CONTRIBUTORSElite AgentEPM: Leadership

Ellen Bathgate: What happens when you build it but no one comes?

When Ellen Bathgate started her own property management agency she thought the phone would be ringing hot. It didn't. That was just the first of many surprises she's encountered in her business journey. Here, Ellen explains the three biggest shocks and how she tackled them.

I started in property management when I was only 18 years old, but I always knew I wanted to own my own agency.

I wanted to be the boss, the girl in charge and the one making the big bucks.

When I imagined starting my own agency and going out on my own, this is what I imagined: I imagined I’d arrive late to the office after picking up my morning coffee. 

I’d work until about 4pm, and I’d oversee my amazing team of property managers.

I’d have landlords queuing up to work with my company, and I’d charge higher fees than anyone else in my market.

I’d take long holidays, where my team would run my business without me, and I’d return to a business that was happy, profitable, and I’d never have to go to the tribunal (because all my tenants would be perfect).

But that’s not exactly how business goes.

When I first went out on my own, three things surprised me about business ownership.

Let me tell you what they were.

Surprise 1: It’s not a field of dreams

When I started my agency, I focused on building my website, getting business cards and setting up my logo and branding.

I honestly thought that if I built it, they would come.

So when my phone didn’t ring (not even once in the first six weeks), I started to panic.

I built it, but they didn’t come! My business was not a Field of Dreams.

It was a total surprise that, even after starting my business, landlords weren’t queuing at my door to use my property management services.

A total surprise, and a rude shock, if I’m honest.

It turns out, having a website and a phone number is not enough to grow an agency.

Not enough at all.

You must be extremely proactive in your approach to prospecting and growth in the first year or two of business.

After sitting and waiting for landlords to call me for the first six weeks (and nearly going broke in the process), I realised that I would run out of capital if I didn’t spring into action.

So I took action. I joined networking groups, met other business owners for coffee, did letterbox drops, sent direct mail, started a newsletter, and tackled my social media.

After all, I had nothing else to do except focus on growing my rent roll.

That became my full-time job.

Surprise 2: I had to wear ‘all the hats’

When I first started my agency, I’d been a property manager for many years.

But I had never overseen the reconciliation of a trust account, I’d never been a receptionist in a real estate agency, I’d never receipted rent, and I’d never been a licensee in charge.

Stepping into my own agency meant that I had to step into several roles I’d never fulfilled in my entire career.

This was a pretty steep learning curve for me.

I was a great property manager but a terrible trust accountant.

I dreaded doing bank reconciliations, and I loathed the end of the month.

I had panic attacks whenever my trust account didn’t balance, and I never enjoyed the numbers side of my business.

But it wasn’t just trust accounting that surprised me about going out on my own.

I was surprised to discover that, since I was the only person in my business, I was also responsible for everything else.

I had to wear ‘all the hats’ in my business.

This meant that I was responsible for being: the leasing consultant, the routine inspection officer, the trust accountant, the BDM, the property manager, the receptionist, the marketing manager, the administrator, and everything else in the business.

I was horrified to discover that, because I was in charge of all tasks and responsibilities in the business, I was much busier than I expected to be.

Not only busier, but I struggled to do some of the tasks in my business that weren’t ‘property management’ tasks.

I honestly didn’t realise that I’d be responsible for everything in my business for the first year or two.

Over time, I learnt how to do all of the tasks in my business, and I’m sure it made me a more well-rounded business owner.

But it was a surprise and a struggle for me indeed.

Surprise 3. Calling the shots

This one was a good surprise.

Soon after starting my agency, I realised that I got to call all the shots in my business.

I got to decide absolutely everything: the landlord gift packs, the trust accounting software, the open home brochures, the website design, the tenant welcome gifts, the business card design.

But here’s what I loved the most.

When something went wrong, even when I stuffed up, I got to decide exactly how to fix it.

That’s why I decided to offer a money-back guarantee on my property management services.

My promise was, “if you’re not totally delighted with my property management services, I’ll refund your last three months commission, and you’re free to transfer your management to another agent with just 24 hours notice”.

Want to know how many landlords asked me to refund their commission? Zero.

Not a single landlord asked for their money back (although I did use this guarantee as a way of sacking a bad landlord!).

Even though I never had to honour the guarantee, I loved that I got to decide exactly what the guarantee was.

I’d never had a property management job where I could offer such a strong service guarantee to my clients.

I loved calling the shots and making all the big decisions in my own agency.

It meant that I had control of my business and the freedom to steer my business the way I wanted to.

There will always be surprises

If you’re thinking of taking the leap and starting your own agency, I highly recommend it.

But be prepared for some surprises along the way.

It may not be exactly as you expected, and that’s OK.

The journey of business ownership is one that makes you a business owner.

It empowers you to take ownership of your future and demands that you step up as an individual.

You’ll have moments where you want to sell your business and walk away, and moments where you wish you started it sooner.

But the real value in your business is who it makes you in the process.

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Ellen Bathgate

Ellen Bathgate is the founder of Rent Roll Starter, and helps rent roll owners to start and grow their own rent rolls using affordable growth strategies. For more information visit