80 days ago, I launched AshdownJones, along with my co-director Phil Jones.
Here’s the what, and the why, and a bit of the how….
First, a bit of background for those of you who have no idea who I am. I’m Sam Ashdown, and I help independent sales and letting agents to grow their businesses. I do this by showing you how to create and implement marketing systems in your business that do the hard work of creating new valuation opportunities for you, so that you don’t have to hustle to get through more doors. That way, you can focus on the stuff you are really good at: winning instructions and listing properties.
How do I know my stuff?
Firstly, I travel, loads. I’ve been to all the major marketing conferences and events, worldwide, including Inman Connect in New York, Traffic and Conversion in San Diego, Content Marketing World in Cleveland, Content Mastery in Dublin and Social Media Marketing World in California.
I also speak at a good selection of our industry events in the UK, including the annual conferences for the NAEA, ARLA, The Guild, Fine and Country and Network Auctions. My most recent speaking appearance was at the Matt Gigg’s Be You event, where I ‘shared’ the stage with Dame Karren Brady. I’m sure she was impressed…
I also read, voraciously. In the last decade, I’ve read over 1000 books on marketing, digital systems, consumer psychology, advertising, lead generation, business models, profitability, motivation, and much, much more. I take the very best of all the content I consume, and distill it so I can share the most relevant information with you.
Since 2004, I’ve worked with around a thousand independent agents and met around 10,000. And I’ve learned one thing above all:
Successful agents work smarter not harder, and take quick and decisive action.
In the past thirteen years, our industry has changed beyond recognition (as have I – I’m now a grandma!). There has never been a better opportunity in the history of our industry for the independent agent to compete with the big boys.
So now I’m putting my money where my mouth is…
For years, I’ve been saying I should (threatening to) open an estate agency. But there’s always been a reason not to. Mainly because I love running www.SamAshdown.co.uk, and working closely with my clients to help them grow their businesses, so where would I find the time to grow and run mine?
But I hadn’t accounted for Phil’s determination. He’s my son-in-law and co-director. He’s a very dynamic and driven guy, and suggested we teamed up to create a new kind of estate agency. I had just moved to Windermere, in the Lake District, and finally ran out of excuses not to.
So on 3rd April 2017 we launched AshdownJones, The Lake District.
We knew it wouldn’t be easy. After all, I’d been hearing from agents all over the country all the reasons why they weren’t as successful as they’d hoped for.
But success is a mindset.
Blaming outside forces means you don’t have to take any action to overcome the obstacles you face. Accepting 100% responsibility for your success is the first, and probably the hardest, step to take to grow your business.
Agents blame all kinds of outside forces:
They blame the market.
Premium properties in the Lake District take on average 468 days to sell.
They blame their competition.
Our competitors have had a stranglehold on the area FOREVER.
Plus they all play golf with each other.
Plus there hadn’t been a new estate agency open in the Lakes for 25 years until we came along…..
Then a new competitor opened the same week.
They blame their team.
Our team is comprised of remote freelancers.
They blame their area.
We are based in one of the most sparsely populated areas in the country.
Population of the Lake District – 41,100
Number of dwellings – 22,930
Holiday homes – 15%
Sales last 12 months over £500k – 94
Sales agents – 57
(and lots of lakes and mountains)
In fact, 16 lakes 214 mountains, all of which have to be navigated around, meaning viewings can take several hours.
So…what’s stopping YOU from achieving the success you know you’re capable of?
Most agency owners run two agencies: the one they have, and the one they want to have. The difference between the two is always one or more of these obstacles:
Time, money, or know-how.
Time – you may not realise it, but you have 168 hours a week. Same as me. Same as Richard Branson. Same as every other estate agent in the country.
Money – we’ve started AshdownJones on a shoestring. Seriously. But we’ve spent wisely, to get the absolute best return on every single penny we put in.
Know-how – we have plenty of that… so if you don’t, you need to skill-up or outsource, and preferably both.
How do you feel about your business right now?
I asked a few agency owners this question and got some very telling answers:
“I’m in a prison of my own creation.”
“I feel chained to my diary.”
“I’m on a hamster wheel and I can’t get off.”
“I’ve bought myself a really really rubbish job!”
So let me ask you this – where’s the lifestyle you promised yourself when you first made the leap to go it alone? What did you think you’d be doing every day? How does that compare to what you actually do, day-in and day-out, just to survive?
This pyramid shows where most agents spend their time, and why it matters.
Let’s look at Sir Richard Branson’s business as an example of how this works.
In 1970, he started selling records in a venture that later became Virgin Records. He was no doubt doing everything from buying the records, managing the stock, taking customer’s orders, sending the orders out, taking payment, banking, recruiting and training staff, advertising, marketing, PR, meeting with investors, schmoozing bigger clients, and a whole host of other tasks to take his business forward.
Some of those tasks belong in ‘maintenance’. Maintenance is what you need to do as the absolute bare minimum to keep your agency open. Imagine you’ve broken your leg and can’t do more than the essentials; what would those essentials be?
For Sir Richard, it would have been tasks like these:
- Opening the office every day (or converted church, as it was then)
- Answering the phones
- Unpacking the stock
- Going to the post office
- Emptying the bins
So what’s ‘delivery’?
Delivery is all the things you do that your customers pay you for. Back then when Virgin was just a sparkle in Sir Richard’s eye, that would have been things like:
- Packing and sending orders
- Dealing with complaints
- Handling returns
- Managing stock
- Documenting inventory
Now let’s look at ‘growth’.
When Sir Richard was planning his empire, he knew he had to work towards his vision by taking a few steps every day. These could have been:
- Meeting with investors
- Hosting promotional events
- Working with creative agencies
- Arranging finance
- Campaign planning
If Sir Richard had spent all of his time in the first two levels of his business – maintenance and delivery – his Virgin empire simply would not exist. Imagine a world with no Virgin Trains, Media, Vie, Mobile, and more. The Virgin Group boasts £20 billion in annual revenue, and employs more than 70,000 people worldwide. Had Sir Richard not focused on the very top level growth of his business, using his vision to guide him and his team to propel the vision forwards, the Virgin group simply wouldn’t exist.
Where do you spend your time?
Here’s the challenge most independent agents face every single day:
- Caught between the corporates and the onlines, they panic, and discount fees.
- Because their fees are so low, they can’t afford good marketing,
- Or the right staff…
- ..so they do it all themselves..
- …and therefore attract low quality properties (and vendors)
- …so they work more, and earn less.
- We knew that if we charged high fees…
- We can afford great marketing…..
- And attract the best properties (and vendors)
- ..but not too many of them…
- so we can spend time on the important stuff, like growth.
- Our results so far
- How we are disrupting the local market
- Our property marketing collections
Our results so far
When we planned out how we were going to market AshdownJones in those initial few months, we drew up this Marketing Priority Pyramid:
This details which marketing activities we deemed as vital, valuable or useful. Using these guiding principles, we decided to get our website up and running as soon as possible, even though we launched it when it wasn’t perfect, and we are still ironing out small issues. (Progress not perfection, as my clients often hear me say.)
Once our website was live, we turned our focus to our Facebook page, where we started to build our community and engage with our audience. At the time of writing this post, we have over 1000 fans on there, and our target is to grow to 10,000 within a year of launch, whilst still maintaining high levels of interest and
Whilst we were building out our Facebook page, we were also creating letters (direct mail) that would resonate with the kinds of people we wanted to attract as clients, both already on the market, and also not yet for sale. We now have a suite of letters that have had some great results, and we are still refining the content, style and mailing strategy for these.
Our networking has been really successful for us, though not in the way you might think. Instead of joining some of the local networking events and organisations, (a strategy I recommend to my clients) I created and launched two clubs of my own. They have been so successful that I’m now launching a third, aimed at high level entrepreneurs. Whilst the time and commitment to launch a club is not insignificant, personal networking and community building will always be the most effective form of marketing, and can save you time, energy and money on constantly trying to reach a new audience. Having your own club also positions you as a leader in your area and as an expert in your field. This will attract the kinds of clients who are looking for a deeper relationship with their estate agent, and one based on quality of service, not fees.
Our blog launched at the same time as the website, and it’s my responsibility to post on a regular basis, with new, inspiring and educational content, that fits with our AJ brand principles and approach. Still a work in progress, I’m planning on creating the content in batches, to optimise my time, which is often very committed with other projects. We also have a content writer on our team who can help us with creating great content on a consistent basis, thereby freeing up my time.
So what have we achieved since opening?
Instructed: 9 properties, fee value £53,500
Pending: (recent or future MAs) 7 properties, fee value £72,000
These have come from:
Direct Mail 10
Local connections 1
Let’s talk about Market Disruption
We began our market disruption mission with three guiding principles:
- The very best homes in the very best places
- People don’t want better, they want different
- You need a niche of a sub-market.
The very best homes in the very best places
Be prepared to walk away – we knew right from the first idea about our agency that we wanted to work with a few, select vendors, with only the most beautiful homes. To stick faithfully to this principle, we have to be prepared to walk away when the home or the client isn’t a good fit for AshdownJones. We just don’t want to take on a property that isn’t ready for market, or a client who isn’t motivated to move. This principle comes with sacrifice: we’ve walked away from two properties so far with a combined potential fee of £12,000-plus. Sticking to our strategy may cost us money in the short term, but in the long term we believe it will pay dividends and ensure our portfolio not only supports our brand values, but also attracts other great properties and clients.
Learn how to say no with respect – vendors don’t want to be told that their home isn’t one you’d want to market, so you need to find a way to let them down gently. You may be able to suggest another agent you feel would be a better fit, so long as you genuinely feel they can help them. Alternatively, if it’s an issue that can be fixed with a professional home stager, a realistic asking price or a rest period from the market, tell them why you recommend it and how they can achieve what they want.
Above all, that vendor needs to feel that you’re making the decision out of integrity, and that the outcome they seek would be better if they follow your advice.
Don’t take on a property you can’t sell well – I see this mistake being made by my agency clients frequently. They take on a property because it was a good fee or board position, but it’s a nightmare to photograph, or view, or both. Smelly pets; an unruly vendor; obstinate neighbours; proximity to something undesirable: all these factors should raise a big red flag for you and say STOP! Do not take on this property. When you look at a home, consider these questions:
- What will the photographs look like?
- Can I write a property description that is both attractive and honest?
- How do I feel about doing viewings there?
Use these questions as guiding principles to help you make the right decision about every property you go and see.
People don’t want better, they want different
Most of the estate agent marketing I’ve seen over the years promotes ‘better’ as a benefit. But better is not as desirable or attractive as different. Here’s why:
- Better sounds like hard work; different sounds new, exciting and motivational.
- Better recaps past failures – if someone has tried and failed in the past, why would they want a ‘better’ version of that action?
- Better isn’t good enough to change – change is often hard, emotionally, mentally and practically. Better is just a marginal gain; not good enough to put in the effort for.
To make AshdownJones a household name in our area, we know we have to be different, because ‘better’ just won’t cut it.
You need a niche of a sub-market
As the saying goes, ‘the riches are in the niches’. (It rhymes if you try an American accent…)
Having a niche is one of the keys to being a successful independent agent. In the book Blue Ocean Strategy by W.Chan Kim and Reness Mauborgne, they talk about the fact that most markets are red oceans, full of bloody because of all the sharks feeding on the same small pool of fish, (apologies for the gruesome metaphor; it’s not mine, it’s theirs). With so much competition, market share is often at the expense of fees, profit and ultimately, survival.
Blue oceans are ones with very few sharks, at least in the first instance. These are the sub-markets. The first online agent, for example, (House Ladder?) had it easy, with so little competition. However, over time, more and more online agents discovered the blue ocean until eventually, it too turned red. In order for onlines to really ensure their survival, they are going to have to find new, blue oceans to swim in, otherwise it will be a race to the bottom, with the highest advertising budgets and lowest fees winning the war, Pyrrhic victory though it will doubtless be.
The more you can specialise, finding new blue waters with few, if any, other sharks, the clearer your waters will be. That’s your niche. Your niche needs to be your ‘thing’; it needs to play to your strengths, and inspire you. And crucially, you need enough people in your niche to ensure your success.
For example, you may decide that selling park homes will be your niche. You’ve always loved park homes; your family has owned them; and you feel there’s an untapped need to help park home-owners sell more effectively through staging and lifestyle photography. There’s only one problem: you live in central Birmingham. No park homes for miles. You either need to move to the country, or else pick a different niche.
Our market – the Lake District – approximately 23,000 dwellings in 912 square miles.
Our sub-market – premium homes. These are generally properties worth over £500,000, but not always. We have some really beautiful little holiday cottages at less than this level, that we would be proud to market.
Our niche – sellers who LOVE our marketing. There’s little point in waxing lyrical about our lifestyle and twilight photography, showing our stunning magazine-style brochures and explaining the benefits of creating a visual brand for each home, if the client just doesn’t get it. And not everyone will. But that’s ok, because they aren’t our clients. Our clients are people who love our marketing so much, they have to have it for their home and won’t accept anything less.
That brings me onto…
Our property marketing collections
We needed to launch AshdownJones with property marketing that was not just exceptional and remarkable, but that was also future-proof. We know our competitors will be forced to adopt some of our bespoke marketing tactics in time, but the more we have in our marketing ‘suite’, and the more highly individual they are, the further ahead of our competitors we will remain. Constant innovation is our next challenge, but for now, our marketing collections include:
- Home staging
- Lifestyle photography
- Visual branding
- Magazine brochures
- Bespoke boards
- Property movies
Whilst there will be occasions when it’s more effective to bring in an outside home stager, for now that task is undertaken by us in the majority of the cases. After all, these are premium homes that often need only a little ‘tweaking’ for the photography shoot. So before the shoot, we send the client a short shopping list to style each room for the photographer, and on the day, we attend the shoot to act as ‘photographer’s assistant’, and help them to get the very best images.
We deliberately selected a photographer who doesn’t work for any other agent. In fact, he’s never done estate agent photography before. He’s a specialist holiday cottage photographer, which means he’s great at injecting atmosphere and the right tone into his lifestyle photographs, giving each home a personality and ambience a standard photographer would usually miss.
This level of property marketing is rarely seen except in property developments, so we decided to bring it into our marketing collections. Obviously it works best if the property has a name, rather than just a road number, but we’ve done it for both property addresses before. Visual branding not only gives a strong brand personality to the property and adds to the bespoke feel of the brochures, our clients love it. It allows them to feel pride in their home and adds a huge amount of value to both the home-owner selling it, and the purchaser considering their next home.
For the past decade or so, I’ve been collecting property brochures. I have around 1000 of them now, and when we launched AshdownJones, we sat and pored over every one to decide on the style and format we really wanted. After much discussion, and having a small pile of brochures we loved, we decided we would make every AJ property brochure different. Not having a template and standard format would make it more difficult, more expensive and more time-consuming to get each property to market, but it was the right decision for our clients, and for our brand values. We believe every property needs a bespoke approach, and the brochure is an essential and very visual component of that approach. So some of our brochures are a small square format, some large. Some have cut-outs on the front cover, some are unusual shapes. All are unique to that home and more important, to that home-owner. So they all feel special and valued, and the buyers feel they are buying a truly individual home just for them.
Again, previously the preserve of property developers, our bespoke boards promote the house, not us, the agent. We aim to show some aspect of the house that can’t be seen from the road, or from the end of the driveway; a twilight image, or drone shot, or a special feature. Something that makes the board stand out. We don’t worry that our branding on the board is minimal – it’s supposed to be. The point of the board is to showcase the house, and that’s what ours do.
Are they more expensive? Yes – about twice the price of a standard board, but given they are an advert for us with a huge passing audience of potential new clients, it’s the best place for us to promote our brand, and in the best way possible too.
Property videos are nothing new. But most are lacklustre, uninspiring and frankly, unprofessional. In keeping with our brand values and market disruption strategy, we knew ‘better’ wouldn’t be enough. We needed different.
And so we created the Amberwell Lifestyle Movie. At the time of writing this, it has been watched 12,000 times, and that’s just on Facebook. So much more than a property video, this lifestyle movie portrays ‘day in the life’ of Amberwell living: it captures beautifully its proximity to the lake; how it sits into its green-meadow setting; how each room ‘works’ and all the property’s stunning features. The Amberwell lifestyle movie is a million miles away from the vast majority of property videos; its biggest benefit to us is that it showcases not just the house, but more importantly, our agency.
We’ll continue to find new and innovative ways to market properties, connect with our community and build AshdownJones something very special we can be proud of, not just now, but in the future.
I believe that we have both a challenge, and an opportunity, to change our industry. It has never been more fragmented, confused and undervalued than it is right now. But we can change that. Every independent agent has the capability to do things differently, to respond quickly, and to be exactly what their clients most need.
So what’s next for you? What can you take away from our launch and strategy, and implement in your business? What are you going to stop doing now, and what can you change that will make the biggest difference?
I’d love for you to be inspired by what we have achieved with AshdownJones in our first 80 days. If we can do what we’ve done with, as one competitor put it, “just a computer and a lot of confidence”, then so can you.
Next week, I’ll bring you the final part of this walkthrough of the first 80 Days of AshdownJones, so look out for it!
I’d love for you to be inspired by what we have achieved with AshdownJones in our first 80 days. If we can do what we’ve done with, as one competitor put it, “just a computer and a lot of confidence”, then so can you.
And I may be able to help. Just for a select handful of independent agents, I am offering to show them the exact steps we took to get AshdownJones off to such a successful start. If you are bold enough to differentiate yourself, dynamic enough to take decisive action, and determined enough to take your agency to the next level, then let’s chat.
Just tell me a bit more about your business here and we’ll be in touch straight away.