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A comprehensive take on the StarPower Conference: Reinventing the pearl the Bloodhound way

Here’s my final evaluation of the StarPower Conference in four short words: I didn’t hate it. The intellectual content of the thing was oversold by a hefty percentage, and virtually everything in the curriculum was an upsell for something else. We were entreated all week to gather “pearls” from the presentations, but the best I was able to come home with are grains of sand from which we will craft pearls of our own. The event was stage-managed with precision and flair, although a little cheerleading goes a long way with me.

This post is largely a critique. In the coming weeks, I want to detail some of the pearls Cathy and I will be assembling around the gritty sand we brought home. Here I want to enumerate what I considered to be important defects in the StarPower Conference. I don’t know that this will do anyone any good. Most of the companies I take on seem not to spring into action to address my concerns. But I find myself taking an anti-vendor position again and again, and my four days at StarPower served only to reinforce that redoubt.

However: I think it’s important to note that the StarPower organization is not unique in exhibiting the defects I will catalog, nor does it come even close to being the worst specimen of the milk-the-Realtor industry. I could have wished for a lot more — and more-rigorous — information in exchange for my time and money, but I did not come away empty-handed, and I may yet succumb to one of this week’s incessant upsells.

First, with a couple of exceptions, StarPower is stuck at about 1999. Web sites, lots of web sites, all of them static, almost all of them templated, most of them mindlessly mimicking the me-me-me meme. There is weblogging, sort of, substantially worse than what I’ve been bitching about and yet utterly invisible to Technorati and the Googlesphere. In the StarPower universe, there is no Web 2.0, nor any derivative implications of Web 2.0. I heard the words “long tail” out of my own mouth only. This thing that we do — this idea of a massively linked, massively interactive conversation — does not exist where StarPower orbits.

There was a weblogging class offered, but I didn’t go to it. I figured I could laugh, scowl, gripe or sleep, but I wouldn’t bring any benefits to myself, to the teachers or to the students. I’m pretty sure I know more about real estate weblogging than anyone else who was there, so it would have made a certain kind of sense to have had me as the teacher of the weblogging break-out session. This I offered to do many months ago, but StarPower people didn’t take me up on it. The conference had a sponsorship deal with RealEstateBlogsites.com, and my expectation is that the purpose of the blogging class was to upsell canned, templated weblogs that are invisible to Technorati.

This seemed to be a common arrangement. RealPro Systems benefitted from constant promotion in the events I attended, as did the vast StarPower catalog of CDs, tool kits and upcoming events. This is the format of a StarPower class: “I was unable to achieve the objective that is the subject of this class. But then I started using the very expensive sponsored product you can obtain right out in the hall and my business turned around almost overnight!” If you use a RealPro web site, for example, you will get thousands of leads. No kidding: Thousands.

As Russell Shaw pointed out the other day in a comment, I misrepresented the StarPower premise. “Catching success” is Russell’s idea. The base premise of StarPower seems to be an inversion of the pragmatist epistemology — the truth is what works. That’s an anti-epistemology, since it turns on a definition swap, but StarPower inverts it to an even more dubious proposition: What works is the truth.

StarPower founder Howard Brinton finds and interviews mega-producing Realtors from all across North America. These are the Stars behind the StarPower program. He induces them to reveal their “secrets,” then repackages that content as the curriculum for StarPower products and events. Again and again, students are advised not to “reinvent the wheel,” but, rather, simply to copy the ideas the Stars are presenting — a pack-rat empiricism. How bad could it be?

How about this bad? RealPro Systems will sell you “stealth” web sites which seem to offer transparent values to the consumer — home evaluations, school or neighborhood information, free FSBO listings — but are actually lead-gathering systems. They are not quite blind ads — the agent and brokerage will be identified at the very bottom of the web page in small print. Meanwhile, the large print will promise that you will not be hounded by a Realtor. But if you take the bait these sites offer, you will be drip-spammed immediately, incessantly and inextinguishably. Ordinary spam seems clean by comparison.

Not bad enough for you? At a special event sponsored by ProStep Marketing, one of the Stars admitted that she has her team spy on the content of tell-a-friend forms within her web site. In other words, you find a home on the site and use the form to send the link to your mother. Thinking your communication is private, you write, “Mom, I think this is the one!” The Realtor and her buyer’s agents now know how to milk you for full-price on a double-dip commission.

This stuff is sleazy, as are many of the scripts and dialogues I heard recited during the conference. At a certain phase in our industry’s checkered past, time seems to have stopped for the StarPower Stars. Not only do they nonchalantly issue completely — to my ear obviously — unethical advice, it seems not to occur to them, nor to their auditors, that there is anything at all wrong with what they are saying. Of course you fool people into surrendering their contact information. It gets you thousands of leads! Of course you spy on what should be confidential communication. In a tough market, you need every edge you can get!

And at this point, someone will say: “Did y’all catch that? That was a real pearl! Let’s all stand up and applaud.”

There’s more.

  • In two separate classes, breathless Stars sold me on the boundless impact of putting a sewing needle in a box full of straw. “Finding a good Realtor is like finding a needle in a haystack!” Now that’s marketing!
  • In a session on listing presentations, a Star insisted that he makes his sellers sign a contract that cuts the list price by 3% every 15 days — and automatically extends the listing by 45 days with every automatic price cut.
  • Former CRS President Randy Eager (corrected per comment below) will sell you SEO optimization — just like those nice folks who spam your inbox 47 times a day. The premium product goes for a start-up fee of $1,995 plus $75 a month, presumably forever. That might sound like highway robbery, but consider that the StarPower attendees are being entreated to build many, many vendor-templated web sites, each one of which will also have start-up fees and monthly charges. And if that sounds obscene, stop to consider what is likely to happen to your data should you decide to stop paying those monthly fees or to take your business elsewhere.
  • In a rare concession to the twenty-first century, a Star allowed that newspaper advertising does not work. Every other form of interruption marketing still works, however, provided it’s really corny.

All of that notwithstanding, we did not come away from the StarPower Conference empty handed. A lot of ideas were presented, and while I think most of them were unsupported crap, the Bloodhound way of going at things is to build upon our way of doing business. We brought home quite a few grains of sand, soon to be new “pearls” of Bloodhound marketing wisdom. These came from four sources:

  1. Things we thought of on our own while we happened to be at StarPower
  2. Ideas that we hated and will invert as counter-marketing
  3. Ideas that we liked and will improve upon
  4. Hard-headed nuts-and-bolts techniques we went to StarPower to learn

Contrary to the StarPower premise, I think the “secret” of the Stars is very simple: They are highly-organized managers who can build, implement, supervise and sustain a large real estate practice — which would be a medium-sized small business in any other line of work. The hokey marketing “works” because they way overspend on it. The smarmy scripts “work” because they are preying on amateurs. What really “works” is the machine the Stars have built to convert a large number — but a low percentage — of the many leads their marketing systems generate. It seems plausible to me that some Stars are not just chasing the last profitable dollar but are in fact chasing the weakest of their leads into net losses on the ensuing transactions. Even if this is not the case, the net profit per conversion seems to me to be a lot lower than it could be.

All that’s as may be. We went to StarPower to learn how to build that kind of lead-management machine. I would hope we can convert a higher percentage of the leads we get, at a higher net-profit per sale. But what I wanted from the StarPower Conference — and what I think we got — were the basic ideas behind that kind of systematic incubation of client relationships from first contact through closing and from there to a life-long repeat and referral relationship. The “what” of it all is certainly a discernible target, and the “why” is obvious. It’s the “how” we went to learn. And today we had a two-hour meeting to plan our implementation of the ideas we brought home.

Here’s the thing: I am probably the worst candidate for these kinds of things. I like CRS classes — and the Council of Residential Specialists is an earlier Howard Brinton invention — because they are very dense in information. But: I really don’t like classes at all. I would much rather learn by reading, and, even more than that, I would much rather work things out on my own. Holy cow! I do want to reinvent the wheel! It’s not a joke, I do. I hate almost everything, and I want to rebuild everything that matters to me in the Bloodhound way, stripping it down to the essence and building it back up with nothing but the most perfect expressions of that essential idea. That is how you reinvent the pearl.

And that is what I got out of the StarPower Conference. There is a lot I would rather had been done differently, but we came home with a better business than we had this time last week. As I have time, I’ll write about the things we have planned for the coming months, the pearls we will have crafted.

Will I go back next year? Probably not — at least not on my own nickel. But we not only safely jettisoned the very bad ideas that were presented, we learned quite a bit more than the presenters thought they were teaching. So, even with all my caveats about the conference weighed, measured, counted and catalogued, I still have to rate the event as an overall win.

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  • 14 comments

    14 Comments so far

    1. Gena Riede July 30th, 2007 1:32 am

      Winning Bloggers for Carnival of Real Estate…

      Welcome to the 52nd Carnival of Real Estate Winners!
      I h…

    2. Tom July 30th, 2007 6:55 am

      Reading your post made me think for a bit on the topic of experts and “stars”.

      When people become successful they typically repeat the behavior that made them successful. They believe in their own genius, so to speak. So they strengthen their systems but stop innovating.

      What I bet is at this conference you saw the 1999 technology because that is what propelled them from average to exceptional. 1999 technology in 1999. And they ossified their businesses around it.

      Now Greg, you will be the person up on stage in 2015 as the genius because as their old tools stop working, which I assume they already have and why they are so eager to sell their templates to the unsuspecting, your tools will be the effective ones.

      What you have to commit to is making sure your toolkit changes with the times and does not become the successful 2007 internet style that is obsolete in 2015.

      Your passion for the new and interesting will most likely preclude you getting stuck, but that is the risk we all take once success happens. We are afraid to rock the boat.

    3. Greg Swann July 30th, 2007 7:59 am

      > We are afraid to rock the boat.

      There’s a boat? ;)

    4. Linda Slocum July 30th, 2007 8:41 am

      Upsell, upsell, upsell!

      That’s how these events are paid for. The vendors pay for the priveledge of selling their wares, which brings down the overall cost of the event. The vendors are often a good source of info if you can get them in a private conversation away from the crowds.

      Yes, there are often some “pearls” to be found amongst all the upselling. However, often these pearls lead us right back to the tools that we already have in our toolbox if we’re smart enough to keep our checkbooks and credit cards carefully guarded.

      I’m not a fan of having each website have its own lead management/followup systems, since then you end up with multiple databases to maintain. If you take a look at RealPro’s lead management system, you’ll find that using TP7i for this same purpose is a much more robust solution even though TP7i isn’t perfect either. Include automated emails, snail-mail and phone call reminders in your action plans for TP7i and you’ll have a decent incubation and reminder system.

    5. Jeff Brown July 30th, 2007 9:19 am

      Greg – Great post! You’ve fired me up big time. :) I’ll be brief.

      Until you’ve perfected your systems, and they’ve made it out of your beta testing more or less intact, I’d advise agents consider the following.

      Take Russell Shaw out to lunch once a week, paying him $1k each time. Listen and take copious notes on the subject of the day. Repeat until Russ runs out of pearls.

      The same would no doubt be true for most of the mega producers around the country.

      I’d be curious to know what percentage of the Stars were Mike Ferry graduates, Greg.

      Finally, when you finish up cultivating all the worthwhile pearls, it’s my guess there will be ample demand to take them on the road. :)

    6. Christina Ethridge July 30th, 2007 6:05 pm

      Gregg – THANK YOU for such an excellent review of the conference. I never know if I should attend these or not. In most of the cases, our business is already bigger than the ‘stars’ or ‘top producers’ they put up there and frankly, I’m just not interested in buying more ‘stuff and nonsense’.

      This really hit home: “I would much rather work things out on my own. Holy cow! I do want to reinvent the wheel! It’s not a joke, I do. I hate almost everything, and I want to rebuild everything that matters to me in the Bloodhound way, stripping it down to the essence and building it back up with nothing but the most perfect expressions of that essential idea. That is how you reinvent the pearl.”

      I 100% agree and I have fought with myself for years about this. Why do I keep reinventing the ‘wheel’ if it’s already ‘done’ for me (by buying something packaged). Because I don’t like what it is now, although I like the basic essence of it. I like our pearls that I’ve created.

      Thank you so much again for this excellent review, confirming that attending this event is not something to keep on my radar. Thank you also for confirming that my creations are what I need to keep doing. They work for us, very well. I just can’t stand ‘canned’ ideas :D

    7. [...] A comprehensive take on the StarPower Conference: Reinventing the pearl the Bloodhound way [...]

    8. Russell Shaw July 31st, 2007 12:55 am

      A few comments:

      Here’s my final evaluation of the StarPower Conference in four short words: I didn’t hate it. The intellectual content of the thing was oversold by a hefty percentage, and virtually everything in the curriculum was an upsell for something else.

      Something I detest, as well. Always have. Personally, I have never believed it was effective either. With SO many products being pushed I believe the average person just gets confused.

      In the StarPower universe, there is no Web 2.0, nor any derivative implications of Web 2.0. I heard the words “long tail” out of my own mouth only. This thing that we do — this idea of a massively linked, massively interactive conversation — does not exist where StarPower orbits.

      I totally agree, they are always way behind the curve on technology. Which would suggest that Web 2.0, etc. has precisely nothing to do with becoming or remaining a mega agent.

      In a session on listing presentations, a Star insisted that he makes his sellers sign a contract that cuts the list price by 3% every 15 days — and automatically extends the listing by 45 days with every automatic price cut.

      Not sure why this would be thought of as a bad thing. Either a listing is priced where it will actually sell – in its current condition, or it is not. If it is not, and the owner plans on selling, then the price usually needs to be reduced. Having clear and well understood agreements (by both sides) as to future pricing is a path to success for both the home owner and the agent.

      Former NAR President Randy Eager will sell you SEO optimization — just like those nice folks who spam your inbox 47 times a day. The premium product goes for a start-up fee of $1,995 plus $75 a month, presumably forever. That might sound like highway robbery, but consider that the StarPower attendees are being entreated to build many, many vendor-templated web sites, each one of which will also have start-up fees and monthly charges. And if that sounds obscene, stop to consider what is likely to happen to your data should you decide to stop paying those monthly fees or to take your business elsewhere.

      I can’t say it isn’t highway robbery, it was just SO much less than the $12,000 I paid to submitawebsite (they wanted 14k) to “optimize my site”. Randy charged me another 1k (total of 3k) to do my other site too. I still don’t really understand what I am getting for the $75 a month (the other company wanted $500 a month for that). Also, Randy isn’t the past president of NAR, he is the past president of CRS.

      All of that notwithstanding, we did not come away from the StarPower Conference empty handed. A lot of ideas were presented, and while I think most of them were unsupported crap, the Bloodhound way of going at things is to build upon our way of doing business.

      Things we thought of on our own while we happened to be at StarPower:

      Ideas that we hated and will invert as counter-marketing

      Ideas that we liked and will improve upon

      Hard-headed nuts-and-bolts techniques we went to StarPower to learn

      And this is exactly the sort that Wendy and I have taken away.

      There is a lot I would rather had been done differently, but we came home with a better business than we had this time last week.

      :-)

    9. Greg Swann July 31st, 2007 7:00 am

      > Which would suggest that Web 2.0, etc. has precisely nothing to do with becoming or remaining a mega agent.

      That may be so, although “becoming” and “remaining” are rebuttable presumptions. Tactics that worked well in the past may be a diminishing return in the future. Interruption marketing certainly is. I think many of the business models I heard are a lot less profitable than they could be, and, in general, I think too many top-producing Realtors spend too much money on client recruitment and too little on client satisfaction and, hence, client retention. By this I do not mean to imply that we are perfect in these regards. Moreover, as a caveat, we do not generate a million dollars of volume in every month on the calendar. In other words, if volume of production is the threshold of credibility — and, hence, worthiness to be emulated — we miss the mark. I regard that as a marketing advantage. ;)

      > I can’t say it isn’t highway robbery

      In that case, I’ll make you a bus-tour offer: I will get you on the first page of Google for four out of five Maricopa County keywords for only $499.

    10. John L. Wake July 31st, 2007 8:27 am

      For me the StarPower conference was great.

      I don’t mind the constant upsell. That’s life. Everybody’s trying to make a buck. And some of the products could be actually be useful to some people.

      I focus on what’s useful to me and ignore the rest.

      I loved it and already paid for next year’s in Orlando. Brilliant stuff.

      And it beats the hell out of Inman Connect which I attended for 3 years. If you want new technology, you should go to that one. Although I’ll assure you Greg that you’ll be disappointed to find out that few people know more than you.

    11. Benjamin Bach August 8th, 2007 4:03 am

      There are people know more than Greg ? You wouldn’t think that reading BHB :)

    12. Chris Frerecks August 8th, 2007 6:36 pm

      Most folks are attracted to the shows for the Stars and what they’ve accomplished. Only Stars teach the classes so our presence at the Blogging sessions was only as Sponsor.

      Technorati accounts for 0.023 percent of all web traffic. ‘Google Blog Search’ now accounts for 0.025 percent and ‘Google Search the whole Web’ is believed to be near 53%. Our clients see good visibility in Google, which is better for business.

      I may be mistaken, but I believe Technorati predominately bases it’s rank [or relevance] on links. For Google, links are one of over two hundred signals used by their algorithm to determine relevance. Our blog solution is tuned to address many signals so we don’t necesarily focus on links.

      Chris

      http://www.bizreport.com/2007/01/google_blog_search_traffic_surpasses_technorati.html

      http://marketshare.hitslink.com/report.aspx?qprid=1

      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/03/business/yourmoney/03google.html?ex=1338523200&en=f003faaf084c0a72&ei=5124

    13. Amy Stoehr August 16th, 2007 3:32 pm

      Hello all. I am the Vice President at STAR POWER Systems, and I appreciate all your candid feedback. Greg, you are obviously a man who as a lot of time to process and even more time to share.

      You’ve presented several interesting things for us to consider as an organization, the most important of which is the concern of being upsold when you attend sessions. We have always encouraged the Stars themselves to share what is working for them, whether it’s our products or anyone else’s. And as enthusiastic as they get about it, with NO payback to them whatsoever, we do need to temper their “commercials” so that clients don’t feel oversold. At the same time, it would be a crime to not share where they’re getting what’s working.

      I can tell you with 100% confidence that every single one of you on this post have benefited by NOT re-inventing the wheel. Russell is included. There’s a reason why so many people keep coming back, year after year. They get something, even if it’s only one idea, that works and makes them money. People like Russell give freely of what has worked for them because they know they get value in return.

      As far as some of the ideas being “old” I totally agree – with this point: if what you’re doing is working, is it necessary to change for change’s sake? The sea monkeys ad has been running in the back of comics for 50 years, beause it still works. I worked for a top-producing agent, a “Star”, and was a consumer of STAR POWER’s products before I came to work for this company in 1996. I believe because I have demonstrated proof that using even a tiny amount of what these Stars suggest will make your business grow.

      You can be cutting edge, or bleeding edge, and it may not make you money. Innovation is key, and, STAR POWER is not a technology company. That’s why we bring RealPro and other vendors, that agents are using with success, to the Conference.

      I look forward to hearing more about what’s working for people. By the way, Linda Slocum, who posted here, will be one of the tchnology panelists at CRS Sellabration in Hawaii, Greg, so you may want to channel some ideas you have on elevating this industry through technology directly to her.

      I welcome anyone to voice their concerns about how we do business, and specifically how we can make it better.

      Hope you all make the choice to come to Orlando in 2008 – it will be cheaper than taking Russell to lunch! Thank you for the opportunity to participate.

    14. Russell Shaw August 17th, 2007 2:40 am

      I totally agree with everything Amy said, with one exception: taking me to lunch! For God’s sake, hasn’t it crossed anyone’s mind to ask for a group discount?

      LOL.