Clubhouse: The New, Surprisingly Powerful Real Estate Deal-Making Hub
In the coming days, Vernell Stewart is set to realize one of her lifelong dreams. Her business, Sweet Tea Factory, is preparing to open its first physical location after eight years of selling tea online, distributing to grocery stores and with a mobile beverage truck.
The tea shop is scheduled to open this weekend in a kiosk at the Tanger Outlets mall in Savannah, Georgia, while it builds out a 1K SF retail space in the mall Stewart plans to open June 1. Stewart, who also works in retail branding and product design, didn't secure the deal for her first location by consulting a real estate broker or online property listing marketplace.
She landed the deal on Clubhouse, a growing social media app that is quickly becoming a valuable deal-making tool for commercial real estate professionals.
"I never even thought or considered that an app would bring about great opportunities like this," Stewart said. "This right here has been phenomenal. If you could strike all deals like this, that would be perfect."
Clubhouse, a social networking app that launched last year, allows people to meet new contacts and discuss shared interests through a series of audio-only chat rooms.
The rooms function similarly to a conference panel or online webinar, with a moderator and a handful of speakers discussing an agreed-upon topic, and a virtual room full of listeners who can click a hand-raise icon to ask a question or share their opinion.
The app is currently only available on the iPhone, and it requires new members to be invited by an existing user. But Clubhouse CEO Paul Davison said in a town hall meeting Monday the app plans to launch on Android phones and ditch the invite-only model "in the coming months," Business Insider reported. After launching on the iOS App Store in September, Clubhouse had reached 12.7 million downloads as of last week, SocialMediaToday reported.
In January, Clubhouse raised $100M in a funding round led by renowned Silicon Valley investment firm Andreessen Horowitz that valued the company at $1B, Axios reported. It gained more attention in early February when eccentric billionaire Elon Musk spoke on the app, and it has continued to build momentum as a networking tool for a variety of industry sectors, including commercial real estate.
Of the 10 Clubhouse-using commercial real estate professionals Bisnow spoke with for this story, most said they spend at least an hour every day on the app. They said they have met a host of new contacts, and in many cases secured new deals to grow their businesses.
Some commercial real estate professionals have used platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn to grow their networks for years, but they say Clubhouse is more valuable because its audio-only format allows them to have candid, meaningful conversations with their peers.
The app has also created a way for industry newcomers to advance their careers, because the Clubhouse users who have built the largest followings are not the ones with the most experience or the most recognizable names, they are the ones who have the most interesting things to say.
“You can’t fake it on Clubhouse," said Natalie Wainwright, a Las Vegas-based tenant broker who is also active on Twitter. "You either know your craft, you know your market or whatever the topic is, or you don’t. There’s no time to bullshit. There’s no editing. There’s no redoing. It’s your call to the carpet, and what you say either lands or it doesn’t, and I love that element.”
Beth Azor, a retail real estate investor in South Florida, organized the Clubhouse room where Stewart connected with Tanger Outlets. The room, which she named Space Tank and modeled after TV's popular Shark Tank, allowed retail businesses to pitch their concepts to an audience of landlords.
She has hosted the Space Tank room twice and said she has made over 50 matches between landlords and businesses, though not all of them have turned into deals like the Sweet Tea Factory lease. Azor joined the app on Dec. 30, spent the holiday weekend exploring its rooms, and she said it has only gotten better over the last three months.
"The more of the commercial real estate community that got on, the better, because we were able to start doing business together, and that's why I'm still on it," Azor said.
Azor has also landed new business for herself on Clubhouse. Through the app, she met New York developer Beatrice Sibblies; she flew up this past weekend to meet with the BOS Development founder about partnering on a development deal in New York City, something Azor has hoped to do for years.
"I had this interest in New York before Clubhouse because I believe there's going to be opportunity there," Azor said. "Now I get on Clubhouse and find [Sibblies], and I'm like, 'This is my woman,' and my idea that I have maybe wouldn't have come to fruition because I didn't have the right partners."
Sibblies described this weekend's meeting with Azor as "very productive," but the two declined to provide details about what they are working on. Sibblies said Azor was the first Clubhouse contact who has flown from a different city to meet with her, but she has had meetings with multiple New York-based professionals she met through the app.
She said the app is especially valuable for her because she develops across a variety of different property types, and Clubhouse can help her learn more about the sectors she is looking to enter. Sibblies, who focuses on the Bronx and Harlem, said she is planning her first hotel project, and she has learned about the sector and made important hotel contacts through Clubhouse.
"What I like about Clubhouse is it allows you to network beyond your geographic neighborhood and beyond your silo," Sibblies said. "Because I am multi-asset class, it is extremely helpful ... I've never seen a networking tool like this."
With in-person events limited during the coronavirus pandemic, Clubhouse has provided a new way for commercial real estate professionals to grow their networks, something that has been especially valuable for newcomers to the industry.
CBRE associate Kelani Blackwell joined the brokerage firm in February 2020, her first job in commercial real estate after working for a residential firm that flipped houses. She joined Clubhouse in November, and she now has over 23,000 followers.
A multifamily investment sales broker based in Columbus, Ohio, Blackwell said she has secured multiple clients through Clubhouse, and her team has deals in the works with the new clients to sell a 200-plus-unit property and a 150-acre development site. (She declined to provide further details on the deals, which haven't closed.)
"Clubhouse has been instrumental for me because I joined CBRE three weeks before a pandemic," Blackwell said. "The world shut down, and I'm tasked with trying to create a book of business from behind a computer screen, which is tremendously hard, and Clubhouse has played a huge, instrumental role."
She said Clubhouse can be helpful for women and people of color in the industry to grow their network and advance their careers.
"It helps you feel a lot less siloed," Blackwell said. "There are only so many diverse brokers and developers in the CRE space, so when you actually meet these folks, it's validating that you're not the only person experiencing the things you're experiencing."
Blackwell leads a club on the Clubhouse app called Women in Real Estate that has over 5,000 members. She hosted a room Tuesday in partnership with Sabrina Bier titled "How Real Estate Professionals Are Using Clubhouse."
During the hour that Bisnow tuned into the room Tuesday, more than 140 people joined, and more than a dozen people spoke about their experience with the app, including professionals across the U.S. and in the U.K. and Nigeria. Speakers discussed how Clubhouse can help them share ideas, make new connections, support people in the industry and empower diversity.
Bier, a longtime residential real estate broker who now works for Proper Title, a title insurance agency in Chicago, said she has been hosting the "How Real Estate Professionals Are Using Clubhouse" room every week since January, and she partnered with Blackwell's club to increase its visibility.
She said the room is meant for residential and commercial real estate professionals to learn how to best utilize the app, and she plans to continue hosting it every Tuesday at 9 a.m. EDT.
"There are so many people that join it and still don't even use it," Bier said of Clubhouse. "I want to keep it consistent so that people always have a place to go when they decide they want to start utilizing it."
Bier said she has made two personal investments in residential deals in Chicago with people she met through Clubhouse, and she has heard many other people tell stories about securing deals through the app.
"I've engaged in two different investment opportunities with relationships I've built via Clubhouse in three months, and I would never have met those people it if wasn't for Clubhouse," Bier said. "Every time I mention that in these rooms, there's always people that chime in and say they have, too."
Wainwright, a former Cushman & Wakefield broker now with Logic Commercial Real Estate, has 1,500 Clubhouse followers and leads a club called #CREFAM. She said she uses Clubhouse to share experiences with other commercial real estate professionals, and also to meet executives in other sectors, such as technology, who need real estate brokers.
She said she has landed three new clients through the app, including two that are looking to relocate from Los Angeles to southern Nevada. One of them flew to Las Vegas in late February to tour the market with her, she said, just nine days after they had met on Clubhouse.
When she downloaded the app in January, she never expected it would land her new business.
"I didn't think that I would have such meaningful connections, and I didn't think it would actually impact my real world," Wainwright said. "Somebody bought an airline ticket to my city because of Clubhouse, because of a friggin' app. That's crazy to me."
All of the real estate professionals Bisnow spoke with for this story said they see Clubhouse as a valuable tool to build their networks, but some noted that it can be distracting and time-consuming.
Himmel + Meringoff Properties Director of Acquisitions Andrea Himmel said that a majority of the conversations she sees on the app aren't relevant to her day-to-day business, so she tries to be judicious about how she uses her time on Clubhouse.
"My thoughts are 99% of it is noise," Himmel said. "The remaining 1% of people that's not promotional, self-appointed gurus — call it 10 people I've connected with since I joined three weeks ago — of those 10 people, I guarantee you I will do a deal with at least one of them."
Colliers Senior Vice President Coy Davidson, a Houston-based broker who amassed a 32,000-person following on Twitter before joining Clubhouse in January, said it is important for users to be careful with their time on the app.
"It can be such a time-consuming thing because it's audio, people are taking turns talking, so you can get on there and next thing you know you eat up an hour quickly," Davidson said.
Davidson said he has been impressed with how many high-level executives he has seen on Clubhouse.
"It's definitely growing, and there are a lot of people in CRE that are active on Clubhouse that I don't see active on Twitter and LinkedIn," Davidson said. "There's been a lot of principals of major shopping center developers or REITs, some people you have an opportunity to network with that you might not get an opportunity to on another social platform."
Prominent executives who have participated on Clubhouse, according to people Bisnow spoke with and a review of public accounts, include Cardone Capital CEO Grant Cardone, Starwood Capital CEO Barry Sternlicht, Massimo Group founder Rod Santomassimo, Invictus Development Group President Christopher Senegal and Avison Young principal James Nelson.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez participated in a Clubhouse room Monday in an effort to attract investors and businesses to the city.
Blackwell said she has participated in rooms with Josh Childress, a former NBA player who now leads a Los Angeles real estate company, and Tobias Harris, a current Philadelphia 76ers player whose brother invests in real estate.
“I think it could be helpful for the commercial real estate industry if enough relevant people use it, but that hasn't happened yet, perhaps if LinkedIn buys them or develops a comparable feature," Ziff wrote. "My most interesting experience so far was when I was stuck in traffic last week after 11 p.m., and I had a 'place to go' to hang out. You’re never alone anymore."
Part of what has made Clubhouse a valuable networking tool for the commercial real estate professionals Bisnow spoke with was the intimacy of having a relatively small number of people on the app, and some worry about what could happen when it becomes flooded with millions more users.
Yoni Miller, co-founder of South Florida-based commercial real estate lender QuickLiquidity, hosts a clubhouse room every weekday at noon that often runs more than two hours. He said some of his rooms have garnered over 200 listeners, and they allow him to meet people with whom he otherwise would have trouble connecting.
"Especially right now because it's early on, it's an amazing time to be a host," Miller said. "I don't have a big following on LinkedIn, but I can still get people to show up. I think that's because Clubhouse is newer and there's so much demand for content ... I do believe over time, as you get more audience you are going to see more rooms dominated by people with bigger followings."
Blackwell said it is easier to network in smaller rooms, and she thinks that could be more difficult as the app grows.
"I do believe that what has made the app valuable, your ability to network, is hindered when a room is too big and not enough people get to speak," she said.
Sibblies said she thinks the app is more valuable to her now than it will be next year.
"The reason that people who have become early adopters spend so much time on it is because the return on time is likely to be greater in the first quarter of 2021 than the first quarter of 2022," Sibblies said. "The perception is that there's going to be an exponential increase in usership, so the ability to make contacts will be more difficult a year from now."