Last week, he was in London opening his first international real estate brokerage office as his burgeoning real estate empire gets bigger.

Kinney’s story shows real estate brokers and agents that riding a rocket built of simplicity, integrity and smarts can shoot them to stratospheric heights, especially if it’s powered by relationships.

Kinney cites Proverbs 27:17 as one of his guiding lights: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

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Ben Kinney

Ben Kinney

That spirit endears him to colleagues.

“He’s humble, giving, always does the right thing, always thinks big picture,” fellow Keller Williams Realty super agent Sue Adler wrote in a Facebook comment about Kinney. “What I hate about Ben: He always grabs the check for the whole table when no one is looking. That makes me crazy, but that is Ben.”

For anyone doubting Kinney’s folk-hero status: He saves baby deer.

Kinney’s story also provides a glimpse of the industry’s future from someone leaning into its cutting edge.

Real estate empire

Kinney’s increasingly becoming a face for the fast-growing and massive brand he calls home, Keller Williams Realty, but he’s also a company in and of himself.

Headquartered in Bellingham, Washington, Ben Kinney Companies has four wings: brokerage, sales (through an agent team he leads), technology and coaching. All but 20 percent of the firm is focused on real estate.

Ben Kinney Companies

Wing Scope
Keller Williams brokerage owner Six brokerages, seven locations in Pacific Northwest and London. Over 1,000 agents. 2014 sales volume: $1.7 billion; sides: 6,000.
Ben Kinney Real Estate Team Over 20 buyer’s agents and showing specialists, two listing agents, four telemarketers and four other full-time employees. 2014 sales volume: $150 million; sides: 650.
Ben Kinney Training Organization Three employees. Firm hosts live event and webinars and facilitates designations, certifications and content creation.
Software See chart below.

He wasn’t looking to get into the brokerage business; he bought his first firm by happenstance.

Kinney-smartphone

Kinney’s smartphone homescreen.

During the housing crash, a nearby Keller Williams franchisee needed leadership and money. Kinney decided to step in.

“If you’re going to own one brokerage, you might as well own 10 or 20, because it’s the same work,” Kinney said. He compared the broker-owner experience at Keller Williams to getting an MBA; he’s learned to manage financials and balance overhead with a detailed, proven model.

Behind it all, however, is a focus on people.

“Once I committed to making my life about the who instead of the what, I realized that my only job is to recruit and retain talent,” Kinney said.

Kinney’s typical workday
  • 8 a.m. arrives at office
  • 8:30 – 8:50 a.m. scripts and dialogues practice with his agent team.
  • 9 a.m. at his treadmill desk calling and prospecting. He aims to have at least two appointments every day.
  • 11 a.m. software product meeting or recruiting appointments.
  • 4 or 5 p.m. arrives at home; laptop stays in his truck, just as it does on the weekends.

Why did he jump at the chance to own a London brokerage?

First, he had the opportunity to partner with a colleague he admires, Philadelphia Keller Williams broker-owner Matt Fetick. They co-own the 30-agent firm.

Second, “the market needs disruption,” Kinney said, citing several examples:

  • Listing agents don’t typically publish property addresses because exclusive listing agreements are rare.
  • Buyers typically have no representation.
  • Technology is not used for leverage or marketing.
  • Listings are not marketed effectively.

Diving into the tech ocean

Running a real estate firm and building technology are separate oceans. Why did Kinney dive into the latter?

“Tech is going to disrupt real estate,” Kinney said. “I wanted to start investing in software so that when the world changes, I have all the tools in place to take advantage of it.”

“Most successful people in the world are a little bit paranoid,” he added. “Knowing that somebody on Wall Street, an entrepreneur or corporation is trying to change the business makes me nervous.”

Kinney’s software companies

Technology firm (No. of employees) Scope
ActiveRain and Localism (13) Largest blogging and social network in real estate. Acquired from Zillow Group on June 30. (Inman story)
KWKLY (3) KWKLY is a mobile lead generation tool for real estate agents. Acquired from Zillow Group on July 30.
Brivity (15) Customer relationship management, transaction management, lead generation, marketing and communication tool for real estate agents. (Inman story)
Blossor (8) National real estate search site that uses unique search features to create the ultimate home search experience. (Inman story)
Big Fresh (10) Web development and design & marketing firm for customers needing websites, mobile apps, print materials designed, SEO and paid marketing management.
Tech Help (8) Outsourced IT and tech support for businesses ranging from fire departments, to 911 dispatchers to accounting firms.

Source: Ben Kinney

Kinney has big plans for the real estate community and blogging platform he acquired from Zillow Group in June, ActiveRain.

“Tech is going to disrupt real estate,” Kinney said.

He wants to incorporate the network into his emerging localism.com endeavor to help agents and others become the experts down to street, neighborhood and ZIP code levels. He mentioned the blog networks Curbed and The Huffington Post as inspiration.

The man, the myth, the legend

Like many agents before him, Keller Williams co-founder Gary Keller’s iconic book, “The Millionaire Real Estate Agent,” propelled Kinney into real estate.

Eleven years ago, Kinney was working as a cable guy. He bought a duplex and his agent gave him the book as a closing gift.

Soon after, a massive round of layoffs hit his cable company.

He was spared, but the thought hit him: “How can I plan my life if someone has control over whether I have a job?”

Kinney-home

Kinney’s current home.

He’s driving the bus now.

Kinney lives in a Bellingham home he bought two years ago for $400,000 in foreclosure.

“My goal is to buy a new home every two years and never sell any of them,” Kinney said. “I don’t get emotionally attached to real estate. It is an investment for my future.”

The man, in (his own) words
  • Kinney deleted his Facebook account two years ago.
  • He’s never been married, but wants to be.
  • He doesn’t work nights or weekends.
  • He doesn’t drink or do drugs.
  • He goes to church.
  • When he gets home from work at 4 or 5, his laptop stays in his truck; so does work.
  • “It’s important for me to not let my income show in my possessions or my lifestyle.”
  • “I like nice things but I am happy to live below my means, which is why I drive a scratched-up Ford F-150 truck every day.”
  • “I spend most of my free time fishing, hunting, shooting, hiking and playing with my golden retriever.”
  • “I also read a lot, listen to audio books, and buy every new non-scary movie on Amazon.”
  • “I love to be outdoors — hiking, fishing, hunting, mushroom picking, and looking for fossils and gemstones.”
  • “A normal weekend would be spending some time outdoors, attending church and cooking dinner for the people I love.”
  • “The last vacation I took was to Iceland. I hiked, explored and flew around the island in a helicopter, taking in the nature and the history of the island. I tried as many bizarre foods as I could possibly find, like fermented shark and puffin.”
Kinney's golden retriever.

Kinney’s golden retriever.

“I used to be ashamed about how I grew up,” Kinney said. But then he realized: “For every one that has had a bad situation, there are tons that have had worse.”

He’s left that hardscrabble upbringing far behind — propelled, in part, by his real estate coach.

“Having a coach drives me to get results far past my potential,” Kinney said.

Three years ago, he developed a list of seven goals with his coach and mentor, Gary Keller, to stay on track. (Keller coaches Keller Williams’ top agents.)

Kinney’s life/business goals
  • Hire somebody to do all the things I don’t enjoy.
  • Have a net worth of over $100 million.
  • Have $10 million in reserves in bank account.
  • Get married, but only once.
  • Create stuff I’d be remembered for in a positive way.
  • Help 10 people make $1 million per year.
  • Give $1 million per year to charity. (He gave $500,000 to charity last year.)

“Making my goals public is another form of accountability,” Kinney said. “Tell everyone what you’re gonna do and let your words match your actions.”

True to form, he’s still not working alone. Keller actively mentors and coaches him. He also has another coach from Maps Coaching, Glen Neely.

Kinney’s business heroes? Steve Jobs and Gary Keller.

Kinney’s pro tips

Advice for agents
  • Invest more money into training and coaching. Otherwise your competition will pass you when you aren’t looking.
  • Learn how to build a team. Your family wants to see you more, and you need to make more money.
  • Focus on making your team members and staff rich — because if they are rich, you will be really rich.
  • Our business is moving online. Invest in technology and build your presence online fast.
  • Save your money. Keep reserves of four months of personal and four months of business expenses at all times.
  • Get a lot of reviews from as many people as possible and post them online: Zillow, Yelp, Angie’s List, Google Local.
  • Practice scripts and dialogues daily. Our team practices scripts from 8:30 to 8:50 a.m. every day (and has done so for the last nine years).
  • Say this to yourself every day, “I care about my hourly wage,” and anytime you can pay someone to do something for less than your hourly rate, do it!
  • Read more books. Pick a subject and study it for three to six months, like sales, leadership, marketing, lean business practices, and finance and investing.
  • Lead generate for two to three hours every day — five days a week — for buyers, sellers and talent.

“Most successful people in the world are a little bit paranoid,” Kinney said.

Advice for brokers
  • Wake up every day knowing that your customer is your agents. Your job is to improve the lives of your agents through technology and training.
  • Embrace teams and provide classes on hiring and compensating team members.
  • Grow your company by focusing on recruiting talent. Your company is either growing or declining.
  • Watch your fixed expenses and long-term liabilities. The market shift is coming soon; be prepared to take advantage of it.
  • Network with other broker-owners, preferably outside of your area and with different brands. Conferences like Inman Connect are good for this.

Email Paul Hagey.