Darren Johnson:  I started as an ISA. Essentially, I worked on a dialer, cold calling people with adjustable mortgages who might need to refinance. My job was to sit on the phone system and call several hundred homeowners per night to interest them in refinancing.  A handful would express interest, and on those I would gather their information in a mini 1003 loan application including their social security number. At that point they would qualify as a lead and I would transfer them to a loan officer who would take it from there and hopefully turn it into a loan.

As a call center worker I was making $10.00 an hour, which was a pretty good wage as I believe the minimum wage was $6.75 at the time.   But loan officers were making very good money, and I wanted to advance my career.  So I approached a top producing loan officer in my office and made a deal with him, On my own time I made lead producing calls for him for free.  In exchange he mentored me on the essentials of the loan officer position.   He taught me how to originate and process loans through to completion, including all of the technology and document gathering that goes into the process.  Within a relatively short time I was on my own as a loan officer.  Not only did I gain new and valuable skills, I learned the value of collaboration with others for mutual benefit.  I now do this sort of collaboration regularly in my business. 

I was flying high at a relatively young age but then the financial markets crashed taking housing down with them.  With so much equity vanishing overnight, loan markets seized up causing a bloodbath in the mortgage business.  I worked for a couple of different mortgage companies in the aftermath of the crash but they went out of business.  Rather than flounder or live off unemployment insurance as so many others did during those difficult times, I caught on as a sales rep with Verizon, and in the evenings studied marketing at San Diego State.  Those courses gave me a great grounding in the ins and outs of media buys and positioning companies to succeed in very competitive and crowded markets. 

I began my own professional recovery by catching on with Homes.com as a sales representative. My job there was to cold call real estate agents and sell them a website, impression based marketing or social media management. In our first 30 days of training, I actually out produced the entire floor of reps, including the senior reps. I got in more revenue than the rest of the 70 other sales reps that were selling the same services. I had developed a passion for sales while I had been studying marketing. I now understood the value of providing leads to agents who were busy with other things or did not have a knack for generating their own leads.  The work involved dovetailed nicely with my previous experience in real estate.  I think it was at Homes.com that I really figured out that real estate marketing was my passion.

I stayed at Homes.com for well over a year but I wanted more responsibility and that led me to a startup company called My Agent Finder.  They also owned a company called REO Industry Directory and I was brought in as sales director and given the task of hiring and training a sales staff.   I believe I was employee number five.  They’re now known as Agentology, and they are a solid player in the industry.  My staff and I were charged with developing leads, qualifying them and selling them to real estate agents for a referral fee. 

REO Industry Directory was a directory of agents who wanted to do REOs for the huge inventory of bank-owned properties. I maintained responsibility for sales, but now branched out into marketing and development. I helped shape their business model and had a major role in their growth. Part of that growth involved taking on investment capital and when my ideas no longer meshed with those of new stakeholders, I left and struck out on my own.  That’s how Top Agent Connection started.

Top Agent Connection was kind of like a hybrid of what I did at Homes.com and My Agent Finder. We had a directory of agents, a lot of EXO focus. When you Google certain key words, the agent’s profile pops up. We did a lot lead gen and agent matching. The challenge taken on by Top Agent Connection was matching people based on the best fit. As an example, someone might want to sell a home in this zip code. They’re looking to sell within 90 days. They need help with staging. We’re going to match them up with an agent proficient in filling all of those needs. In exchange for providing that lead, we would then collect a referral fee if they successfully connected and sold that client’s property.

From there, AgentZip filled a void in the Top Agent Connection model.  Since Top Agent Connection by definition could only work with the top 5 or 10 percent of agents, the other 90 or 95 percent of agents were left out. I understood that many agents need to get leads at a good price, and a lot them need exclusive leads. With AgentZip, any agent can sign up and choose their zip codes or pick their city. We take it from there and do Facebook marketing, and add a Google marketing affiliate network with a variety of lead sources. Agents reserve their territories and we do all of their marketing. We do all of the funnels and get them exclusive leads.

Gregory Charlop: It sounds like you’ve gone from being an apprentice to being an entrepreneur.

Darren Johnson: Yes.

Gregory Charlop: Since you’re an expert in real estate technology, I’m sure you’re familiar with the sorts of things that are being used now by real estate agents. What kind of tools should real estate agents be using? What technology tools or services should real estate agents be using that they’re not?

Darren Johnson: I think agents need to really utilize technology for both organization and automation. There are $30 a month CRMs, $20 a month CRMs and even free CRMs. There are also $2000 and $3000 a month CRMs. Each agent needs the right the CRM to manage their pipeline.

Secondary to that, they need to have lead sources. Some agents just want to work referrals and that’s fine. Other agents want to work referrals, do lead gen, have people calling and collect data. They really need to utilize automation. If they have a contact, someone who is interested in a home six months ago, there should be drip marketing campaigns on email. There should be text messages going out to those people. They should have chatbots. They should be tracking all of the behavior of their leads and their CRMs should be updating those behaviors, and essentially, nurturing them and then automating the information that they’re gathering. If I go on an agent’s websites, I’m looking at properties.  When I revisit two months later, their CRMs should be logging what they’re doing. The texting back and forth, the emailing.

As for websites, I think every single agent needs to utilize retargeting. If you go on Nike’s website and you start looking at shoes, you’re going to start seeing those shoes follow you on other websites. Both Google display ads and Facebook’s sponsored content use retargeting. I notice a lot of agents don’t re-target their visitors and don’t re-target their data. I think it’s one of the most underused tools out there, and when used it leads to conversions. Personally, I think agents need to emulate the behavior of top companies, all of whom have very well-structured CRMs. Automation replaces busy work because the tracking of users is done by a computer with high levels of precision. Amazon is rapidly joining Google and Amazon in that space too.

Gregory Charlop: A lot of our readers probably aren’t that experienced in setting up technological systems themselves although I think what you’re saying is a great recommendation. How would you recommend someone who doesn’t know how to this, go about doing it? Should they hire someone to do it? Are there companies that do everything for them? How would that work?

Darren Johnson: There are companies that do everything for them. You can go on Craigslist, on Fiverr, on Upwork and find people that do it. There are a number of companies that do it. There are local kids that do it. If you even start googling how to set up a Facebook ad for real estate agents you will soon be followed by marketers saying, “Hey, I can do it for you.”  Any agent that just starts looking into it is likely to begin seeing ads from the people who are experts at it. If an agent is tech savvy, there’s tons of resources online to set up retargeting. There is tons of content out there on building Facebook ads, including YouTube videos. There are also groups on Facebook in a variety of areas.

Personally, I think most agents don’t have the time to learn all this stuff because it is complex. Even learning it takes a lot of money with the trial and error. It makes sense to hire someone to do it because they’ve already gone through it. A thousand dollars paying an expert marketer will get you higher results than a thousand dollars learning it yourself because an expert will always do a better job and knows how to get more clicks, more leads, and better results because they’ve already gone through the experience. I would recommend, that if an agent has time, yes, learn it but I would hire a professional to do it because it will save time and money and get you better results anyways.

Gregory Charlop: Good advice. What are your thoughts about technological products on the horizon? Are there things that aren’t quite out yet or maybe things that have recently been released? Any particular products you’re excited about?

Darren Johnson: For sure; one is Alexa, which was a data reporting company before Amazon acquired it. Amazon just said now they’re getting into the ad space too.  I saw this coming when they acquired Alexa. People have these devices at home that log all the conversations they have pulling out keywords. Now the’re branching into ad delivery. Google’s already doing it with Google’s voice sync, but there will be many more opportunities for very targeted ad opportunities for agents. Big companies are going to be using this stuff and essentially selling the leads to agents too. Again, if an agent is a marketing expert or hires someone that is, these opportunities are huge. If they want to learn it on their own, learn on your own but understand the potential and the importance of getting into this space.   If a husband and wife discuss selling their home, a device like Alexa will pick it up for Amazon or Google, whatever company that is at the end of that device.  You want to be in on that as it is a huge opportunity to get that customer. 

All the data collection going on with supercookies and marketing is getting better and better. I think agents really need to understand that it’s not just Zillow anymore, it’s not just the portals. Google, Facebook, Amazon, these companies already know who’s looking to buy a house, who’s looking to sell and you can skip the portals and all that and go directly to them. Having your own website, your own funnels, your own landing pages will be a key for agents to get leads. More importantly, they’re not going to have to share them with 10 other agents.

Gregory Charlop: Excellent. That said, those are great technologies. I can imagine it must a little spooky if you’re speaking to your spouse about moving and then the next minute you got an email or a message about that. I think, probably, we’re starting to get more accepting of that.

Darren Johnson: They’re very conscious of that. You don’t really get an email or message about it, it’s just ads that start coming up.  I think I saw a video about this too. Someone just kept saying cat food, cat food, cat food into their phone and they started getting ads for cat food. If you just keep on typing in cat food on Google, cat food here, you’re going to start getting ads. People are already accustomed to this sort of thing happening. They don’t know exactly why it’s happening, of course it’s data collection, but I think people are pretty used to the ads that they see online as well as the commercials they see before they watch a video on YouTube. It’s all stuff that they’ve been looking up and they’re interested in.

It’s crazy that, for example, I sit on my computer and I’m always typing in buying, selling a home. I’m always looking at keywords. I’m always looking at real estate stuff and I get ads from companies like my company that sells leads. I very rarely get ads from the individual agent. If I’m in my zip code because all of Google, Facebook, they all know what zip code you live in. They know what zip code you work in. If I’m looking at selling a home, I should be getting ads from local agents too. I should be having this virtual billboard in front of me. It’s almost insane that agents are spending money on bus benches and billboards when the online ones are so much more effective because you drive by a billboard, you’re not stop and write down their phone number. You’re just having the impression, you’re seeing John Smith over and over.

Whereas online where you have an online billboard, you can click on that and that’s where the technology kicks in. If I’m looking at selling a home, I see an agent’s face and I click on their ad. I go to their website. I fill out a lead form. I should start getting emails drips, I should get text message drips from that agent. I should get retargeting ads. I should keep seeing that agent over and over. At that point, it’s a no brainer in terms of which agent I’m going to hire because I keep seeing them everywhere. That kind of marketing technology organizes the drips and the funnels and flows.  Agents who get in on and use this technology are going to crush it. The brokerages aren’t doing that for them as far as this sort of marketing, the agent’s responsible for doing it on their own.

Gregory Charlop: It seems like the agents are leaving a lot of money on the table.

Darren Johnson: A lot.

Gregory Charlop: Have you, changing gears a little bit. What are your thoughts about virtual or augmented reality in real estate? Does that something that is ready for prime time now or you think will be used in the future or you just don’t really see that catching on?

Darren Johnson: Absolutely.

Darren Johnson: You know companies like Matterport. VR will be big. A lot of devices aren’t VR ready. You must have a more robust system with respect to computers. Cell phones are ready for it. Real estate will be huge for that. Think of the overseas investor.  He doesn’t want to fly and see a bunch of different homes. If he can just go through and virtual tour all the homes, he’s saving himself plane trips and all that. They’re already using virtual tours like Matterport and what not. But absolutely, if someone can be in their living room, going to 30 open houses and not even leave the comfort of their home? Then they can pick out the ones the really, really want and see it in person. Essentially, the buyer’s agent role I think will be completely redefined when VR hits the market and people are receptive to it and using it a lot.

Gregory Charlop: Do you think this is gonna hurt buyer’s agents? Do think it will decrease the need for them?

Darren Johnson: It’s hard to say. With tech, I think it ultimately will. If VR becomes as big of a hit, the bigger it gets, the more it’ll hurt agents. If everyone is into VR and putting on those headsets, you don’t necessarily need a buyer’s agent to show you all these homes, just an agent to show you the homes you really want. I think people need to still physically tour a home because VR’s won’t give you the smell, the sense, the feel you get once you’re in a home but it can save a lot of time driving around cars to open houses, which I don’t think agents enjoy anyway.   

Not getting too sidetracked but I think there are 2 million licensed agents right now and there are 6 million homes sold a year. The numbers are already screwed up there. There are too many agents and you add VR into the mix and people being able to tour homes. What’s the need to hire a buyer’s agent to show you 50 properties when you end up finding the ones you want to see and an agent just shows you those and then helps you negotiate the offer?

Gregory Charlop: I think that there are a lot of companies now that are angling to the niche. They have very minimal agent involvement and they essentially help you, as a buyer, with the paperwork and negotiating the deal. These companies don’t use large numbers of agents.

Darren Johnson: I’m seeing those. Even companies like Top Agent Connection, if someone’s coming directly to us to help find them an agent, that right there shows a need. Our competitor, Homebuy, offers up that. There are some new ones popping up and that also ties back into marketing. Companies like ours are very up to date with tech. We know how to reach these sellers and buyers. A lot of agents aren’t quite aware of utilizing these technologies and furthermore the brokerages, RE/MAX, Keller Williams, et cetera, are not utilizing these technologies as much. There are some smaller brokerages coming up which are. It’s a very, very in-depth conversation with a lot of sides to it, a lot of what ifs. As far as technology replacing the agent, I don’t see that happening any time soon but I do see it in the future eliminating a lot of agents. Agents will need to be technology masters to survive.

Gregory Charlop: I tend to agree with everything you said there. I think the need for agents will decrease and probably just the best ones will survive and those best ones will vacuum up, I think, most of the business.

Darren Johnson: Yeah. We have an over saturation of agents already. This will help correct that. What are the statistics? Something like 90% of agents, their first year, fail. A lot of people get into real estate thinking it’s all glitz and glamour and an easy job and they find out how hard it is. Technology will make that a lot easier. The existing agents are going to need to stay very up to date with technology, immerse themselves in it. I think we’ll see a lot of tech people enter real estate because they understand the technology aspect.

Gregory Charlop: Switching gears a little bit. If you were speaking to a real estate agent or broker today and they wanted to do something similar to you, they wanted to start a startup, start a business in real estate technology, what advice would you give that person?

Darren Johnson: That’s a tough one. Get ready to fail a lot. Embrace your failures. Don’t let it discourage you. You don’t need to have a perfect plan. You need to plan it out but in technology, get ready for things to change very fast. What may be working today, may change tomorrow, so get ready for that. Assemble the right team. Have the right road map. Have the right roles defined. Have a clear vision for what you offer and where you want your growth to be would be my best advice for that. With technology, things change really quick. Any entrepreneur needs to be ready to fail over and over because that will happen. Learn from those failures because you’re going to have more and more wins and those failures will turn into wins.

Gregory Charlop: Similar question. What if an executive from a large real estate firm were to speak to you and ask you for advice about technology. What would you give to a large real estate firm, if they’re corporate board came to you looking for advice?

Darren Johnson: I would have to analyze. I would ask them what advice are you looking for? What part of your business do you need to improve on because it’d be a very loaded question. I would have to look at where the pain is. What they could do better. Their answers to those questions would inform my response.

Gregory Charlop: All right. Very fair. One last question. What is the best way you think for a real estate agent, you mentioned that you thought it was very important for real estate agents to keep up with technology. What do think are the best ways for real estate agents to do that? Are there any books or conferences or podcasts or website that you particularly enjoy or that you’d recommend to a real estate agent who really wants to keep up with and learn technology?

Darren Johnson: There are Facebook groups out there like Lab Coat Agents. There are tons of blogs out there. There are influencers in real estate.  Understand all of these are also monetized by advertising services to you, but a lot of the service they provide is good. There are a lot of free resources out there. It’s on YouTube. It’s on blogs. It’s just a matter of searching what you’re looking for, then reading the content. You can give yourself a master’s education just googling things.

Gregory Charlop: Excellent. Well, thank you so much.

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