Lori Graves is a former real estate broker and business owner who now practices as a residential property appraiser. She quit her job as a French teacher and became the owner of her father's brokerage at the age of 25, led the company to further success and achievement, and finally transitioned into appraisals after her time as a broker. I sat down with her to talk about some of her challenges running a business, what led her towards the path of self-employment, and how she dealt with the stress that comes along with that...
To preface your experience as a business owner, I was wondering how you began and what may have influenced your decision to become your own boss?
I was actually teaching, which is extremely regimented. My degree was in French and, really, I don’t know what else you could possibly do besides become a French teacher since I wasn’t good enough to translate. I don’t think I set-out with the idea that I would love to teach, but I loved French, so I went to teacher’s college. Teaching was just so rigid, and I just hated that regimentation during the three years I taught. I remember I’d stand in the hallway waiting for class to start and they didn’t come in my room at 8:24, they'd come in my room at 8:25, which is just so regimented. And even if you wanted to do something more creative, you can’t keep the kids two minutes into recess when the bell rang, so I was really starting to get frustrated. And then there was the aspect of no control. You have a principal who has ultimate control over you, and he/she is ultimately controlled by the superintendent when they step in the building, so if they wanted you to teach a specific way, that’s how it was going to be enforced.
So, at the same time, my parents were getting older and I was currently saving to try to buy a house, so my Dad asked if I wanted to do some work for him on the side at his brokerage to make a little extra money. I started going to open houses with him if he had a really busy house and I really enjoyed that, so one day he asked if I wanted to quit my teaching job and buy the company. I immediately gave my notice because I knew I didn’t want to teach much longer, I took my courses that year, and I actually bought his business, which took me years to pay off. The whole draw was that I could be my own person and it matched my personality.
What was it like in the beginning and how did you find getting things off the ground?
I had a lot of help and my timing was absolutely perfect since my parents were trying to get out of it, so when they didn’t want to work as hard, they would send things my way. Since the business was established and well run, I got a lot of help. In order to get new clients, we would send out letters with my business cards and flyers, oh my gosh, flyers. We used to do flyers like crazy and, I don’t know how it is now, but we used to get tons of walk-ins.
What difficulties did you experience that you might not have expected? There are the obvious ones when it comes to entrepreneurship, but maybe something that you didn’t expect.
I think just the anxiousness of it. Like, I knew there would be times when you wouldn’t make much money, and I knew there would be times where you would realize that you aren’t working with anyone right now, but I didn’t expect the effect it would have on me. You would be thinking that it is all okay because it was budgeted for, but if I don’t make any money in the next month too…so I found my myself anxious more often than I expected. That was 1989, and I had a baby in 1990. We had a house so even though it seemed like a good idea to take over the business, I knew I couldn’t do it on just a whim. I also knew my parents weren’t going to let me default on my mortgage, but that is still the last thing you want to do.
Do you think running your own business is for everyone? If not, what kind of person do you think it is for?
You can’t be lazy, obviously. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but you have to do something even when there’s nothing to do. Now, as an appraiser, it is a little different for me since the business seems to be there day-in and day-out, at least to a certain degree, but when I was a broker, you had to do a lot more than wait at your desk by the phone. You can always do something, and you’re not stuck at the desk, but people would still ask what they should do. It almost becomes a case of if you can’t think of something to do, then maybe it’s not for you. Creativity is a big one and just not being lazy. You’re doing the research about what I should do about this and that, but over the years, if you look around, you’ll notice that the successful people in their fields probably aren’t sleeping in at 7 am, they are in the office. I don’t necessarily mean you have to be at the office at 7 am, but I mean they’re putting in the time and they are taking care of the work. It’s like anything in life where you have to keep your head down and be positive. Even others in your profession can be downers, so you really have to be careful about who you listen to.
How has being self-employed changed your personality? We know that having a specific personality is a must for running your own business, but how did your personality change while being self-employed?
So that would go two ways in my case, which might not be everybody else’s case, but it definitely brings you out of your shell if you have one. It’ll bring you out even more since you know you have to call people even though you don’t know exactly what to say. The hardest thing about that I remember is that if nothing has happened on a client’s listing all week and you still have to call them, but you can’t even say there might be a showing. That really brings you out because you really have to come up with something positive or something to talk to them about.
The flip side is that I also think it makes me, in my personal life, a little more introverted. I might not want to call people or talk to anyone, so I have to keep that in mind.
What advice would you give to someone, younger or older, that might be thinking of working for themselves, whether it is someone that doesn’t love schooling, someone who no longer finds joy in their job, or maybe someone wanting to do something on the side for a second income?
One thing is that you have to be realistic. I think sometimes we all look at people that are hugely successful and have that as our goal, which is fine, but you have to be realistic in that it probably took them an immensely long time to get there. It takes a while, and a lot of people would give up in no time or get really discouraged, but some things, real estate in particular, are such long-term things. You might meet somebody today that is not looking to move until next year. So, the patience and having realistic expectations can help prepare you for any disappointment. It is really easy to get lazy if you have nothing that needs to get done at the office, so you have to make sure you’re persistent.
The satisfaction that comes along with it is huge. It is super rewarding to know that you controlled something and that you were the one that made something happen. You work so hard and, like you said, you might want to stay an extra hour. And, let’s be honest, there is some reward in making money. There is some excitement since you are in charge of it, so it’s fun to say that you earned it and you are good at it. That is just how you are going to know if you’re successful.
And, to get away from business activities a bit, I was wondering what you do to manage the stress and pressure that comes along with running a business?
That is really tricky, and I don’t know if I have any great advice on that for other people. It definitely happens and you’ll look at people who go to their normal job every day and think about how they have no idea, because it is on your mind all the time and you’re living it. I guess you’ll get better at managing the stress as you chill out and become more comfortable in your business, and enjoy the time you have when things aren’t busy, because next week you might not have five minutes to do anything because you are so busy. And, as you become more financially stable, you’ll worry about that a little less because you’ll think about how you might be able to cut back a bit this month and have a bit more fun. It goes in waves, like anything, so you have to make sure you don’t spend over your level of income, which is going to cause you to stress since as soon as it slows down, you’re not going to be ready. So, make sure to enjoy the times while you’re slower and embrace it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
My name is Patrick MacDougall and I am a licensed REALTOR® based out of Tillsonburg, Ontario. I service the Oxford, Norfolk, and Elgin County areas and work everyday to bring as much value to others as I possibly can.