Power Niche Marketing: The Third (Marketing) Threebie – Knowledge Is Power

In my last two articles, I explained that when I need to remind myself of the most important basic marketing things to do, I am mindful of the three basic items, which I call the “Threebies.” In my last two articles, I wrote about the first two Threebies”:

The importance of “being enthusiastic”when marketing and meeting new people.

The importance of “getting out and about.”

In this article, I will talk about the last Threebie, which is:

Knowledge is Power

Ultimately, you have to have knowledge of something, or you aren’t that useful. Indeed, when you get right down to it, people, whether or not they are really thinking about it analytically, generally want you around if you are useful or potentially useful to them, and generally don’t really care that much if you are around if you aren’t that useful.

Consider when you were a kid. You were someone everyone wanted to be with because:

You always knew where the party was.

You were smart and could help with homework.

 

One way or another, there was something useful about you that made people want to be with you.

Obviously, what we are talking about here is much more sophisticated; however, you are trying to create something of use that makes you worth talking to or having around. For marketing purposes, that “something” is your “knowledge” of a topic that is of interest — or of use — to the people you want to have around you.

How do you get knowledge to have power? I will say now that you should pick an area of the industry in which you work and learn everything there is to know about it, so that you are a complete compendium of useful and cutting-edge information. This of course is what I call a “Power Niche,” as per the various articles I have written and will write.

For example, I am a real estate lawyer. So I read every single thing I can put my hands on pertaining to the real estate industry. Of course, I read the Wall Street Journal, but I also read books, publications, blogs, magazines and everything else I can find that deals with the real estate industry and/or the players in that industry. For example, I have my assistant send me any article on real estate that appears anywhere. That way, I am a wealth of information about real estate. It is astonishing how much I know and keep learning in my real estate niche. I have made myself very useful to be with because I know what everyone is doing and what is going on.

So if you are one of my clients, or someone I hope will be my client someday, it is obvious after speaking to me for a short period of time that I know a ton about the real estate industry and that I am able to provide value to you and I will be an extremely useful source of information, guidance, and advice.

Also, just to be clear, I am not out for “power” in the classic sense, to have the ability to push people around and lord it over my subjects. That simply isn’t my style, and it is not at all what I am talking about here. I am referring to the “power” to be useful. Indeed, it is great to have “power” to help your friends and your clients achieve their goals.

So, the next time you decide to market, remember to “Get Out and About,” to “Be Enthusiastic,” and to relentlessly seek knowledge because “Knowledge is Power.”

There may be a special fourth step or a “Fourbie” as I call it, so stay tuned…

What is Up with China? Effect on the Real Estate Deals? News from the Real Estate Front in NYC

My law firm is in NYC handling real estate transactions in the US that originate from counterparties based all over the world.  A bunch of these transactions depend on money coming in from China (debt or equity or other structure).  It used to be there was always a degree of uncertainty about the viability of this capital, but this uncertainty was gradually diminishing as more Chinese players developed stature and reputation in the US.

However, there are some recent events that are hitting US real estate pertaining to the use of Chinese capital.  I cannot say we are a canary in a coal mine, but as a law firm in the thick of deals in NYC and other places in the US, I have seen the following just in the past couple of weeks:

A China law firm that I have been dealing with regularly had a client planning on doing US deals.  We were moving forward together until I received the following email:

“As you may know, recently China is facing to the emerging issues of increasing Chinese capital outflows and devaluation of the RMB.  Therefore, the Chinese government has tightened the regulation policies on out-bound investments in recent days, especially the investments by Chinese [investment funds] in the form of partnership and investments into foreign real estate markets.  This makes it difficult for the client to move forward with their US real estate projects.  They are now under internal discussion and evaluation of the situations so we may have to wait for some time.”

A friend of mine in China who is very connected to the US and the Chinese real estate industries gave me the following quote.  I respect him highly but he did not want attribution.  He said:
“….. the open tap of Chinese money for US real estate was if not shut completely this week then it is now at best left a dripping faucet.  The authorities may backtrack, or not fully implement the announced draconian controls, but the atmosphere has changed beyond recognition.”

A client of mine had its Chinese financial partner drop out of a deal due at the last minute due to the counterparty’s China office overruling the New York Office, which had approved and strongly backed the deal.

There is much more going on as well, including the new Presidential administration, the sharp rise in interest rates, general volatility in the markets due to a possible belief that the up-turn in the US economy is getting long in the tooth, public  statements from companies like Starwood that they are hitting the “pause button” on real estate acquisitions, stalled sales of luxury apartments in New York City, and much more.

As per prior Real Estate Philosopher articles, I do NOT make predictions about the future, except to state with certainty that neither I (nor anyone else) has a crystal ball; however, anecdotally it seems to be true that a fair number of investors in US real estate are indeed pulling back right now.  And the China money spigot slowing to a trickle may have a deleterious effect on pricing, deal flow and other matters pertaining to US real estate transactions.

Of course, one party’s troubles is often another party’s opportunity; accordingly, potentially all of this may spell a chance to make advantageous US real estate investments for opportunistic real estate players.  That is not of course a formal prediction but seems to be getting more likely every day.

One last point I will make about Chinese money is to distinguish between money that is “on-shore” (in mainland China) and money that is “off-shore” (outside of mainland China).  If the money is “on-shore” that likely means that it will be a lot harder to have it show up in a US real estate deal.  If it is already “off-shore” that likely means it will be a lot easier.  I don’t have the skillset to be able to dig much deeper here, but the foregoing is generally an accurate statement.  So, if you are a US player working with the Chinese right now, this should be a threshold question that you might use to gauge the likelihood of the investment succeeding.

Finally, if you have anecdotes you would like to share, I would certainly appreciate learning as much as possible.

Finally, finally, here are links to some recent articles on this subject:

A Tectonic Shift is Happening in the Real Estate World

As you may have heard by now, real estate is set to become a separate asset class on the Global Industry Classification Standard (GICS) and the S&P 500, separating it from the Financials Sector.  Notably mortgage REIT’s will be left behind in the Financials Sector under a newly created sub-industry group called…you guessed it…Mortgage REIT’s.

What are the implications of this?  I think they are dramatic and possibly one of the biggest changes to the real estate investment world since the internet popped up twenty some-odd years ago and made information freely available.

There are a bunch of articles already written on this subject, and almost all of them deal with the effect on REIT’s themselves; however, here I am going to give my thoughts on the effect of this transition on the non-REIT portion of the real estate world.

For background, please click here for some of the articles (that pertain to REIT’s).  These articles make some possibly (obvious?) points as follows:

They predict that a lot more money will now flow into REIT’s.  One of the articles points out that right now the total market cap of REIT’s is about 0B and that another 0B additional dollars will now flow into real estate due to increased real estate investment targets by major investors, such as Norway’s 0B Government Pension Fund.  I suspect there is no real way to quantify this and the number is plucked from thin air, but it does seem like “a lot” more money will indeed flow into REIT’s.

They also predict that REIT’s will become a “have to own sector” for appropriately diversified investors and, logically, REIT stocks will go up.  I will not touch that prediction.

And one of the articles states that it “will increase the visibility of real estate as a distinct asset class and encourage investors, their advisors and managers to more actively consider real estate – especially REIT’s – when developing investment policies and portfolios [and this will] likely lead to the creation of new investment products, such as active and passive mutual funds and exchange traded funds.  Advisors and managers will have more real estate fund options to recommend to their clients, likely facilitating positive capital flows into listed real estate equities.”

Here are my thoughts on the effect of this transition on the non-REIT portion of the real estate world.

First – I hate to be obvious myself; however, I do think that overall this change means that a lot more money will flow into the non-REIT portion of the real estate world.  Real estate will be considered its own asset class and investors of many different kinds will take it more seriously.  Investment professionals will steer their clients into these investments to a greater degree.

Second – I think this will to some extent move real estate closer to a place where, for more parties, real estate assets are thought of by many like “widgets” that happen to be in the general category of “real estate”.  This is because many, new, investors will want some vague concept of “real estate” in their portfolios, without knowing (or even likely caring much) what the underlying real estate really is.  In other words, much real estate will be invested in by parties that have no idea exactly what they are investing in.  I will call these parties, who are buying real estate for diversification of investment reasons, “Diversification Purchasers”.  To be clear here, I do not think Diversification Purchasers are necessarily “dumb money”; instead, they are potentially very intelligent parties who may recognize that they have no real ability to analyze real estate assets and, accordingly, will want a diversified portfolio that includes real estate in it without specificity as to the exact nature of the of the assets themselves.

Third – I suspect that this latest development will “never, ever” change.  Things like this (i.e. real estate now being a separate asset class) never, ever reverse course, so my sense is that this change is here to stay forever…

Fourth – my suspicion is that a lot of money will slosh towards the (perceived) safest part of the capital stack where the theme is (perceived) safety in yields, as this will be the easiest to sell to the Diversification Purchasers.  Returns for core and other income-producing real estate will likely fall if this is the case.  And, since “core” often consists of assets priced for perfection, there is a good shot that Diversification Purchasers will lose money from time to time, even when they think they are buying the safest alternatives.

Fifth – I suspect that this change in asset class for real estate is brought on by interest rates staying so low for so long that real estate, with higher yields, looks better and better by comparison.  Sometimes changes like these are made at exactly the “wrong” time in the market, so I wonder whether this is the bell ringing that interest rates are finally about to go up?  But I don’t dare predict this.  Many people much smarter than me have predicted that interest rates will go up (for sure) over the past eight years and they may be smart, but so far they have been wrong in that prediction.

Sixth – since there will likely be an increase in the number of parties buying real estate without really knowing what they are buying (i.e., the Diversification Purchasers) – and possibly inadvertently paying top dollar for it for diversification – it will make a lot of sense for “players” in the real estate industry to buy or develop real estate and package it for sales to these Diversification Purchasers.  I suspect that this is a good real estate strategy that will become better and better over time.  Sort of an enhancement on “Build to Core,” it will essentially be “Build to Diversification Purchasers”.

Seventh – it will be plain old dumb to compete with Diversification Purchasers.  They simply will have a different motivation to purchase than a sophisticated investor in the real estate world.  Accordingly, if you have a fund that is buying core assets – or assets close-to-core – it will get harder and harder to acquire assets of this nature at prices that are within logical and traditional underwriting, since there will be more and more Diversification Purchasers competing for it.  So, I suggest – don’t compete with the Diversification Purchasers – sell to them or manage their money in a public or private vehicle.  I wonder here whether possibly public non-traded REIT’s will come into greater vogue.

Eighth – it will be more and more important to be “the guy who creates value”, as I pointed out in my earlier articles in The Real Estate Philosopher.  If you can create value, then the products you create will be in more demand than ever from Diversification Purchasers.  However – I think, a bit sadly – the pressure will be on you to “create” real estate assets that fit into the “checked boxes” of the Diversification Purchasers, so innovation may become harder to justify.

Ninth – the companies which are advising the Diversification Purchasers will do better and better.  Diversification Purchasers will logically gravitate toward the biggest and most well-regarded advisors and, in turn, those advisors will be able to increase their market share.  If you are starting a career, this will likely be a good place to get a job.

Tenth – I suspect there will be more and more deals that are huge in size, as more money-manager-type “elephants” that are really financial services providers wade into the real estate area.  They will need to have very large portfolios to provide necessary diversification to their investors.  They will probably not want to acquire these portfolios piece-by-piece, but instead will want to gain control of them in one fell swoop.

Eleventh – I suspect that the regulatory changes sweeping the real estate world will increase significantly.  Over time, as real estate looks more and more like a part of the financial services sector, it will become more and more regulated like the financial services sector.  This will be a good thing for lawyers, compliance officers and other parties who work in this part of the industry.

Twelfth – “average performance” will become the goal for most real estate money managers catering to Diversification Purchasers.  Since the Diversification Purchasers are not (almost by definition) looking to outperform, they will want a diversified portfolio that includes an “average-performing” class of real estate.

These are my thoughts. Of course, I likely will be right in some of them and wrong in others; however, one thing is for sure, and that is that as real estate becomes a separate asset class there will be a significant impact on the real estate world (both the REIT and non-REIT portions).  All of us – lawyers, as well businesspersons – would be well advised to be perceptive about how this will affect our businesses so that we will benefit from the changes afoot, rather than the converse.

Additional Links:

Real Estate Takes Its Place as the Fourth Asset Class

GICS Classification of Real Estate  

Real Estate to Receive Dedicated Sector Classification

Everything You Need to Know About the New Real Estate Sector Coming to the Global Market In September 

Real Estate Strikers Out on Its Own in the Stock Indexes 

Real Estate to Be a Sector on Its Own

More Thoughts About Value Creation – Melding Narrow and Broad Thinking

This is going to get really philosophical (even for the Real Estate Philosopher) so please stay with me – it is mercifully short, but very important…..

In earlier articles I have argued the value of trying to “own” a smaller niche in order to have the ability to create value within that niche. The value is created by the “power” you obtain within your niche by the confluence of knowledge, intellectual capital, experience, expertise and, of critical importance, relationships with key players in the niche. I have been recently calling these niches “Power Niches” to elucidate the “power” that comes from working in this manner.

Anyway, the “power” in the Power Niche comes from the small-size of the niche and your ability to achieve ownership within it. This makes evident that narrowing the focus is the key to success. However, as I think (philosophize) I have concluded that this is not the whole story and indeed focusing only narrowly can be self-limiting.

My thinking has evolved by adding to the mix that your ability to think of new and creative – even brilliant – ideas within your Power Niche is enhanced if you become exposed to the creative and brilliant ideas that others have thought of in other niches. This creates the optimal mixture of narrow and broad thinking that is critical for the genesis of ideas to create value.

I have noticed this in just The Real Estate Philosopher itself. Indeed, the great thinker Peter Drucker is not really known that much in the real estate industry, or the law industry in which I practice; however, he has given me numerous ideas for my law business and this publication. And other great thinkers I read about outside the industry regularly give me ideas as well. So does reading Fortune, which often profiles the reasons that some companies are great successes – or great failures. Indeed, it is one of the easiest ways to become more knowledgeable and “powerful” within your Power Niche by reading, learning and thinking outside the Power Niche.

This is very true in the legal industry. My close friend for many years, Jay Bernstein, is a real estate capital markets lawyer at the magic circle law firm Clifford Chance. He is known for creative outside-the-box solutions to client problems that have never been solved before. Part of Jay’s (secret?) is that he calls not only on his own brain but also on the brains of colleagues in different disciplines at Clifford Chance. Putting these different areas of expertise together often yields a creative solution that no one within a specific discipline could have found alone.

And I see it myself, in that my eclectic legal career history – that includes bankruptcy, litigation, securitization, corporate M&A, leveraged buyouts, entertainment and movie law, and much more – often enables me to approach legal problems in the real estate world that I would not otherwise be able to solve.

All of this somewhat contradicts my earlier writings that the best way to be successful is to be the top dog in a small niche. I acknowledge this by saying the following to sum up my (somewhat revised) hypothesis:

Optimal value creation – in the real estate world, and in other worlds as well – is achieved by obtaining ownership of a Power Niche (which is a narrow focus), and then augmenting the power of the Power Niche by gaining knowledge of as many disparate different disciplines as possible (which is a broad focus) and applying what you learn into the Power Niche. So “narrow and broad” together is the magic formula.

Ultimately, knowledge of disparate areas permits outside-the-box thinking in the area you are trying to think in.

Could it be proved that I am right here? I don’t know. It “feels” right to me and I keep seeing evidence of it. However, I guess you can’t prove something like this. But it certainly has been working for me.

Reinventing The Law Business: An Introduction

By way of introduction, I am the founder and managing partner of Duval & Stachenfeld LLP. We are a 70-ish lawyer law firm in midtown NYC that focuses strongly on real estate; indeed, we refer to ourselves as “The Pure Play in Real Estate Law.”

As managing partner I have spearheaded numerous unique initiatives that have distinguished us from other law firms. Many of these ideas were very scary when we tried them out — there was always a fear that we would not only fail but, worse yet, be laughed at. Some of these ideas did not work out so well, I admit; however, the ones that succeeded have been the fulcrum to attract both lawyers and clients to our firm and indeed been the bedrock of our success.

As a relatively small firm playing with the big boys and girls, one would think that our size could be a disadvantage. But that would be incorrect. Smaller players can be flexible and move in different directions. We can take risks and seize opportunities that large law firms cannot logically capitalize on….

Unless you live in a cave you have seen a plethora of criticisms of Biglaw, how lawyers practice, and just about everything else. People beat up on us lawyers a lot for just about everything. It doesn’t have to be that way. One can run a law firm where both the lawyers and the clients are really happy and getting what they seek out of the relationships involved.

This column will focus on innovative strategies for successfully running law firms — both large and small firms. Instead of just throwing out ideas because I suspect they may be accurate, I will instead give real-world examples and relate these ideas to things that we did that proved amazing and other things that we did that turned out to be failures.

Also, along the way, I will take the risk of opening our strategies up to our competition and I will give my thoughts on how best to succeed as a law firm in this competitive world.

Ultimately, my goal with this column will be to prove a basic point: That to be successful in the law “business” one must be creative and innovative and not be afraid to try out ideas and, yes, fail sometimes in order to succeed in the end.