The Collegian
Friday, August 07, 2020

Social networking contributes to alum realty success

University of Richmond graduate Blair Brandt recognized the difficulty his recently graduated friends were having in apartment searching and created a solution to help, which became The Next Step Realty.

The company, founded in April, matches recent college graduates with real estate brokers in cities where the apartment searchers have employment, said Brandt, who was a leadership studies major with a business minor. Minus one math requirement which he completed during May Term, Brandt was finished in December of 2009 and spent the Spring semester at home in Palm Beach, Fla., where he planned to get started in the real estate business. A friend from high school, Belton Baker, a senior at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, was also in Palm Beach while taking a semester off, and he joined Brandt in creating the business.

Brandt said he formed the idea around the fact that he knew some brokers in New York City whom he thought he could connect with friends searching for somewhere to live. It was Baker's idea, Brandt said, to market the service on a large scale. The pair did so by sending e-mails to fraternities and sororities at Richmond and UNC.

"We got an overwhelming amount of feedback," Brandt said, "so we decided to keep doing that at other schools ... basically taking advantage of listservs in the same way that Facebook got started, to get it off the ground fast, just with the few clicks of a button. Then the demand got to the point where it was in the hundreds, then thousands."

To deal with the demand, they created a website for the company, Brandt said. They also reach potential clients with their Facebook page, which Baker said was nearing 3,000 fans.

Reaching out to people through Facebook is part of what Brandt calls "a new age of marketing," which is what The Next Step Realty is focused on. He said that the best way to promote a company was naturally, rather than forcing it upon people.

"We want people to be hearing about this through word of mouth, hearing about it at a party, at a mixer, in their classrooms, texting about it," Brandt said. "We want people discussing it in a way that makes it cool. ... Our goal is to really stay away from advertising and continue to use social media."

Baker is a geography major at UNC, and his role with the company is dealing with marketing and generating ideas, Baker said. He said The Next Step Realty has also used matchbooks, which have the logo and web address on them.

"It's much more casual to give out in the college atmosphere," he said. "It works well with the demographic because they go from person to person so easily."

Brandt said he located brokers through friends and family, and clients and brokers are matched after the broker had gone through a screening process to gauge his or her fit with the company.

"By matching apartment hunters with realtors," Brandt said, "what you really end up doing is matching clients with the inventory of apartments, because in most cities most realtors have access to most of the inventory in that city."

When he came up with the idea for the company, Brandt said he had known at least five realtors in New York City, the location with their greatest number of clients. Washington, D.C. and Chicago are also popular locations, he said.

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Tony Caputo is one of these brokers. Caputo said he met Brandt in May through a mutual friend who suggested Brandt talk to him about getting involved with the company. Caputo, who works in New York City, said he had done two deals with the company and dealt with approximately ten clients.

The Next Step Realty is the only business of its kind that he had heard of, Caputo said, and he thought it was a good system.

Currently, The Next Step Realty generates money by connecting with the brokers and selling them information on potential clients, Brandt said, but they are in the process of becoming a brokerage firm. In the brokerage firm model, Brandt said that they would make more money, because the company would actually be the broker, and so would make a commission from the client-broker transactions.

The Next Step Realty is moving in a more technological direction, Brandt said, and in the next year he and Baker were going to work on developing the website to better handle the greater number of clients they anticipated attracting.

Also, the pair will be marketing and promoting the company, Brandt said. He said he had been meeting with investors in New York City and that there were plans for a five-month college tour starting in January, during which they would host promotional dinners and parties and spread awareness of the website and Facebook page.

"Once April comes around we're back in business," Brandt said, "and we're hoping to find this 2011 class their apartments."

Contact staff writer Elizabeth Hyman at elizabeth.hyman@richmond.edu

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