How to Get Started in a Real Estate Career

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Every month or two a student or recent graduate asks me for advice about how to get a job as a real estate professional. My advice is always the same: find someone who is doing what you want to be doing in 5–10 years and try to get a job working for that person, even if the pay is not as much as you would like. It is more important to move directly toward your longer-term goal than it is to get paid more and have to change direction later.

When I finished being a full-time student, I bought a book called “What Color is Your Parachute” by Richard Nelson Bolles and applied the techniques in that book to get my first job. Below are some techniques discussed in the book as they relate to my own experience transitioning into a real estate investment career at the age of 35 with virtually no real estate experience. Many of these suggestions will not only help you to find the right job and get started as a real estate professional, but can also help you successfully generate opportunities for your company and for yourself, months and years later. My business just celebrated its 10th anniversary and I can attribute a lot of our success to having applied these techniques diligently every week.

Below are my top six suggestions, followed by a brief explanation of each.

1. Real estate is a diverse universe unto itself. Where do you want to place yourself within it? Start by doing research and taking stock of your own strengths and weaknesses.

2. Research means going to events and setting up lots of informational interviews. Finding a job is a full-time job — you should have no trouble finding 40 hours a week of work to do.

3. Print personalized business cards and thank-you notes. Send thank-you notes to each person who makes time to meet with you, and also to anyone who gives you helpful advice over the phone.

4. Manage your contacts meticulously. If you have Gmail, use the “notes” section in the contacts area of the email application to keep track of who introduces you to whom.

5. Make the most of your alumni networks and friends who are willing to help you make connections. Become a LinkedIn power user.

6. You will likely secure the right job when you meet with a hiring manager who needs help but has not yet posted a job opening. Furthermore, to gain this person’s confidence you need to have personally met with at least two and preferably three people whom this person considers credible — before your first meeting with this hiring manager. In other words, plan on having dozens and dozens of meetings with various people before your job materializes.

1. Real Estate is Very Diverse - Figure Out Where You Fit In

Many young adults have told me that they want to work in the real estate field but have no idea what the different types of jobs entail. First of all, the world of single-family homes is almost totally separate from the world of income property and commercial real estate. Many people who ask my advice want to eventually own income property such as apartment buildings or retail properties, so let’s assume your goal is to break into commercial real estate.

Do you want to work for a very small entrepreneurial business, or for a large company? Are you willing and able to be paid mostly based on your performance: in other words, a sales-oriented job? Do you like industrial buildings or shopping centers? Since both asset classes are quite specialized, your answer will take you down different paths.

Your first job is to create an accurate map of the entire range of real estate careers, which requires a lot of research. Once you have done this, it will become clear where to focus your resources to meet people and build a network. In addition, you will impress the people you meet if you can confidently say (and explain why) “I want to perform an acquisitions role for a small company that acquires shopping centers,” or “I want to learn to be an asset manager for apartment buildings” (or whatever it is you decide you are looking for).

2. Start Working Full-Time on Your Job Search

In order to create an accurate map of all the entry-level job opportunities that match your interest and skillset, you are going to have to invest a lot of time. This is time well-spent — you wouldn’t want to land a job doing something you find boring, would you?

I started my real estate career in Los Angeles, which may be the single largest real estate market in the United States. In the greater LA area, there are several real estate–related events each week: you need to go to as many of these in your local market as you can.

Like explorers who mapped out uncharted territories, you need to personally go out into the world, meet people and find out what they do. If you are naturally curious and fascinated with real estate, you will find this challenge to be lots of fun. If you are terrified to introduce yourself and shake hands with strangers, my suggestion is to get over it and learn to enjoy it. But if you do remain terrified of meeting strangers, you are probably destined for a back-office job in real estate. Much of the value created in real estate comes from finding new opportunities — and there is no way to do this without networking.

When you go to events, make a point of meeting plenty of people. Don’t spend 30 minutes talking to one person if you can meet 10 people briefly in the same amount of time. Your goal is to meet people whose work you find interesting. Of course, you might meet someone who could actually offer you a job. But at this stage, you should just focus on building your map of all the real estate career paths in your local area, then make a more detailed plan of those career paths that interest you most.

When you meet someone who does work that interests you, let him or her know that you would really enjoy following up: either for coffee or on the phone in an “informational interview.” Just get the person’s business card, speak briefly and move on. After the event you might have 10 or more business cards, and you need to reach out to those people you found most interesting. Ask them if they could meet briefly for coffee, or schedule a short phone call with them. When you do find someone willing to meet with you, always pay for the coffee or breakfast. When you are starting out, avoid asking people to lunch unless they suggest it, because lunch is a longer time-commitment, and your goal is to get an in-person meeting. The key is to have a one-on-one informational interview in person or over the phone — even if it only lasts 10 minutes.

If you are not familiar with the concept of an informational interview, now is the time to add the term to your vocabulary. An informational interview is your chance to learn about the industry you are trying to enter professionally and to learn more about what the person with whom you’re speaking does during a typical day. Working professionals are reluctant to meet or speak with someone who is looking for a job, but they are often happy to spend a few moments helping a young adult gather information. The key to an informational interview is that it allows you to have one-on-one time with people who, being in the midst of their careers, naturally know a lot of people and are the first to learn when job openings appear, sometimes even before they are advertised. By asking for an informational interview rather than asking for a job, you are making it very easy for the other person to say “yes” rather than “I would love to help, but we don’t have any job openings that meet your criteria right now.”

3. Get Business Cards and Notecards

When you meet people at events, you need to exchange business cards with many of them, except the ones you are pretty sure cannot help you on your mission to find the right real-estate job. This means you need to have a printed business card which should include your name, cell phone number and email address. I recommend keeping your card very simple and professional, and that you have it printed on the highest quality paper possible. My personal favorite is Crane & Co. which offers matching ecru-white “kid finish” notecards, envelopes and business cards. These are a bit pricey, so if you don’t have the budget, get nice heavy-cardstock business cards from a company such as Uprinting.com or DeltaGraphics.com. Make sure your cards have a matte finish (not glossy, which creates a cheap impression).

You also need to get matching blank notecards and envelopes with dimensions of 4–5 inches by 6–7 inches. If you can afford it, personalize your notecards with your name on top. Each evening, set aside time to send notecards to the people who met with you one-on-one, or to anyone who helped you with an introduction or offered you some useful advice that day. Your notes don’t need to be long, but they should reference, as specifically as possible, what the person did for you that you appreciated. Handwritten thank-you notes can be the “special sauce” to your job search. In a world flooded with thousands of emails, your cards delivered by “snail mail” will really stand out. Furthermore, sending cards demonstrates: (1) you have good manners and understand business etiquette; (2) you are skilled at networking and following up; and (3) you’ve made an impression on the person receiving it. Everyone who is good at sales knows that it takes many impressions to close the sale. This is known as the “sale cycle”. By sending a card, you are advancing the sales cycle by making an impression that 19 out of 20 of your competitors will fail to make.

4. Manage Your Contacts Meticulously

Large organizations understand that their ability to generate revenues is tied directly to how well they track and manage every interaction with a customer or potential customer, which has spawned an entire industry — customer relationship management (CRM). By helping firms with these tasks, Salesforce® has built its business of 20,000 employees with a market value of more than $50 billion.

Fortunately, you can perform all the CRM you need for a lot less — in fact, for free. If you use Gmail or any other free email application, make a point of entering all your professional contacts every evening into the contacts section. You will need your contacts’ mailing addresses whenever possible so you can send a handwritten note. If you don’t have a contact’s mailing address, request it by informing them you would like to send a thank-you note by mail.

Each time you speak with someone, add to the notes you’re keeping in the email application you’re using. In particular, pay attention to any introductions you receive, and make a note under both contacts about the introduction. If Mr. X introduces you to Ms. Y, make a note in Mr. X’s contact saying “introduced me to Ms. Y” and make a note in Ms. Y’s contact saying “introduced to me by Mr. X.” These notes are important because they help you keep track of who provided you with help along the way. They also enable you to say “thank you” in a specific way, to the right person, anytime something good happens. When you do start your job, you may well find that a chain of introductions led to the job offer. You’ll want to repay the favor of the introductions by thanking each person who was involved, letting him or her know how that introduction led to another and another, enabling you to secure the job. Not only is this common courtesy, it also lets people know that they should continue to be generous with introductions — and that you, in particular, really appreciate them.

5. Make the Most of LinkedIn, Alumni Networks, and Help from Friends

People who attended the same schools and universities as you, are much more likely to spend a few minutes helping a fellow graduates than a stranger. Find out if your school keeps a database of alumni willing to talk to recent graduates, and find those alumni working in the real estate industry. You can also use LinkedIn to filter and find only those members who meet your specific criteria. Ask for an informational interview with each of the people of interest to you.

Friends can also play a big role in helping you get your first job in real estate. After having completed my last degree, I went to church one Sunday morning with a friend who introduced me to a fellow church member who had “a great view from his office”. It was this informational interview that eventually led to a job offer and my first job.

LinkedIn is a very powerful tool for job seekers. Sign up for a premium account so you can send InMail™, allowing you to contact any LinkedIn user, without the need for their email address. Several months ago, I reached out to someone featured in an article to ask if that person could meet with me and my son, who is interested in computer programming. We ended up having coffee, and as a result, my son recently started his first job: an internship where he is being paid to do what he loves doing most; namely, writing software code and hacking it!

6. How You Will Actually Get a Job Offer

When I got my first job, the person who offered it to me worked with two senior-level colleagues who had already met me and had received thank-you cards in the mail from me. Here’s how it happened. First, I had a number of informational interviews and had defined exactly what I was looking for: in this case, I wanted to work in San Francisco for an investment bank that worked with fast-growing technology companies. A friend from college suggested I speak with his father, who knew a senior partner at a large investment bank, and he made an introduction to that partner. Separately, another friend from college invited me to join him and his wife at church, and after the service he introduced me to another senior partner in a different office of the same investment bank. By the time I actually interviewed for the job opening, two different senior partners were able to refer someone who could vouch for me to the hiring manager.

Your job offer in real estate will come about in a similar way. You need to define what you are looking for (the more specific, the better); meet lots of people who can help you on your journey; follow up with all the people who help you by showing sincere appreciation; and build your own individual professional network so that the hiring manager knows two or more people who can vouch for you. Following these steps is easier said than done, and many people fail to execute each and every step of the plan. However, if you have the discipline to follow the program I’m recommending and can overcome any aversion you may have to meeting strangers every day, then you will find your first job in real estate and more importantly, it will lead you to a rewarding career.

About the Author: Jan Brzeski is managing director and chief investment officer of Arixa Capital, a Los Angeles niche lender and fund manager that he founded in 2006. He can be reached at (310) 428-9109 or at jbrzeski@arixacapital.com