How Thad Wong, Co-founder of @properties, Built The Largest Independently-Owned Residential Real Estate Company in Illinois

Thaddeus Wong is the co-founder of @properties, the largest independently owned residential real estate brokerage firm in Illinois. It is one of the 11 largest brokerage firms in the U.S. by sales volume. Wong began selling real estate in the mid 1990s and quickly established himself as one of the top selling brokers in the city of Chicago.

What things did you see that kind of helped grow your business?

TW: As we were growing, we noticed acquisition. Larger companies were usually acquiring smaller companies. We thought that was always an interesting play. At the same time it was difficult often to meld cultures. We always found that, putting effort and energy into growing organically, one broker at a time, by attracting them to our platform, by building more, marketing more, that would be a better process for us. We ended up doing well with that. Over the last 17 years we've grown from four agents to 2,200 and it's nice to say that we didn't have to buy anybody.

Some of the different ideas that have come to us through marketing, over the number of years are, how do we take advantage of the mass eyeballs that we get in front of, every single month. How can we make a difference? One of the things we thought of was a way to emotionally tie ourselves with the consumer in a positive light. So, when they see our brand, they feel something warm, they feel an attraction to it. We were thinking about words and different phrases, the single word that we thought that was always positive that everyone wanted to feel more of was love. Putting effort and energy in introducing love on a daily basis, through people. Visually, through billboard, digital display, messaging, etc. It's unmeasurable to understand exactly the amount of growth that will be attributed to that campaign.

That being said, there has been no campaign that we've done, and we've done a number of them, that has been more appreciated than just our basic love campaign.

You're talking about not being able to measure results, how do you decide what to invest in as far as communication goes?

TW: The communication we invest in is the communication that is either two things. One, gives us the greatest amount of feedback from the consumers, those that are noticed the most, that are more positively reviewed. The second piece of it is, how heavily it can be used to differentiate our individual brokers from brokers at other firms. Our brokers can use our messaging or our platform as a way to separate themselves from our competitor. To put themselves in a better light.

You're talking about a pretty traditional market. What was your ethos in terms of making it fresh?

TW: I think that one of the reasons why we were more forward in thinking from a marketing perspective is that, when we got into real estate we were young. My partner and I were both 30. We have very different roles, I do a lot of the creative and the business growth, he runs a lot of the operations and development. But, on the marketing side, it only seems second nature to me, to market and advertise in a way that is gonna generate the greatest amount of attention for the least investment. That was always the focus. What we found is that people and their homes, that's where they're the most personal. That's where they are really themselves. You can't be yourself in your own home, I don't know where you're going.

In understanding that, we wanted to be the real estate company that most people could gravitate towards. They would gravitate towards. The company the people would be attracted to. By being a little bit more forward thinking, avant garde or creative in our marketing, we found that to be helpful. Humor is another side of it too, I think the most laughter is done, hopefully the most laughter is done at home. If we can connect ourselves with humor through the consumer, we always thought that it would be helpful.

What made you decide to go on your own? What things did you see in the marketplace that showed you that this had potential?

TW: One of the things that gave us the greatest amount of enthusiasm to open up @properties was the traditional way real estate had been marketed and that companies have been growing over a long period of time. It didn't feel like there was anything fresh or new for young people to gradually attach themselves to and we wanted to build that. If we could build something that would address the two greatest challenges of every broker, which is, consistency and organization, and we could build an infrastructure that consistently marketed really good quality product to the consumer and help the agent organize their database, that we would attract more brokers. Theoretically they would sell more real estate because we would be managing their marketing.

Your motto is, "If it's not broken, break it and make it even better." Can you explain that, where does that come from?

TW: "If it ain't broke, break it and figure out how to do it better," is a big deal to us because in our pursuit of perfection or differentiation, we're always needing to be improving everything that we're doing. You're never there. Once you've created the greatest brochure, it's only great for six to twelve months, then somebody else is nipping at your heel. You have to continuously be rebuilding the engine. Even when something is going great, we're always figuring out how to improve it. We're also breaking it to figure out where we can find greater efficiency. Where we can operate a faster ... better product, less expensively.

What's your daily routine look like? How do you start your day?

TW: I wake up, I get into the car, I drive to La Colombe, I come back home and I drink a cup of coffee in the same chair while all my children eat breakfast and get ready to start their day. When they start moving out of the house, I go upstairs, get prepared and then head off to the office. No day is like the other. Everyday I'm meeting with individual brokers, meeting with teams, meeting with developers. This morning I was scouting a new office location. Coming up with marketing campaigns, meeting with our IT department to try to figure out how to turn some basic formatting that we have to make it more efficient. It's a little bit of everything.

My partner and I pride ourselves on operating the organization from the inside and knowing a little bit about everything going on and not removing ourselves. But, because of that it really pulls us in a lot of different directions.

How do you predict the next hot spot. What signs do you look for?

TW: It's funny. When we think about our next location, we're not coming up with that location and forcing our market share growth or penetration. What we do is, we are either drawn to a location from a managing broker, who we really want to hire, or we have a number of agents that want to join us from a specific area. Or, the perfect location just presents itself. There are a lot of different reasons that will come into play in selecting our next location. None of them are always the same. It will never be, this is an emerging area, we need to race and get there. We never go anywhere unless we're prepared....prepared to compete to make sure that we're number one on the market, we don't want to enter a market that we can't dominate.

How do you stay inspired? Especially, when the days are long and not fun, how do you keep going?

TW: I think that one of the ways that I personally stay inspired is outlook. I think that we have a choice on how we want to view anything. Two people can come from the same situation, the same interaction, one can have a very positive experience, one can have a negative experience. I think two easy people are complaining about how good they have it. I think that from my perspective, if I can stay grounded, if I can stay in communication with as many people as possible and not remove myself as things become stressful or difficult, that helps me appreciate the effort that everyone else is putting in. I, then, feel grateful, a lot of gratitude for the work that everyone else is doing to grow @properties.

What advice would you give your 18 year old self?

TW: I think that if I were to give my 18 year old self any business advice, it would be to read information, to gather information and read books that were not directly associated with what I wanted to do, but that were associated with the improvement of the personal assets, which would help me excel.

Instead of reading books on how to be the best real estate broker, I might read books on how to become the best person or how to be the most relatable. A lot of the different variables that end up driving a person to be the best of their field are not necessarily ... If I was in finance, it might not be my master of math. It might be instead my master ability to connect with people and build relationships.

What are you currently reading?

TW: Right now I am reading, Impostor Phenomenon. It's a old book.

What trends do you see or predictions you make for your industry?

TW: It's interesting. It's hard to predict our industry because it is under such a microscope for disruption. That being said, nobody has really figured out the secret sauce that's going to be able to replace the broker. I'm not saying it's never going to be done, it's probably inevitable, but it's gonna take a number of macerations until they get to a really good process.

I guess the prediction that I have is that through technology we are going to discover better ways to present homes, faster and less expensively. We should be able to determine real, true market prices faster. There should, yield, to be a more seamless process in the sale of a home.

That being said, nobody can figure out how to remove the motion out of each participant. It's the number three action on the stress, after death and divorce. We gotta figure out how we can get an algorithm or a bot to console people or change their personality on a dime to talk people off of a ledge.

How can someone stand out in your industry?

TW: The brokers that are the most stand out in our industry, all have the exact, one of the exact same qualities, and that's kindness. A lot of people can be top producers and be successful, but those that can do it without offending others along the way, those that can do it while bringing happiness and joy into every interaction and every transaction, those are the brokers that everybody else wants to be around.

What's your investment in Chicago? What do you make of the city? What are the predictions basically?

TW: I'm very bullish on Chicago. You only hear bad news. They're talking about violence, etc, the financial situation, but Chicago is arguably the best city to live in, in the United States of America. We have huge growth in tech jobs, we have a lot of people migrating to the city. It's a very vibrant community. It's an incredible place to live. It gets a bad rap. I think that, that's gonna be temporary. I think that will change. A lot of the violence that people talk about is concentrated in very small areas. Relatively speaking, the city is doing very well and it is probably a good thing that it's reached a climax when it comes to the stress financially. That being said, I think there is only upward movement, for sure.

The video portion of this interview ran on Entrepreneur.com on September 20, 2017: If It's Not Broken, Don't Fix It -- Break It