Ben Fogelson was ready for a career change, but his local roots and a devotion to service steered him to a different path.
Editor’s note: This month, we’re sharing the stories of small businesses that have successfully navigated the startup process, and taking a look at what challenges they faced during year one and beyond.
In 2014, instead of joining with a larger real estate brokerage, he established his own boutique real estate firm in the heart of downtown Eugene. Today, Fogelson and the five real estate agents at InEugene Real Estate connect home buyers and sellers throughout Eugene, Springfield, and Lane County, Oregon—an area about the size of Connecticut.
“The biggest decision I made was to start my own business rather than jump on board with another brokerage, which is what most real estate agents do,” says Fogelson, who has held his real estate license since 2007. “Trusting that was integral to my own happiness. I’m a native-born Eugenean, and InEugene Real Estate is dedicated to our city and the quality of life of the individuals living within it. ”
Focused on family and customers
Fogelson’s decision stands out. As of 2016, there were 2 million real estate licensees and 86,004 real estate brokerage firms in the U.S. With an average of 23 licensees per brokerage firm, that can also make for a larger office, usually with large national firms whose names and yard signs you probably recognize. But that path wasn’t for Fogelson.
Born half a mile from where his office is now, Fogelson traveled the world but knew that Eugene was home. As he planned and built InEugene Real Estate’s boutique brand, he kept thinking about that sense of home and of what drives people’s decisions about where they choose to live. “The local-centric branding that I employ tries to evoke that feeling of care for a community, care for our families,” he explains.
“The local-centric branding that I employ tries to evoke that feeling of care for a community, care for our families.” ― Ben Fogelson
Prior to real estate, Fogelson worked at an alt-weekly newspaper in Eugene, but in 2006 and 2007, he was looking hard at making a change that would better serve his family. Then a friend asked Fogelson to join his new brokerage. The time was right and the fit was good, says Fogelson. “I have an outgoing nature, an interest in raising my income, and wanted a career that provided a multitude of tasks that would keep me engaged while helping people.”
For the next seven years, Fogelson worked in a “two-desk office,” learning the trade, making connections, and building his reputation. When the brokerage’s owner decided to shut down in 2014, Fogelson planned his next move. “For the same reasons I didn’t join with a large brokerage at the beginning of my real estate career, I again chose a route that was more reflective of who I was and what I could create,” he says.
“So I chose to create my own brand.”
Planning to be at the heart of the community
In his real estate buyer’s agent and listing agent profile on Zillow, Fogelson says his focus is to “provide the residents of my hometown the highest boutique-level of customer service, intelligent guidance, and the caring of someone who fully understands and values your goals.”
That focus continues to form the core and heart of Fogelson’s plans for the brokerage. He wanted a highly visible office in downtown Eugene, an area that has been the focus of revitalization efforts for businesses, local government, and the public (and that also kept him close to his nearby home). During the first year, according to a 2014 Eugene Weekly article announcing InEugene Real Estate, the firm had plans to support the community by opening its doors for Lane Arts Council First Friday ArtWalks, distributing blankets to the homeless, and sponsoring the Lane United soccer team.
The above are posts from InEugene Real Estate’s Facebook page.
Fogelson wanted to be at the heart of the community, but his firm had to be about more than just him. He would also bring on board additional real estate agents who shared his vision of service and community. Fogelson is the sole owner, but “every agent is encouraged and welcomed to craft the brand along with me, welcome to bring their good energy into what we’re building together.”
Growth, change, and low inventory
Working from the heart and focusing on the community doesn’t grant immunity from growing pains. As Fogelson looks to increase his staff of agents from four to seven, he is navigating personnel and technology changes, while building and leading an engaged, effective team. That’s no easy task in an industry where agents work as independent contractors, and where intricate paper trails make it challenging to effectively manage process and customer relationships.
“Part of the plan about having a brokerage and being a leader of professionals for the first time in my life, was going to involve the systems necessary for running a successful business in the real estate industry,” says Fogelson. “Learning the depth of operational systems—such as digital file management software—the ability to quickly communicate with multiple agents, monitoring multiple files in a supervisory capacity. That kind of structure wasn’t employed at the small office I used to work at. Finding myself in a more sophisticated environment is a growing experience.”
Evaluating and onboarding the right tools for InEugene Real Estate has motivated Fogelson to turn to his colleagues elsewhere in the community and industry. He relies on his network for advice, then analyzes their successes and mistakes to inform how he can put new systems, processes, and personnel to work at InEugene Real Estate.
“As a small, boutique brokerage, bringing on new agents, while ultimately designed to be fruitful, takes energy and oversight,” says Fogelson. “As we grow, there will be a more formal structure of transactional support beyond what we have already. This could involve anything from full-time receptionists to transaction managers, and additional help from newer agents,” who would train alongside seasoned agents on the ins and outs of technical systems and the relationships, process, and psychology underlying real estate transactions.
Fogelson is also navigating external challenges. In January 2017, the Eugene/Springfield area had the second-lowest level of residential real estate inventory in the country. Fogelson certainly feels that pinch, but he also sees it as reinforcing the importance of education and service to buyers and sellers and focusing on what can connect a person to the right home.
“We’re trying to get as many listings as possible. That low inventory requires you to educate your buyer very clearly about what it takes to get a house of any kind,” says Fogelson. “Sometimes it takes resilience and dogheadedness to keep going forward when something hasn’t worked out once or twice. It almost always takes expediency and a willingness to put some aspects of life aside when an important task comes up that’s relevant to serving a client.”
“Sometimes it takes resilience and dogheadedness to keep going forward when something hasn’t worked out once or twice.” ― Ben Fogelson
Advice for real estate agents and boutique brokerages
Real estate agents who want to find both happiness and success can look beyond the big national brokerages. Knowing what they want out of life and business is key—as is the freedom to call your own shots.
There’s another essential ingredient, though. Working through the procedural complexity of any real estate transaction is about more than swapping out “for sale” with “sold” on a yard sign.
Create a sense of place and family
Fogelson wants to help people find their homes in the community that is his home, and that is the key to his business.
“I was born here, and I think that’s integrated into the brand,” says Fogelson. “Planting my flag in the midst of my family base was an integral part. I care deeply about being in the middle of my family, be they friends or biological family. That strikes me as important enough to center my life around it. That belief, that instinct, is correlated to the brand I created and helps inform my agents in regards to our clients’ motivations.”
Build a high-performing team that understands your values
“When I meet with someone, I want to feel that the words that come to mind are attentive, caring, intelligent, happy, healthy, self-starters, have the ability to push through a difficult circumstance or a disappointment while staying positive and still caring for those around them,” explains Fogelson.
“When I speak with a prospective real estate agent about the possibility of coming on here, all my antennae are poised to try to pick up signals as best as I can identify them as being correlated with those attributes.”
The right clients will come on board with agents who earn their trust and will protect their interests
“When it comes to protecting our clients, doing everything we can to achieve our clients’ goals, our agents are tireless and exemplary,” says Fogelson. “Sometimes it takes walking in and meeting us, working with us, before a client necessarily knows that. That sets us apart.”
Focus on the client getting the right house—no matter what
“Real estate agents have a mediocre reputation, not too unlike attorneys. We wind up being middlemen. Some people don’t know how many nuances and subtle cues that we act on in protective manners to keep our clients safe,” says Fogelson.
“We act in ways to help clients achieve their goals, and we work pretty hard. An agent may work with someone for a year, then the client finds a FSBO [For Sale By Owner] but the seller won’t pay a real estate agent. You have to wash your hands and make it clear you care about the client getting the house they love, no matter what. I make it clear with my agents that if they want to work here, that’s what they do too.”
Satisfied clients will spread the word (but nicely ask them to anyway)
“We’re trying to increase the number of clients served. We do that by serving the clients we have as well as we can, to capitalize on the human tendency to spread good experiences by word of mouth,” says Fogelson.
“Also, through other marketing arrangements, we remind people—in as pleasant a way as possible—that we exist, and we will care deeply for their process should they trust us with it.”
Switch from paper file models to digital file management
Real estate has traditionally been grounded in lots and lots of paper. Now, agencies are facing hard transitions to digital and online tools. Smart brokerages will go digital from the start.
“It was going to be more efficient in every way to utilize digital file management,” says Fogelson.
Grow strategically, not quickly
Building reputation, growing a client base, and adding more agents has all been possible not by growing as fast and as big as possible, but by staying true to InEugene Real Estate’s boutique model of making sure that agents and customers are right for each other.
“I didn’t need to grow too fast,” says Fogelson. “Growing too fast was something to be wary of, because it would only be through slow and careful selection that I would create the base of human resources, the base of our agents, to be the quality of character that I need to represent the brand that I believe in.”
Trust your decisions and stay true to your plan
Even once your brokerage has survived its startup days, there will be challenges and growing pains both planned and unanticipated. You might doubt yourself and your business plan. Check in with your network, refresh yourself on your business plan, and above, all believe in the foundation you’ve built and your vision for the future.
“Peers encouraged me to stay true to my vision, keep making good decisions, and trust my decision-making process,” says Fogelson. “That has been helpful.”
Follow your heart
“There will be challenges,” says Fogelson. “If it’s meant to be, if you want to do it badly enough and take care of as many of the elements as possible that are part of the whole, then you’ll have a good chance at succeeding.”
A reality that matches the vision
As Fogelson plans for the continued growth of InEugene Real Estate, he also thinks about where he hopes to be in a few years.
“I want to enjoy memories of the people we’ve served and I want to enjoy memories of how my family was served,” he says. “I want memories of happy clients who’ve been guided and protected through to getting the home that makes them feel safe, fulfilled, and happy.”
“I want memories of happy clients who’ve been guided and protected through to getting the home that makes them feel safe, fulfilled, and happy.” ― Ben Fogelson
With the brokerage adding more agents, there is the potential that Fogelson will add multiple offices and brokerages. No matter how the firm grows, he is determined to stay true to his core values of service and community.
“When I started, I saw myself as wanting to have a small office of extremely happy, healthy, intelligent, caring individuals working as real estate agents with me,” says Fogelson. “That’s precisely where I find myself. I didn’t have the capacity to understand just how good and caring these people would be working alongside me. They bring so much good energy to working with our clients. That was a great hope of mine, and reality has matched that.”