This is my interview with Blair Brandt. For those of you still scratching your head, wondering who he is. Blair is the founder of one of America's most exciting start-ups, The Next Step Realty - The company helps 20-something recent college graduates find rentals in their first-job markets, pairing them with young real estate agents with similar interests and backgrounds, and a specialization in their rental needs.
Or how Blair puts it “When the transition of ending college and entering the new world is upon students, the last item on the agenda is the obligation to find housing, especially in a city that is unfamiliar and new. This is where The Next Step Realty comes in. Not only do we enable you to skip the step of finding an apartment on your own, we put you directly in touch with a young, accomplished real estate broker who specializes in your leasing needs and will take care of the entire transaction for you.”
Here is the full interview.
[caption id="attachment_11801" align="alignnone" width="327" caption="Blair Brandt (left), Belton Baker (Right)"][/caption]
Hi Blair, thanks for joining us on YHP, how are you doing?
Well, I’m amongst the living. Between earthquakes and hurricanes, its been an interesting week.
Can you quickly give us some background information about yourself before we move on?
Born in Manhattan. Grew up in Palm Beach, FL. I went to boarding school in New England at a great spot called Deerfield Academy. I went to college at the University of Richmond in Virginia and graduated in 2010. I’m thankful to have had incredible parents, teachers, and mentors. I’m 23 and currently live in New York City.
When did you know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I started a laundry business for students my freshman year of college and loved the independence of being my own boss. After that, I never decided to be an entrepreneur, I just kept exploring new opportunities and learning as much as I could about each industry I worked in.
Good entrepreneurs never sit down and decide to be entrepreneurs. They hit the pavement hard and keep their ear to the pulse of the streets. When they see an unfulfilled demand, they properly investigate the opportunity and execute efficiently. I’m proud to say we are of this category.
We never decided to be entrepreneurs, we were already doing this on a person to person basis long before it was a brand.
Tell us about The Next Step Realty and how the idea came about?
When I started working in real estate, I took the hands-on approach and, over time, happened to stumble upon a point of frustration I had with the market. Being a 22 year old sales associate, I didn’t have the respect of the clients I wanted to work with, but when I started working with young professionals relocating to the Palm Beach area - I saw that I was instantly building my client base, making more money, and learning a lot about my job.
My partner Belton Baker also believed that our friend’s who were seniors on college campuses were suffering from an inability to seamlessly find housing after graduation. A few of my friends, knowing I was immersed in my real estate job, had even reached out to me to be connected with the right broker in other cities. So, we decided to systematically connect and strategically match-make these two groups through an exclusive network. This would solve the slow pace of business that young brokers were initially experiencing, while also assisting the graduates in their relocation.
Why the name The Next Step Realty?
We sent out an e-mail before we launched the website to test the viability of our idea. We chose a few fraternities and sororites at UNC Chapel Hill and the University of Richmond, our alma-maters, as our sample group, and the title of the e-mail was “Here’s to The Next Step: Post-Collegiate Housing”. We sent it to seniors in the spring of 2010. When the feedback from the e-mails was overwhelmingly positive, we used that e-mail subject line to name the company.
Tell us how the process works?
Go to www.thenextsteprealty.com. Choose the city you are moving to. Tell us about yourself, how to contact you, and what type of apartment you are looking for.
Within minutes, your hand-picked Next Step certified broker will call you to confirm an appointment, review your parameters, answer your questions, and begin to e-mail you listings of apartments.
The broker who contacts you will be not only be pre-qualified to work with recent graduates based on our rigorous selection process, but they will also be available to assist you at times you have listed as convenient and be a specialist in the type of apartment you requested.
Our brokers in most cities are free to use, with the exception of London and Manhattan, where we have pre-negotiated discounted rates on behalf of our clients in advance. Everywhere else, landlords compensate brokers for bringing tenants to the property.
Typically our clients spend a day or two out with a broker weighing all the options, sign a lease, and move on with their lives! It’s that easy, and it’s free to use Next Step, so there’s nothing to loose.
What would you say was probably the most difficult part of starting the business?
The biggest obstacle is overcoming the inertia of your audience - making them aware that there is a different way to do things, and that your route is the most favorable.
What’s the toughest feedback you’ve ever received and how did you learn from it?
The toughest feedback we ever received was that our service wasn’t necessary because people could find brokers on their own.
We learned from it by improving our system so that our network of brokers is so well-qualified and well-researched by us, it is almost a crime not to go to us for a recommendation on which broker in your new city is the best fit for you. We created a certain quality guarantee, which has created great word of mouth and enabled people to trust our brand.
It is a safer bet to rely on that type of standardization then the one-off referral of a friend or family member who got lucky using a mediocre broker a year ago. Also, our match-making system ensures you work with a specialist. Finally, the pre-negotiated discounts are important because they save our users money, and those types of savings can’t be procured by going it alone. Our network creates these benefits, and makes being a part of it worthwhile.
Negative feedback is always just an opportuntiy to improve and make your product better, and I think our efforts to make our website indispensable to graduates are starting to pay off.
Tell us some of the key lessons you've learnt so far on your journey as an entrepreneur?
Persistence is crucial. You have to keep driving your product every day. Making it better, spreading the word.
Marketing is important. Of course you have to perfect your offer first, but the press is your friend and any opportunity for one single person to learn more about your company is a worthwhile use of time.
Brand control is also key. Being able to determine how it appears to others rather than it becoming something you don’t want it to be.
What would you say has been your most memorable moment so far?
That’s a great question. I was very excited when we signed our first lease. But, ultimately, it’s a toss-up between being invited to the White House and getting off the set of my first live interview on Bloomberg TV.
I was 22, had graduated from college only a month before, and we had been working at break-neck speed for 3 months. We’ve made incredible strides since then, but something about how quickly it happened and the shift that it represented in our lives made it very memorable. It was nice afterwards to go to the rooftop of our friends apartment, enjoy a beer, and reflect on an insane 3 months.
How do you stay grounded with your recent success in business?
Knowing that we haven’t succeeded yet.
Where do you see yourself and your business in 5 years?
We’ll have a strong market share in the U.S. and abroad of recent graduates and young professionals relocating from campuses to cities or between different cities, and we’ll definitely be changing the real estate market’s usual norms and conventions. Less money will be spent recruiting wealthy clients through expensive, out-dated advertisements, and more money will be pumped into developing the relationships we are initiating with young renters early on.
What can we be expecting from you in the future?
Beyond expansion within our core real estate services, The Next Step brand is currently exploring different business opportunities that consistently revolve around our niche audience of undergrads, recent grads, and young professionals.
We currently have projects underway in fashion, television, and vacation rentals. We also are becoming a desirable avenue for other brands who want to reach the twenty-something, high end demographic that we cater too. We are becoming a platform for companies to promote their products to our targeted demographic, and a consultant to companies who need assistance engaging members of our website.
What advice can you give to entrepreneurs out there looking to get involved in this industry?
Pursue industries and jobs that you love, and be infinitely curious about how it works. If you think it can be done better, then do it.
Thanks for your time Blair