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In Association

The Power of Selling a Dream

An excerpt from Everybody Wins: The Story and Lessons of RE/MAX by Phil Harkins and Keith Hollihan (WILEY: 2005)

If not for the price of a $20 ticket, Dave Liniger's first six months as a real estate agent at Ed Thirkhill Realty in Tempe, Arizona--in which he sold nothing and listed nothing-- might have been his last six months in real estate. But in the telling of any fairy tale or epic adventure, there are always those key moments when the naive hero stumbles across a piece of good luck. Jack, of Jack and the Beanstalk fame, for instance, came home with three magic beans for which he had traded the family's last asset, a cow. His mother, crushed and beaten by Jack's foolishness, tossed the three beans into the garden, and that should have been the end of it. But the beans were actually magic, and a giant beanstalk grew. Jack climbed the beanstalk, discovered a kingdom filled with riches, killed the giant who ruled the kingdom, and came home to a hero's welcome, making his poor old mom proud of him after all.

In Dave Liniger's case, a $20 ticket to see a real estate motivational speaker amounted to his handful of magic beans. The magic speaker was a man by the name of Dave Stone. Hearing him talk at the Mountain Shadow Country Club in Phoenix was the turning point in Dave Liniger's life. He was mesmerized. Stone was a brilliant real estate man who loved to teach, the predecessor of all great real estate instructors; and his words penetrated Liniger's brain like none he had ever heard before. At the break, Liniger ran up to Stone and introduced himself. They talked until the speech started up again. Liniger watched Stone from the front row and felt the power of ideas burning in his mind.

At the next break and every break that followed, Liniger jumped up to talk to Stone some more. No doubt, Stone must have been puzzled by the young man's enthusiasm and zeal, but he gave Liniger his full attention. Liniger told Stone that if only he could talk like Stone, explain things the way he did, he would be able to get a listing, too. This admission puzzled Stone, and he asked Liniger how many listings he'd gotten so far in his career. Liniger answered none. So Stone asked Liniger how long he had been trying. Liniger said that he'd been working at it for six months. Stone was probably shocked; but he kept a straight face and gave Liniger a reasonable, sound, and helpful suggestion: Quit.

Coming from a motivational speaker, this might have been a tough piece of advice to ignore. But Liniger took it as a kind of reverse psychology, a test to see how up he was for a challenge. In truth, Liniger felt as though he had been knocked out by a hammer and woken up a changed man.

On his way home that night, he stopped at the grocery store to buy a carton of milk for his family. A Hispanic girl was in front of him in line. She was about 18 years old, and she was talking to her father, an older man standing next to her. Liniger could understand enough Spanish to know that they were probably talking about real estate, and it inspired him to do something out of character: He spoke up and asked them if they were trying to sell a house. The girl told Liniger that her father was going to be moving from Tempe, Arizona, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and he had to get rid of his home. Liniger looked at the old man and said, "Señor, do you understand how much a real estate commission is?" The old man shook his head, and the girl said that he didn't speak any English, which was why the whole ordeal was so confusing.

In that instant, Liniger realized that the customer needed him more than he needed the customer. Liniger knew more about the real estate business than did the old man. Liniger could speak English, and the old man could not. He had never felt so capable and confident in his life. "I can help you," he said to the old man. The old man nodded and Liniger felt deeply touched by the trust and vulnerability in his gaze.

Liniger went with them to see the house the next day. It was a fixer-upper, one that would have easily fit into the book about buying a distressed property and turning it over for a profit. Liniger knew all about fixer-uppers and in fact, he knew that people would pay more for a fixer-upper than they probably should. He listed the property, and it sold that very night for full price. He awoke the next morning and told his wife, "Do you realize that 100 percent of my listings have sold for 100 percent of the price in one hour or less?" They both laughed because they somehow, overnight, everything had changed.

It didn't stop there. The young Hispanic girl and her fiancé were going to get married. Liniger took them out that day, chatting with them like old friends by that point, and sold them a nice house before the afternoon was over. Then they referred him to another Hispanic couple, and Liniger sold them a house, too. At the end of 48 hours, Liniger had four sales and a solid listing.

Two days earlier, he had been at the end of a six-month dry spell. The only difference in him from one day to the next was a remarkable change in confidence, a feeling of certainty, and some reinforcing success. He felt suddenly as though there was nothing to this whole real estate business except one huge beanstalk that led straight up to the kingdom of riches. If there was a giant waiting for him up at the top.

Connecting Ideas

Liniger's early real estate experience probably rings a familiar note to many who have ever tried to stand before a potential customer and sell a house. Selling real estate is not like selling anything else; there's too much at stake. A home buyer is putting his or her life, financially speaking, in the hands of a real estate agent. To that customer, anxious enough already, there's a night-and-day difference between a rookie agent, desperate for a sale, and one who knows what he's doing. In the hands of someone who has the capability to figure out what the customer really needs, a home buyer relaxes and the sale becomes that much easier. Dave Liniger discovered just how big a difference his state of mind made. He knew that he had just begun to tap into his full potential.

He threw himself into the business. Life, not surprisingly, began to improve dramatically. With his newfound ability to sell came plenty of money and the respect of the people around him. He got himself a nicer car, with air conditioning. Before he knew it, he got a salesman-of-the-month plaque.

For a restless, growing person like Liniger, that plaque was the sign that it was time to move on. He was making money. He was independent. His family was more secure than ever. He was climbing that giant beanstalk a little higher each day. Everything was perfect except for one thing: Dave Liniger hated the desert. In the winter, it was great; but in August, showing houses in 110 degree heat was a miserable way to make a living. He'd been hearing about Colorado, a hunting, fishing, and skiing paradise, and it sounded like God's country. He knew he wanted more out of life, so he and his wife decided to move.

They liked the idea of a fresh start in a new land. Liniger had accumulated an amazing sales record in a year and a half. It would be very easy to go to the biggest and best companies in Denver and say, "Here's my sales record. I'm moving to town. What can you do for me?"

Liniger interviewed with the top seven firms in Denver and chose Van Schaack and Company. What appealed to him about Van Schaack was how sophisticated it was as a business. Coming from the likes of Ed Thirkhill Realty, Van Schaack had a decidedly corporate way of doing things. It had good training programs, tremendous market share, and great brand name awareness.

At 26 years old, Dave Liniger drove his family up to Denver on Halloween night in 1971. They rented a house, and Liniger took a few months off for training in order to prepare for the test he needed to take to get his Colorado real estate broker's license. During that time, he took each and every one of the top sales leaders at Van Schaack out for dinner. Liniger was eager to learn everything he could to figure out how Van Schaack became such a premier company. Even as he courted his dinner guests as colleagues, he drilled them for information. What made you successful? What would you do to get a flying start here if you were new to the area? It was all part of his voracious hunger for the best advice and teaching. He wanted to be the best agent in the world.

He got started in early 1972. After only a few months of sales and success, the vicious cycle of the real estate industry kicked in for him again. Van Schaack had provided him with a home and a brand name when he needed one to get up on his feet; but now that he had a network of contacts, a solid set of listings, and a burgeoning repeat business, he didn't really need the company anymore, and it was getting half his money without providing him with much in return.

Van Schaack valued its agents; but like any real estate firm, it didn't really appreciate them, and it didn't really care if they grew or developed. Firms and agents had an adversarial relationship at best, and money was the root source of that friction. The 50 percent commission system was good for firms in the short run but was a long-term detriment. Because agents got so little in return, they were always halfway out the door. Only various threats, ruses, and manipulations could keep the top agents in place.

The agents who showed no sign of decamping were usually those an agency really didn't want. They were coasting along, making a sale here and there, while relying on the brand name of their firm to get enough business to live on. Overall, for agents and firms, it was a lose/lose situation.

Liniger knew that his customers were buying houses from him, not from Van Schaack. He still liked the sophistication and image of Van Schaack; and he sure understood the value of its training, support systems, brand name, and market presence. But he couldn't help looking back on his days at Realty Executives, the 'rent-a-desk' firm he'd worked at just before leaving Arizona, with a kind of nostalgic longing. Sitting in a diner over coffee, thinking about what made the rent-a-desk concept appealing, he suddenly glimpsed the larger picture.

The answer was not one idea over another; it was a hybrid of the two. If a company could combine the blue-chip reputation, professionalism, and sophistication of a Van Schaack with the entrepreneurial empowerment of a Realty Executives' rent-a-desk operation, it would be unstoppable. The agents would be motivated financially, supported by great training, and free to thrive and grow. The home buyer would benefit tremendously from the more professional service and the longer-term sense of commitment. And the broker's business would grow exponentially as well, as agents flocked to his winning operation.

As systems go, it had a beautiful, elegant logic built into its very DNA. The resulting company, if it stuck to those reward-sharing principles, would grow and grow and grow until it became the biggest real estate firm in the world. The question was not how could it work but why not? The appeal was across the board, embracing and including everyone involved. It was an idea in which everybody wins.

The fact that no one at Van Schaack saw it that way didn't bother Liniger in the slightest. He knew the people in that company had many built-in reasons to be happy with the status quo. But now that he had finally glimpsed the system that would overturn the industry, his confidence was such that he had no doubts about taking a leap into the unknown and creating that vision on his own. So that's what he did. After only a year at Van Schaack, he quit-and RE/MAX was born.

As in many revolutions, hardly anyone knew that a shot had been fired at the time. Looking back, you could see that the real estate industry was never the same again. Dave Liniger had recreated it with a dream.

Strategic Moves

RE/MAX had a dream and a formula, not just an idea. When we investigated the genesis of the RE/MAX dream, we didn't expect to discover how much time, patience, and preparation went into its formulation. Despite Liniger's young age, the idea had actually been taking shape for years. The moment of inspiration was a gathering of many different strands and a sense of how they fit together in a tapestry of whole cloth. It's clear in our study that big ideas like RE/MAX become implementable dreams through a process. We believe this is a critical success factor for building and growing organizations. Here are the elements that go into making a dream into a reality.

1. Ideas are not as powerful as dreams. Dreams are ideas with passion.

2. Make the dream bigger by connecting it to other ideas.

3. Once you figure out the dream, test it, and share it with anyone who will listen!

4. People who have talent but lack self-discipline can be engaged by a dream. If you connect them to a dream, they will work toward it.

5. Liniger's turn-around moment in the beginning of his career came when he realized that a customer needed him more than he needed the customer. It was at this point that he felt capable and confident.

6. In the hands of someone who has the capability to figure out what the customer really needs, a customer relaxes and the sale becomes that much easier. Like all good salespeople, Dave Liniger discovered just how big a difference his state of mind made. Doing so made him realize that he had just begun to tap into his full potential. Working on your personal state of mind helps you to share your dream with others.

7. Find a prospective mentor in your field, and pursue a mentor relationship with him or her-at any age and any stage in your career.

8. Find the best in your industry and learn from them. Take them to dinner and find out what they did to become successful. Ask them for advice on what they would do if they were in your specific situation. In order to become the best, you have to be intentional about learning from the best.

9. Spend the necessary time going to school around the idea. Learn everything you can. Be the best by learning from the experts, and then become the expert around your dream.

10. Once your idea turns into a dream with a focused system, act on it!

More entrepreneurship articles:

The entrepreneur - starting your own business
What does it take to start a business?
Entrepreneurship: Do YOU Have What It Takes?
Entrepreneur Growth
Entrepreneur Research

Everybody Wins: The Story and Lessons Behind RE/MAX

by Phil Harkins and Keith Hollihan
  RE/MAX was founded over 30 years ago in Denver, Colorado, based upon a revolutionary idea for a new system of selling real estate. Since then, RE/MAX has experienced over 380 straight months of explosive growth. In Everybody Wins, authors Phil Harkins and Keith Hollihan reveal how RE/MAX has achieved such phenomenal success by examining the company's strategy, culture, and leadership. Harkins -- with the full cooperation of RE/MAX -- led a research team that closely studied RE/MAX as well as comparable fast-growing companies. The team observed critical meetings, attended conventions, dug through historical archives, and conducted extensive interviews with more than 50 key RE/MAX leaders. The outcome is an insightful and engaging account of one of the world's most successful companies. Order your copy today.
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