Fresh Eyes.

As NAR's Young Professionals Network celebrates its five-year anniversary, the evidence is clear: Digital natives bring a new attitude to the real estate business.

May 1, 2012

Youth has no lock on innovation. Real estate practitioners of all ages have been early adopters of mobile technology, content syndication, social networking, and other 21st century ways of doing business. And yet, there is an undeniable difference between the industry’s digital immigrants, practitioners born before the digital age, and its digital natives, the generation that followed and essentially grew up with the Internet.

That difference is made manifest in Miami Beach, Fla., where broker Nancy Corey leads about 20 sales associates known as The New Wave of Real Estate Group. The group, part of Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate in Miami Beach, is not a team in the standard sense but a collection of individual agents joined for purposes of collaboration and transparency. Among other things, they’ve developed a system for creating social media “hot spots” that cause their open houses to go viral. Functioning as a flash mob of sorts, the associates meet at a property, break up into pairs, take pictures with their smartphones, and start tweeting and posting the property to Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. They create a buzz among their friends and followers that can last for several days—sometimes weeks.

The idea may leave many veteran practitioners scratching their heads, but it’s emblematic of the way digital natives operate, says Nobu Hata, a Minneapolis practitioner and 2012 chair of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATON OF REALTORS®’ Young Professionals Network subcommittee. The subcommittee oversees the burgeoning Young Professionals Network, a loose affiliation of 240 networks in 49 states. (Arkansas, we know you’re on the way.) It was started roughly five years ago as an offshoot of REALTOR® Magazine’s popular “30 Under 30” feature.

In one sense, Hata says, YPN members are a microcosm of the industry. “We’re a diverse set of agents and skill sets,” he says. But part of the reason YPN is thriving is because the status quo is no longer the norm. A do-it-yourself ethos and entrepreneurial spirit are driving success in real estate—and YPNers are willing to talk about it, Hata says. “That’s the real change we’ve seen over the last five years.”

Embracing Radical Transparency

The Internet has brought transparency to nearly every aspect of our lives—from the way we purchase airline tickets to the machinations of local government—and nowhere more so than in the real estate business. Writing for Wired magazine in 2007, Clive Thompson gave it a name, radical transparency, and it has become the calling card of younger professionals, enabled by the ubiquity of sharing Web sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Every generation leaves its indelible mark on the business, and for digital natives, this may be it. “There has traditionally been a fear about sharing information in that it could hurt your business,” Corey says, “but you can get so much more business and grow your business by working together.” 

Fourteen hundred miles north of Miami Beach, Kelly Sweeney serves as CEO of a 15-office Coldwell Banker Weir Manuel in Michigan. He recently opened a new office in Birmingham, Mich.; one of its goals is to attract sales associates and customers from generations X and Y. The lower level of the building, referred to as The Underground, is an open work environment with an inviting archway, cubeless work stations, lounge chairs, compact tablet-friendly desks, a Wii gaming station, and a training room with AV equipment. A child of 1980s ad agencies—where executives installed basketball courts and PacMan machines—The Underground fosters an active work environment where the agents talk, share ideas, and provide collaborative training.

Younger professionals today are more focused on their relationships, says Sweeney, who attributes the trait not just to electronic connections but to an increasingly collaborative educational environment in schools—and to the reality young people face today. “The mentality of younger people is different than it was 25 years ago,” says Sweeney. “When I got out of school in the mid-’70s, many people thought they’d find an employer, get a job, and work there 25 to 30 years. Well, that hasn’t worked out as well over the last decade. Now people getting out of school are more entrepreneurial. They won’t put up with the corporate bureaucracy we put up with. They’re taking control of their own destiny. That mind-set is a much better fit [for the real estate business]. It makes sense [for brokers] to go out and look for some of these people.”

How a Shift Becomes a Movement

If anyone embodies that entrepreneurial spirit, it’s Shannon Williams King, a member of the “30 Under 30” Class of 2005 and founding member of YPN. In her “30 Under 30” application, King described how she methodically combined real estate sales, public speaking, and property investment before starting her own Austin, Texas, real estate company in 2003—at the ripe, old age of 26. King subsequently married, relocated with her husband, founded another real estate company, and transitioned from local to national speaking engagements. At a Century 21 Canada meeting she headlined in February, King was listed in the conference promotion as a “socialpreneur.”

But back in 2005, newly minted as a “30 Under 30,” King saw the potential for a group that would enable like-minded people to meet and collaborate openly. In many parts of the country, including Austin, local young professionals groups had already been created. REALTOR® Magazine provided the incubator for a national group, setting up a Web site, planning networking events, and surveying young members. A November 2007 event, cohosted with NAR’s cultural diversity staff, caught the attention of President Pat V. Combs and President-elect Richard Gaylord, who requested that an advisory board of young members be convened. King chaired the group. Without full-time staff or a formal spot in NAR’s structure, YPN began attracting attention.

An Eye-Opening Change

At the same time, the association was changing its own stolid image. Having recently hired a social media manager, NAR was reaching out to the new guard. During a real estate “bar camp” in NAR’s Chicago office in 2008, CEO Dale Stinton was asked to talk about his priorities. The most pressing, he said at the time, was getting young people engaged in the organization. By the following year, NAR had hired a manager to oversee the Young Professionals Network. The job went to a former REALTOR®, Rob Reuter, then 27, who put his prospecting skills to work. Within a year, 17 networks had skyrocketed to 106.

“Both veteran and new members were hungry for this type of addition to NAR’s structure,” says Brian Copeland, CRS, e-PRO, who chaired the YPN subcommittee for nearly two years. His aim was to make YPN a positive force for its members and for the association. “While we are all about the business of YPN, we’ve never lost that ‘dream big’ mentality,” says Copeland, a salesperson with Village Real Estate Services in Nashville, Tenn. By 2011, YPN had become an established entry point into the association, regardless of experience—or even age. Although YPN targets the under-40 crowd, it’s open to all. “Youth is a state of mind” goes the YPN mantra.

“If you think about the timing of YPN, it happened when the market was turning down,” says 2011 NAR President Ron Phipps. “Not only has YPN survived, but it has thrived. It has been a catalyst for the association in many ways.”

Each August, the association hosts a leadership summit in Chicago for association executives and their incoming presidents. In 2010, Phipps invited local and state YPN chairs—and more than 80 attended. “I wanted their energy in the circulatory system of NAR. In a way, they’re like caffeine. They speed everything up for us. They have faster ways of doing business.”

Phipps had personal experience to call on. In 2003, his son Matt graduated from college and joined the family business, and Phipps subsequently hired three other young professionals. Almost overnight, one-third of his team was under the age of 25. (Later, Phipps’ younger son, Ian, joined the company as well.) “They really opened my eyes to how the millennials view the world, and that has had profound value for how we engage the market,” he says. His company developed a keen understanding of the post–baby boomer point of view—that bigger isn’t always better and that lifestyle often motivates the new generation of buyers. To better serve that constituency, NAR needed to reach out actively to younger members, Phipps says.

 “YPNers have helped those of us in leadership look beyond the edge of the hood and toward the horizon,” he says. “NAR initiatives like REALTORS Property Resource® and REALTOR® University would have happened, but I think they happened sooner because of YPN involvement.”