Your Success Isn't a Family Matter

Ryan Willhite joined her mother's real estate company, but soon found that clients overlooked her in favor of her more experienced mom. Here's how Ryan set herself apart.

April 16, 2014

Blood is thicker than water — but is it thicker than business?

Many new real estate agents come into the industry on the heels of their parents or other family members who established themselves years before. Those older and more experienced in the real estate family can cast long shadows, having built their client base high and spread their name recognition far and wide. It can be difficult for the younger incoming generation to set themselves apart and make clients see them as professionals of their own rather than extensions of their parents.

Ryan Willhite, SRES, fought that fight. She’s been with her company — first as an agent and now as an associate broker — Paula Willhite & Associates Real Estate Team Inc. in Sacramento, Calif., since 2007. Can you guess who Paula is?

“That’s my mom,” Ryan says. “She got into the real estate business in 1993, 14 years before I started. She was my broker.”

With her mother’s name a well-known one in Sacramento real estate, Ryan says it was a challenge for her and her twin sister, who also joined the family real estate business, to prove themselves as credible real estate pros apart from Paula. On top of that, Ryan entered the real estate world at the tender age of 18 — so her age and familial ties were obstacles to overcome.

“It was extremely difficult establishing my own identity,” Ryan recalls. “I often would hear the question, ‘Could you please ask your mom if she thinks that’s a good idea?’ At times, this question was coming from people I didn’t even think knew my mom, so it was clear that people were doing their homework.”

Then it was like a light bulb went on: The fact that clients were researching Ryan and her mother’s business online suddenly became the very thing Ryan could take advantage of to set herself apart. Recognizing that Google and social media platforms were the likely avenues people took to find the business online, Ryan began beefing up her Web presence.

“I took that as an opportunity to create my own identity, fishing for leads on social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn,” she says. “The more people saw me by myself, the less they associated me directly with my mom.”

Ryan also made an effort to go to educational and industry events alone, showing other REALTORS® that she intended to stand on her own two feet. “I attended educational classes and meetings alone at my local board to make sure that everyone knew I was serious about my profession and that I would have no problem seeking answers to their questions. I immersed myself in real estate, learning everything I could, from short sales and working with REO properties to traditional sales.”

But another thing that was highly important in Ryan’s quest to stand apart was her search for mentors. It’s easy for agents following in the footsteps of their parents—and especially those working alongside them—to use them as their primary source of inspiration and to replicate their business styles and strategies. Ryan knew she needed to differentiate her style from her mother’s in order to be seen as an independent agent.

“My mom, of course, was a mentor of mine, but I never limited myself to just one,” Ryan explains. “I believe education should come from a variety of sources, and what works for your family member might not work for you.

“The beauty of this business is not having to be constrained to a mold. There are many ways to be successful, but you need to find a way that works for you. My mother loves events and coordinating them; that is not my strength. If I followed the mold my mom set for herself, I wouldn’t have found my love for open houses or first-time home-buyer workshops. It is very important to become better at your craft in a way that fits you, and only you can determine how. I believe that as an agent starting out, hearing everyone’s point of view and adopting many people as mentors is key.”

Ryan says that constant education was the ticket to boosting her confidence and overcoming the dual obstacles of working under her mother as well as her own youthful appearance. “I would hear, ‘Are you our agent? Really? You look like you’re my daughter’s age. How old are you, 16?’” Ryan recalls. “Educating myself and reaching out to other agents, lenders, and escrow and title officers really helped boost my confidence. I found that the more confident I was, the less likely I was to make mistakes. And if I did make a mistake, I could pinpoint the error much more quickly and resolve the issue because I knew how a transaction should run.”

After an “interesting” first year in real estate, coupled with stronger knowledge about the industry and more confidence, Ryan would go on to make a bold move to further stand out as her own person: She got her broker’s license. “I did not want to be seen as an agent working under my mother,” Ryan says. “Being a broker meant that I put in my work and time, and I was completely capable of representing clients to the fullest capacity.”

Navigating the sometimes rocky road of work and family — particularly when they are so intertwined — can be rough. Luckily, Ryan says, her mother took none of her desire to be independent personally. “She has always taught me to be an individual and brand myself, so she was my biggest supporter for attending more meetings and educating myself any way I could, even if that meant without her.”

For other young real estate professionals who are struggling to get out of their family members’ shadows in the business, Ryan swears that, above all, education is paramount.

“In order to establish your own identity, I would suggest taking a piece of knowledge from everyone and creating your own system that works for you,” she says. “In real estate, we are allowed and encouraged to be innovative and creative, so be that. Try hosting an open house, rev up your social media sites with your services, educate people on buying homes, set up home staging classes for sellers, go to networking events—do all these things and more to determine what your strengths are and dominate! Stay motivated, believe in yourself, and stay educated.”

Graham Wood
Senior editor

Graham Wood is senior editor for REALTOR® Magazine. He can be reached at