As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Serhant.
He is one of the most successful and well-known real estate brokers in the world. After a decade leading the team that became New York City’s #1 ranked residential real estate team, he founded SERHANT., a multi-faceted brokerage that leverages media, education, entertainment, tech and bold marketing to sell real estate. Today, Ryan is the CEO/ founder and broker at SERHANT., the most followed brand in real estate, a distinction that’s been earned by pioneering how real estate is sold using social media. Over the course of his career, Ryan has sold over $4 billion in real estate and is known for breaking market records. Ryan is an innovator, entrepreneur, producer, public speaker, author of two books, creator of the Sell it Like Serhant digital education platform to teach others how to succeed in sales, and he is the star of multiple Bravo TV shows.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I was born in Texas, but I grew up outside the Boston area and bounced around a lot. Early on, I had a passion for theater, but my parents were very sports-focused, so while I played different sports, theater was my favorite activity.
I attended Hamilton College in NY, and when I graduated, I had the mindset that I’d rather regret the things I did than the things I never tried, so I moved to New York City with the dream of becoming an actor — something I knew had slim odds. I gave it my best, but I essentially wasn’t making any money, so in 2008, I had to find a ‘real job’ to pay the bills. When a friend recommended I look into Real Estate, I was immediately sold, because he said you just have memorize information and talk to people — so I applied my theatrical training to my new job.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
My parents always made sure we understood the value of work and understood how to take care of ourselves. My brother and I had to figure everything out ourselves whenever we had issues, so we started to act like adults before we were actually adults. At times I didn’t like that, but it set me up for where I am today, because I’ve always had to be completely independent.
My dad led our house by example. He taught us to always be open to opportunity… the idea that you never know what can come from saying “yes.” People really tend to overthink — they’re action thinkers, where they have to think about something before doing it. I try to be an action taker, whether it’s a book, sales course, a new Bravo show, I always just go for it, especially now in the 2020’s, anything is possible.
I’ve been inspired by other people who have started their own businesses, such as Phil Knight at Nike, Steve Jobs at Apple, and Elon Musk at Tesla. They all took an idea and started something of their own.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Making mistakes and getting feedback is the only way we learn and get better, so I invite those experiences. I’ve had so many lessons in my life, that I put them all together, and wrote Big Money Energy, my second book, which includes a lot of sticky situations I’ve learned from.
When I was first starting out, I had a client interested in seeing a listing on the Upper East Side, and I got confused on east versus west. I took them to see a property and they loved it, but at the end, they asked why we were on the Upper West Side and I realized I took them to the wrong side of the city. I played it off and said it was just good to see the other options that are out there. I learned from that. You learn that you need to always double check the details. Also, it is good to show people options outside of their original request because it helps to see what else is out there and for price discovery, but you also need to know and learn more about the neighborhoods and the market than your clients.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are so many people that helped SERHANT. become a reality. I really need to thank my team, especially Yolanda Mui and Jen Alese.
Everyone who helped build the brokerage while amid a global pandemic, and while I was writing my new book, Big Money Energy. Yolanda and Jen built the team and redefined new development sales during a pandemic and quarantine, working 80-hour weeks.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
My journey started as a struggling actor in New York City. It’s well known that I had hard times and they lasted a while. I didn’t have money, I lived in a tiny apartment in Koreatown and shared a bathroom with a bunch of roommates, which was not an ideal living situation. At that time, I was taking hand modeling gigs and then I’d run to the office and put up ads for rental listings. From 2008–2009 in my real estate job, I’d be going to meet clients who either wouldn’t show up to the meetings or if they did, they didn’t represent themselves or their interests accurately, which made it very difficult to succeed. I had to make ends meet with odd jobs.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
My back was up against a wall, I had to either figure it out or fail and go home and admit defeat, which wasn’t an option for me. I was motivated by many things, but I was very driven to be able to stay living in NYC and to support myself and make it on my own. I put a lot of pressure on myself. Succeeding had always been plan A and it didn’t matter if that was through theater, hand modeling, or showing apartments; I just had to succeed at whatever it was that I chose to pursue. This is why when I give advice to people, I encourage them to “find success first.” It may not be in the career you are in today, but find it where you can.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
For me, it’s been grit, resilience, taking some bold risks, and bravery to try new things that led me to success and to this day, helps me to evolve, innovate and create new things. Coronavirus hit in early 2020 and New York became the epicenter. Everything shut down on March 22, 2020 and all the deals we had in the works, either froze or died. A million people picked up and left New York, which was very scary while I was trying to launch a real estate brokerage… in the city that people were leaving. If there’s one thing I’ve learned: you don’t bet against New York. I hunkered down with my team and we focused on building the brokerage with the confidence that the housing market would bounce back — and we focused on New York. We launched SERHANT. in September 2020.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We never had to pivot for the digital age. We haven’t run a print ad in six years, and we’ve always sold through social media and video. We’ve done over $1.4 billion in sales leveraging social media and video.
We are the most followed real estate brand in the industry because years ago, we created the first-ever full-service, in-house film studio solely dedicated to making property videos. We have the full production studio, in-house branding and marketing team, and we have fostered a well-trained, tech-forward sales force through our digital education platform that is now has 6,000 agents in it globally and has created a mass referral network for all our agents.
One agent in our network lives in Australia, and when NYC in quarantine was constantly on TV, she received interest from a real estate investor in Australia who saw opportunity and was interested in buying in New York. We represented him 100% virtually through our in-house studio team via Zoom and FaceTime and he ended up buying a property for $5.2 million.
This story helps demonstrate how we are uniquely positioned to sell in the 2020s, but it also shows how starting a new company under extreme conditions isn’t bad, it’s good: you innovate from the start.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
This is what I would call schedule and surround. For schedule, I make sure to protect Saturday as a day that is fully “off” as much as possible. I defend that day at all costs and spend time with my wife and baby and regroup. It’s my day to reconnect and relax.
One of the best and most consistent recommendations from CEOs is the need to have great people around you. You need to surround yourself and your company with the best people: passionate, smart, motivated. This helps, but I find what really makes the difference is if you trust them enough to truly delegate. Yes, they need to be so good that you can let go and really focus on what’s uniquely in your job as CEO to do. You can’t do everything, so to avoid burnout, and being a bottleneck, get your bench of executives empowered and fired up.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
This past year, we focused on giving back in an authentic and creative way, turning the spotlight on more diverse real estate brokers and on educating the next generation of agents. We created a YouTube series called Listed, which is an entire channel of entertaining shows created with entertaining, lifestyle content and featuring diverse brokers.
We also wanted to promote both doing good and living in New York City. We hosted the first annual #FreeYearNYC contest, that generated more than 28,000 entries, highlighting different people who drive positive change in society. We ultimately chose Sam Bencheghib, co-founder of Make A Change World, an environmental media outlet that uncovers uplifting and inspirational stories on a mission to do good. He recently finished running 3,000 miles across America, in shoes made from 11 plastic bottles, to raise awareness about the growing problem of plastic pollution in our oceans. We gifted him with an apartment in New York for a year so he could change the world and expand his perspective by living in this great city.
As the holidays approached, we wanted to give back, so we created a campaign called 7 Days of Giving, where we invested nearly $20,000 and were able to reach over 80 people with impromptu gifts. As part of this initiative, we gifted 30 weekly metro cards to New Yorkers, paid for people’s groceries, gifted delivery cyclists $100 gift cards, supplied lunch to local hospital staff, paid people’s rent and more.
The tagline of SERHANT. is Your Success. Amplified. It’s a promise to our clients and employees, but it’s also a purpose that I try to live by and help others succeed.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
I founded a luxury residential real estate brokerage during a pandemic. We did $50M in our first 3 months and we will be doing $50 million per month soon. I led the #1 residential real estate sales team in New York with $4 billion total in sales but being a CEO and founder of a new company is decidedly different.
- Costs compound. You have to always choose between pacing and racing. You need to look far ahead. Your today is about planning what will be profitable 3–6 months from now.
- The people are the company. Employees are choosing their employers based on culture right now so focusing on being very innovative with your employee experience is just as important as reinventing your client experience if you are hiring to achieve growth.
- Share the mic. We are changing the industry with workplace ideas, from our new flagship office, the departments we have, including our in-house film studio and online, digital course. We also launched a YouTube series to promote diverse brokers and their properties. I don’t think the CEO is the star of the show, so we spend time giving others a platform and promoting others’ success. We help to amplify our employees’ expertise and turn it into compelling content. We are the most followed real estate brand in the world and it’s happening because of the stories we tell, the studio we created and platforms we share.
- The brand comes first. If no one knows about your company, you’re not going to have success. Invest in building and promoting your brand — and all of its facets. You need awareness and relevance and meaning to have a positive reputation. Look at and work on all of those dimensions.
- Be prepared and brave enough to evolve. Things don’t always go according to plan so you need to be flexible and move fast in the market to overcome any obstacles you may face. From my point of view, there are no brick walls, just bumps in the road.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
It’s important to me that my team and the agents I work with are given the resources and platform they need to grow and create compelling content. One of the best ways to grow is to have a dynamic team that can be change agents on their own. I always believed in giving others big responsibilities, but now, I have to do it and it’s both gratifying and paying off.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I would agree with you. I think that making mistakes and getting feedback is the only way we really learn and get better, and I actually welcome those mistakes and experiences. I took a lot of the mistakes I made and lessons I learned and put them into my book, Big Money Energy, to help others.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
To bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, I’d put into action doing a random act of kindness each day. If everyone bought a burger for the person behind them, or really stopped to help someone in need, everyone would start to give more, and doing good starts a positive and impactful chain reaction.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Follow along with Ryan and SERHANT. on social media: @serhant, @ryanserhant on all channels. Also, check out Listed on YouTube.