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Venturing Out

by Daniel Rome Levine

Thinking of taking the leap and leaving a franchise to start your own real estate business? Three Women's Council members share their most valuable tips for ensuring success when you go it alone.

Living in Las Vegas, a city where people take risks every day, Melissa Zimbelman, PMN, was gambling in early 2010 when she left a secure job at a large franchise to start her own real estate brokerage so she could focus more on property management and be able to better influence the direction of her own business. 

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She made sure to minimize her risk by putting together a business plan and carefully thought through each step she would take on her way to independence. One of her top priorities was ensuring her new brand would be distinctive and instantly recognizable. 

"If I was going to walk away from a franchise, I wanted to make sure everything about my new business was dynamic and looked really well put together," she says. "I knew that would give me better credibility."

She designed all her marketing materials, from business cards to signs to her website, in chocolate brown and gold colors, and she hired a graphic artist to design an eye-catching logo in all gold capital letters.

Coming from a luxury franchise, Zimbelman retained her link to that segment of the market by naming her new business LUXE International Realty. "You need to be very cognizant of picking a brand name that is going to be attractive, interesting and easy for people to remember," Zimbelman advises.  

Even though she saw other independent agents naming their new brokerages after themselves, she knew that would narrow her options if she ever decided to sell. "Your name shouldn't be the brand," she says. "This makes your exit strategy extremely limited."

Zimbelman's focus on branding paid off. Her business is booming. She and her husband, a fellow REALTOR® and partner in her brokerage, have added three administrative staff members, two additional agents and are managing nearly 200 properties. 

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In Syosset, NY, Marilyn Urso, GREEN, GRI, PMN, SRES, who started Long Island Village Realty with her husband 18 years ago, advises agents going out on their own to painstakingly plan through every aspect of their new business before taking the leap. 

"You can't take long enough to really think out every piece of what you are going to be doing," she says.

One of the most important aspects to consider, she says, is choosing the right business model. "I wish I had had the options that are available today because I might not have gone to the expense and stress of running my own office," she says.

Urso advises agents to think about renting a small office space in an executive suite where multiple businesses share a full-time receptionist and don't have to worry about expensive utility payments and other overhead costs. 

Or, she says, agents should consider one of the growing number of residential brokerage firms with alternative business models, such as those that let agents keep all of their commissions in exchange for a monthly fee. "The beauty of this is you're essentially running your own business, but you’re not responsible for every aspect of it," she says. 

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When Sherri Souza, CRS, GRI, PMN, of Livermore, CA, left a big regional broker to start her own company earlier this year, she opted to work out of a home office, although she did make arrangements with a local lender to be able to use his conference room for client meetings. 

The danger in working out of a home office, just as it is in renting your own stand-alone office space, is becoming isolated and losing touch with the outside world. "Real estate is a face-to-face business," says Souza, owner of Independent Women Brokers, "and you have to get out there and meet not only clients but also people who can help you do better business."

Souza stays in touch by attending as many real estate meetings and functions in her area as possible. One of the most valuable is a weekly marketing meeting organized by her local association where agents present listings, get updates on market trends and hear from relevant speakers. 

"This gives me a real connection to the community and provides valuable networking time with other agents," Souza says. "I try not to let anything get in the way of attending these meetings."

Leaving a franchise to start your own business can seem like a daunting step, but if you carefully plan ahead, focus on effective branding and make sure to never stop networking, you can achieve happiness as well as financial success. Just ask Sherri Souza, who was handing over an annual average of 30 percent of her pay to her broker in the years prior to going on her own.  

"I'm very happy now taking home those 100-percent paychecks," she says. "This makes much more sense to me and helped me stay in the real estate business."

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