“Don’t be afraid to have a specialty, ideally something that you are passionate about” With Jason Hartman & Dana Bull

Niche down: Don’t be afraid to have a specialty, ideally something that you are passionate about. Seems counterintuitive to develop a niche in real estate because you may miss low hanging fruit. However, I have learned that having a niche has allowed me to do more business. I have an area of expertise that I am […]

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Niche down: Don’t be afraid to have a specialty, ideally something that you are passionate about. Seems counterintuitive to develop a niche in real estate because you may miss low hanging fruit. However, I have learned that having a niche has allowed me to do more business. I have an area of expertise that I am extremely knowledgeable in for which people seek out my services. You can have a niche in anything — like a certain type of property or a specific location. Alternatively you can find an area of the industry that suits you — whether that’s working in the field with clients or behind the scenes at a desk.

Asa part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dana Bull.

Dana caught the real estate bug in her early twenties, investing in homes across the Boston area. Drawing from years of hands-on experience in the field, Dana carved out a niche serving first-time homebuyers and entry-level investors in an advisory role. She holds her license with Sagan Harborside Sotheby’s International Realty® and is part of an active global real estate network. Dana is the Marketing Director for Team Harborside, a premier real estate group, representing some of the North Shore’s most unique and luxurious homes. An active voice in the real estate arena, Dana’s written for Zillow, Inman, and the National Association of REALTORS®.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?

Like most people, a need for housing is what first brought me to real estate. I was 22 — with a freshly minted marketing degree heading into the workforce during the Great Recession. The world was my oyster! While career pickings were slim, housing options were plentiful given the recent market crash. In lieu of renting or moving back in with our parents, my boyfriend (now husband) and I purchased a condo.

We put down roots in the world-famous location of Salem, Massachusetts, the Witch City. Our first home was originally built in 1784 and had the charm, character, and dated plumbing to prove it. It was then that I developed my sweet spot for old homes. My obsession for real estate grew from there. During my early twenties, I worked in high-tech marketing while moonlighting in real estate. Over the years, we went on to acquire, renovate, and manage numerous properties.

Upon obtaining my real estate license, I transitioned full-time into the industry and never looked back. Currently, my main focus is providing advisory services to first-time buyers/sellers and investors, both virtually through my consulting business at danabull.com and locally in the greater Boston area. Many of my local consultations turn into full buyer/seller representation. In addition, I drive the overall marketing strategy for Team Harborside of Sagan Harborside Sotheby’s International Realty, a premier real estate group north of Boston. As part of this team, I am honored to showcase some of the area’s most distinctive properties.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occured to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

In real estate, you never know what is behind closed doors. I’ve certainly had my fair share of surprises when dealing with small investment properties. A home can appear perfectly normal from the outside, but inside is a completely different story.

Several years ago, I had a decent looking building under agreement. During the home inspection, we pieced together that the current owners were devil worshippers. We eventually stumbled upon a secret room and based on the strange paraphernalia we concluded that it was a space for sacrificing animals as part of some sort of religious ceremony. It was very creepy! These types of experiences are always a lesson learned in doing a thorough due diligence during the house hunt.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, I always have something in the works. I just finished a multi-year project of stabilizing and repositioning a mixed-use property.

I’ve always been drawn to small mom and pop retail environments. If I weren’t in real estate, I’d probably be looking to go down the brick and mortar path of owning my own shop. There’s something about pouring yourself into that type of business and being a staple in a community that appeals to me.

Buying this property felt like a perfect opportunity to scratch the brick and mortar itch, without actually going all-in. The building was on the market for close to a year. Most investors were afraid of the unknowns, didn’t like the numbers, and passed on it. The building was very rugged and needed some love, but I saw potential that others had overlooked. Surrounding the location of this particular property there had been massive development and the neighborhood dreaded the thought of losing more retail space to yet another luxury condo project.

I was adamant about keeping the commercial units intact. Despite there being a lot of general uncertainty around brick and mortar as people shift to online buying, communities still crave local shops that deliver a unique experience. We were pleased to lease the spaces to two incredible storefront owners who have helped breathe new energy into the neighborhood. It’s a win-win for everyone. I’d love to get more involved with these types of revitalization efforts down the road.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

It’s shocking to me that so few resources exist to assist first-time buyers or investors on an individual level. Sure, there are plenty of blogs and websites, but these are rather impersonal, especially when you consider how each situation comes with its own set of nuances. This is what prompted me to launch my virtual real estate coaching services at danabull.com in 2017.

Buying a home or investing in real estate is one of the most expensive and life-altering decisions most people make. But few take the time to educate themselves on the process, market, laws, strategies and economics involved. They don’t even know where to start. That’s where I come in.

My job is to provide clients with a roadmap for understanding the real estate market, tailored to the individual situation they’re facing.

Familiarizing clients with important concepts and practices can help them to make sound buying decisions and avoid costly mistakes. Getting my insider’s perspective as a real estate agent and investor can give clients an edge to make smart, strategic decisions.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are two people who deserve significant praise — my mom and dad. For better or for worse, I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum. While some of my choices seemed unusual, my parents gave me the space to explore my options. I’m sure they were very nervous to learn I spent my life savings on a 200-year-old house right out of college, but they didn’t fight me on it. My parents never tried to control me, yet still provided a sense of security. I believe this combination gave me confidence in my endeavors and allowed me to push on boundaries that others would shy away from.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. The Real Estate industry, like the Veterinarian, Nursing and Public Relations fields, is a women dominated industry. Yet despite this, less than 20 percent of senior positions in Real Estate companies are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what do you think is the cause of this imbalance?

There’s a misconception about residential real estate sales. People think it’s a flexible job where you can build your own hours. I suppose this could be true if you are running a very small-scale operation. The reality is that real estate is a high-pressure atmosphere. Unlike a career in nursing or teaching, there are no set hours. You are advocating for your clients and putting them first. You are constantly on demand and need to be available to assist clients in making major decisions. The calls come in morning, day, and night. In my opinion, that’s the opposite of flexible. Many moms become licensed for part-time work or supplemental income so that they can juggle kids schedules, only to be discouraged by the level of intensity.

Perhaps it’s obvious, but one of the greatest imbalances between men and women in this environment is when kids come into the picture.

To climb the ranks, whether that’s vying for a management position or striving to be a top sales producer, you need to make many sacrifices and build systems that enable you to balance work and life. From my experience, this requires intricate web. Being a REALTOR® who is pregnant or breastfeeding is no walk in the park. Even before a baby is born, most need to lighten the load — pun intended!

Many real estate sales associates do not have benefits or paid maternity leave. While preparing to have a baby, I had to shorten my pipeline and offload my work — resulting in much smaller paychecks. If you’re not closing deals during maternity leave, you’re not getting paid. It takes time to regain momentum and rebuild when you get back to work. It’s a very challenging period that can span many years if you have multiple children.

When couples decide to grow a family, women bear the physical brunt. No matter the reason, leaving and re-entering the workforce is disruptive for a professional and causes setbacks that are hard to recover from. During times of absence, a woman can miss out on opportunities or fall behind their male counterparts.

The lack of benefits and unpredictable hours makes real estate a difficult path for all parents — both men and women, but particularly women of the childbearing age trying to get their careers off the ground.

What 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?

The real estate industry is ripe for change in a few key areas:

  1. The barrier to entry should be more difficult: In my opinion, it’s too easy to get licensed. As a result, our industry is comprised of people who view it as a side hustle or fall back career. I want to see the industry elevated with professionals who are driven for success (both male and female).
  2. A new pay structure and benefits plan: Taking the plunge into real estate is a tough choice because it’s generally set up as a 100% commission-based job. I believe our industry is missing out on real talent and diversity because of the way we are compensated. Many of the agents I know come from great privilege and are comfortable whether or not they get paid, which is hardly motivating. Others are fighting to make ends meet. This creates a compromising situation. How can you represent your clients’ best interests if you are dependent on the deal closing?
  3. Safety training: There are certain areas of real estate that I won’t participate in because I would feel unsafe in the environment. I believe it should be mandatory for firms to provide self-defense and proper training to all employees who show properties, particularly women who are considered more vulnerable targets.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Being pregnant or breastfeeding

As I previously mentioned, being pregnant or breastfeeding as a full-time agent is a real challenge. Since most real estate firms are set up with agents as 1099 contractors, the firms don’t have to follow the same guidelines as they would for employees who are pregnant and nursing. This means real estate professionals are not guaranteed paid maternity leave or even a room to pump milk.

Being expected to go above and beyond

I’ve always held high-level marketing positions surrounded by a sea of salesmen. This situation predates my time in real estate. As a practicing real estate agent who focuses on marketing, I understand both the worlds of marketing and sales. In prior positions, I would often be expected to do my job (which was to drive business through marketing efforts) but to also be in a support role by handling tasks that are “too cumbersome” for sales professionals (most of them male). While I fortunately no longer feel these frustrations, I do see female counterparts in marketing roles being overworked and underpaid for their vast skill sets.

Having to put on a good face

Perhaps it’s my line of work or because I am a woman, but sometimes I feel expected to be composed and cheerful at all times — wouldn’t want to ruffle any feathers, right? Considering the stress of my job, this is unrealistic. While it’s perfectly normal for my male counterparts to show frustration, I don’t feel like I have that same privilege.

Being taken seriously

I’ve always felt like I have been taken seriously in a corporate environment. However, that can’t be said about my time out in the field as a female real estate investor, especially a young investor. I am regularly in the minority at property tours or when competing for deals. Having said that, it’s not always a disadvantage! I stand out and people remember who I am, especially when they realize my legitimacy.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?

The real estate market has been booming, which makes it a very exciting time to be in the industry.

  • I am most excited about new technology aimed at making our lives easier and our business more profitable. From marketing platforms to CRMs, and software to showcase homes or process transactions, there’s been a boom of recent advancements in this space.
  • Real estate is a people business and I enjoy meeting new people that serve various niches and aspects of real estate. My network is constantly growing and I am always meeting new people which keeps things exciting. As part of the Sotheby’s International Realty network, we have over 1,000 offices in almost every corner of the globe and represent some extraordinary properties. It’s incredible how many connections we make each year between our affiliates. It’s like being a part of a secret group.
  • There’s always more to learn and a new area to master, particularly on the investment side of real estate. It’s impossible to be bored.

Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?

  • I am most concerned about our reputation. Frankly, due to the low barrier of entry, our industry is crowded by licensed agents who do not take the career seriously and therefore lower the overall reputation for those who do. Our industry could also attract a more diverse talent base if companies offered different payment structures or benefits plans.
  • The overall fear of technology disruptors needs to stop. I’m tired of agents lamenting about how Realtor.com, Zillow or some other new firm is taking away business. These competitors aren’t the bad guys. Real estate companies and individuals need to learn to play nice, leverage new channels and reposition their services. You have to be able to adapt.
  • Affordable housing is another pressing issue. With skyrocketing housing prices, it’s getting harder and harder for low- and mid- range buyers to enter the market. There’s no easy solution to this threat, but hopefully the market starts to level out.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

Practicing the art of “emptying my cup” has had a transformative impact on the way I approach work and life. Imagine a cup that is filled to the brim. Before you can add anything to it, you may need to empty it first. You have to reset. In other words, sometimes you need to eliminate what’s toxic or what isn’t serving you or your business. Let the people, jobs, and things go that are holding you down and holding you back. Build back up with good people, jobs and things. If things get toxic again, simply rinse and repeat!

Connecting with people is also incredibly important in this field. Do you ever notice that good leaders always seem to make time? I’ve vowed not to be the person that’s always too busy, even when I feel I am. People open doors and opportunity. I’ve learned to budget pockets of time in my day to connect with people. This goes against my natural tendency, which is to always be “doing something”. I am a better leader for making time.

Ok, here is the main question of our interview. You are a “Real Estate Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the Real Estate industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?

Niche down: Don’t be afraid to have a specialty, ideally something that you are passionate about. Seems counterintuitive to develop a niche in real estate because you may miss low hanging fruit. However, I have learned that having a niche has allowed me to do more business. I have an area of expertise that I am extremely knowledgeable in for which people seek out my services. You can have a niche in anything — like a certain type of property or a specific location. Alternatively you can find an area of the industry that suits you — whether that’s working in the field with clients or behind the scenes at a desk.

Put yourself first: We devote so much of ourselves to our companies that we often put our own financial planning or goals on the back burner. Your company shouldn’t own you! I’ve made a point to put myself first and invest time into my financial well-being. Having a strong pulse on my personal initiatives gives me direction and helps to keep me committed to my work. It makes me a better employee and more well rounded leader, not a cog in the wheel!

Have a long-term mindset: It’s easy to burn out in real estate. Rather than giving up, you may need to re-evaluate or restructure to stay in it for the long haul. I’m constantly reworking and restructuring my business to better suit my lifestyle. It’s a constant work in progress! After I had my first baby, I needed to make major changes across the board. I imagine I’ll have to do the same with the arrival of baby #2.

Don’t obsess over your direct competition: Nothing bothers me more than someone bringing something to my attention that my competitors are doing in the world of marketing. Who cares? We’re not going to copy it. Sure, it’s not a bad idea to keep tabs on what’s going on, but you can drive yourself crazy. Focus on your business! If you really need inspiration, it helps to look outside your immediate industry. You may get a creative idea from watching a cooking show or following a fashion blogger on Instagram that you can spin into your business.

Surround yourself with both supporters and distractors: There can be some really dark days in the business. The hard times are cyclical and they do pass. Gravitate towards people who share the drive and help you push forward. These are your supporters. You also need people who can lighten up the situation and take your mind off it. These are your distractors. You need both in your life.

Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to see more people investing in real estate at a young age. It’s hard and it’s scary, but it’s so rewarding if you can do it. Part of my mission has been advocating for and empowering my generation to get educated and weigh out real estate as an investment vehicle. Most of my clients are under the age of 35 and are making it happen!

How can our readers follow you online?

My websites are danabull.com and danabullrealtor.com. You can find me on Instagram (@danabull_realtor), Facebook (Dana Bull Real Estate), and on LinkedIn.

Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights!

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