In this episode of Agent Engine, co-hosts Brian Gardner and Jay Thompson discuss the Snowvid ’21 event which hit South Texas, Taylor Swift, the original WordPress Revolution, and the Agent Engine Story.
Announcer: Welcome to Agent Engine, a podcast for agents and brokers who are serious about building and growing their real estate business. Co-hosts Brian Gardner and Jay Thompson, along with leading industry experts, explore the power of technology, the value of community, and the tools you need to become a real estate powerhouse.
Brian: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the “Agent Engine” podcast. You are listening to episode number two. My name is Brian Gardner, and I am the CEO of Agent Engine, along with Jay Thompson, co-host of the show. In our last show, Jay and I discussed our encounter at Starbucks, his illustrious career in real estate, and how he passes the time now that he is retired.
All right, so today, we’re going to talk a little bit more about me, but before we get started, Jay, welcome back to the show. And my original question was, “How is life down there in Siberia,” but that was last weekend. This is this week, and things are a little bit different now, right?
Jay: Yes. Thanks, Brian. Things are much better here. We had a great Snowvid ’21 Texas freeze-out last week, which was pretty horrible. Lost power for three days. I didn’t have running water, and, you know, really drove home the importance of me of things like running water and flushable toilets we take for granted. But things are better now; temperatures are back in the 70s. There are just many dead plants around, and the grocery stores are starting to fill back up with produce and product, so life is back to normal now.
So, anyway, enough about me, enough about life in Snowvid-free Texas. Let’s talk about you. I’ve been following you, Brian, for a long time, many, many years, and I know that Phoenix Real Estate Guy and I are just a small fraction of your story. So, let’s tell the listeners just anything and everything we’d ever want to know and maybe even more about who Brian Garner is.
Brian: You know, it’s funny. Personal branding is something I’ve always loved. I’ve thought very long and hard about how I want to position my brand, and for years, I did it by way of Sarah McLachlan and still Starbucks, to a lesser degree.
And so, a lot of people, like, hear my name, think of WordPress, think of Sarah McLachlan, and think of Starbucks. And it’s funny, I wrote about this not too long ago. About a year ago, I watched the Netflix documentary “Miss Americana” by Taylor Swift just over a year ago. And I hate to admit this, but I don’t mind admitting this. I became a huge fan. I think you and I both share that a little bit.
Jay: Her latest album, “Folklore,” is one of the best albums ever, and I’m a Swifty. I’ll admit it too.
Brian: Yeah. So, “Folklore,” a massive fan of that album, as well as “Evermore.” And then she’s even re-recording some of her older stuff. So she’s got a lot for us to listen to. But as far as personal branding goes, WordPress is how people know me, to Genesis, the framework that we built at StudioPress, brand association with Copyblogger, not so much anymore because I’m no longer a partner there.
But WordPress, I got into WordPress around 2006, 2007. I was a project manager at an architectural firm. I was competent with what I was doing. I was in a company with older people, so I was the computer guy. I taught myself a lot about things back in the day, Microsoft stuff, databases, and many things like that, but I was bored, so I started blogging kind of throughout the day.
I hate to say that. I feel like, almost like Dooce. Right, I think Dooce, Heather Armstrong, got fired for writing. I am dating myself there, too, because she was also back in the day. You and I are OGs when it comes to the internet, and, which is of course, how we met.
So, I started dabbling around in WordPress. Blogger was a platform that was around Google. It didn’t do what I wanted it to do, and a friend recommended that I use this thing called WordPress, which was more or less a self-installed version of the blogging platform. And so, I just started kind of writing. I like to write about just stuff that I think and feel. I think you do the same thing over at your “Now Pondering” site. I just started goofing around with the themes, the templates, the design, figuring out how to change fonts and colors because I didn’t like the free ones, and over time, I built an audience in the WordPress community. People started following me and listening to some of the things I was saying, tutorials, how to do this. It was sharing what I was learning.
The WordPress community is very much about sharing stuff that people learn, tutorial-type stuff. I started freelancing and doing freelance design for people. Just kind of, people would ask, “Hey, would you be open to designing something for me?” And, “Oh yeah, sure.” I didn’t even know back when I was creative; I didn’t know that I love design as much as it turns out I did. At the time, I thought I was a writer, and so I was just writing and then doing a little bit of freelance design here or there.
And ironically, and not many people know the story, and I still vow I’m going to talk to this guy and thank him, but I was a freelance designer for a real estate agent in Boston. It was a little more than what he wanted. He was looking for a blog theme, and what I had created was what we all know now as the original “Revolution” theme. This theme, of course, flipped the WordPress ecosystem on its head and ultimately launched the premium theme movement, which, in part, I think helped popularize WordPress as a whole. But he had rejected this theme design, and so I was kinda like, “Oh, well, that sucks,” first of all. Second of all, what should I do with this?
And so, I went to my blog, and I said, hey, would anybody buy this? Put a link out to the demo, and I got a resounding echo of people saying, “Yes, I would.” And so, I followed it up with, “How much would you pay?” And I think the original price was $59, and I sold many, many of them within the first three or four months of my being at that point.
It’s a long, crazy story. I sometimes forget that it starts with the rejected real estate design because we are now 12, 13, 14 years later, doing Agent Engine, which is still on WordPress and even within real estate. But yeah, here we are. That’s the skinny of it. There’s a lot more to the story that I don’t necessarily have to get into, and maybe I will at some point, but that’s the story.
Jay: It’s a great story, and I am just going to say it. I’m a Brian Garner fanboy. Your designs have appealed to me since “Revolution.” I know that was the first premium theme that I ever bought. And I’ve spent far too much money on premium themes since then, but “Revolution” was the first one I purchased. StudioPress was great. So, you left StudioPress, like two, two, and a half years ago? What’s been going on since then?
Brian: To give a little more context, StudioPress is the premium WordPress theme company I started. It was run by me and created by me. It got to a point where it got big enough, and I merged StudioPress into Copyblogger, a popular content marketing and information-type blog, with Brian Clark.
And so, we formed a company around that. For several years, we sold StudioPress themes; we did content marketing and courses over at Copyblogger in education. We created a hosting subsidiary; we built the Rainmaker platform. We did a lot of different things. And towards the end of our tenure, we were all just getting fried. We were, you know, ten years into it. We wanted to do our own thing, but we still had this huge responsibility of our company.
And so, I looked at Brian one day, and I was like, “Look, man,” I’m like, “I think it’s time we sell StudioPress.” At that point, the Gutenberg WordPress block editor talked about a lot and got ready to be merged into core. And I said, you know, many things are going to change in the WordPress theme landscape. I was like, I’m done. And I think he thought I wasn’t or didn’t want to be done, and so, he never really instigated that conversation, and I was like, “Let’s go. Let’s contact some of our people in the industry.”
And so, the short of it is we reached out to a handful of folks that are WordPress hosting companies, and we sold to WP Engine. I hung around for about a year to transition from the community and the product development standpoint. Then I was like, okay, well now what? I was still part-owner of Copyblogger, even though I like Brian and love the brand, yet just because it wasn’t my thing. And so, sort of overtime there, I said, “Let’s try to find someone to buy me out.” And we found someone, Tim Stodz, to buy me out, and we did.
And at that point, I kind of had an open road ahead of me. At that point, there were no real ties to anything other than what I wanted to do. And it took some time. I walked what I call the proverbial wilderness in terms of what I wanted to do. I did some freelance projects and stuff like that to help pay the bills or whatnot, but I was like, you know, like, I have another run in me. I have another, at least one, first of all, but at least the motivation at this point. It took some time. I wanted to take a little time off, did quite a bit of running around the trails here nearby, and just tried to kind of identity what I wanted to do.
And this past summer, I think sort of that epiphany came, which is I want to start a company. I want to do it in a vertical. I believe the vertical I want to go down is real estate. We had gone down that road a little bit several years ago, with Copyblogger and StudioPress, with the whole AgentPress brand. But I was like, you know, I love design, I love personal branding, and I think that the industry is ripe for what I can bring to it.
On some level, it’s still antiquated and lacks the right design kind of across the board. Compass has thankfully been around, you know, where they’ve modernized some of the space, but that’s kind of where we are. And so, I came up with the name; we started the brand. This process was just after the summer, and we’ve been working on building some software.
That’s what we’re doing now. We just recently launched; we’re working with agents and teams, brokerages, and even associations, just trying to help people get online, get discovered, and have a digital presence.
Jay: Awesome. That’s awesome. Can you tell us just, you know, what’s the 30-second elevator pitch for Agent Engine?
Brian: You know, that’s a great question, and it’s still somewhat evolving, only because we’re just getting feedback. The gist of what we want Agent Engine to be is a platform that real estate agents can use to get online and have a digital presence.
I’ve been a fan of sort of the simplicity movement over the last five or so years, where, from a lifestyle standpoint, all the way to a design standpoint, I encompass the less is more mentality. I wrote, I don’t know, probably a year or two ago, something around the fact of white space is where the magic happens. And I realize it’s not for all people, but I think a lot more people are starting to see the light when it comes to, you know, packed schedules, busy-ness, running around, things being chaotic, and I think on some level, we all need to pare down.
Me, from the design perspective, I created a movement that you know about, called “No Sidebar,” about five or so years ago, where I was just, one night, I had it with websites. I’m like, you know what, take sidebars off websites because it’s just, they have with stuff that we don’t need. And, you know, our lives are like that, our businesses are like that, our schedules are like that. To get back to your question, we wanted to bring good design and effortless ease of use for real estate agents to go in and manage their digital presence.
Jay: That’s cool. And I think it’s super important. And, you know, you talk about just back to the WordPress thing, it’s sidebars and clutter. My first attempts were terrible. I’m no developer, coder by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve learned a ton of stuff from what you were sharing back in the day, and that’s how I “code.” I copy stuff and paste it and modify it a little bit, and I’ll leave out a semicolon and break the whole website and do that kind of stuff.
But my sidebars, I used just to jam anything and everything I could into that, you know, the contact form, which is essential, but then there’s widgets and gizmos and buttons. My old WordPress websites, I look back at them now, and they were a mess. And I sometimes think of the minimalist movement; if you want to call it that, or minimal design, I think some people go, “Well, I don’t want minimal design. I want, you know, kick-ass design.” But that’s not what it’s about.
And, you know, you mentioned white space. I became a believer in white space as far as design goes by basically looking at your stuff, and I realized long ago that I have to get this clutter out of my website. That involves getting the clutter out of your life—which is more important than getting it out of your website.
Anyway, just a tangent there. I think the whole white space and minimalism have some negative connotation in some people’s heads, because again, it’s like, “Well, I don’t want minimal. I want good.” But that’s not what it’s about.
Brian: Yeah. I got a good fun story there, piggybacking off of the no sidebar movement. A good friend of mine, Joshua Becker, lives probably, well, not far from where you were there in Phoenix, but he lives in Phoenix, and he is the founder and owner of Becoming Minimalist.
And much like you, we tried to sort of poach him off of Thesis, which was a competing framework back in the day. And so, I offered over Twitter, before we even really knew each other and were friends, just said, “Hey, if you ever were looking for a new design, I’d be happy to do it for you.” I knew he had a large audience, like you, and that it would help benefit me, the personal brand, StudioPress, and what we were building.
And so, I reached out to him, and it was right around the time. It was a little before the time. It wasn’t by any stretch cluttered to begin with, but I said, “We’re going to remove the sidebar. We’re going to go, like, a single column.” And he kind of panicked, and he’s like, “Well, Brian, I sell my book at the top of my sidebar.” And I was like, “I understand that because it’s sort of the traditional above-the-fold thing.”
On mobile, it doesn’t matter because it all gets thrown down to the bottom anyway, but I understood. It was sort of like an older-school way of thinking of, “Yeah, I need it above the fold.” And so, I paused for a minute in that conversation, and I said, “All right, well, let me tell you something. Like, if I’m a reader, and you’re a great writer, by the way, Joshua…” I said, “If I read an article of yours, if I get to the bottom of your article and you’ve got me, right, you’ve won me over with what you wrote, where am I more likely to buy the book? Right there, at the bottom of the post. Or, the top of the sidebar, which is now long gone because your content has pushed me down screen?”
We pushed the edge of, like, trying to work with what I call intentional design, some kind of people’s deliberate actions and activities on a website. And so, try to design things now more with intentionality, and where things are more logical and likely to be, sort of, done.
We increased his book sales by quite a bit when we did that when we took away the sidebar and sold the book right at the bottom. And so, even with things like real estate and brands, I mean, everything I do kind of ties together.
All of what we do with Agent Engine, the ease of use of our profile system, and the websites that come with getting a pro account and stuff like that. It all is derivative of that, not less is more, like, you have to have, like, two words and, like, a bunch of white space, but just not doing all of the things that other people are doing just because they’re doing them, but only really having autonomy with the way you present yourself.
And, you know, I’m, as I said, a huge fan of personal branding. II think they’re legally independent contractors, which means they could do whatever they want with their businesses and digital. And I’m like, well, why wouldn’t you want to have a lovely, sophisticated design for yourself and present yourself well? It only helps your brokerage or team that you’re with and, more importantly, sets you apart from the competition—other people in your town, your space, all of those things.
And so, we wanted to equip people with software that they could do themselves, which means they didn’t have to hire a designer or developer. They literally could fill out a profile, and from that, we make a website view, and in 10 minutes, you can have something that would cost you $10,000.
Jay: Great points. I can’t begin to estimate how many hours I spent back in my blogging days, tweaking and working on the design, and I’m not a designer, like I said, you know, trying to learn PHP code and functions. And it’s just, I enjoy that, because in my, deep in my heart, I’m a wannabe nerd, and I wish I knew more about design and development. I mean, it was a big, giant time suck.
And like I said, it’s straightforward to break a blog if you’re “coding,” like I said, and you leave out a semicolon. The next thing you know, you’ve just got a significant white page on your screen, and you don’t see what you did. I was many moments of panic when I was working on my Phoenix real estate guide blog, and I would break it.
Nobody has time for that, genuine estate agents. They’re busy people. They’ve got a ton of stuff going on. They don’t have time to sit and self-educate and learn how to do these things. So that’s one of the things I love about Agent Engine, and I’ve said it since I first saw it. This process is so easy. And that’s good. Easy is a good thing, especially for busy people.
So, as you said, it’s filled out a form, name, and a little bit of stuff, and throw in a photo, and then it magically turns into a beautifully rendered web presence. It’s cool stuff.
Brian: Yeah. I’m all for anybody, genuine estate agents, wanting to, like, care about the way their website looks. And we have to be a little careful here because real estate websites are the topic of our next conversation, and I don’t want to get too far down this hole. Otherwise, we’re just going to cannibalize our podcast.
But I’m all for the real estate agent who cares about the way they look, and all for somebody who wants to be a little bit self-dependent and self-taught, like I have been, and you have been when it comes to digital and the web.
But at the end of the day, people should go out and build their business and have a website, but develop their business. Go out and connect with people and do those types of things. They need to sell houses, have open houses, meet with folks, give people tours, do all the things that real estate agents should be doing. There should be a little bit less emphasis on sitting around and, like, really geeking out and trying to learn how to code a website because the reality is, as important as websites are, they mean nothing if no one’s getting to them.
And of course, there’s, and we’ll talk about this more on the next show, the whole idea of creating local content and hyper-local things and stuff like that, but still, real estate agents should be selling houses and not building websites. So, that’s why we wanted just to come in and just make it simple for them to just kind of hit the ground running.
So, we’re excited. We have a lot going on with Agent Engine. We’ve got a lot of things in development. Our team is growing. We’ve recently added Heather Elias as an advisor, somebody who’s smart. You’re a good friend of hers, and as far as I’m concerned, we’ve got some good momentum going. And once we settle on precisely what we’re building, we look forward to just bringing it to the market and, you know, kind of doing the; we’ll call it the “roadshow,” right, the tour of things. And so, we’ll do something, I hope, like go to the Inman Conference in October there in Las Vegas, and just really try to get ourselves into the industry a lot more than we have been.
And I’ve been spending a lot of time on calls with people, you know, with our advisors, like, you know, you and Heather and whatnot, but just making myself available to listen to real estate agents and hear what their pain points are, and to help understand, you know, what they struggle with, where the challenges are, and also how we can help serve them. Because, you know, aside from just giving somebody the ability to have a website, we also want only to help train and equip.
I mean, the power of digital right now is crazy. And I realize that with COVID happening, that has altered the way people have traditionally done things. And the interest rates being this low has sort of caused the market to be just crazy. And so, agents right now, it’s a wrong time for us in the sense of they’re just so busy. You know, I see people on Instagram that say, “Oh, I got 82 offers I have to review with a client.”
I’m like, well, first of all, we’ve never seen this before. We may not ever see it again. However, as I wrote about in the last newsletter, there’s going to be a point, whether it’s in a week or a month or six months or maybe a year, where the bottom falls out, and things go back to normal. And at that point, those who have spent some time and energy working on having a digital presence and procuring business, or at least procuring how they could do that, I think is important.
And so, we understand that the attention span right now isn’t as high as we want it to be from people, but it still needs to be, people need to be thinking about what happens when this all dries up, and they have a fight for their clients and listings and whatnot.
Jay: Yeah, and it will dry up. Real estate is an incredibly cyclical industry, and it always has been, and it always will be. It’s not a straight line. This is reminiscent of back in the boom of, what, 2005 and 2006-ish, and then the market fell apart, and you’re correct. Agents need to be prepared, and if they wait until the market declines, it’s too late. It would help if you were working on that stuff now because it will change. It just will. That’s the way it works.
Brian: Well, Agent Engine is, like I said, it’s my second coming of being an entrepreneur, right. StudioPress kind of was what I call the accidental entrepreneur. I didn’t set out to build a company or do any of those things, but it just sort of accidentally happened.
I think there was uncertainty in terms of the timing. And so, I always kind of use the “once lucky, twice good” sort of analogy here, just thinking, like, okay, well, this is my opportunity personally to see whether or not I do have it or if it was just happenstance back in the day.
And so, with real estate agents right now, I feel it’s the same thing. I think there are many millennials, a lot of younger kids who are, you know, not sure what they want to do, or graduate college with a degree that they’re not using or whatever. They get into real estate, and they start selling houses left and right because just of the way the market is.
And so, there’s an element, like I experienced back in the day where it’s like, “Okay, well this is easy, so, like, will it always be easy?” And I think there’s going to be sort of some moments also where these younger agents who think, “Oh, I just show up and I just sell a bunch of houses and I get a bunch of offers. It’s that easy.” It’s not going to be that easy. And what will be interesting is to see how they all respond to the circumstances when they’ve changed, when the sort of, I won’t say the market crashes, but when things come back to earth, and agents have to work for some things, and it’s harder than they are right now.
Jay: Yep. All fair and excellent points.
Brian: Lots changing. We see a lot of consolidation. I’ll use the Z word here, Zillow, making acquisitions, and other people buying things and stuff like that. So, I think almost the same way that’s gone down in the WordPress ecosystem, you start to see sort of consolidation and shifts and things being different. And with changes come conglomerates, but then there become cracks for smaller companies like us to kind of go in and be disruptors in an industry.
And, you know, from a tech standpoint, I also find that fascinating. Like, okay, well, you know, where do we see, where do we land, right? Where do we not do what other people are already doing and all that? So, the story is in the past. A lot of my account, my personal story, is in the future. And much of that has to do with website stuff, which is very exciting. We get to talk more about that on the next episode. I think that will be a good back-and-forth conversation because I believe you and I both have enjoyed doing web things in the past.
Jay: It’s not a fad, and it’s not going away. That’s for sure. So, it’s important stuff.
Brian: Yeah. So, we’re just going to call this one a wrap. We talked about Jay’s story last week. And the funny thing is, and this is an off-topic side tangent, out-of-right-field comment here, but Jay, we got a hit on the website a couple of days ago for people researching semiconductors in Texas.
And for those out there who are, like, geek out about SEO and long-tail search, and podcast transcripts can not necessarily bring in super-targeted traffic, but picked up on some keywords of things that we talked about in the last show. And so, it’ll be interesting to see, like, as we move forward, I think these couple episodes, yours and mine, of our history, probably has a little bit wider net, if you will, of things we’re talking about. And, as we move forward, it will start to kind of narrow down and be more specific around real estate and strategies and tech and design, and all that stuff. So, it might not be quite as random, the keywords that bring people in, but you never know.
Jay: You never know. That’s super fascinating, for the SEO geek inside me thinks that’s cool. I’m looking forward to advising Agent Engine and this podcast and the future; it’s bright, man.
Brian: Well, here’s to a great 2021 for us all, for us at Agent Engine, for the listeners, those who are new to real estate, those who are building real estate businesses, those who are leaders in the industry, and those who are leaders in their own company, those who have a brokerage, who have a flock of sheep below them, lots of, just lots of good conversation to be had.
So, as much as I’ve enjoyed hearing your story and talking about mine, I’m excited about the next several episodes, the first couple of which you’ll join me on. Then beyond that, even, I’m just going to go headfirst into the pool of the real estate industry, grabbing people who are brokerage and owners, and people who stand on stage, and people who just got started and all that. Because we want to bring whatever kind of insight we can into the industry.
So, Jay, thank you for joining us here back again. Look forward to our next episode, and anything you have to say on the way out here?
Jay: I think I’ve said it. This podcast is exciting stuff, and I think the future is bright, not just for Agent Engine but for real estate in general. I’m looking forward to this and the things you’ve just discussed plans for this podcast.
I mean, here we’re on episode two, and there’s going to be a time when we’re on episode 100, and it’s going to be a wild ride, and it’s going to be fun. And people are going to learn something, and that’s super exciting for me.
Brian: Yeah. That’s part of why we’re doing this. I’ve spent 15 years in the industry, doing design, personal branding, conversion, marketing, email, all the stuff that I think, on some level, agents need to be doing, many of which they’re not. So, between you and I and those who we’re going to have on the show, I think we’ll bring sort of a treasure chest of ideas and suggestions and whatnot.
As Jay also mentioned, next episode, we will be talking about something very near and dear to our hearts: real estate websites. We’ll talk about what they are, how they work, and most importantly, why every real estate agent and the team should have one. So until then, I’m going to pull a page out of the book of “The Hunger Games.” May the odds be ever in your favor.