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How Rob Purnell built his business & thinks about the future of real estate

Can you tell us a little about your business and the kind of kind of property and kind of clients you work with?”

Yeah, I’m Rob Purnell and I’m a realtor with Compass based out of the Palo Alto, California office. And my geographic territory, the bulk of my business, is the San Francisco Peninsula, Silicon Valley. For property types, it’s pretty much any kind of residential property; houses, condos, townhomes. I work with luxury properties and I do a little bit of business with investors. That’s typically looking for multi-family properties or multi-residential properties. I do have a background in commercial investment that I did for many, many years. Today, if I’m working with investor, I would just limit that to residential.

How did you get into real estate and get started?

It was kind of funny, I call it total serendipity. I started my career when I came out of Wharton. I was a management consultant. So, I did traditional management, consulting, working for big international corporations flying all over the place. I started out in New York and moved to San Francisco and while I was working in San Francisco, I decided when to buy my first home.

So, I started looking around and at that time again, I was busy with my assignment as a consultant, traveling. I didn’t have time. But my investment sense got the best of me. To cut the long story short, I ended up buying a very rundown multi-family building in San Francisco, renovated the whole thing, managed it all myself and became a landlord. I lived there and I just fell in love with the whole structure. Later, I realized through that process was way more fun than what I had been doing for a living. So, I decided to make the change. I got my broker’s license and that’s been about 20 years now.

Wow! That’s super interesting. Started from being a landlord and became a realtor?

Yeah, I just realized it excited me and I loved it. So, I just decided that was what I needed to do for a career.

So, how did you start building up your business? I mean, obviously, we talked about where you are today, your territory and the kind of work you do. But how did you go from there in that first property for yourself to where you are today?

It was definitely not a straight line. I’ve been in real estate for over 20 years but not always just as a residential agent. I actually started over 20 years ago doing mortgage loans. Then, I was a partner in an institutional commercial investment company where we would buy and syndicate large commercial properties for many years, leading up to the great recession in 2008 – 2009 when everything blew up.

After that, I shifted gears and I went into the real estate mortgage related tech world. I was an executive for a couple of FinTech companies in the mortgage space. I did that for about seven or eight years. And then I just got a little burned out on the startup culture (there’s a lot behind that).

I really missed fundamental real estate, which was my first love. Going back to my first acquisition, there had been a lot of changes in the industry, as we all know. I had some friends that just kept asking me, “Why don’t you just come back to core real estate?” So I did!

Today, I have tremendous amounts of real estate experience, and I’ve been doing this for two decades now. But I did not have a practice in residential real estate, I did not have a brand established in residential real estate.

So from that perspective, I was still starting from scratch and how I got started was pretty traditional. I had to go out there, and basically let everybody know, everybody that I possibly knew what I was doing now and that I was available as a resource to help people out.

It’s never an easy start in a business like this because any sort of professional service takes time, whether it’s real estate, or law or financial services, it just takes time. So, the first year was tough but I just believed success comes from consistency. So I just consistently kept the message out there, kept in contact with people and I eventually got my first transaction, which was actually helping some friends of mine buy a home. So, things just went from there.

 You know, the first dollar is always the hardest in any business but that first dollar, once you get that first dollar, it kind of validates you. So, business has been growing consistently since then but it just requires the consistent effort of keeping your message out there and keeping your relationships going.

That’s incredible, and super helpful to hear how keeping your message out there and consistently putting in the work led to the first dollar. We’ve found that agents can sometimes define that process slightly differently though. Can you help quantify that in terms of how many hours you were out there working? I mean, you knocking on people’s doors, what does that look like from a tangible perspective? How many doors did you knock on?

That’s a great question because it looks different for everybody. I think the challenge for anybody, whether you’re brand new to real estate or just starting a new practice, is finding what works for you. And I like a lot of people I spent the first year experimenting with a lot of different things, to try and find out what works for me, or maybe chasing things that I thought were great ideas but maybe that didn’t resonate with my personal brand and my personal style.

I think I’m fortunate that I figured it out pretty quickly, which was about a year. Some people take a lot longer. For me, I’m a bit of a workaholic. You know, full disclosure, I work a lot. And it’s just the nature of who I am. I’ve always been this way and I put in a lot of hours. But it’s really primarily directed at staying consistent, keeping my message and my brand in front of people that know me. And it works. It works, and that’s why anything you do, you’ve got to be consistent at it and it will work in time.

As you think about your business, what has kept it going over the years and what’s working today for you to help attract and retain clients?

Well, that’s the big thing for me. When I first started, I was experimenting with things and wasn’t sure what would work for me. And there’s a lot of different ways to go. There’s the general advertising, social media advertising, lead gen on social media, all of that stuff, door knocking, lead farming.

All of those things work for some people. But I discovered they don’t all work for me. What worked for me is what we call sphere marketing in real estate. You hear people talk about their sphere of influence. And for me, I discovered that was the golden ring for me. I’m a relationship guy, that’s just how I work. That’s how I work the best and it’s how I say I want to work. It’s what makes me happy in my business. So, after the first year, I shifted about 80 plus percent of my resources (my time, energy and money) into developing and maintaining my sphere, my personal relationships because that’s where I personally succeed, other people succeed with other avenues but I personally succeed with that.

 So, I spend a lot of time staying in touch with people that know me, trying to improve and develop the relationships with people that don’t know me (those that know me, but not well). For me, that’s just been a hugely successful effort and a fun one.

 I think if I had to define a key to success, it’s to find something that one enjoys personally. I love meeting people and developing relationships. I don’t love chasing cold leads on Facebook. Some people do. I don’t love knocking on stranger’s doors. You know, some people do and they do really, really well with that. There’s no judgement. Nothing wrong with any of these strategies. For me personally, it’s long term personal connections. And so that’s where I’ve put all of my effort. And it really, really works.

That’s a brilliant and great advice. It’s an important nuance too: everyone has a different strategy and different strategies can work for different people.

 As you learn and develop as an agent, have there been like super influential books, podcasts, mentors, resources you use? How did you learn and grow as an agent in this process?

 

Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, all of the above has been incredible helpful, including coaches as well. For me, it started in a training program with Compass. They had training and a mentor that was just phenomenal. Despite my 20 years in the industry, the training I got from her absolutely put me ahead in terms of my knowledge base and confidence in this particular segment of the industry, and that confidence continues to be there due to her help.

 The beauty of this industry is that you can be doing the same thing for 20, 30, 40 years, there will always be questions and new things to learn because it’s constantly evolving. So, to be successful for the long term, you have to be open to continual learning, and be open to other experts and learn and not ever think that “Oh, I’ve got all the expertise”

 As for books, I’ve read a ton of them. I’d say the book that I like the best is Ninja Selling. Part of that is because it really speaks to the strategy that works for me, which is that sphere of influence development. You know, there’s a ton of books out there that will teach you how to do lead gen on Instagram and Facebook and all these other places and even Tik Tok.

 Today, I hear people telling me that they’re getting business from Tik Tok but I am never going to get business from Tik Tok. So, Ninja Selling has been a great book for me. It’s one that I go back and I read often.

 The third thing is that I’m a Compass agent and we have a tremendous, tremendously collaborative culture at Compass, which is one of the things I like about it. There’s actually a group that is formed, called the 6am’ers. It was a started by a broker manager at Philadelphia.

 Basically, every morning, I get up before 6am, spend 30 minutes or 45 minutes on a zoom call or do some exercise but I have learned so much from this group of peers, and the agent and I continually do it because it keeps me motivated. I learn new things every day. I would probably credit the broker manager with my own sort of epiphany that my path is the path of sphere of influence sphere marketing.

 

Really fascinating that Compass has such a group!

No matter how long you’ve been in this business, I think everybody should have mastermind groups where they get together agents together. Being a realtor can be very lonely. This is a solo business for the most part. I mean, there are teams but for the most part, it’s a “eat what you kill” business, which mean it’s a solo business and it can be very lonely.

Many people get that comradery through mastermind groups where they get people together and meet once a week or once a month to share ideas, problems and solutions. Whatever it is, you got to have something. You know, most people can’t just go for it alone their whole lives. It’s very hard. You need some sort of support structures.

That’s a great piece of advice just in general for realtors. Make sure you’re very easy to find from a communication perspective. You have an MBA from the top business school in the world and have spent decades in the industry, so we’re really excited for your perspective on this! What are your thought on where the real estate agent model is going?

Well, I’ll definitely be opinionated because this is so key in the industry right now. It’s all in the news. And the news loves dramatic headlines!

 The thing you need to do is to go out and talk to the traditional realtor industry. The number one fear is the fear of disruption. But, that fear and onversation is the same conversation that’s been going on for 20 years. When tech started to creep into the world about 20 to 25 years ago, if you wanted to know what was available for sale, you had to go to a realtor, right? Because that was not available to you as a consumer. You had no visibility into that. That changed almost overnight with the launch of sites like Zillow, Trulia, and others. Now, the average consumer can have access to probably 80% of what I have access to, in terms of inventory coming into the market. And for years, I watched this happen. During this time, realtors are screaming, yelling and wringing their hands about how this is unfair. Realtors would say that this information is our proprietary information. Bullshit. Pardon my French but bullshit.

 Providing access to information is probably the lowest value activity as a real estate professional that I can provide. It’s just a list of what’s available. A good realtor has to go far beyond that. And today, if that’s all you’re doing, as a realtor, there’s not a whole lot of value you’re providing.

 Just like I said, you as a consumer can find 80% plus percent of what I can find. Although, maybe not as much information or as fast but as far as what’s for sale. You can find it on Zillow, Redfin, Trulia, you name it, it’s all out there.

 With all of that in mind, I look at what’s going on, and I will say I welcome these new real estate models and business because I think it’s good for the business for a number of reasons.

 One, it keeps the traditional model competitive. I am part of the traditional mode where an agent works with a client on their real estate transactions. What this competition does for me, and what it should do for all of my colleagues, is to force us to ask ourselves “how are you going to continue to up our game in terms of the value that we provide our clients?” This is incredibly important because if you don’t provide value and make that value clear to your client, somebody else will.

 This realization is incredibly important because it keeps me competitive, sharp and constantly working and striving to improve my game and my expertise. I make sure that the value I’m providing to my clients is really there.

 But on a more macro scale, what is going on is just a segmentation of the real estate industry. There’s nothing wrong with that! In fact, it exists in every industry.

 The sort of analogy I like to use is that there are people that shop at Nordstrom, and others at Walmart. There’s no judgment on either one of those two. They’re both completely valid retail channels for different people for different needs. And they both exist and continue to thrive.

 But that hasn’t really been the case in real estate. In real estate, historically, there’s been one model. So, let’s look at the two big changes that we’re seeing; the discount brokers and the Ibuyers. They are simply different segments that will fit different needs within the real estate market.

 The discount brokers are Redfin, and others like them. Then there’s the iBuyers like Opendoor and Zillow Offers. There has been a ton of hand wringing about both of these new models.

But, let’s look at the data. Look at Redfin, for example. They’ve been growing like crazy for years now. Yet, they are still not everywhere. I want to say maybe 1% of the industry or maybe one and a half. I mean, very small percentage of the industry. Now, Zillow is talking about getting into it. It’s going to be the same thing really; a small one doing the same thing.

 They have their niche and their segment within the market. It’s a different niche and segment than mine.

The thing is, I look at those and I know this from experience because I’ve lost clients to Redfin and it never bothers me. The reason is because I’m not a discount broker, I am a full service broker.

 If you want a discount broker, I’m not right for you. If you want a full service broker, then I’m for you. Go to Redfin, you’re not going to get the same service. And I’m not saying that disparagingly. I mean there’s no way they can provide the same service I can and provide this massive discount.

 But there’s nothing wrong with them existing in the market because those discount customers are out there. I’m just not the right provider. I’m not the right professional for a discount buyer. In fact, I think the discount buyers have been historically underserved because the traditional model is not geared to serve the discount client. I’m not concerned about it because I got plenty of business. There’s plenty of the Nordstrom buyers in the world. So, I’m not concerned about that.

 Same thing with the iBuyers. If you dig into the data, my data is a little bit old, it was pre-pandemic and the pandemic shifted a lot of things but right before the pandemic hit, I did an analysis of Opendoor. Particularly, their business in the Phoenix area. If I recall, it was somewhere around the line that something like 80% of the people that had sold a property over in the Phoenix metro area had received an offer from Opendoor. Which was a massive percentage, right?

 I need to go back and look up the statistics. I mean, ultimately, the statistics worked out, they still had less than 10% market share! Now, don’t get me wrong, 10% is a huge market share for an upstart model.

 But what it meant is that the overwhelming majority of people that were given an iBuyer offer were opting for the traditional model because the new model didn’t work for them.

 Again, it’s the same thing with a different niche and a different type of consumer. If you go with an ibuyer as a seller, you’re going to leave some money on the table. There are some advantages you’re going to get from it: they don’t need to think about selling, they don’t need to think about hiring an agent, they don’t need to think about marketing it. For some consumers, there’s value in that. And that’s okay. Again, it’s different models for different segments in the industry!

 To sum up, I think about all of these companies but again, I think about it only in the context of how do I keep my value up? How do I constantly improve the value that I’m providing to my clients?

 

That makes sense. If anyone who’s reading this wants to get in touch with you or wants to join your referral network from a different state, what would be the best way to do so?

My name is Rob Purnell and rob@robpurnell.com is my email address. Robpurnell.com is my website. My phone number is 415-272-1498. I use all forms of communication.

 You know, a good realtor should be very easy to find if you. If you can’t find your realtor online, that realtor probably has got a problem!

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