The Closing: Glenn Sanford

The eXp Realty founder on the virtual brokerage's explosive growth, becoming a billionaire and his Winnebago odyssey

National Issue /
Apr.April 22, 2021 07:30 AM

Glenn Sanford (Photo courtesy of eXp Realty)

Glenn Sanford built a multibillion-dollar residential brokerage in his own, untethered image.

Sanford, a former top producer at Keller Williams, founded eXp Realty in 2009 with the ambition to build the first fully virtual brokerage of scale. A few years later, he crisscrossed the U.S. in a 43-foot Winnebago to build his agent army, selling them on the promise of technology and incentivizing them to bring others to his ranks.

eXp exists only in the cloud, and agents use avatars to interact in a Sims-like world. While other firms are still developing end-to-end platforms, eXp already offers a full set of digital tools to list, market and sell homes. 

The pandemic supercharged one of the most explosive growth stories in residential brokerage. In 2020, eXp swelled to 50,000 agents and generated a record $31 million in profits. eXp World Holdings — which owns the brokerage and VR platform Virbela — saw its stock shoot up 9x over the past year, giving it a market cap of $5.4 billion and landing Sanford, a three-time college dropout, on Forbes’ billionaires list.

Critics say eXp attracts agents with high commission splits and a revenue-sharing program that prioritizes recruiting new agents over selling real estate. But Sanford argues that his model is the fairest way to scale a business. One of “the most democratic ways of distributing income and equity,” he said, is “by sharing it with the people who are actually on the ground doing the work.”

Born: October 15, 1966
Lives: Pacific Northwest
Hometown: Alberta, Canada; Oklahoma City
Family: In a relationship with Debbie Biery; Divorced with two daughters (ages 25 and 27)

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Alberta and moved to British Columbia when I was three. We lived there until I was 13. My dad and uncle sold a cereal manufacturing business to Kellogg’s in 1978. My dad had been investing in the oil and gas business, so he decided moving to Oklahoma was a good idea. We moved initially to Oklahoma City, then about 45 minutes outside the city, to a dirt road community where we were at least 2 miles in any direction from paved roads. 

What were you like as a kid?

We moved quite a bit, so I wouldn’t say that I had a lot of really deep friendships. But I really enjoyed things like computers, chess and long-distance running. On some level, I think, it allowed me to be a better entrepreneur over time because I was less concerned about what people thought … I was able to approach entrepreneurship with more of a creative bent to satisfy my needs and try things out.

I’ve seen a newspaper clip from when you were 15 and developed accounting software for local businesses. What seeded that interest in technology?

I recognized that anything repetitive could be done with a computer rather than by a person. It was something that stuck with me — recognizing that the personal computer was something that could be leveraged. I did a little bit of keyboarding while I was at university. It was back in the days when you could go to an Apple user group meeting and meet all these eclectic computer enthusiasts from different walks of life and trade software.  

You didn’t finish school.

I was in and out of university, and it never quite stuck. But I went three times. I didn’t think much of geography, American history and all those other courses like psychology … I almost walked out the first time. The second time, I got distracted because I kept starting new businesses, including becoming a stockbroker. I think I ran out of money and moved back in with my parents. The third time, I just didn’t want to do the hours left in my degree.

What was your first job?

I had the obligatory paper route back when I was 11 or 12. When I was 15, I was doing software development work. The summer I graduated high school, I did landscaping. I worked at a number of Taco Bells. When I was in the first year of university, I sold cars. When I dropped out the first time, I was selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door to door. I cut my teeth on sales there. Eventually I [was] the top salesperson, until I found I was selling them for about $1,000 and my boss was buying them for $200. I couldn’t sell another Kirby vacuum cleaner because all of a sudden the value wasn’t there any more.

How did you get into real estate?

When I got into the business in 2002, I was $40,000 more in debt than I’d been before I started my previous startups. I ended up working for a local Realtor on his website. He thought I should become a real estate agent. I said, “OK, but I’m not going to approach my friends and family to buy real estate. I’m going to build this online and work the leads.” I ended up doing phenomenally well. In 2004, I went to Keller Williams and was there for three years. Lead generation, and helping agents convert those leads into closed transactions, was a sweet spot for me.

What happened when the financial crisis hit?

In 2007, we decided to break out of Keller Williams to start our own brokerage. By the second half of 2008, we had to get rid of some offices in a hurry just to be able to stay afloat. We raised a little bit of money and went back to the drawing board. We got to the point where we recognized that high-speed internet was pretty ubiquitous, so [we said], “Why don’t we start the real estate brokerage that so many of the industry pundits and futurists have been talking about?”

In 2015, you drove a Winnebago across 26 states in 10 months to pitch eXp to agents.

I’m all about science experiments. In 2009, one was, “How do we build a real estate brokerage without physical bricks and mortar?” But it was really a timing thing. Our lease was coming up on the house we were in. We had flown 56 times in 2014. So the idea was, “Why don’t we just take our house with us, and let’s start to see a bit of the country. Let’s meet some of our agents.” We also thought it would make a good story — offering a company that runs 100 percent virtually and doing it without actually going to a physical office.

Where do you live now?

We have a condo [in Blaine, Washington] and a boat that I’m sitting on. Though at the end of the year, we were actually in an RV, so we’ve got a pretty mobile lifestyle. I’ve been in meetings all day in our virtual office, and I’ve been doing it from the boat.

You took eXp public in 2013 via reverse merger with a Canadian penny stock company, way before the current SPAC craze.

In 1988 or 1989, my dad helped about 10 or 12 companies become public through reverse mergers. I would sometimes help in terms of investor relations, or do some other work behind the scenes.

I always wanted agents to be shareholders of eXp. At the time, there were significant limitations in the ability to actually have nonaccredited shareholders as part of your company. I had somebody I had known for quite a number of years who wanted to do a “shell deal.” He and I got together and said, “Hey, this makes a lot of sense. Let’s see if we can do this, because this would solve for helping our agents be shareholders.”

eXp has a revenue-sharing program for agents based on their ability to recruit others. Critics have called it a pyramid scheme.

There are a lot of people who don’t like alternative ways to handle compensation, because it competes with the more traditional business approach. Historically, the wealth of companies has been limited to a handful of large, elite shareholders. When you look at some of the fastest-growing companies, they broke into those industries with a network marketing compensation plan.

What do you think of the current SPAC frenzy?

It’s a really interesting approach to becoming public, because [with] the IPO process, you have to really be on the inside track with the right investment bank and everything’s got to be positioned really well. The amount of brain damage that it takes to go through that whole cycle doesn’t make as much sense as if there’s a company that comes with $200 million or $500 million of capital that’s looking for a project.

I don’t think [though] that SPACs can be a long-term viable vehicle, because the quality of investments will go down and then the returns will start to really hurt shareholders. 

You debuted on the Forbes billionaires list this month. What does success mean to you?

It’s never really been about wealth. I’ve got a couple toys that I probably would have no matter what. I always want to work on things that are interesting to me. I never expected to even be remotely close to being a billionaire. It was never on my bucket list. It’s more about having the freedom to be able to do things that I like to do when I’d like to do that. I think eXp created more millionaires in the residential real estate industry — at least on paper — than any other real estate brokerage. I consider that to be more of a measure of success.

You’ve described eXp as a “bread-and-butter” brokerage, with average price points of $350,000. But that’s the part of the market most threatened by technology and iBuyers. Are you concerned your agents may go the way of travel agents?

Not yet. iBuyers have not seen a down market yet. We saw a little bit of this last year [at the height of the pandemic] when the iBuyers basically quit buying homes. And yet agents continued to list and sell homes and continued to do the work that was necessary to keep the housing market running.

Many brokerages claim to be tech-enabled. Is their tech really all that? Where does eXp fall?

I would say that eXp is a hybrid. It’s a real estate brokerage that has certain tech enablement features. Where we really use technology is the disintermediation of bricks and mortar, rather than trying to go to a bunch of agents and saying, “Here’s a bunch of really cool technology tools that will help you do more business.” At the end of the day, an agent will have a hard time measuring whether they’ve gotten one additional transaction from that technology stack. And so that’s the part where I sort of scratch my head and go, “That sounds like smoke and mirrors, rather than true technology.”

Has eXp finally won over skeptics of a cloud-based, avatar-using brokerage?

I don’t think the avatar portion of the skepticism has entirely gone away. But the idea of a cloud-based brokerage is now recognized as a truly legitimate business whose time has come. We were simply the pioneers of that model. If you go out another 10 years, some 20 or 25 percent of agents will be connected to a brand or brokerage where the physical office isn’t even really in its current state.

Who would you consider your biggest mentor?

My dad was certainly my biggest mentor early on. I recognized that this thing called “business” provided a lifestyle that was a little bit different from those who had a traditional job. When I was young, we lived in a single-wide manufactured home and parked it in a trailer park in Abbotsford, British Columbia. So I always thought that it was riskier to take a job than it was to start a business.

What are your hobbies?

I get 15 to 30 miles of running in every week. And I’ve been enjoying boat ownership since 2017. I did judo from the time I was 17 — I like to do a little coaching when I can. I’m an introvert by nature, so I love going on long walks in the forest.

Is there a single piece of advice you live by?

The purpose of the business is to serve the needs of the owner. If more broker-owners truly designed their business to serve their needs as human beings, they can get some more of those benefits so that they can have the freedom and flexibility to actually live a life.

And then another is my favorite Zig Ziglar quote: “You can get anything you want in life if you just help enough other people get what they want.”


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