What do you get when a techie and an experienced real estate agent decide to set up their own venture? Twelve years ago, Jonathan Boatwright, whose corporate tech background includes working with Apple, Motorola and Microsoft, wanted to start his own company. His wife, Yvette, was a Keller Williams agent
- Realty Austin co-founder Jonathan Boatwright has stepped back from his CEO role to concentrate on tech and marketing
- The business is growing by 20 percent this year, likely to close $2.4 billion sales volume by the end of the year.
- Focusing on Facebook ads, existing technology that can be integrated into workflows and culture have been game-changes for this brokerage.
What do you get when a techie and an experienced real estate agent decide to set up their own venture?
Twelve years ago, Jonathan Boatwright, whose corporate tech background includes working with Apple, Motorola and Microsoft, wanted to start his own company.
His wife, Yvette, was a Keller Williams agent, so the Boatwrights thought it made sense to launch a tech-forward real estate firm.
“I always wanted to start a company, control my own destiny and not be limited on potential as you are when you are an employee. What drove me and still drives me is tech, creating technology, that’s what I like to do,” said Jonathan, who’s now the CTO (chief technology officer) and co-owner of the company.
“There’s a void in most real estate brokerages in technology. The brokers don’t really get it and don’t want to get it; they don’t care about it, they don’t want to learn it.
“With the next generation of companies, this will probably change.”
Jonathon was hyper-aware that creating a good company culture from the start was crucial.
“Culture is the cornerstone of every successful company — we really embrace that,” he said.
And the Boatwrights have created a popular company to work for in Austin, Texas. In 12 years, the couple has built a business with $2 billion in sales volume in 2015 and 346 agents.
Realty Austin has placed between No. 1 and No. 3 in both the Austin American Statesman Top Workplaces and Austin Business Journal Best Places to Work polls for the last five years.
A seventh office is opening in Austin this August, and an eighth is being planned — but an expansion to San Antonio is on the back burner for now.
“We are on track to close $2.4 billion this year, which is a 20 percent growth rate,” said Jonathan.
Realty Austin is a member of Leading Real Estate Companies of the World, which has been a rewarding experience.
The company has been noticed by the industry, fielding approaches from a few national franchise groups over the years — but the answer has always been “no.”
“We have just never entertained it,” said Jonathan.
“They would replace all the systems which make us competitive with their own systems. I can’t think of a single reason why it would make sense for us,” he added.
“Being independent has not impacted our ability to grow. If anything, it has helped us in a town like Austin, where people prefer to buy local.”
Systemize good policies
When they started out with a handful of agents, Yvette was the broker and Jonathan worked as an agent until 2009.
“We figured out early on that agents need a system — that will reach out to their clients and give them an opportunity to be organized. And most agents are not organized,” said Yvette.
“We realized that you have got to celebrate the people, recognize them — whether it’s their birthday or their tenure with the company,” added Jonathan.
Recognition and celebration of agents has become a strategic part of the business and something done systematically.
“It makes people feel like they are part of something and not just a number,” said Jonathan.
“We have a monthly birthday lunch with a group. The agents love that — it’s usually around 10 or 15 people. They really like getting our special attention,” added Yvette.
Meanwhile, they have a really good party twice a year, in the summer and in the winter.
“It’s part of our operating statement — we will have parties,” joked Jonathan.
The winter party, a more formal affair, includes an awards ceremony recognizing the top performers — not only from a sales perspective but also people who are most involved in charitable support and those who are the biggest cheerleaders for the company.
Affordable housing is a key area the company does fund-raising in, said Jonathan, as Austin has 150 new people moving to it every day.
Tech innovation a priority at Realty Austin
But what really sets Realty Austin apart from its competition is its relentless focus on technology, said Jonathan.
Up until this year, the Boatwrights have worked as joint CEOs; then Jonathan decided to step back from day-to-day operations of the company so he could focus on its technology and marketing systems.
“I also hired a fantastic director of technology, Jeff Burke, who has helped me to implement significant improvements in our website and Salesforce CRM in the last six months,” said Jonathan.
He added: “With my extensive background in IT, I am able to identify and implement the best solutions for our agents. Solutions that are best of breed, cost effective, and set us apart from our competitors.”
The company website has been high priority and is the most visited brokerage website in Austin, said Jonathan. “We consistently have 10,000 to 15,000 unique visitors per day.”
Ever since they started in 2004, the couple has focused on generating and converting online leads with the company website, www.realtyaustin.com.
“As we’ve added more agents with their own book of business, online leads have become a smaller percentage of our overall business, but they are still really important to our success,” noted Jonathan.
“So far this year, our online leads have accounted for 18 percent of our sales and 33 percent of our broker dollar. By the end of this year, our agents will close over 1,400 buyers and sellers as a result of our website,” said the CTO.
Realty Austin agents use the website instead of the MLS to collaborate with their buyers by setting up client dashboards to collaborate on their search criteria and favorite properties.
“This allows our agents and our clients to be in sync as our agents get notified whenever their clients become active on our website or mobile app,” Jonathan explained.
With technology a big part of this company’s philosophy, agents have to be prepared to use the tools. And as a consequence, Realty Austin has a relatively young staff — an average age, Jonathan “guesstimates,” of around 40.
Brokers who are not sophisticated with technology will struggle to implement solutions, he added.
“Even if they hire great consultants, they most likely won’t end up with a great solution because the consultants won’t understand their business and the broker won’t know what is possible with the technology,” he expanded.
“Larger brokers who have technologists on staff seem to create decent solutions, but they still struggle with agent adoption. They’re just too big to build something that works for everyone and then get them trained.”
The Boatwrights expect their 340-plus agents to use their website and mobile app with their clients and to load all of their leads and clients in their CRM.
“We require them to load all of the deals in our CRM in order to get them approved and paid out,” he noted. “Our listing presentation is only available in TouchCMA, which our agents are required to use.”
Unlike Compass, a company he follows, Jonathan feels no need to create his own tech.
“I have always been more about buying and integrating technology solutions than creating them from scratch,” he said. “There are great solutions available. You just have to know how to integrate them.
“In 2010, we built a great real estate website and paid to have it integrated tightly with Salesforce, the best online CRM available. Salesforce makes improvements three times a year, and we benefit from their continued innovation. We would not have that if we built our own CRM.”
One of the CTO’s latest successes is “cracking the code on Facebook advertising.”
“We advertise our listings, coming soon, just listed and open houses,” he explained. “All of this is automated so Facebook ads are created instantly for our listings the moment they match the criteria for an ad campaign.”
“Our ads show up in people’s Facebook feeds — we get a tremendous amount of views, shares, and leads on our website. It’s been a bit of a game changer.
“It’s a win-win for our agents. Our listing agents get free exposure on their listings and our agents get more leads to pursue. Most listing agents don’t have the time or the know-how to set up these ads, so they and their sellers appreciate it,” he said.
Portals and independent brokers
While being open to change, the co-founder has not embraced portals in recent years.
“Many of our agents have tried their programs, but most quit because they have a lot more luck with our online leads, who tend to have far fewer agents calling them,” he said.
As Zillow provides more systems and marketing to agents directly, it will make it hard for less innovative brokers to differentiate themselves, he said.
Different take on recruiting
Another point of difference at this real estate company is its approach to recruiting.
“We don’t expect our market managers to recruit; we think they should focus on training and retaining agents,” said Jonathan.
They appointed a talent acquisition manager, Cara Keenan, a former agent and market manager, at the beginning of last year.
“Cara has very strict criteria — we only recruit people who are already producing in Austin, at least 10 deals a year, and who have been in business for a couple of years.”
Realty Austin doesn’t have the infrastructure for brand new agents, he said.
After attending Real Trends’ Gathering of the Eagles meeting recently, the Boatwrights — in their mid-40s, with three daughters ranging from six to 24 — have been thinking more about a plan for the future for their company.
Yvette’s daughter, Alyssa Flores, works in the business, starting at the company as an assistant for one of their top agents, Charla Housson, before becoming a Realtor two years ago.
She has now joined her boyfriend, David Ramirez, on a team at the business, and the David and Alyssa team are tied for the No. 3 team at $12.5 million so far this year.
The Boatwrights are hoping Flores will join the leadership team in a few years.
They also believe in promoting good people in the business who have shown loyalty and initiative. Courtney Lepore, has had a number of roles in the company, from office manager, transactions manager and legal liaison; she is now VP of operations.
Jonathan describes her as “the manager of the managers.”
“Courtney started as our assistant, but has grown with us to become integral to all aspects of our company. We strongly believe in hiring from within whenever possible. Courtney demonstrates the success of this strategy,” he said.
Though they have been in the business 12 years now, sometimes they still feel like they are just getting started, said Yvette.
“We are still making tweaks here and there, but for the most part we think we have it figured out.
“As a non-franchise company we get to pivot, make these decisions, with our heart and our minds,” she said.