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Origin Stories: Cassie Brown On Being Lonely And Afraid But Doing It Anyway

This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.

Cassie Brown has always loved helping her friends find apartments. She never dreamed that would turn into a lucrative career. 

After slogging through a few jobs where she felt stifled, Brown founded Smart City Locating in 2013 at age 25 with a broker's license, a passion for apartment hunting and not much else. She said she has made countless mistakes along the way as an entrepreneur and leader, and at times the path has been lonely. But it has paid off.

She has steadily expanded the firm's business through social media, including seeing fivefold growth in clientele during the coronavirus pandemic. In the last eight years, her team has placed nearly 54,000 apartment units. The company started in Dallas and now helps people find apartments across six states.

Brown said she still feels every day like she may be in over her head, but she is proud to have built a company culture where people can ditch the suit and tie and be themselves. 

Smart City Locating founder Cassie Brown, right, with her wife, Kayla, and their son, Olsen.

Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE? 

Brown: I was always the go-to friend for apartment hunting. My friends knew I loved it and that I was good at it. It got to the point that one day a complex suggested I get my real estate license, so I did. I didn’t realize I could make money doing something that I was already passionate about.

Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE? 

Brown: When I got my license at 22, I did so thinking I would be selling million-dollar houses. But like most 22-year-olds, I didn’t know any millionaires. So, I stuck with what I was good at: apartment locating. My license was under a family friend broker, but I worked for myself. Pretty soon, it wasn’t just my friends that wanted me to find an apartment for them. 

Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role? 

Brown: My broker’s license — and that’s it. But that’s the beauty of real estate, you don’t always need to spend thousands on an education to be successful. You need a great network, an even better work ethic and the wisdom to put every dime back into your new business. 

Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?

Brown: Operations. I’ve never been good at it but having your operations in order grants you the freedom to take more risks and dream a little bigger. We have an incredible chief operating officer now, Nathan Lenahan, who has done so much work on the back end to ensure that we could grow and shoot for the moon as much as we have in the last year.

Smart City Locating founder Cassie Brown speaking during an all-company training on Culture Index surveys.

Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE? If you changed careers, did you bring anything with you from your past career that has helped you thrive in CRE, or, on the flip side, anything you had to unlearn in order to succeed here? 

Brown: In 2008, I worked at a bank cold-calling clients who were late on mortgage payments. It quickly taught me how much of real estate — especially residential — is incredibly cold. I quit on the spot.

After that, I worked as an administrative assistant for an engineering firm. I was really bad at it. It was suffocating to come to work every day pretending to be some vision of corporate America that I’m definitely not. That, and my job at the bank, has formed the foundation of why we do things so differently at Smart City. We’re not your clean-cut suit and tie real estate agents, and we do our absolute best to treat humans the way they deserve to be treated.

Bisnow: Can you remember a moment where you felt in over your head or you worried this industry wasn’t for you? Did you ever think about quitting? What changed? 

Brown: Every single day since I started. There are lots of moments, but one that sticks out is the period where my friends transitioned from my clients to my employees. 

I thought I was being smart by hiring people that I trusted while we were growing so fast. I figured we would be one happy family, but it didn’t work out that way. I ended up firing some of my best friends. Of course, I know now that blurring the lines between friendship and business is ill-advised. Friends can be like family, but your employees should be a team (and, if you hire the right people, you can trust them just as much as your friends). 

Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?

Brown: I was surprised by the money. I couldn’t believe how much money I was making to do something I loved but I knew I could do even better. Real estate deals usually only benefit the property but I knew if I could find a way to create win-win situations for everyone, Smart City’s value proposition would be impossible for property partners to refuse. 

Cassie Brown and the Smart City Locating team in 2018

Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE? 

Brown: My stepdad was really influential in Smart City’s early days … he told me to just go do it. “It’s just money. You can make more later.”

I didn’t have any mentors other than him — it was really lonely. The company was growing so fast but it felt like I was on an island. I couldn’t talk to my wife or my family or friends about it, so I joined Vistage and found other like-minded people. They helped me realize just how much I still had to learn. I am also a part of Entrepreneur's Organization. I also read a ton of books. 

Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?

Brown: I learned a lot of lessons the hard way, but the hardest lesson was how to lead people. I thought people wanted rainbows and butterflies to be happy but they need expectations and boundaries, which means you can’t be their friend, and that you can’t make every single person happy. 

I learned when to listen to my team and when to not listen to them. Most importantly, I learned how much time and energy I wasted on flip-flopping between what was good for the business and what was good for the people instead of just putting in the work to walk the fine line that sits between them. 

Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?

Brown: I think a lot of people find real estate attractive because of the “flexibility” it offers. Flexibility — if you want to be successful — is a myth. You’ll be working around the clock and talking to people all day long. If you don’t find that incredibly draining and are prepared to work, you’ve chosen the right field. 

Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change? 

Brown: I would change everything. We could have grown faster if I was less afraid. I would change the name of the business. I wouldn’t hire my friends. I would track metrics and develop internal processes sooner — which means I would hire a C-suite to help me do it sooner. There’s just so many different things.