To Innovate is. . .Human

The economic environment has shifted. Amid changing consumer demands and an array of industry disruptions, build career staying power by embracing an entrepreneurial approach to your work.

September 16, 2015

You know the world has changed and that today's real estate industry is vastly different than it was a decade ago. The tools, processes, and mindset that used to define the business may no longer keep you at the top of your game. So how do you meet the needs of a new generation of consumers, manage a shifting career path, and contribute to an industry where hard-driving new players are showing up every day? Your mission is to adopt the traits of a smart entrepreneur while staying true to your market and your industry.

But what does an entrepreneur even look like these days? Linda Rottenberg, CEO of Endeavor, a global organization dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs, and the author of Crazy Is a Compliment: The Power of Zigging When Everyone Else Zags,says the media's skewed portrayal of the typical entrepreneur has the ability to stop innovators in their tracks. "People have this image of the swashbuckling entrepreneur, when in reality most entrepreneurs are doing everything they can to minimize risk," she says. "The biggest obstacle to doing anything entrepreneurial is getting out of your own head."

She notes that, though we hear a lot about young alpha males like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla Motors' Elon Musk changing the world overnight, in reality the fastest--growing segments of new business owners in the U.S. are women and baby boomers over age 55, which is, statistically speaking, the demographic profile of today's typical REALTOR®. "You may think, 'I don't have the next huge idea.' But microsteps are often the things that make the biggest changes," she says. "You can be an agent of change without mortgaging your family and maxing out your credit cards."

The Buyers and Sellers of Tomorrow

Customers are changing the way they buy and sell, and entrepreneurial thinkers are the ones asking why and how. Kit Yarrow, a psychologist and expert on consumer trends based in San Francisco, notes that because millennials are driving consumer markets right now, understanding how they feel about home ownership is vital. Part of the reason they are wary is an after-effect of the recession, but Yarrow notes there are other explanations for why they remain disproportionately on the sidelines compared to previous generations of young adults.

"They saw foreclosures. They saw their parents worry," she acknowledges. "But this generation also has a fear of commitment that’s huge." Yarrow says the trend of helicopter parenting—where baby boomers (mostly) tended to be overprotective of their Generation Y children—fostered distrust in the major institutions of government, business, and organized religion. She says having immediate access to all kinds of information online can heighten their skepticism about being "sold to."

Though their attitudes about trust may remain, Yarrow thinks that once millennials begin having children (which she says has been delayed, not put off forever), their interest in the stability that comes with owning a home will inevitably increase.

Combining your professional confidence with tools that simplify the transaction is essential to attracting first-time buyers. Yarrow says real estate pros should try to craft an experience where house hunters are "feeling like properties are coming to them, rather than they’re having to do the work, making it seem so easy, so simple, so foolproof, and so comfortable."

But it's not just first-timers you need to be concerned with. Yarrow's research reveals that the apprehension often identified with millennials is increasingly common among other generations as well. "Everybody’s becoming a bit more like that Gen Y consumer," she says.

Yarrow says for this new type of consumer, it's important that you do everything you can to remove barriers. As someone who’s in the process of selling two parcels of land and a home, she knows it’s a complex process and says it’s easy to feel so stymied that you want to give up. "This group is in that 'Well, never mind then' mentality, because it has so many options," she says. "It's when things are not understandable they fear their own incompetence more than anything.”

Life coach and motivational speaker Simon Bailey, author of Shift Your Brilliance: Harness the Power of You, agrees that consumers today want a professional to come in and simplify complex processes for them. "What real estate professionals need to think about is, 'Am I easy and simple to do business with?'" he says. "The agents of the future will have one-stop shopping [and the ability to tell customers] everything they want to know. Package it so that it’s clear that you have it all for them in one place."

Owning Your Career, Entrepreneur Style

With change comes opportunity, but only for those willing to evolve to meet the demands of a new economic climate. "Real estate is one of the oldest professions out there, and change is usually harder in older professions," says Yarrow, author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind. "But consumers really do go about making these decisions in very different ways now, and I think there’s a world of opportunity for those who get there first."

It's one thing to know that consumers have trust issues and fear the complexities of the real estate transaction but another to figure out how to communicate that you have the solution. Research shows that, in marketing, images are more likely to determine how potential buyers and sellers think of you than words or logic, Yarrow says. Real estate professionals should pay close attention to logos and symbols that are associated with their personal brand. "It's these visual, emotional cues," she says, "that create this sense of trust with consumers."

Bailey suggests thinking about marketing as an opportunity to show who you are as well as what you’re associated with. "It's about embracing authenticity," he says. "Personal branding is not the product. It's not a billboard, a business card, or a picture on a bus ad. Branding is an emotion. It is a moment. It is a memory."

Even for those working within large organizations, personal branding is becoming more important. Bailey sees the actions of companies such as Zappos establishing their role-based "holacracy"—putting decision-making into the hands of small groups—as a trend that will spread beyond the online mega–shoe store to other industries. He says professionals everywhere will need to figure out how to "own your career" rather than simply respond to the wishes of a boss. "Zappos basically threw the grenade on the table," Bailey says, adding that for real estate agents, who are already independent-minded, the question is, "How do I think about being an entrepreneur more than ever before?"

Becoming more entrepreneurial may also mean not thinking of yourself as a dyed-in-the-wool representative of one franchise, or a fierce boutique loyalist, or a forever-independent agent. "You should be thinking about careers in terms of two- to four-year shifts," says Rottenberg. "There are advantages to going off on your own, but you can also learn from being part of a larger organization. It’s about constantly disrupting yourself."

As a real estate professional, you know that business can be derailed by forces outside your control. Whether it's the housing crisis of the last decade or the recent global stock market meltdown, it's easy to feel unsure about one's financial future. But there's a career reward in managing risk gracefully in an uncertain world, Rottenberg says. "It's about realizing that you are an entrepreneur [and] chaos is your friend," she says. “So many of us crave stability, but entrepreneurs turn up when the economy turns down."

Advancing your career and furthering your industry as a whole are intertwined these days, Bailey says, though he acknowledges that, in the competitive business of real estate, achieving balance requires a shift in mindset. "How do you not look at your fellow agents as competition?" Bailey asks. He suggests identifying the best players in the industry and forming mutually beneficial bonds. "You begin to create a learning cohort, a community to help each other grow. That way, you’re coming from a place of abundance, not scarcity."

Innovating Through Partnerships

In the same way that agents can work together to keep the real estate industry in tune with the needs of consumers, much can be done at the company and association level to help partnerships grow. Eyeing the consumer spending shifts related to relocating and moving to a new home, Bailey says there are opportunities for agents to team up with other industries to create helpful packages of information and services for real estate clients. "I see a collaboration of different platforms coming," he says, noting that new rideshare and travel services could be of prime interest to brokerages. "The real estate offices that partner with other entities are the ones that can shift their mindset for the new economy."

Strategic partnerships at the association level demonstrate this kind of entrepreneurial thinking as well. For the past three years, the National Association of REALTORS®' strategic investment arm, Second Century Ventures, has paired a wide variety of companies across many sectors with real estate thought leaders through the REach program. The companies work to tailor their services—everything from marketing tools to safety apps—to the needs of real estate pros. "The entrepreneurial spirit and energy embodied by SCV and REach companies is really a reflection of the NAR community as a whole," says Mark Birschbach, vice president of both programs. "That’s the core mission of what we’re working to do, to promote innovation in the real estate industry."

Still, no matter how entrepreneurial you (and your industry) are, there's still someone angling to take your place in the food chain, says Rottenberg. "We're all in the market to be disrupted," she says. "Your job's not safe because there are the millennials nipping at your heels, and the company isn't safe either, because they have these startups nipping at their heels."

But rather than operate in constant fear of disintermediation, she says, focus on what you offer that consumers can't get from an app or listing portal: humanity. "It's because of those human interactions that people crave working with you," she says. "People need that handholding; they want the dialogue. There’s a role for people who have customer service down."

Meg White

Meg White is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.