Luck can deal some strange cards in the poker game of life. Being one of the early admirers of the Internet, I had a lot of ideas on how to make a dollar from the exploding milieu of the dot-com era. One day I walked into a real estate brokerage and pitched the lead broker on creating a website for real estate agents to post virtual tours of their homes for sale. The broker was mildly interested but not willing to buy in. He did, however, pass along my pitch to the other agents in the brokerage and a husband and wife team came to see me.
Virtual home tours are old hat by now, but at the time, not another soul was doing it anywhere nearby. The agents liked the idea and together we formed a company. I wrote the software and built the websites, the wife brought in clients, and the husband did the photography. Hubby was a natural, going so far as to rearrange furniture for each of the photos, and his outdoor shots were taken from perspectives that presented the property in the best light. I would take those photos and retouch them, erasing power lines or distracting background objects, and dodging up the color tones.
Business took off. We were willing to work with any brokerage and established a pretty fair fee base that was applied to all comers. The various agents and brokers got to like our service quite a lot because their potential buyers could sit in the comfort of the air conditioned real estate offices and get a better than general look at the homes for sale. This saved a huge amount of driving, ergo, money. It also sped up the process of home selection for the same reason. It was the heyday of the bubble and anyone could qualify for a loan, so it was the perfect time to create this business. It was my intent to work the business until it built up a clientele and then sell out. The problem was, the husband and wife team had their on ideas and were thinking making the business their career. Had we discussed it, I would have explained that our goal was to sell out to a brokerage or other interested top tier organization. The facts were that we were just in the door first and had done the heavy lifting of getting people in the area used to virtual tours. But similar websites were cropping up all over the country, and brokerages were beginning to fund the creation of their own systems. To my way of thinking, we should sell out because if we didn’t, the deeper pocket agencies would simply push us out. With a word they could order their agents to use an in-house system and not ours. The idea of virtual home tours was a good one, but it had a shelf life.
To my surprise, I found that the husband and wife had been working to create a franchise, selling permission to use the software I’d developed along with the name of our company. On top of that, the wife studied for and acquired a brokers license. When she asked me by the office to share her triumph things did not go well. First, she said, she and her husband pooled their stock and had out voted me to change pricing policy. Not only would they charge our customers for website space, they would demand a cut of the sale, requiring our customers to use our brokerage for all sales. “Are you crazy?” I asked. “You just placed us in direct competition with all of our customers. What on earth would cause them to use our system when they would end up with a lower commission in addition to paying the home tour advertising fees?” She explained that I just wasn’t experienced enough to understand how the real estate business worked.
Angry, I quit. I didn’t think the company would last another few months. In fact, it didn’t last a few weeks. We went from almost a thousand customers down to a mere twenty in under a month as our clients, seeing the new fee policy, pulled their accounts. All my partners did was speed up the process of brokerages creating their own virtual tour websites. Having made the marketplace fairly angry, there was no offer to purchase our company. The few potential buyers I’d been courting vanished like morning fog, taking the possible 7 figure offers with them. My former quasi-partners were unhappy to find that I’d been hired by a couple of brokerages to advise them on building home tour systems, but in actuality I’d had started to try to get businesses to network their computers. At the time that was an unknown concept. Creating a centralized data system was an excellent fit for realtors.
I have always wondered why the husband and wife team I hooked up with went so far off the tracks. When they explained what they’d done, it didn’t take me a second to realize they’d sounded a death knell to the clever little company we’d built. I think greed had something to do with it; while I drove a Chevy Cavalier with 70,000 miles on it, they felt they needed to lease a Mercedes “to offer an air of success” they said. I’m not sure how many of our customers might have seen their car in the parking lot we shared with other businesses, or even know it was their vehicle. So long as they paid for it out of their share I didn’t really care. But they were an interesting pair who always seemed to want to copy the apparent strengths of others rather than focusing on their own strengths. The wife was an excellent saleswoman. Her husband a wizard with a camera and an eye for style and ambiance. Rather than going with their strengths, they tried to copy what they saw in magazines and other media that depicted business with the Good Life. I was a computer nerd and knew it, liked it, and stuck to it. That’s what the business I built after the real estate debacle came to its sad end and it served me well.
Lead With Your Strengths is a common adage. Not that I’m so wise and successful, but I wonder why so many people don’t seem to do that, instead trying to copy the strengths of others.