Having taken exploratory meetings with over a dozen real estate franchisors over the last couple of years, and then an even deeper dive with several, the process was both interesting and informative. At the same time, it was completely disenchanting.
We talked to countless brands — from long-established companies to new-to-the-scene disruptors to venture-backed firms hot for mergers and acquisitions. And, I will say, it was not a waste of time.
We left no stone unturned in our mission to unravel the tightly wound map of the real estate world. We were open to all sorts of business models, possible partnerships, collaboration and growth.
At the start of this exploratory journey, West + Main was sort of a cute baby brokerage quickly turning into a toddler — and as you know, those terrible twos are no joke. We were growing almost faster than we could keep up with. Our calendars were packed with interview requests and onboarding sessions, all without any kind of active or formal recruiting.
My co-founder Madeline Linder and I knew that we were onto something, but even we weren’t sure what the magic formula we had created from scratch actually consisted of.
There were moments when it seemed overwhelming and exhilarating all in the same breath, and yet, it felt — easy. It’s actually really surprisingly easy to make good decisions. To attract agents that love working with us. To listen to our guts. To do what feels right and to empower our agents to do the same. To make sure that people are heard. To listen more than we talk. To promote from within and to deliver on promises.
I think one of the most troubling myths in any kind of business is that you have to push through the resistance to get to the next step. We’ve always found that if there’s resistance, there’s always another path to take and another way to grow.
At first, we started hearing from the big boxes, the good ol’ boys who thought maybe they could buy the little ladies a drink and mansplain how hard this business is for “working moms like us.”
Those conversations didn’t go far. Madeline and I opened an indie (independently owned and operated) agency because we had little interest in what the traditional real estate brokerages have to offer. We’re both very design-centric, creative-minded people, and we need to maintain our passion for, and freedom to, create and innovate in order to balance out the real estate side of our business — namely, the stress of contracts, regulations, compliance and sales.
But, we were never hard-set against joining a bigger operation. It’s pretty easy to feel like you’re alone on Indie Island, and we also know that exit options are fairly limited. So, when other real estate franchisors started calling, we always bothered to answer with genuine curiosity and interest, as well as an open mind to all possibilities.
In the meantime, while we navigated all of these meetings, we kept quietly growing the West + Main brand, continuing to better and improve our (thoughtfully curated, not custom-built) tech stack, evolving our marketing collateral based on what we’d hear every day from our agents about their needs, wants and dreams.
We continued opening storefront spaces in new market areas and strengthening our administrative and executive staff in order to accommodate and serve our ever-growing roster.
Also, throughout these last couple of years, we had several opportunities to grow more rapidly through merger and acquisition opportunities. It never felt like the right moment or the right fit, so we passed, again and again.
While we were exploring all of these franchise options that were being pushed, a pattern quickly emerged.
How meetings go and what’s typically said
- As way of introduction, their first communication is congratulatory and goes something like, “Wow, it looks like you gals are doing great with your little operation out there in Colorado. I’m going to be in town soon and would love to stop by to meet you/check out your office/say hello.”
- Always happens to show up a little early. Wearing a suit. With a partner who “just happened to be available.” It’s a good cop/bad cop scenario. One guy is there to woo and flatter. The other is there to point out shortcomings and discourage.
- Very rarely wants to hear anything about your company. Only wants to talk about theirs.
- A common messaging is: “Once you get to a certain size, you’re going to need to be part of a bigger brokerage.”
- Another common messaging? “What you’ve built here is great, but basically you should throw it all out and pay us for our exclusive technology, marketing services and referral network.”
- A typical parting message is: “We’d like you to meet our vice president/president/human resources director next week. She’s just like you!” This person is almost always the only woman on their executive team — no matter what position she holds. No gal on the team? “You should meet this person of color. You’ll love him!” (Also, usually the only one on the executive staff.)
- Sends over a nondisclosure agreement (NDA).
- Schedules a follow-up meeting or travel agenda to the company headquarters to “see if we’re a good fit for each other.”
- Next is a day of discovery, slideshows and a brief meet and greet with the promised executive. This is all followed by a high-pressure sales pitch to “sign right now. We promise this won’t actually cost you anything, and we will make the transition easy for your agents. They don’t care what company they work for anyway, and they’ll be happy to pay the franchise fee for all of this bright and shiny tech, marketing and referral network!”
- That moment when they realize they don’t really have what they would need to get us to buy in.
So, what did we manage to harvest from all of those meetings?
First of all, I want to acknowledge that we did meet some really kind, smart people. I’m now lucky enough to call some of them my friends. I love real estate folks. Sharing a passion and an industry obsession, and taking the time to see it all from a different point of view is always cool.
The second aspect is that real estate franchisors mostly offer the same thing as a standard business model: Buy a franchise for around $35,000, and commit to a five-to-10-year contract. The compensation is typically a mix between some kind of annual or monthly fee per office or agent, as well as a per-transaction franchise fee of 7 to 10 percent.
Some are multilevel marketing (MLM) pyramids thinly masked with “profit share.” Some are so focused on establishing or growing their local market share that they will negotiate pretty heavily. Some will offer a signing or recruiting bonus or “marketing allowance” to you or your agents.
Third, the products and services that they provide are pretty much the same as well:
- Technology: an IDX-based website, a CRM, a documents or transaction management platform. The latest must-haves seem to include a single-sign-in agent dashboard, because “agents can’t remember where to log in to several platforms.” They also include an online store where agents can purchase company-branded supplies and merchandise.
- Marketing: use of logos within strict brand restrictions and guidelines, allowance for agent or team branding within the company brand, available for purchase marketing collateral including buyer/listing presentations, folders, one-sheets, postcard campaigns, etc. Latest must-haves here seem to be direct mail magazines (either ad-based or cobranded to agent or both), and social media templates.
- Referral network: Most of the time, they are basically saying, “We have thousands of agents that you will be able to refer business to!” (Um, cool, but I can guarantee that I’m going to refer my business to the best agent for the client, not the branded agent, so I usually stop listening at this point to flip through whatever shiny magazine they just handed me.)
- Training or agent education: Whether they just built a state-of-the-art studio designed to produce the “best training in the industry” or if they recently hired a major coach or consultant to facilitate their ongoing education, most of the franchisors we met did put a heavy focus on this.
Whether all of this was being created by huge internal tech teams and through platform acquisitions, or if it was firmly rooted in old-school tradition, there really was not that big of a difference between any of the offerings.
Creating a new option and opportunity
Then, we started getting approached by people who wanted to purchase West + Main franchises. Again, we went down the exploratory road. But again, it didn’t feel right.
Through all of this, we realized a few things. First of all, we already had and offered everything that the franchisors were presenting. Also, we actually loved what we had created and were not interested in giving it all up just to partner up. And lastly, we really believed that there was room in the market for something different.
So, how could we continue to grow and challenge ourselves and our team?
We dug a little deeper and found that what we are really interested in doing is helping other indie brokerage owners offload some of the things on their overfilled plates so that they can focus on their own growth and success by sharing what we have learned and created.
This became a part of our 10-year West + Main road map. Fairly quickly, we stumbled into a perfect culture match and started some conversations with Jarred Smith and Mary Hatch, co-founders of Dwell Urban Realty in Oklahoma City. They, too, had talked to many of the major franchisors.
They already had a beautiful brand and established market presence and, just like us, they didn’t want to be swallowed by any of the big players under one of the typical expansion business models.
The launch of West + Main Oklahoma in May 2020
By folding Dwell into West + Main through a strategic partnership and rebranding their presence, our team was able to offer help with a new website build-out, which was completed in just a few days, thanks to our long-time partners at Real Estate Webmasters.
We also offered the installation of a new CRM, implementation of and introduction to our tech partners and providers, an all-new marketing strategy, collateral and design services, social media management, agent onboarding and training, executive consultation, and continuous services including a recruiting plan, agent training and coaching, and more.
One month in, both the Colorado and Oklahoma rosters continue to grow, attract amazing agents and increase market share. All to say, we are so excited to see where we might go next!
Stacie Staub is the founder and owner of West + Main Homes in Colorado. Connect with Stacie on LinkedIn.
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