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Simple, Easy, and the Starbucks Index

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Easy Is Not Simple

I would write a review of my week in New York City at the Inman Connect conference… except that I was in meetings pretty much all day long, and missed all but one session. I’ll direct you instead to people like Sean Carpenter for a recap.

But I did have a great series of #lobbycon sessions with new friends and old, typically over cocktails, and sometimes on street corners. That made me have one of those “a-ha” moments, which is either a flash of insight or complete idiocy. I figured you guys could tell me which it is.

Simple. Easy. The two are not the same thing. In fact, I think I could make a pretty strong argument that they are actually opposites of each other. That which is simple is rarely easy, and that which is easy is rarely simple.

I had the feeling last week that within real estate, all of the conversation, all of the energy, all of the innovation (to the extent that such is innovative at all) is around Easy. We rarely, if ever, talk about that which is Simple. Because for whatever reason, the Simple is hopelessly unrealistic in our industry.

Allow me to explain by way of introducing a new concept: The Starbucks Index.

The Starbucks Index

This is a concept born of conversations on the streetcorner, after cocktails, with Matthew Shadbolt and Jeffrey Kershner. It is a way of evaluating technology, tools, apps, and techniques. It consists of a single question:

Does this technology/tool/app make me more money than my hanging out at Starbucks for an equivalent amount of time?

If the answer is No, then you should stop using it/doing it. If the answer is Yes, then by all means, you should use it/do it more.

Each individual agent will have a different Starbucks Index, because people are unique, and some personalities work better for the “hang out at Starbucks and talk to random people” than others do. So my thought is that an agent should spend 100 hours over the course of a month or so simply hanging out at Starbucks, going about her daily business, perhaps wearing the REALTOR pin, maybe with a big sign taped to the lid of her laptop, whatever. Then see if that hanging out at Starbucks results in any production. Maybe you struck up a conversation with someone, who turned out to have a friend looking to sell. Maybe you met someone visiting town and thinking about relocating. Whatever it is, track all your production from any contacts and meetings resulting from hanging out at Starbucks. Divide by 100, and you get your Dollars Per Hour at Starbucks number, or your Starbucks Index.

Any new app, new technology, new anything should beat this Starbucks Index. If 100 hours of blogging, to take an example, results in less money per hour than hanging out at Starbucks, you should stop blogging and start hanging out at Starbucks more. If 100 hours spent on developing a mobile app results in Starbucks Index + 30, then you should develop more mobile apps.

Of course, there is the financial metric as well: price of the technology/app vs. price of multiple venti latte’s over 100 hours of hanging out at Starbucks.

Simplicity

What I realized with that semi-tongue in cheek index is that it’s funny because it illustrates the tension between the Simple and the Easy. As we have heard time and again — and verified at Hear It Direct Charleston — is that real estate still remains a business of referrals and social contacts. With the (in)frequency of transactions by repeat customers, the real estate agent has to meet new people somehow to stay in business.

Well, the Simple way of meeting new people is to go where new people are — like a Starbucks. And then to actually engage in conversation, shake hands, whatever and meet new people. That’s the Simple answer: go meet new people.

But it is far from the Easy answer. It isn’t easy to put yourself into new, potentially awkward social situations. It isn’t easy to approach strangers and engage them in conversation (ask any guy who’s tried to pick up a girl at a bar). It isn’t easy to face potential rejection… at all.

There are other Simple strategies for real estate, right? Going door to door, knocking on them like a traveling salesman, and asking for business is Simple — but that’s hardly Easy. Making cold calls is Simple, but it isn’t Easy.

So naturally, because we’re all human, we all look for an Easy solution. Advertise on billboards, because it is Easier to take incoming calls than to make outgoing calls. Setup fantastic real estate websites, because it is Easier to get found on Google and convert web leads than it is to send out postcards to thousands of homeowners.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t much matter what strategy one uses to generate business, as long as it does. The trap is, however, that sometimes, the best answer, the best strategy is the Simple one, but it isn’t Easy. And the natural human desire to avoid doing difficult things leads to perdition.

Easy Is Complex

I am struck more and more by how complex Easy actually is. I’m writing this post on a Mac laptop, and Apple has built one of the largest companies in the world on Easy. (And beauty, but that’s another topic.) ┬áThe computer mouse and the graphical user interface are complete breakthroughs, and the history of how Steve Jobs “stole” the idea from Xerox PARC has been well documented.

But consider just how much work, how much design, how much technology goes into making it Easy for me to interact with my computer. Consider this WordPress platform that makes it so Easy for me to write posts. I remember writing “posts” on the early Internet using vi over telnet using raw HTML. This, by comparison, is a piece of cake. But the work of the programmers, the designers, and the engineers behind WordPress makes this work Easy.

Doing the Easy thing, then, means engaging with enormous complex systems. It is Easy to put a listing into the MLS, and have it appear like magic on your IDX search; but if you pause and consider just how many people work day and night to make that Easy thing possible, you realize that you are part of a complex system with many, many players in it.

One result is that in trying to make things Easier, one gets sucked into the complexity that makes the Easy possible. How many real estate agents went through courses, webinars, bought books on, worked with designers, hired programmers, and learned bits of computer science… to be able to put up a blog about their local real estate market? The purpose of that blog is to make it Easier to stay top of mind of consumers in that market.

The Simple solution to achieve the same goal might have been, perhaps, hanging out at Starbucks, or hosting seminars at the office, or throwing a series of luncheons with local residents. But all of those are more difficult to do than to write a blogpost, and depending on one’s personality/social sphere/etc., less effective than blogging.

Nonetheless, what struck me was how people had to learn and become part of an enormous complex system in order to do the Easy thing; and arguably, in many cases, they become distracted from the effective, Simple, yet difficult things that have been proven to work time and again.

A Simple Love…

The point, if there is one, is that in our natural quest to be more efficient, to do less work, we seek out the Easy solutions. But sometimes, it is the Simple solution that you want, not the Easy solution that sucks you into a world of complexity that is far outside your core competence.

And what is Simple and what is Easy are different for each individual. Hence the notion of the Starbucks Index being different for each person. Which means that the tools that make your life Easy may not be the same tools that make my life Easy. And what is Simple to me may be anything but Simple to you.

In closing… listen to Alison Krauss, the greatest living American musician, sing about A Simple Love… and consider just how hard it is to get that simple a love, and how much work it takes to keep it:

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Rob Hahn
Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.