When Mark Choey founded San Francisco-based brokerage Climb in 2006, he had a new baby boy, but not much in the way of real estate success. So Choey, along with business partner Chris Lim, wrote a business plan. They decided to lean hard into technology. And they opted to focus on San Francisco’s then-underdeveloped District 9.
The plan worked.
During a session titled “How I Built It: Climb Real Estate” at Inman Connect New York Tuesday, Choey offered a play-by-play of Climb’s journey from nothing to a top brokerage in the U.S. That growth eventually led to a sale to Realogy’s NRT — which just weeks ago announced plans to shutter the brand — but along the way still created a case study in how to grow a real estate company.
Choey began the tale of Climb’s growth Tuesday by recalling how, when his son was born, he suddenly realized “there’s this human being that just came out of nowhere” and which needed care. Choey and Lim, who were initially working out of a grungy loft responded by looking at how they could differentiate their nascent real estate company. They realized, for example, that most other real estate firms at the time weren’t really using technology well.
They also gambled that San Francisco’s District 9 would see explosive growth over the coming years, and they went so far as to zero in on specific properties where they would own the market.
And to win clients, Choey said, they built a blog that became their primary lead generation tool.
By 2010, Climb had grown enough to open what Choey described as an “aspirational office” that was visually “beautiful” and “a place that agents wanted to come.” The firm also went paperless and moved all of its work onto the cloud.
And that year, Climb was ranked 14th among brokerages in San Francisco.
The next year, Climb opened a “mobile office space” in a converted Airstream trailer. In 2012, Climb began experimenting with Matterport’s virtual tour technology. And in 2015, Climb appeared on the TV show Million Dollar Listing.
It was around this same time that Choey began to get nervous about the growth of Compass. He recalled Tuesday that he watched as the upstart brokerage raised more and more money, and signaled its plans to come to San Francisco.
“This got us nervous,” Choey said. “We realized the rules for indie brokerages and all brokerages, had changed. We were battling other brokerages in a knife fight and now somebody is potentially coming with lots of guns.”
As Choey recounted this part of the story, he showed a gif of a car nearly driving into a tsunami before quickly speeding away. That, he said, is how he felt while watching Compass approaching.
Nevertheless, Climb persisted, and by 2016, it landed on Real Trends list of top 250 brokerages in the U.S.
Of course, Compass did eventually enter California’s Bay Area, and according to Choey now has about 40 percent of the market. It’s a massive amount, and but Climb managed to carry on through 2020 by selling to Realogy’s NRT.
During his remarks Tuesday, Choey said that the Climb team had been looking for “the perfect partner” and went with NRT because “they were going to allow us to keep our brand.”
The end of this story, however, unfolded earlier this month when Realogy announced that the Climb brand would be discontinued and the company’s operations would be integrated into Coldwell Banker.
Choey has previously been open about his disappointment with that turn of events, and though he refrained from openly criticizing Realogy Tuesday, his tone became wistful as he described the demise of the company he built.
However, Choey also told the packed session audience that Climb’s “DNA lives on” in the form of his new company HighNote Labs.
“This is not,” he concluded, “an unhappy ending.”