by Brooke Allen
My good friend, Ray Schmitz, called me up last Wednesday and said he was ready to talk to people publicly about his business that was going to revolutionize real estate brokerage.
I was expecting him to ask me to invest but instead he told me the most romantic story I’ve ever heard. Read this and tell me if you don’t agree.
At lunch yesterday I started by saying, “Ray, I need to tell you that I won’t invest in your business. My savings come from being frugal and good at what I do, and I don’t know how to be a venture capitalist. Paul Graham wrote a wonderful essay on how to lose time and money in which he says people like me risk losing big chunks of savings, not by becoming spendthrifts, but by becoming investors. I hope you understand.”
Ray said, “I know; I read Paul’s stuff.”
“Good,” I said. “Then you’ll appreciate that I have every confidence you will succeed because not only do you have a good idea, as Paul says in another essay, you are relentlessly resourceful.”
Ray said, “Funny you should say that. Let me tell you a story…”
This is what Ray said to me:
My financial advisor is a close friend and one day he calls to refer a client who wants to buy an apartment. “But,” he says, “I am reluctant because she might be, well… difficult.”
I say, “What? Is she 88 and senile?”
“Oh, no,” he says, “Nothing like that. She is smart, successful, single, and very attractive. It’s just that she can be demanding.”
“Nothing to worry about,” I say, “Bring it on.” I call her up and invite her to lunch. I won’t tell you her real name, so let’s call her Sue.
I ask Sue to tell me about herself.
She’s an anesthesiologist. Self employed. Interesting story. Born abroad. Came here on her own. Her English was not good enough to get into the best medical schools, so she didn’t get a great residency either. Then no one wanted to hire her. So she struck out on her own as a freelance anesthesiologist. (I’m thinking to myself, Is that even possible? I have no idea.)
But, all those medical school denials served a purpose, she says. It made her a business woman, and a good one.
“So,” she says, “you’re going to help me buy a property?”
“Yes.” I really want to help her.
“Can I tell you what I want?”
“Something stylish. Something gorgeous.”
That fits, I thought. Better get practical. ”So, where do you work?”
“Do you have an office?”
Looking down for the first time, “No.”
Bingo. “Do you have a business card? I don’t want to forget to ask.”
Sue said, “I thought we were talking about buying a property.”
“Yes. We are. Can we play a game?”
“A game?” She looked puzzled.
“Yes. It will be fun. Can I explain?”
I explain, “Here is what I am going to do for you. I am going to pick out five properties to show you tomorrow and…”
Sue interrupts, “This is the game?”
“Yes – and you get to buy one of them.”
“What kind of game is that? That’s no game.”
“Of course it is.” I pause, “This is how to play. Before we meet tomorrow, I am going to write down which of the five properties I think you are going to buy. I will write it on a slip of paper, fold it in half, and put it in this pocket, right here.” I reach across my heart with my right hand to my shirt pocket.
“At any point you can ask to see the piece of paper; before the first apartment, after the fifth, or anywhere in between. Until you see that paper, just look at the properties. Once you look at the paper, which you can look at any time you want, I can’t take it back. When you look, you will know what I think. Ok?”
“What happens if you pick wrong?”
“You don’t buy what I wrote.”
“And if you pick right?”
“You buy it. Pretty cool game, right?”
She rolls her eyes. I just look at her and wait.
“Ok, don’t forget your paper.”
The next day… lots of smiles, glances over her shoulder. Questions about how many pockets do I have, do I have something up my sleeve, can she check my pockets, etc. So far, so good.
Third stop on the tour.
“What did you write down?”
“I cannot say.”
“It’s your choice.”
“You know what I mean.”
She smiles. “Oh, I see how you operate.”
I shrug my shoulders.
“Let me see the paper.”
“Here you are.”
She reads it. “How did you… do you have other slips in that pocket?”
“No, want to check?”
“Hmm. You, you, how…”
The on-site sales agent is watching us very keenly. “So what do you say?”
She signed the contract.
“See I told you this would be fun.”
The next day, the on-site agent calls and says she knows Sue because Sue has been looking at apartments for the last several months. “Ray, what did you tell her about our building?”
I told her I had my proprietary methods that I wanted to keep secret. (Later, as it turns out, this would lead to some very favorable press – but that is another story.)
“Hi. What’s up?” I ask.
“I need a change. I picked out a new place,” she says.
Without me? I think. Then I say, “Where? What?”
“I want to show you. Let’s go there together on Friday.” She pauses, “… wait, my car will be in the shop. Meet me at the building?”
“Sure; which unit? I’ll set it up.” I arrange for a bottle of wine, a corkscrew, and two glasses to be there when we arrive.
Friday. She sits on the couch. I’m about to open the wine. She’s slightly taken aback.
“I don’t think I want this.”
“No wine?” I ask.
“No. I don’t think I want this apartment.” she says.
“Ok. But have a glass of wine anyway. It’s here for you.”
“No. Really?” She seems puzzled.
We chat. She says, “I do still want to buy a new place.”
“Ok,” I say, “I think I know something you are really going to like. Come on, how about we go there right now? I’ll call on the way to let them know we’re coming.”
She loves it!
She wants to speak privately. “Can you give me a big discount on your commission?” She wants to negotiate. I know she really wants this condo, so I stand firm. She frowns. Double frown. A discussion ensues, but it does not go well.
“Bottom line,” she says “you should not make this much money; you should not make more than me in one day, and especially not this easily. I had to study and train for years before I made any money at all.”
I do not make the sale.
I am disappointed, but it got me thinking.
She is right.
Real estate brokerage should not work this way.
When Ray finished telling me his story, I was flabbergasted, and asked, “Have you ever talked to Sue again?”
“No. I don’t think she is speaking to me.”
“Ray,” I said, “That is the most romantic story I have ever heard.”
“Sure. Tell me how you knew exactly what Sue wanted.”
“OK, but I don’t want you telling anyone my proprietary techniques.”
When he was done, I said, “Don’t fear, I won’t tell anyone what you just said because if Sue wants to know, she will have to break silence and ask you.”
“But, I’ll tell you what you did was not a technique,” I continued. “What you did was fall in love with Sue. And you began falling in love with her the instant the guy who referred Sue said she was beautiful and smart and successful and that she could be demanding, which is just another way of saying she knows what she wants. Your heart went out to her because wealthy men and beautiful women who know what they want have the same problem. People will ask you what you want, and then they will let you talk for hours and hours but they don’t listen, because they are not trying to get you, they are thinking about what they can get from you. And when they don’t get what they want from you, they conclude you’re a pain.”
“Go on,” Ray said.
“You let her talk and you listened so you could grok her, and once your two hearts beat as one, as only happens when you are in love, then you knew what she wanted because you only had to listen to your own heart. How many wealthy men have no idea what their trophy wives want for their anniversary because they have never shared the same heart?”
“OK…” Ray was smiling.
“The second time she was pissed because she didn’t understand that you were so skilled, and I’m not even sure you understand either. Every good salesman falls in love with his clients because how else but by being of one heart and mind can you know what the other person feels, thinks, and needs? She is wrong to think you are worth less than her; all she has to do is show up and knock people out, and there are hundreds of medical schools that teach anesthesiology.
“But where do you learn the proper way of falling in love with so many people that you can make a living at it, and where do you learn to deal with the heartache that comes when someone like her dumps you for the wrong reasons?
“Of course, I am not talking about sexual love. But I am talking about romantic love, and Ray, you are a romantic. Your client dumped you and you aren’t pissed. At first, her problem was, ‘Where do I live?’ and you could solve that the next day. The second time, her problem was, ‘Why do I have to pay so much?’ so you thought about it and decided that solving this problem will take a little longer.
“It is immaterial to this story if you ever get to speak to her again, or fall in love again with her, or her problems – or even get a chance to thank her for all she has given you. The thing that makes you a romantic is that you fall in love with solving other people’s problems.”
I stopped talking, and waited. But he said nothing, so I said, “Tell me if I’m wrong.”
He nodded and said, “You may be right.”
My mind was racing all the way home from my lunch with Ray. I had to figure out how to write up Ray’s story before I forgot, because I need it for the people who ask me how to succeed in business.
I am occasionally asked to stand in lecture halls packed with young business students eager to learn how they can become rich. I say that I don’t actually know how to become rich, particularly when you are young. My interest in business as an art form came late in life, and although I eventually got an MBA, I wouldn’t wish one on anybody. I’m a writer at heart, with a special interest in writing code. All I did was fall in love with a very hard problem after years of honing the skills needed to do something about it, and everything else was luck.
I recommend to these students that, if they aren’t already pursuing something they are totally passionate about, they:
- Start by learning how to make something that solves other people’s real problems (and if you are not learning where you are, go somewhere else).
- Once master a craft you love, eventually you might fall in love with a problem so hard nobody anywhere has solved it before – not even once.
But beware – hard problems are hard mistresses who will do everything in their power to break your heart; but Tennyson got it right: it is better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all.
Most of the students look at me like I’m a nut job, but they humor me because, although they don’t get what I am saying, there is something they want to get from me. Afterward they press their overly-cute business cards in my hand and tell me how they want to show me their latest app for getting more people to buy more junk. I tell them, “I’m sorry, but I’m not an investor.”
One venture capitalist I met in Montreal once told me how he invests, and I think he got it just right. He asks, “What (not who) do you love?” Then he lets them talk and he sees if he can fall in love too. If their hearts start to beat as one, only then will he write a check.
My brain was buzzing all through last night’s dinner with my family, and I knew I had to calm down before I would begin writing. So I turned on PBS and they were playing Bringing Up Baby. It proved to be the second romantic story of the day. It is about a man (Cary Grant) who is in love with a problem (dinosaurs) and that makes him loveable even though he doesn’t know it (but you and Katherine Hepburn do). He falls in love with her, and while you know what is happening to him, he only figures it out in the last 30 seconds.
Yesterday was a perfect day because I am such a sucker for romance.
PS. Ray’s current business is the tip of the iceberg. He is relentlessly resourceful and his idea is revolutionary. If you want to understand what he loves, you need to ignore his website and do what he did with me. Go to lunch with him and let him talk. Try to grok him even before trying to get his idea, and do not even think about what you might want from him. (Except that, if you want to know how he knew which apartment Sue wanted, you need to ask him because my lips are sealed.)
And if you want to be a relentlessly resourceful revolutionary like Ray, you need to be a romantic.
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