As a young student, Ken LeBlanc had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to do once he completed his business degree at his local college in Moncton, New Brunswick: he wanted to study law. But a private ‘For Sale’ sign spotted in front of a house derailed his carefully laid out plans.
The enterprising LeBlanc saw a brilliant business opportunity in that sign – an opportunity too good to pass up. What if all the private home sales across the city were organized within one easily accessible website, he wondered. Putting his thoughts into action, LeBlanc mobilized a couple of fellow students to join him in setting up just such a website, which they aptly named PropertyGuys.com.
“We saw an opportunity to disrupt the traditional real estate model and organize private sale a little better,” says LeBlanc, now CEO of PropertyGuys.com Inc. “It was scattered, with people just putting up a ‘For Sale by Owner’ sign on their lawn and hoping for the best. So we set to work leveraging our knowledge of technology to bring people together. We created the PropertyGuys. com website and it took off. It was pretty much an overnight success, locally.”
The year was 1998 and the site was the first of its kind in Canada. It provided homeowners with a portal where, for a nominal fee, they could list their home privately. Until then, the only online listings were those handled by licensed real estate agents.
In another first, PropertyGuys.com featured interior photos of the homes, allowing prospective buyers to have a ‘virtual viewing’ on their computer. This opened up a slew of opportunities, especially for distance home buyers. In fact, to the young students’ surprise, their first PropertyGuys.com sale was by a couple in Newfoundland who bought their Moncton, NB home sight-unseen, at least in the physical sense. At that point, says LeBlanc, “We knew we were onto something really big and that it would be a success.”
Today PropertyGuys.com has helped over 85,000 sellers discover their fresh approach across all the provinces except Quebec – not bad for a business founded by a trio of students barely in their twenties.
Eventually, one of the co-founders withdrew from the project to focus more on his studies, but LeBlanc and his remaining partner, Jeremy Demont, now Vice President of Operations, stayed the course. By the time they graduated – all while building their embryonic company – they were working on PropertyGuys.com full time. (In due course another partner, Walter Melanson, Director of Partnerships, also joined the company.)
LeBlanc ultimately sees himself as an entrepreneur at heart. While his work experience prior to his real estate venture was somewhat limited given his young age, he had done some programming and website development (he taught himself HTML and coding), which equipped him with useful skills. Before that, he had worked just about every job available to a teenage boy at the time: lawn mowing, snow shovelling, a paper route, even pumping gas when he was just 14.
While their start-up was fairly successful from the get-go, the partners soon realized they needed to think outside the box if PropertyGuys.com was to grow beyond just a local operation. They looked to franchising as an option, with Leblanc strategically choosing franchise development as the topic of his senior-year thesis to learn more about it. “This way I was able to learn how it worked and then transfer that knowledge to PropertyGuys.com,” he says. “At the time, we were just university students who really had no extra money to expand our business beyond Moncton; franchising allowed us to drive rapid growth.”
PropertyGuys.com sold its first franchise in 2002, when it showcased about 125 listings annually. The initial focus was on building a franchise network close to home to make it easier to provide training and assistance. “We wanted to make sure that the first 10 franchises were all in the east in order to be able to support them,” says LeBlanc. “It was the market we knew best, and we knew if we had to hop in the car it wasn’t going to be more than a four-hour drive to reach any franchise location.” Their strategy worked, and within five years PropertyGuys.com had expanded to more than 50 franchises.
What unites the franchisees, says LeBlanc, is a belief in the company’s vision, which revolves around the idea that the country’s long-established real estate model is outmoded. “The one thing all our franchisees have in common is that they agree that the traditional model is broken and they believe, like we do, that PropertyGuys. com is the future of real estate,” explains LeBlanc. “We’re like the Robin Hood of real estate because we help people save a ton of money in commissions, so our franchisees ultimately have to have that passion to help people.”
The broken model LeBlanc is referring to is one where licensed real estate agents make a commission based on the final sale price of the home. While it made sense in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when considerably more work was required by agents to find, show, and share information on properties with their clients, the Internet has completely transformed the playing field and changed the parameters involved in the lead-up to a final sale. As well, a site like PropertyGuys.com creates a more equitable option for sellers in hot housing markets like Toronto and Vancouver, where the cost of homes has skyrocketed to shocking levels, yet the work involved in a home sale remains relatively the same.
LeBlanc believes that the time was ripe for a market disruptor like PropertyGuys.com to launch in the late ‘90s, and while it began on a simple premise – sellers would pay a nominal fee to post information on their house on a dedicated website – the business has since grown into a far more sophisticated operation connecting buyers and sellers across the country. Today homeowners can access a suite of real estate services that incorporate the full spectrum of steps involved in a home sale. Professional photography, pricing consultants, lockboxes, answering services, home staging, real estate lawyers, and marketing experts are all part of the PropertyGuys.com service offering.
For LeBlanc, it’s all about meeting the needs of homeowners searching for more options and choices in how they sell their properties. It’s also about broadening the scope of the PropertyGuys.com business model. The company recently partnered with CanadaStays – an online vacation rental marketplace – to add over 50,000 vacation rental properties to its site. Later this year, PropertyGuys.com will be adding apartment rentals, with plans in place for commercial and developer packages as well. It also introduced the PropertyGuys.com brand to Australia – the company signed on a master franchisee there last year – and is now in talks with several potential master franchisees South of the border in a bid to enter the U.S. market.
PropertyGuys.com is an excellent example of the tremendous contribution young entrepreneurs – those with little money but a great idea – can make to the country’s business scene. It may have spelled the death-knell to LeBlanc’s aspirations for a great legal career, but no one is mourning. Certainly not the thousands of homeowners who have saved a fair chunk of money thanks to LeBlanc’s lightbulb moment two decades ago, as well as the many franchisees – now numbering over a hundred – who have built a rewarding business for themselves.
As for LeBlanc, the career path he stumbled onto is right where he wants to be. “I love franchise sales,” he says. “That’s where I hung my hat from day one, and I continue to love bringing people into this business and seeing them grow their franchise and help people get the most out of the sale of their property. That’s what I really enjoy.”
By Roma Ihnatowycz