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REAL Trends 500 Podcast: Sam Khorramian, co-founder and CEO, and Oliver Graf, co-founder and president of Big Block Realty in San Diego

Jun 30, 2020 8:00:56 AM

Sam Khorramian, co-founder and CEO, and Oliver Graf, co-founder and president of Big Block Realty in San Diego

Ranked No. 145 by transaction sides and No. 95 by volume, REAL Trends 500

Tracey Velt:

This is Tracey Velt, Editor-in-Chief of content for REAL Trends. We're speaking to the top brokers in the country to take a peek at how they built their businesses. We'll talk about lessons learned, personal passions, and their top strategies for recruiting and retaining productive agents. Today, we're speaking with Sam Khorramian, co-founder and CEO, and Oliver Graf, co-founder and president of Big Block Realty in San Diego. Welcome.

Sam Khorramian:

Thanks for having us.

Oliver Graf:

Thanks Tracey. Excited to be here.

Tracey Velt:

Thank you for joining. We'll start at the beginning. Tell me a little bit about how you each got started in the business and ultimately came to run the brokerage.

Sam Khorramian:

Sure. Oliver and I have been friends since college. We've started several different businesses together and we ultimately ended up getting our real estate license after playing in the mortgage space for a little while. One thing led to another, we ended up at a Mike Ferry conference very early on in our business and really resonated with a lot of things we learned there.

We started to be active agents in the market, started doing some investing. Over the course of time, we ultimately, after the crash and things started to correct, we saw an opportunity to get into the brokerage space. That's how Big Block was born.

Tracey Velt:

Okay, great. What year was that that you founded the company?

Sam Khorramian:

We started actually growing the company in 2012.

Tracey Velt:

Okay. Tell me a little bit, how many offices do you have? How many agents?

Sam Khorramian:

Right now, we have four corporate offices and a little over a thousand agents. We're in the process of starting expansion into different states as we speak.

Tracey Velt:

Okay, great. Obviously, as entrepreneurs, you've probably learned a lot of lessons. Let's talk about your top two lessons learned while building your brokerage.

Sam Khorramian:

Yeah, let's do it. I'm sure Oliver has some thoughts. First thing that comes to mind is we believe that the most important thing that we can do and what's really helped our growth is number one, being a service first company. We really buy into the Ritz-Carlton model of anticipating your client's needs, putting them first.

We really believe that Big Block is a customer service business almost more than anything else. We look at our agents as our customers, so we're always working to continue to provide a better environment for them, help them succeed, under promise, over deliver, create wow experiences, and ultimately create something that they're proud to tell other people about.

Sam Khorramian:

And then, in addition to that, I'd say one of the things that's really helped us in terms of growing and what we've learned is having a really well thought-out and strong presentation on our value prop to agents and how we can help them grow their business has been really powerful for us.

We're always focusing on with our team, our communication, our dialogue, our presentation. Ultimately, we believe that a strong presentation backed with really strong service is something that just makes you a remarkable company. We're always focusing on improving those two things for us.

Tracey Velt:

Okay, great. Let's talk about your aha moment. I would like both of you to answer this question. What was your aha moment as it pertains to growing the brokerage?

Sam Khorramian:

Sure.

Oliver Graf:

I would say the aha for me was kind of the way that we really went down the road of creating the company. The way we did was we were agents ourselves and we were looking for a model like this and we couldn't really find it. Back in early 2010s, there weren't a lot of 100% commission brokerages yet.

The ones that were out there were very rent a broker, there was no service, there was no training. It was very don't-call-us-we'll-call-you type of a thing. And then, when we looked on the other side at the more traditional real estate models, the brick-and-mortars, we thought that they were taking a really high split and in many cases not offering all that much in exchange for that split.

And so the aha for me, for us, came very early in in the fact that, hey, there's a gap here between the quote-unquote virtual broker and the brick-and-mortars where we can create a model that agents can plug into and be successful with, but still offer the high split and the virtual platform.

Oliver Graf:

We have offices if they want to come in, but many of our agents just work out in the field, work at home, have their own offices and we've just really built the model around creating agent partners. We look at them as our partners and we want to just let them plug in and use our systems and backend support to go out there and be successful.

Tracey Velt:

Okay. And Sam?

Sam Khorramian:

Yeah. I would ditto what Oliver says. But also, I'd say early on in the recruiting process, my biggest aha was that our biggest opportunity was other brokers' broken promises. Most of the time, when people came to us to explore what Big Blocks could offer, a lot of it was sparked by their disappointment in their current outfits, fulfillments on promises and service and things like that.

That became very obvious to us that we need to, one, keep our word and continue to execute on the things that our customer who's the agent is telling us and listen to the market.

Whenever we saw another company was maybe upsetting some of their agents or they were coming in and pulling back the curtains for us, we looked that as an opportunity to make ourselves better. We always think that even though we're 100% shop, we're 100% committed to offering more than any other brokerage and any other model out there. For me, the aha was just do what other people won't do.

Tracey Velt:

Okay. That's great. Let's talk a little bit about how you built your business. Most brokers obviously build their business with a strategic mix of organic and then some mergers and acquisitions. Tell me a little bit about how you grew your business. And then, was there one year where you made a really large growth leap and what would you attribute that growth leap to?

Sam Khorramian:

Yeah. We, until last year, haven't done any acquisitions. The one acquisition we did do was a smaller shop with maybe 20 agents. Outside of that, we focused on three or four primary things that have really helped us. Out the shoot, we were really, really heavy in prospecting. Myself, Oliver, and we had a few other people in the office, we were just hitting the phone like an agent should. But, we were doing it as a brokerage.

We would set up two, three appointments a day. We were really just heavy on outbound dialing. In the beginning, that was really important for us because we bootstrapped this thing and didn't necessarily have a ton of resources to go out and do a lot of marketing. A big part of it was prospecting, which we still do.

Sam Khorramian:

Second, we knew that we could offer training that other brokerages weren't offering in terms of online and digital marketing strategies that at the time weren't really out there in our space. We started to do every month one to two free trainings for the local industry. We would prospect, invite people, we would outreach and we would put on free events. We'd have anywhere from 20 to 60 people show up per event.

We'd spend two, three hours just teaching them a bunch of really cool things and showing them the opportunities available to help them grow their business. That ended up obviously helping us recruit, but it also put really good will out in the local market and validated us to a degree. Prospecting and events really helped us shooting out.

Sam Khorramian:

Outside of that, we're really heavy on the online recruiting. We're always running everything from Facebook ads, Google pay-per-click. We do really well with SEO, organic positioning, when someone searches for a broker in San Diego and the markets that we serve.

Over the course of the years, we've just gotten heavier with that. A lot of video marketing funnels where we're telling our story on video, where we're sharing our value prop. We're really heavy on putting out testimonials from our agents that are happy with us. That's been a big component.

Sam Khorramian:

And then lastly, internally, we created some referral programs that incentivize our agents to not necessarily go out and be recruiters, but keep us top of mind when they were talking to another agent or a friend and introducing the Big Block opportunity to their other agent friends.

Today, I'd say the biggest part of our recruiting is really organic from our agents referring other agents as well as local industry professionals, just pointing people in our direction.

Tracey Velt:

Okay, great. You have some great programs in place.

Oliver Graf:

I would just add to that real quick.

Tracey Velt:

Sure.

Oliver Graf:

At the end of the day though, it comes back to what Sam said at the very beginning. It's our over dedication to adding value to our agents. That is what's been the key factor in making us grow. Because you can have all the fancy marketing in the world and all the systems and all that, which is great. It's a key part of it. But at the end of the day, we really over deliver for our agents.

Because we're doing that, the name has just been growing in the industry and we get a lot of word of mouth referrals just from our agents referring other agents. Obviously, we incentivized them to do that with a referral program, which is great. But at the end of the day, it's the socials, it's the trainings, it's the value that they're getting from hanging their license with us that just pushes all the other marketing.

Tracey Velt:

Okay, great. Obviously, in real estate, there are challenges and there are opportunities. Excuse me. What do you see as the greatest challenge in business today?

Sam Khorramian:

I'll jump in here and I'm sure Oliver has a thought. Honestly, I think our biggest challenge is there's a lot of opportunity and we've learned that every time we say yes to something, we're saying no to something else. The biggest challenges is really isolating what's the most important towards moving the needle and trying to say no to other shiny, exciting opportunities that might not be directly focused with our number one objective, which is recruiting agents and helping our agents succeed.

There's a lot of noise out there with different publications. We're continuously innovating, but we're trying to focus on the things that narrow the lanes and keep us focused on the primary objective. Oftentimes, that's the basics. It's like Oliver and I have been saying, being heavy in service, support, training, culture, and creating an environment that people are proud to be a part of.

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Tracey Velt:

Okay, great. Let's talk about opportunities, which you talked a little bit about opportunity, but where do you see the most opportunity in real estate brokerage today? Not necessarily with your brokerage, but in the industry overall.

Sam Khorramian:

I think the biggest opportunity is truly having a DNA in your company that is actually agent-centric. I think a lot of brokers out there maybe misuse that term. Everything that we do, when we're meeting with our team, if it's the executive team or the entire team, everything that we decide to do or not do, we take the position of, "This looks good, but is it in the best interests of our agents and their success?"

We believe that if we could create a Ritz-Carlton experience on a, let's say, target style budget and continue to focus on our customer, the agent. That is, to us, the biggest opportunity. We always say this in the recruitment process, we look at our customer as the agent and if we pour into them, they're best suited to go pour into their customer, which is a person that's buying and selling real estate.

Sam Khorramian:

I feel that some of our competitors, which I respect nearly all of them, they believe that their customer is actually the person buying and selling real estate and the agent is the middle person in that process. For us, it's all about the agent. It's truly being agent-centric and doing what's hard instead of what's easy to put them in a better position to enjoy the business, be profitable in the business, give them resources and tools, to win in the business, and then layering that with a really fun environment and a good culture that's contagious and remarkable.

Tracey Velt:

Okay, great. You talked a little bit about your recruiting. Let's get a little bit deeper into some of the lessons you learned while trying to develop all the recruiting programs that you do have.

Sam Khorramian:

That's a great question. I'd say the toughest lesson to learn is as any entrepreneur starts a company, they like to think that they are built to service everybody. The reality is that no brokerage, no company is built for everyone. We're real with the fact that we're not for everybody and we are going to continue to focus on the people that resonate with what we offer.

In addition to that, we've realized that our model and the different systems and structures we have in place really make us the best outfit for teams as well. A team can just transition over to us, have complete control over their business and their branding and marketing. At the same time, everybody on the team gets a lift in commission by moving to a platform like ours that gives them more profitability.

Sam Khorramian:

I think that if you, as any recruiter... A lot of times I'll be in conferences and people say, "Well, you guys are winning because you're 100%." I think that's a factor of it. 100% gets people to listen to us maybe, but to me, the biggest recruiting is what Oliver touched on earlier. It's creating that remarkable experience and making your agents actually feel the love and have them know that you're proud to have them as opposed to them being proud to be able to be there.

I really believe that recruiting is all about culture, all about presentation, and it's all about consistently doing it. I think that a lot of agents turn into brokers because they want to get out of the prospecting game. They get into being a broker so they don't have to do the prospecting.

Sam Khorramian:

For us, prospecting is part of our DNA. It's something that we've always done. We believe that if you reach out, touch and connect with enough people on a consistent basis, back it up with really good service support, you're going to win the game. It doesn't matter if you're an 80-20 shop, 100% shop, a 50-50 shop.

I really believe that if you focus on the basics of outreach, talking to more people, creating value, making a lot of noise... We're really, really, really good at making noise. To me, those are the fundamental basics of being able to recruit in high volumes.

Tracey Velt:

Okay, great. We're going to switch gears a little bit here and talk a little more personal. I do want both of you to answer the next two questions. The first one is, what or who inspires you?

Sam Khorramian:

Oliver, you want to go first?

Oliver Graf:

Sure. That's a good question. I would say, obviously for me and Sam, we've been entrepreneurs since college. Like he said, we've started lots of businesses together so there's lots of business legends that inspire me and us. The Rockefellers, the Fords, all of that, the Richard Branson, the Elon Musk, all those types. And then, also I'm really inspired by just people that follow their dreams regardless of what that might mean.

Like I'm a big rock and roll guy, big surfing guy, and I'm just really inspired by people that can go out there and live lives like that, just following their dreams and being passionate. I can relate to that just because I feel like that's what we're doing where we've always been passionate about building a large business and continuing to grow. It's just very exciting for us to be doing that. That's kind of where we get some inspiration.

Tracey Velt:

Okay, great. And Sam?

Sam Khorramian:

For me, I have a few thoughts. First and foremost, I am really inspired by my dad and my family. My family came here from Iran with nothing. My dad came here barely speaking English and just had a dream to create a great life for himself. I watched him as a young kid do two things really well. He poured really, really, really hard into his businesses or his business. He was an employee. At the same time, he was really good at pouring into us as his family.

He was always on the road. Most weeks, Monday through Friday, we wouldn't see him. But on the weekends, he would give so much to us and pour so much love and support into me and my sister and my mom. That taught me a lot. He taught me that love is always the answer. If you come from a place of love and support, love your enemies and love the people that love you, you'll be different than most. One is that.

Sam Khorramian:

Second, I'd say it's really easy to throw out names like Elon Musk and all those stuff. Me and Oliver have a lot of the same people we look up to, but more than anything, I'm inspired by innovators. I'm inspired by people that look at challenges and create opportunities. I'm inspired by people, like Oliver said, that believe in themselves more than other people would. When we started this gig, everybody told us it wouldn't work. Everybody told us it wasn't sustainable.

Everybody told us we were crazy, but we knew that if we just put our heads down and looked at the people that inspired us and continued to be educated. We've been going to conferences forever. We still spend two, three months of our year going to events from Mike Ferry to Digital Marketer, Closing Table Mastermind. We spend a lot of time educating ourselves to continue inspiring ourselves.

Tracey Velt:

Okay, great advice. The next one, I interviewed a lot of real estate executives and C level executives. What I find is, generally, there's something that happened in their childhood or teenage years that really shaped the person they are and inspired them to be entrepreneurs. What is that experience for each of you?

Sam Khorramian:

I can go first here. For me, I grew up kind of like... I was always picked on and bullied and I never really felt like I fit in and, at the time, was allowing other people's opinion about me actually help determine who I was. It wasn't necessarily that great. Then, when I was 13, my dad ended up getting transferred to San Diego. I moved out here and I had a whole new social circle.

I remember thinking to myself, "This is my opportunity to reinvent what everyone told me I was before and be who I want to be." That's what I did. I realized that from 13 to 16 to 17 and continuing on, if I focus on what I want to be as opposed to listening to what other people tell me I am or tell me the way things are, that there's really nothing that I couldn't accomplish.

Sam Khorramian:

For me, one of the best things that happened was that move. We moved here, I had to make new friends, I got to reinvent myself. At the time, I wasn't educated enough to know that I had the ability. It was just naive thinking like, "Hey, Sam, this is your chance to not be the guy that everyone told you you were." Ever since then, I've just been more confident, more proud, more ambitious, more resilient, and ultimately willing to take bigger risks than I ever thought I would before.

Tracey Velt:

Okay, great. And Oliver?

Oliver Graf:

I love that answer. Honestly, I'm trying to think of... I can't pinpoint a moment. But for me, I'm a third generation entrepreneur. My grandfather owned a bike shop in Germany during World War II. My dad owned a medical supply business after he also immigrated here from Germany. Just like Sam, barely speaking English and just built it from the ground up.

For me, I've just had that firsthand experience. But if there was a moment, it was probably me just growing up not liking people telling me what to do and just realizing that the only way to not get told what to do is to be your own boss. I really love that idea.

Oliver Graf:

But honestly, I can always say that I've just been really passionate about business. Being an entrepreneur, I feel like it just comes naturally. I was the kid in elementary school that went to the neighboring town to buy a big pack of fireworks because they weren't legal in our town. And then, I would break them down into smaller packs and sell them to all the neighborhood kids. I've just always had it in my blood and I've just always been passionate about following that calling.

Tracey Velt:

Okay. That's great. Well, Sam and Oliver, thank you so much for joining the REAL Trends podcast and congratulations on being in the REAL Trends 500 and nation's best. I wish you the best of luck.

Sam Khorramian:

Thank you for having us. We're a big fan of REAL Trends and what you guys do. It's a real honor. It's a full circle moment for both of us to be on this call with you and be on the list. Thank you for allowing us to participate

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