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Founder Diaries: Real Estate Is Failing Its Agents – Could This Startup Help?

Entry 1 – December 2022

Why This Founder Believes Community Support Can Save Realtors from Burnout 

Rachel White entered the real estate industry enthusiastic and determined to succeed. 

Eighteen months later, working grueling hours for little pay, she realized selling real estate was not the dream career she’d imagined it would be. 

By mid-2018, Rachel was clocking 12-hour shifts and fielding client calls day and night. Long commutes and endless viewings rarely ended with a sale. She lost time with her husband and two kids, stretching herself thin as she struggled to earn worthwhile commissions. 

“I hit this low point in my real estate career because it was so much work for such little pay. And then I had this client who needed a lot of hand-holding from me. I realized I had to stop doing real estate or pivot to something different,” Rachel says.

“That’s when I thought of UNLOCKDBOX. It was out of this sheer desperation and frustration with the real estate industry. I’m always in the category of mind that you don’t quit and you don’t fail. You pivot because there’s always going to be another way.”

Rather than abandon her career, Rachel chose to help those like her who felt overwhelmed by the job’s demands. She imagined UNLOCKDBOX as an app that helps realtors outsource tasks like showings and open houses to other agents. Newer agents could find easy work while veterans lightened their workload and expanded their network. 

As a 28-year-old mother of two in a male-dominated industry, you might say the odds were against Rachel from the start. In 18 months, she’d fought from novice to veteran agent with little to show for it other than a bad case of burnout. It didn’t seem fair.  

Other people might’ve quit. But Rachel applied her industry knowledge to develop an app for agents trying to break into real estate. Follow along as we chronicle Rachel’s journey to change real estate agent relationships on an industry-wide level. 

How an Invitation Changed Rachel’s Life

Before starting her real estate career, Rachel grew up working in her family’s restaurant in Woodland Hills, California. When she was old enough to wash dishes and wait tables, Rachel began learning the ins and outs of running a business.

“I grew up in the restaurant world and learned every aspect of the business, from making the food to bookkeeping to managing customers and employees twice my age,” Rachel says. “It built a strong foundation for who I am and how I approach life and business.” 

Her parents bought Rib Ranch BBQ in the 1970s and turned it into a “celebrity hole in the wall” on their dollar. They’d never sacrificed autonomy for investment, which Rachel felt made their success all the more impressive. She would later bootstrap UNLOCKDBOX too.  

After graduating high school, Rachel continued working for the family restaurant while studying psychology part-time and raising her newborn son. By the time her daughter was born in 2015, Rachel was ready to pursue a long-term career. She had no idea she’d end up in real estate until her mother-in-law invited her to cofound a real estate business. 

“I didn’t have any background in real estate and hadn’t bought any myself. But I knew I wanted to buy a house one day for my kids, so I jumped in,” Rachel says. “This is real-world mom stuff, but when my daughter was about one year old, I remember nursing her and studying for my real estate tests simultaneously, just trying to get it done anyway I could.”

When Dreams Bleed Into Burnout 

Rachel passed her exams and started working with her mother-in-law full-time. She couldn’t wait to explore this new career and provide more income for her growing family. 

But after hitting rock bottom a year and a half later, Rachel couldn’t follow the “traditional” real estate path anymore. She either quit the industry and returned to the restaurant or tried “one more pivot.” 

“For me, entrepreneurship is all about creativity and looking at things from a new perspective. So if you feel stuck, down, or like your idea isn’t working, look at it from a new angle. Get a piece of paper and start scribbling ideas and mock-up designs,” Rachel says. “No matter the industry, there’s something cathartic and creative about putting pen to paper.”

Rachel’s brainstorming led to a task marketplace for real estate agents. She hoped UNLOCKDBOX would reduce agents’ workloads while helping real estate grads forge industry connections, especially those unable to attend every networking event or office meeting. 

“With a toddler and an infant, I couldn’t always make those office meetings where you meet other agents. I felt like I was missing out, and I thought there had to be a digital version of this. A way that people could talk, meet other agents, offer services, get help, etcetera,” Rachel says. “There had to be a way to connect my real estate experience and restaurant management chaos. I wanted to make sense of it and put something together to help people.”

An Untraditional Approach to Tech 

Could Rachel turn her vague concept into a viable product? She took business classes at Antioch University’s Scheinfeld Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to find out. Her professor later urged her to enter a competition to pitch UNLOCKDBOX.

“The first money I ever received for UNLOCKDBOX was a few thousand dollars for placing second in that business competition. And I’m still mad that I didn’t get first,” Rachel says. “But that lit a fire under me and helped me pay to code the app.”

Rachel spent the prize money, plus her savings and some investments from her father, on a husband-and-wife coding team from Upwork. As a bootstrapped founder, Rachel worried about the costs of hiring top-notch developers. But the couple charged only $10,000 to build UNLOCKDBOX’s MVP, which Rachel could easily work into her budget. 

She chose not to launch the MVP right away, however. 

Knowing the real estate industry’s resistance to change, Rachel wanted to produce a “near-perfect product” rather than a sloppy mock-up. She had one shot to impress her market and convince people to try the app. 

“For me, and especially in real estate, first impressions matter. Agents don’t have time to test an app that doesn’t work,” Rachel says. “So it was critical I finish the product before releasing it to the world.”

Unlike most founders, who’d quickly launch their MVP and iterate over time, Rachel instead spent those early months refining the MVP. Only once did she show it to people before launch, in 2019, and since then has taken her time to perfect the app for her soft launch last year. 

“Bootstrapping allowed me to take my time with the MVP. If I’d accepted VC funding, I wouldn’t have been able to incorporate agents’ feedback. I’d have to answer those VCs first,” Rachel says. “Bootstrapping has allowed me the freedom to listen to the user and build an agent-led product.” 

Over the next several months, Rachel collaborated with her developers to build an App-Store-ready product. But she paused development in 2020 after the pandemic struck. The future of the real estate industry was up in the air as people quarantined and agents started working remotely. 

Rachel returned to work at her family’s restaurant. As a precaution, several employees had quit Rib Ranch BBQ, leaving only Rachel, her sister, and her dad to run it. She alternated between packing takeaway orders and monitoring the real estate industry to see if UNLOCKDBOX could thrive in a post-Covid world. 

Real estate business finally picked up again in early 2021, leading Rachel and her developers to finalize UNLOCKDBOX and prepare it for launch. 

How Do You Grow from a Soft Launch?

Rachel soft-launched UNLOCKDBOX in late 2021. While she’s slowly growing revenue, Rachel’s learned what marketing tactics draw agents in and entice them to use the app. Popular strategies, like Facebook ads, social media, and SEO, didn’t work as well as word-of-mouth and networking. People are still slow to adapt to digital marketing in real estate, with less than 30 percent of customers trusting search engines, websites, or social media1.

Part of the fun for Rachel has been evaluating which strategies complement UNLOCKDBOX best.  

“When you start a business, it’s all trial and error, figuring out what’s going to work and what’s not. We’ve found that relationship marketing and networking work well for us,” Rachel says. “We tried traditional marketing, and it didn’t work for our industry. Instead, we try to create relationships and meaningful partnerships with people in the industry who have the reach. That’s when all these other doors have opened.” 

Said doors have allowed Rachel to introduce three monetization methods. The first opened UNLOCKDBOX to real estate brokers who pay to whitelabel the app. The second requires agents to pay a small commission to UNLOCKDBOX each time they complete a task, like Uber collecting payment after each ride. And the third method is a simple credit card fee that adds to Rachel’s revenue.

Once Rachel solidifies her industry relationships and updates UNLOCKDBOX’s tech to support more customers, she’ll be ready for a big launch. But she’s in no rush, knowing her patience will pay off. While VC-backed founders might find more immediate success, Rachel is happy that she’s signed up a few thousand customers through her labors alone. 

“There are some hardships to being bootstrapped. I’ll go on LinkedIn and see that this person got thirty million or that person got this many million. And as a bootstrapper, it makes you think you’re inferior to these people and the real estate industry as a whole,” Rachel says. “Especially since real estate tech is male-dominant. There is not a lot of VC money or support in general for women in real estate tech.” 

Despite Rachel’s early struggles to break into the field, she’s passionate about helping real estate professionals build rewarding careers. Her ultimate goal with UNLOCKDBOX isn’t just to earn more money in the industry but to give budding agents a start in their careers. 

“I didn’t want other people to struggle like I did, to have the hurdles I experienced in real estate. I worked my ass off in real estate, but it didn’t always show financially,” Rachel says. “And that’s my driving force: to create more opportunities for people to not only get into real estate but also to stay there. I want to get creative with the traditional model of what it looks like and bend it in new ways for people to be successful.”

To find out if Rachel’s industry partnerships have increased the number of customers on the app, tune in next month for her latest Founder Diary update. 

Sources

1 Consumer trust in advertising by media UK 2022 | Statista


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Leanne Stahulak
Leanne Stahulak
Leanne’s love of books inspired her to become an author at a young age. Though she began as a creative writer, Leanne also built up her skills and experience in journalism at Miami University. After graduating with three degrees, she now tells founder stories at Bootstrappers and writes about growth and entrepreneurship for MicroAcquire.

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