Q&A with Smart City Founder and CEO, Cassie Brown

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Smart City
Apr 19, 2019

If you’ve ever come to a Smart City function, chances are you’ve seen our fearless leader, Cassie Brown, climb onto a table and give a speech so encouraging and genuine that you left with goosebumps and feeling more inspired than you thought possible; after all, she is the ultimate hype-(wo)man!

But if you haven’t seen it in person, we thought you still deserved to get a glimpse of Cassie’s passion and what makes her a small business champion/real estate disrupter. So, we pulled her into a room and asked her all kinds of questions. Grab a snack and check out how the conversation went!

Lounging on CouchJust going to jump right in–what gets you out of bed in the morning?

The people I work with and the purpose of the company! I get excited that I don’t have to wake up and be somebody else or put a suit and tie on and be anything but me. I get to come to work as myself, hang out with people that I really like hanging out with and solve really cool business problems–my brain gets to work all day.

So your eyes open in the morning and you think, “Yes! Problem solving”?

Most days, yeah! I love going to work. Honestly, any job will have bad days. There are some days where I think I’m not suited for this. But it was a transition. I didn’t just wake up one day and become the CEO of a 20 million dollar company. It’s been a long process, and I’ve learned so much along the way – I’ve had time to adjust to all the new challenges. I love it. I love my job. Wouldn’t trade it.

What’s the most important thing that you’re working on right now?

The relaunch of the website and building up the executive team. But that’s just me specifically. My position has changed a lot. It used to be me that did all the work but now if I try to do all of the work, I get in trouble because that means I’m not growing my people. Now I’m focusing on getting everyone the resources they need to do their job effectively. It’s a different world, because ultimately it’s my job to let people fail a little bit. Instead of just giving everyone an answer, I’ve got to let them try to figure things out. Letting things go completely has been a little bit difficult, but it’s more important to let the people learn on their own, even if they have to fail first.

Why was Smart City the right idea, and what took it from an idea to a reality?

It wasn’t necessarily an idea at all. At the beginning I was broke and just needed to make money so that I could eat, but it turned into so much more than that. I hated my corporate job but I didn’t have any money, my credit was crap and I couldn’t get a business loan to start anything cool. Real estate had a low barrier of entry, so I had to make real estate cool. It’s not like I woke up one day and thought THIS IS THE IDEA. It was never a single lightbulb moment. It’s been many, many moments that eventually transformed into this.

So tell me about the day you hired your first employee, because at that point it’s not just about feeding yourself; now you’re feeding someone else too.

Honestly, that changed everything for me, because when I first started the business I was a machine working like 90 hours a week. I was working 40 hours at my boring corporate job and 50+ hours building this business. But then when I quit my full time job and moved to Dallas (from Austin), I kind of went off the rails a bit. I wasn’t working as much or as hard, instead I just took a break. I was figuring out the city and hanging out with my mom for like a three month period. Then when she passed away I realized I needed to get my life together. In order for me to push myself harder and focus on the business, I needed to be responsible for someone else; and that’s when I met Ashley.

Wait, how did you meet her (Ashley) exactly?

I put a job posting on Craigslist and she responded. Her email was absolutely amazing. I brought her in for an interview and she blew me away, so I asked if she could start in like five days. Then we got the office and I actually had to go to work every day. Working hard became a habit and everything got stronger and the business became so much more than it was in the beginning, when all I wanted was to be myself and make a little money. As a team, we realized we were capable of even bigger things!

That’s amazing. Would you say that the first time you posted a cheap deal on Instagram was a pivotal moment for Smart City marketing?

Oh yeah, I still remember the day! Icon at Ross was brand new and running a flash sale, like 25% off everything, and there was a studio for $792! We just thought, “holy shit, this is crazy and people need to know about it”, so we posted it on Instagram and it blew up. I was texting like 40 people at one time; back in 2013 that was a ton.

How did that affect your marketing strategy?

It was incredible and a very specific moment. We were like, “okay, we need to focus on this” and that’s when I quit locating apartments. I found out that I was better at lead generation than I was at actually finding people apartments, so I stopped taking leads and focused full-time on marketing.

At that point, how many agents did you have working for you?

Probably about eight agents and me. But I was different. A lot of brokers provide leads for their teams but keep the best ones for themselves. That didn’t make sense to me. I always gave away the best leads and just helped the agents close them, because if the individuals were doing good, the business would follow. Quitting locating to focus on running the business and developing the team was common sense to me.

And here we are now with entire marketing, finance, and operations teams, and it all started because you hated your job!

I literally hated my job! And that’s the cool thing because a lot of people like their jobs here. There will always be bad days at every job, but there are less bad days at Smart City–that’s just the goal. If you’re having a bad day, you can come to work and the person next to you is going to care and be like, “let’s talk about it” because they genuinely care about you as a human.

How do you measure your success?

I have a goal board at home that I write out every year, and I would say that if I hit  the numbers on that board I would feel successful. For me, success isn’t about how much money I make or how much money the business makes; it’s more about how many people can we let in on our little secret. It’s always been the goal to give more people what we have here. I think at the end of this year we’ll be at about 170 team members–I am personally effecting 170 people’s lives in a positive way and that is success to me.

CEO speaks to large groupSpeaking of people, can you describe the Smart City squad in three words?

Oh god! Um… inclusive, passionate and good humans. Can we hyphenate that last one?

Good-humans! We’ll count it as one word. So how can you tell if someone is going to be the right fit for the company/the culture?

Our core values! In interviews we ask specific questions about our core values. For example, one of our values is “overachiever” so we ask about a time they went above and beyond, then we really listen to their answer. It’s called behaviorial interviewing and it’s very important.

You won’t believe this, but my next question is ‘what’s your favorite question to ask in an interview’?

Ha! Well it depends if I’m going to be managing that person. If I am, I like to ask them what was the worst thing about working with a previous boss they’ve had. If they say anything like their boss didn’t give them a very specific outline of their responsibilities or if they say their worst manager was a little manic, disorganized or any of the things that I am, then I know that I won’t be able to manage them. And if they just use that question to talk bad about their old boss, then I know they’re not a good fit.

If I’m not managing them and I’m just making sure they’re a culture fit, I always interview around the core values. Because we’re in real estate and for the most part, the job itself can be taught, but we can’t teach someone to have a great work ethic or to be a good human and make morally responsible decisions. So those are things we’re really big on discovering during interviews.

I feel like I might already know the answer to this question, but I hope you surprise me. If someone wrote a book about the Smart City culture, what would they title it?

I mean there’s a lot; anything around our core values, ‘A Space to be Yourself’ or even just ‘Smart City’. What did you think I would say?

I figured you would say ‘HONOR’.

Core values, right! Because that is what directly feeds the culture here.

(H.O.N.O.R. is the acronym for the Smart City core values).

Describe one of the best days you’ve ever had at work.

Wow, there have been so many!

Yeah, like six years of good days right?

Yes! On April 1st we turned six!

But I would say there is one moment that stands out. We did a Cabo incentive where agents got a free trip to Cabo if they hit a certain sales goal, and it was nuts! I thought maybe two people would hit the goal, but we had like 12 agents hit the incentive and I think we only had 20 people working here at the time, so that’s more than half! It was incredible. Everyone was cheering each other on and celebrating every lease by chanting “Cabo!” and it was just so supportive, inclusive, fiery and fun. I don’t really get to be a part of that energy anymore because I’m not as involved with the sales team. I can’t just text the agents like “GO, GO, GO!” because the Sales Managers get to do that now, which is great but that was one of the best months at Smart City. Everyone was showing up to work every day, ready to help as many people as possible and crush goals!

What’s the toughest thing about being in charge?

It’s lonely. You know that things need to happen and things need change but the problem is that you can’t talk to anybody about the changes, because you can’t talk to anyone beneath you if it affects them. So it’s like I’ve got all these ideas and things I want to do, but I can’t talk about them because some of them affect the team, and some of them might not be good for the team. I’ve made that mistake before, talking through some ideas with people beneath me. The whole team freaked out, but it was just an idea.

You were verbal processing?

Yeah I was, but I had to get rid of doing that. And it’s a very lonely job at the top because you can’t have very close intimate connections with everyone, and nobody really understands what it’s like. But I’ve gotten involved with some Vistage groups and that’s helped so much. I’ve met so many business owners who are going through similar stuff, and it’s been so good to be able to talk about things.

Team Meeting in conference room

How do you make sure your employees stay motivated to be here and work hard?

By showing people where we’re going and the opportunities that we have. It’s so easy when you really sit down and say, “look at where we’re going and look at where we’ve come from. So if we can go from there to here, by putting the effort in every day and consistently pushing, imagine where we can go and what we can do collectively as a team!” I think as long as we’re talking about the big picture and explaining the why behind things, it helps people stay motivated.

Give me an elevator pitch. Why should renters get excited about using Smart City?

Oh my god, I have so many reasons! I’ll try to fit it in 30 seconds. Honestly, the biggest thing is that our hyper-personalized process is different. We ask all the right questions. We’re not just asking “When’s your move date and where do you want to live?” We’re asking, “Where’s your job and how close do you want to be to work? Where do your friends and family live? Where do you like to go out? What are the things that drive you?” We care about the things that are important to people. The things that people don’t regularly think to ask but that actually matter, we always ask. We take the extra step because people are going to LIVE there, and that’s a big deal.

As an expert in the subject, what advice would you give someone who’s renting?

The first thing I would say is, don’t stress, it’s 12 months. It’s not the end of the world or a 30-year mortgage. We’ll find you something great!

But the biggest thing I can stress is that it’s good to do your research, but don’t let yourself get overwhelmed with options. All these big internet listing services are overwhelming and they’re going to stress you out by making you think that you have to make the perfect decision, and that sucks. But that’s what we’re here for. We take the stress out of the whole process and narrow down the options according to what you’ve told us matters to you. So use a locator, even if it’s not Smart City. Use somebody who knows what they’re doing, knows the market and knows what’s right for you and can strip away anything else. Because too much of anything is still too much.

Explain the apartment triangle and why you think it’s an important concept for people to understand.

Well, you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes…

Oh my gosh!

…you just might find, you get what you need!

But seriously, you can’t get everything you want. It’s hard to get a great deal, in an amazing location with gorgeous finishes. All three don’t usually exist together. So you have to choose. If you want an amazing location with amazing finishes, you’re going to pay the price. But if you want a killer location and a killer price, it’s not going to be upgraded. The three are there for a reason and when you choose two from the triangle, it helps us help you. When we know what your priorities are, we can focus on getting you what you want!

What’s the purpose of everything we’re doing here at Smart City?

Simply put, I just want to help as many people as we can. It’s not about the money, it’s about the humans. Literally one of our core values is to do what’s right over what’s more profitable. Hands-down, our greater purpose is to connect people with the space to be themselves.

In an alternate universe where Smart City doesn’t exist and you could be doing anything professionally that you want, what would you do?

This is a tough question. I have a lot of dreams for when I grow up. I would like to be a motivational speaker for kids and speak at schools about entrepreneurship. I’d also love to bring technology to education. It’s so important and I love to learn and read and try new things, so I’d really like to bring that to education more and help give children those tools and opportunities.

And I mean yeah, I’d like to be a professional snowboarder too or start a snowboarding brand. That would be fun.

Smart City Group Photo

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