Jessica Abo: Zev, you grew up on a farm and you’re one of nine kids. What can you tell us about that?
Growing up on the farm in a big family, for the most part, was a very good experience. It taught me a lot of life lessons. I had to take care of younger siblings. I would go fishing in the morning before I caught the bus to school. I’d tried to catch enough fish to feed all eleven of us and being one of the older ones, that fell on me. I’d collect the eggs and milk the cows before I went to school. It definitely was the foundation of my work ethic.
You went on to get your first minimum-wage job when you were 19. How did that job play a role in the business person that you are today?
I did not go to university. I went straight to work. I always knew, and my parents always knew, even before I knew, that I was a computer person. Computers were just getting started. I remember my first computer, my grandma bought it for me when I was a teenager. It was one of those things you connect to your TV and I couldn’t do much with it, but I was fascinated by it. And I think it was just a given that I was going to go into technology, but I didn’t know anything. So I got a minimum wage job, but it was in the field that I was interested in. I was literally packing boxes for a computer component manufacturer. The guy sitting next to me would test the parts before I put them in the box and I’d watch what he did. And then when he quit, I pulled the boss aside and I said, “I could do that,” and I did. And then when they needed a network — this was the early days of networking — and nobody knew how to do it, I said, “I’ll try. I’ll read the book, I’ll figure it out.” And I taught myself. I had to prove myself over and over again — more so than most because I didn’t have the credentials. But I think that’s a good thing because I would take the manuals home at night and read them. That’s what I did when I got home from work because I wanted to learn.
How did you move from the technology industry to real estate?
I had already been investing in real estate as a part-time investor for myself. I owned just a few residential rental properties and I was working for a large American company. I was traveling all over the world and I had a pretty busy schedule. After seven years of doing that, I realized that my dreams of building a real estate portfolio had been put on the back burner. So I decided to quit my job and just focus on real estate. And since people had been picking my brain for years about real estate, I figured I could earn a commission for answering those questions and that would allow me to stay in real estate and then I wouldn’t have to choose between my career and my investment goals.
Zev, how did your background in technology influence the way that you approached the real estate industry?
Real estate was really one of the last industries to get transformed by the internet. But I understood from the beginning that everything was going to go online. I put together a website. I started doing some search engine optimization (SEO) and generating leads. Then I would get a lead off the internet. I would talk to them, I’d get them in my car, I’d take them out to the country clubs. I’d show them multimillion-dollar houses that were not listed by me but listed by other people, just a member of the MLS. I’d have them just look at the listings, show them houses, represent the buyer, and get paid commission from the listing agent and do it again. As they say, the rest is history. It’s a blur from there. Ten years later, I had 250 agents doing and $25 million of commission a year.
You sold that brokerage, which is not a typical move. How did you do that?
What was different for me was that I built it all on technology. 50% of all of my agents’ business came from leads that I provided. So when you have a value proposition for an agent that is, “I will double your business” and you do that, but that increase in business doesn’t go with you if you leave, then they’re going to stay, even if it’s under new ownership. As long as the value proposition continues.
It’s been several years since you sold that brokerage. What made you want to get back in the game and start ZFC Real Estate?
In all the years since I sold, I haven’t found a more interesting business than this, and I see that the same basic principles that I founded my first company on still exist. The same number of people go to Google every month and search for real estate in Boca Raton as they did then. The competition is more difficult now because my competitors have caught up with me over the years, and there are a lot of good websites out there now. The industry is basically run by a few big brokerages, but there is absolutely a need for a boutique firm. A lot of agents prefer to work that way.
Speaking of the agents, what advice do you have for someone who wants to become a real estate agent?
I think it’s important, when you’re new, to join a company that will give you clients one way or another, whether it’s lead generation, that’s fine, or maybe you join a team as an assistant. Some agents have 50, or 75 listings at a time, and so every day they have back to back to back showings and they can’t do them all. It’s more than one person can handle. So they hire newbies and they say, “Okay, go to this house. Open the door, let them in.” It’s like being thrown into the deep end. You’ll learn really fast. The only way to learn is to do it. It’s hard to get your opportunity. So one way or another, join a firm that would get you out with clients quickly, not wait for you to find them.