Before Ryan Serhant was a real estate star selling penthouse apartments with views of Central Park on Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing New York, he was a guy “running around like a lunatic” renting dumpy apartments for $50 commissions and offering his services to strangers in Starbucks if their brand of yoga pants hinted that they had a lot of money to blow. “I was basically sitting around profiling people,” he laughs on a call with Entrepreneur.
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These days, Serhant’s still running around like a lunatic, but the properties and the stakes have grown exponentially. He is the founder and CEO of SERHANT., a real estate brokerage powered by an in-house film studio that puts its properties in front of millions around the world, among other things. We spoke with the nonstop CEO during a rare moment of downtime to get a glimpse of what he’s up to and take a look back at what got him to the top of the real estate game.
So your website says that your business is “a multi-dimensional real estate brokerage that sits at the intersection of media, entertainment, education and technology.” What does that mean?
We are a tech-enabled next-gen real estate firm. We are a top-of-funnel content-to-commerce business. We have an in-house production company that creates organic content for our agents, sellers, buyers and developers to generate business. And we have a brand following that creates significant impressions for the benefit of our customers. And then we grow our market share through education. We have a pretty incredible sales training platform that trains salespeople all over the world — we have 15,000 people in 110 countries at the moment. So you put all that together in one big flywheel and a lot of real estate is bought — it’s worked out pretty well.
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How did you come up with this concept?
When I started doing Million Dollar Listing, a lot more people than I ever anticipated watched it, and a lot of people reached out to me wanting to buy the properties. And I was like, “Um, I sold that place a year ago, making a TV show takes a long time.” So then I started kind of doing it on my own, doing walkthroughs and putting them up on YouTube. I figured that kids watch YouTube, and maybe some kid would show it to their mom. And that’s exactly what happened. We did a tour of a $15 million townhouse, a 13-year-old girl showed it to her mom, and we made the sale. So I thought, Maybe there’s something here. I can scale this not just for the benefit of me, but for lots of people in the industry.
Whether it is a multi-million dollar home or a tiny studio apartment, real estate always comes with a lot of stress and emotion. How have you not gone insane after so many years?
I look at stress and anxiety as my partner to be honest. If I didn’t, it would totally crush me. I would never get out of bed in the morning. I don’t have a job. I’m an entrepreneur. I started my own company in the middle of Covid — started three companies! It’s way too hard to manage if I let the anxiety dictate my decisions. I wouldn’t be able to order dinner. I would look outside the window and see only clouds. I look at stress as a way of showing me that things are happening. That I’m growing, that I’m being disruptive and my body just isn’t ready for it yet. But that’s okay, I’ve learned that my body isn’t ready for a lot of the things that I do. It just has to figure it out. But here’s the thing, you take any high-functioning type-A personality and you all of a sudden remove their to-do list? That’s when they’re actually the most nervous. Because they feel lost, they feel empty. But that’s a whole separate conversation.
How do you encourage employees to embrace fearlessness? To not be afraid of screwing up and getting in trouble or fired.
I think about it in terms of evolution. Like, you think a lion is around the corner, right? And in modern life, that lion is a deadline from your boss. Now, the lion could kill you, but the boss — in most circumstances anyway — is not gonna kill you. But our bodies tell us to back away from both. And so we’ve got to move forward. I tell people to embrace the fear, but lead forward with professionalism and lead forward with respect. And don’t be afraid to take massive swings. I mean, the first thing you learn when you’re a real estate agent is rejection. You’re gonna work your butt off. There’s no hourly wages, there’s no benefits, there’s no salary. You’re gonna run around like a lunatic, and people are going to lie to you. You’re going to be with a grandmother to sell her house, you’ll repaint her facade, get her a new microwave, and then she’s going to hire somebody else. And you’ll never know why.
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Do you remember your first real estate deal?
Yeah, it was a rental in Koreatown for $1,100 a month. I made 50 bucks commission on that, and that was a great day. Seriously, $50 for really just meeting somebody in an apartment? So then I looked around and imagined talking to all of these people on this street — they need homes, right? And they don’t know me yet. Well, that’s a shame. So I just planted myself in the Starbucks outside of Saks Fifth Avenue and profiled people. If you were pregnant and had Lululemon pants on between 2008 and 2010, there’s a good chance that I came up to you, complimented you and told you that you look like you need more space. Or if you were carrying more than one shopping bag out of Saks, I’d say, “You look like you need a pied-à-terre.” And I’d hand them my card, and that’s how I got some of my first clients. I still talk to people all the time. That’s the best part of all of this.