Douglas Eisner: “Always hire people smarter than yourself”

Always hire people smarter than yourself. A lot of people have the natural inclination to think that you want everything done your way. You can train people to do anything, but ultimately you need people working for you that are amazing at their craft. That’s how you’re going to be successful. Don’t worry about employees […]

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Always hire people smarter than yourself. A lot of people have the natural inclination to think that you want everything done your way. You can train people to do anything, but ultimately you need people working for you that are amazing at their craft. That’s how you’re going to be successful. Don’t worry about employees competing with you. Worry about building the best company you possibly can.

As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Douglas Eisner.

As Co-Founder and Managing Director of The Calida Group, Mr. Eisner sits on Calida’s Investment Committee and Executive Committee. Mr. Eisner is primarily responsible for the strategic planning and growth of the company. Mr. Eisner oversees all capital markets activities, including project level debt and equity placement, and fund formation. Additionally, Mr. Eisner oversees the marketing efforts for the company, and is credited with growing the Elysian Living™ platform from a single property into the iconic lifestyle brand it is today. Prior to forming The Calida Group in 2007, Mr. Eisner was a partner at Alliance Residential Company and worked in the capital transactions department of Lend Lease Real Estate Investments (purchased by Morgan Stanley). Mr. Eisner graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and a Bachelor of Applied Science in Systems Engineering. He is a member of Young Presidents Organization.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

A lot of people grow up not knowing exactly what they want to do and end up bouncing around from one industry to the next. For me, I knew from an early age that I wanted to pursue a career in real estate. There was a brief period that I thought about going into medicine, but I didn’t find it rewarding enough. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Lincoln Logs while everyone else was playing with G.I. Joe, which was a clear indication that I wanted to build beautiful spaces and be involved in real estate. Once I started college at the University of Pennsylvania, I was one of only three real estate students, one of the others being Donald Trump Jr.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

My partner and I started Elysian Living in August of 2007, right before the recession hit. We had great conviction, but the timing, market decline and buying opportunities started to suffer. It never feels good to hear that news, especially when it turned into the great recession which made raising capital much harder with everything being so scarce. We were two years too early in the sense that banks weren’t selling as much. It wasn’t until 2010 that the market started to loosen up again. It was a challenging time to start a company, but here we are 13 years later and thriving.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

We never lost sight of success for our business, the thought of getting a second job or doing consulting crossed our minds, but we thought it would take away from our main objective, so we lowered our monthly spends and stuck it out. The drive for me stems from my goals as a child. I sacrificed a lot to be where I am. We left our jobs at 28/29 and did the training and studying required to be successful in this business. I’d been training for this for 20 years; I wasn’t going to give up that easily.

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Today, business is doing well. We are among the top 25 developers and investors in the country. Returns are spectacular, the investor base is extremely loyal, and we’ve built a huge brand following. Everything that we have worked for is right on schedule. We thought it was going to happen a lot faster, but we’ve been patient. If we had known how hard building this brand was going to be, we probably wouldn’t have done it. It’s been a lot harder than we ever anticipated. We were originally told to have a year of savings, but after doing it, I’d recommend having at least three years’ worth of savings and to prepare yourself for a recession, five years’ worth is better. We had the fortitude to stick it out and eventually the market turned around and it’s been fantastic ever since.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It was the very last day of my summer internship for a New York City real estate developer before I started my senior year of college. I knew that I would be moving to the west coast and I would probably never see the developer again. He was extremely successful and throughout my internship I got very minimal facetime with him, so I was determined to get in one final question before I was finished. I waited outside of his office and caught him as he was leaving. No one ever dared to call him by his first name, but on that day as I was trying to catch him on the staircase, I called out his first name. He abruptly turned around; I finally had his attention. I said, today is my last day and I would like to ask you a question before I head back to school. What’s the one mistake you made when you started your company that I shouldn’t make? His response was, “There are too many to count, but a rising market fixes them all.” Those were the last words he said to me and one of the reasons that we decided to buy in a rising market.

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

There are a lot of things that make Elysian Living stand out: performance, design and marketing to name a few. The real secret is being blessed with a wonderful partner, in my case that would be Eric Cohen. Although we are very different people, our values are aligned. Eric and I have an incredible synergy. There were a number of investors that did not want to invest in a partnership that was younger than five years old. I understood why when I saw competitors partnerships start to blow up. We always said it was about values and we’ve stuck to that. We have been partners for 13 years and we’ve never had a dispute. When we do have disagreements, we discuss it, bring ideas to the table and continue to have complete trust in one another. The secret to standing out is a great partnership, which is hard to find.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

They say an entrepreneur is someone who is willing to work 80 hours per week. If you feel like that will lead to burn out, don’t be an entrepreneur. If you don’t thrive in that type of work environment and need more of a work/life balance, don’t do it. Be honest with yourself. If you don’t thrive and are not will to work 80-hour work weeks, don’t do it because you will lose to someone else who will.

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?

When we were starting out and made our initial announcement, we called around to investors (private equity funds and institutions) as we had to reintroduce ourselves. They knew us from the industry, but not as business owners. We must have had the same conversation about 40 times. Everyone kept saying “we can’t invest until you’ve been in business together for at least five years.” We kept hearing they can’t wait to invest in our second deal, but not the first. So, we asked why, and the answer was if you screw it up, we don’t want to get fired. Finally, someone bit around the fiftieth call and was interested in our first deal. We couldn’t believe it. Without that one person who believed in us, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

A lot of people have helped us along the way. Our lender knew us from prior jobs, not as Elysian Living. We were all set to move forward with the deal and prior to signing the lender called our two prior employers as reference to ask off the record if we were capable of getting the job done. Both of our previous employers said if anyone can do it, it’s these guys. Not many former employers would say that, and we are forever grateful for their faith in us.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

It may sound trite but designing and operating an amazing environment for people to live in is under-appreciated. Pre-COVID it mattered about 30%, but now in this COVID era it’s closer to 80%. Providing Elysian Living as a positive environment and brand is a huge contribution to the community, employees and residents.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Have a minimum of three years’ worth of runway before you start a company. We had revenue as early as one year into the project, but we didn’t actually break a profit and start making a livable wage for five years. It takes a lot longer than people give it credit for.
  2. A rising market fixes everything. Like I said before, a successful real estate developer had told me this, but I experienced it first-hand.
  3. Pick your partners very carefully. I was very lucky when it came to finding an incredible partner, but not everyone is so lucky. We have people call us all of the time for partnership advice and for me, it’s all about alignment.
  4. Don’t worry so much about having a plan B. When you’re super focused on plan B, it takes your focus away from plan A. There were times that we considered other sources of income, and I’m not talking about pivoting your business plan or looking at the market to adjust your plan. You should always do that and evolve with the market. I’m talking about commitment to your company. If your game plan is to try it for two years then get a job at some bank when it doesn’t happy quickly, it’s not going to work. Focus on plan A and give it all you have.
  5. Always hire people smarter than yourself. A lot of people have the natural inclination to think that you want everything done your way. You can train people to do anything, but ultimately you need people working for you that are amazing at their craft. That’s how you’re going to be successful. Don’t worry about employees competing with you. Worry about building the best company you possibly can.

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

The partisanship and tribalism that we are seeing in our country today is exacerbating every other problem that we have. If I could ignite a movement, it would be to start at the beginning and unifying all of the tribes.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @ElysianLiving

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