- Think outside the box when it comes to diversity, location and marketing, and build a rich mentorship program to train new agents.
What happens when a handful of top producers join forces to conquer the luxury real estate market? If you’re anything like the six driven agents who founded Seattle-based boutique brokerage Avenue Properties, what happens is $65 million sold in one week.
When Tere Foster, Moya Skillman (Foster’s daughter), Bob Bennion, Bob Deville, Mary Snyder and Evan Wyman made the leap from Windermere Real Estate to their own brokerage in February last year, they weren’t sure what to expect — and they had no idea what the Seattle market would make of them.
An innovative outlook, eye for change and positive response from their community has propelled them into four offices with 80 brokers (agents are called brokers in the Pacific Northwest), including the six founders and 10 staff members. Fast success has also earned Avenue Properties a slot on the Puget Sound Business Journal’s top 10 residential real estate firms in the greater Seattle area, featuring both franchise and independent brokerages. “You have to be able to move forward every moment,” said Foster. “You can become a dinosaur in this business very quickly.”
Avenue Properties’ six founders prove that with a little determination and zeal, teams will gather and business will grow; that diversity — in culture, age and experience — breeds progressive ideas and company morale; and embracing the idiosyncrasies of your market will take your business to new heights.
Keep the momentum going and the ideas fresh
Foster was a Coldwell Banker agent for 14 years and a Windermere agent for 12. “The challenge with those companies — which are great companies — is that they are in the box,” Foster explained. “They are very corporate. You have to fit into their way of doing things.”
Foster says that technology choices and marketing platform options require the modern real estate professional to move with “laser speed.” Avenue Properties aims to do things differently to keep pace.
At her former companies, Foster said, getting new ideas approved was a cumbersome process given the inevitable delays of bureaucracy. “Here, we can make decisions in 20 minutes. An agent brings a great idea to us. We agree: ‘Let’s go there,’ ‘That’s served us well,’ ‘It’s fun, fresh and new’ … and the millennial is all about that,” said Foster.
To encourage the proliferation of new, progressive ideas, the young company gathers all brokers and staff from its four offices — anchor ones in Bellevue and in Capitol Hill, and smaller ones in Madison Valley and Kirkland — twice a month for collaboration and idea exchange without the pressure of competition.
“We meet as a whole company together,” Foster said. “This is on purpose, so that agents are not ‘siloed’ in their knowledge of one micro-market/neighborhood. At the meetings, they have a chance to hear about the market overall and what is going on in a variety of different areas.”
In addition to the constructive exchange, the team alternates meeting locations, which also gets the creative juices flowing: “Normally, brokerages meet by the office,” Foster said. “We believe that’s too myopic. We believe it’s so important for our brokers to have a 360-degree view of what’s going on in the region and not just one specific area or office location,” said Skillman. So they rotate meetings back and forth between the Bellevue office and the Seattle office to keep things fresh.
Gear up for your city, elevate your service
“The Seattle area has really changed significantly,” said Skillman. “We are a global region — people from [around the country] and all over the world are moving here.
“They are used to a level of sophistication when it comes to real estate and the way it is marketed. There is a real lack of understanding of that here.”
Techies and corporate types are flocking to Seattle, which is still more reasonably priced than the San Francisco Bay Area. “Google is expanding,” she said. “Expedia and Microsoft and Amazon … everybody is expanding. If they are not here, they want to be here.”
Seattle is the home of Microsoft and Boeing, and it’s also a hub for rocket space exploration and video game companies, she explained. These companies are already ahead of the curve. “They are very out-of-the box thinkers,” she said. “One leading video game company has its desks on wheels and no assigned offices,” so when they work on a project, they may wheel their desk to another floor if they’d like.
Avenue Properties believes it is well placed to cater to the changing Seattle homeowner and fit in with the city’s dynamic community of enterprises: “As a company, we are really working to match our clients, using social media and tech to be very innovative,” she said.
These sophisticated clients don’t want to feel that theirs is one of many indistinguishable properties being represented with the same brochure. They want to feel unique, they want first-class service, and they want to know they’re special to you, Skillman said.
Smart and savvy marketing
Avenue Properties has an in-house marketing team that helps keep the company on top of social media trends and marketing ideas; the company uses social media — especially Instagram — to feature agents, clients and properties.
With an in-house video team, Skillman says Avenue is leveraging media in different ways. “We see video as not just a marketing tool, but a true sales tool to help close the deal on these homes,” said Skillman.
For instance, if an agent’s client complains about the modest size of a home’s yard, Avenue will send a video that shows a family playing in the yard to prove its size is plenty big.
The company also likes to show actors in home tours so people can see how the home can be used.
“Real estate is not about selling a house — it’s about connecting the dots, solving problems. How can you encourage them to circle back and make that offer?” Skillman said.
With marketing, sometimes you have to reinvent the wheel, she added. Listings have a longer shelf life in luxury, so they need to be freshened up at times; if a property was listed in winter, produce a new video showing the garden in bloom.
An open recruiting approach
Starting out, some luxury boutique agencies limit the hiring pool to experienced agents. In fear of endangering their new brand, they deny fresh talent and unknowingly limit their potential.
Avenue Properties has taken a different approach: “It’s important to have a fresh perspective with the brokers we have brought on, so we are focusing on a mix of experience levels,” Foster said.
“It makes for a very rounded perspective,” she added. “That way ideas are coming in from new agents as well as 20-year agents. We want that collaboration.
“We have brokers who are brand new, some who have been in the business five or 10 years, some for 20 to 30 years. It’s a very diverse group of experience.”
“We have made our company reflect the diverse community in the area,” said Skillman. Avenue Properties is home to a wonderfully assorted team, with brokers ranging from their early 20s to their 70s. The company has some Mandarin speaking brokers and some from other parts of the world, including South America and the Middle East; and Foster and Skillman estimate the firm is probably made up of 50 percent men and 50 percent women.
The new brokerage has attracted agents unsatisfied with the model of traditional big box firms and discount brokerages. While she did not give specifics on Avenue’s commission structure, Skillman said, “I would say we are competitive or comparable with other non-desk fee brokerages.
“However, our marketing, branding and social media is all included. We do not charge agents extra for those services because we know when we provide great marketing and support, they do more business and that leads to overall success for the brokerage.
“What we really do is develop a brand for each broker; we have an in-house logo development team [that helps build] a platform for them.”
Mentorship and collaboration
Foster, Skillman and the other founding partners strongly advocate for leadership and mentoring for new team members; you can often find them driving to appointments with a new broker in tow, happy to train and share the knowledge they’ve obtained through many years of experience.
“We allow any new broker that comes into the company to shadow us,” Foster said. “Our goal is to elevate these brokers to have a strong business on their own, too. This is a company built by brokers for brokers.”
Agents will often compete for listings but they also collaborate at Avenue. “There’s an abundance of opportunity when you work together rather than compete,” Foster said. “We work on training new agents to understand that philosophy.”
Because of Seattle’s multi-cultural population, every brokerage in the city should be thinking of international business when marketing properties and finding buyers.
Avenue Properties puts all its listings on Mansion Global and the Wall Street Journal. Asia Pacific is an especially important market for the Seattle-based company. Several of their Mandarin-speaking brokers visit China several times a year, attending luxury trade shows and investor forums there.
They often find that Avenue Properties is the only Seattle-based company at these events.
‘It’s not a numbers game for us’
“Two weeks ago we had a period where we did $65 million in one week. It’s really amazing to see the records we are breaking, and it’s definitely a response to our approach to client marketing and agent marketing,” Skillman said. “It was as if there was a void waiting to be filled.”
Their sales volume so far this year is $465 million, and they’ve closed $850 million since launching last year.
But according to Skillman, “it’s not a numbers game for us. We want to grow organically.”