May 1, 2023

JF3161: BEC Exclusive: Fireside Chat ft. Joe Fairless, Part I



At this year's Best Ever Conference in March, Matt Faircloth and Andrew Cushman sat down with Joe Fairless to discuss his path from real estate newbie to $2.7B AUM. In Part I of this two-part conversation, Joe details his early challenges as an apartment syndicator, how he overcame them, and what he learned about real estate investing — and himself — in the process.


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Matt Faircloth: Hey, everybody, how are we doing? Alright, so I'm gonna bring up a few folks that you guys probably know, and we're gonna have a Best Ever conversation. Are you guys ready? Alright, so we're gonna be interviewing, and maybe hopefully ask him some questions that you guys might have for someone you might have heard of, Joe Fairless. And maybe you've talked to him in the hallway, but we're gonna get a chance to get inside his head and hear a lot of his origin story, and hear what he thinks of things that are happening today, right here on the stage. We're going to be interviewing him, and we're gonna do some Q&A. When Q&A comes up, there should be a mic being set up here, and we'll let you know when it's time for that. So think of some great questions you guys might want to ask Joe, that are gonna be helping you guys benefit your business. And let's take that in for a second... There's entertaining questions we can ask it, that we might like to hear the answer for, like "What's your net worth?" That doesn't matter. What matters is questions that you guys need to know to help you guys get yourself to the next level. You guys with me? Okay, cool.

So now I'm gonna bring up my co-host for today's interview. You might know him, because he and I share the microphone sometimes when we do the multifamily sector of the BiggerPockets Podcast... You might know him from his 10-minute talk that he did up here. Anybody hear that, the 10-minute talk that Andrew did? Great conversation, awesome talk... Let's give a big round of applause for THE Andrew Cushman. Good.

Alright, now, I want to hear the biggest Best Ever -- because here's the thing. Let's give this man some gratitude. Without this person that I'm about to bring up, we're all just sitting at home, watching Netflix. None of this happens. And this is someone who I view as -- his brand is one of the gold standards in the industry. This is someone I personally look up to, and I've gotten a lot of advice from in the world of real estate investing. Some of you guys maybe have too, as well... And this is someone that's a thought leader that has created so much that we have all benefited from. So if you've benefited a lot from this man, let's share 10 out of 10 cheers and applause for Joe Fairless.

Matt Faircloth: Alright... So Joe, how are you?

Joe Fairless: Doing well. I almost wore that shirt today... Would that have been a good thing or a bad thing?

Matt Faircloth: What, that shirt in the picture?

Joe Fairless: Yeah, that shirt...

Matt Faircloth: Yeah, this is a shirt that I got for this interview... But I was gonna wear what I refer to as my Fairless flannel. Because every time I see you, you look like you're about to kick down a tree, or something like that. [unintelligible 00:05:20.13]

Joe Fairless: You know, you've got to be true to yourself. And I think with branding, too. You've gotta be true to yourself. If it's not genuine and authentic, then it's not going to be the right approach for you.

Matt Faircloth: Yeah. And I think that there's something - there's a lot of courage to just be yourself in the world.

Joe Fairless: Yeah, I remember I interviewed someone a while ago, and she said, "The more I am my true self, the more magnetic I become." And it's true - the more you are yourself, the more people gravitate towards you. And we all have our spidey sense tingling when someone is not being authentic. So that's why I really love being at this conference, and the culture that's created here. It's just a lot of really good people.

Matt Faircloth: One more time, thank you for creating this. And this is off the script here... Where did you come up with the name Best Ever?

Joe Fairless: Oh, in my apartment in New York City, on my bed, because I didn't have a living room, and I was brainstorming, and I thought "What is a ridiculous name, that will stand out?" And this fit. It's hyperbole, and it's ironic, because that's not my personality, to be hyperbolic... But whatever. We rolled with it.

Matt Faircloth: So tell us a little bit about where Ashcroft, your company is right now - size-wise, deal-wise... And it's unfortunate, but at these conferences everybody likes to talk "How many doors do you have?" I can't count how many times I've been asked how many doors I have. The short answer is it doesn't matter. But to frame the conversation today right now, where is Ashcroft in size and scope of the company?

Joe Fairless: 2.7 billion worth of apartment communities that we have assets under management, and about 12,000 units.

Andrew Cushman: 12,000 units... So for a lot of us in the room, we're like "Holy cow, 12,000 units." That's so far beyond what a lot of us can imagine. Maybe we can imagine it in the terms of we want to get there, but for those looking to scale up, and maybe who have 100 units, or 500 units, or 1,000, what is the journey to scale up to 12,000? If you were on your bed today, and you had just come up with the Best Ever name, what's the next few steps that you would recommend to people who are trying to be Joe Fairless 10 years from now?

Joe Fairless: Robert Kiyosaki said the richest people in the world build a network, and everyone else looks for work. So I'd focus on building a network. And that's where the podcast tied into this, it's how this community came about. Richest people in the world build networks, everyone else looks for work. And there's all sorts of other quotes that I live by. The secret to living is giving. Help enough people get what they want, and you'll get everything you want. Service to many leads to greatness. So that's the core of my belief system. And when you have these relationships with other people, you learn, and you find out who the right partners are. And the interviews that I did, probably the first 2,000 interviews for my podcast - that's 2000 conversations with real estate investors who certainly in the early days had much more experienced than I had. It's an unofficial master's degree in real estate, and asking people the questions that you want to ask. So I would focus on the network, creating some sort of way to add value in a scalable way, that puts you in a lot of relationships with people who have more experience than you. You build those relationships, you find the right partners based on those relationships, and then you go from there.

Matt Faircloth: There's some folks here -- and sometimes I experience it as well... That little bit of fear of approaching someone who's a few steps ahead of you, to go on your podcast, or a YouTube video, to go on my Instagram feed, whatever it is. Did you ever experienced that? And if so, how did you get beyond that not-enough feeling maybe, or whatever it is that gave you the courage to call folks like Robert Kiyosaki, whatever, to come on your show and have a conversation with you?

Joe Fairless: I have an investor, and actually he was my former boss's boss; he sold his advertising agency in New York City. And I was talking to him about this... He was on the other side of the challenge, where he was approached by a lot of people who wanted to work for his company. And he got approached all the time by people. And he said, the ones that stood out, which there were maybe one or two people who stood out, they said, "I know you have an advertising agency, your clients are, say, Frito Lay, and I'm actually in your target audience." He was a college student. "And I actually did a survey among my friends in my college dormitory, and we did unofficial focus groups. Here's some insights that we have, that might be helpful for your Frito Lay clients." And that's an example of what we could do if we are reaching out to people who are a couple steps ahead of us. Okay, well, what business are they in? What needs do they have? And, now, where am I at, and what could I provide them within my own capacity that would be beneficial? And it might not resonate with them, but you do that with enough people, because everyone in this room is accomplished to a certain extent at varying levels, and there's someone we can mentor. And I'm sure you get reached out to by a decent amount of people, "Hey, can you give me this advice? Can you give me that advice?" And those who bring that value are those who stand out.

I get a lot of emails, and messages, and the ones who are intentional about what is my line of business, and how can I be helpful for you, right out of the gate - those are the ones that get responded to.

Matt Faircloth: Do you still get the "Can I take you out to coffee? Can I buy you lunch?" kind of emails, and stuff like that?

Joe Fairless: Occasionally.

Matt Faircloth: The reason I'm saying that is there's one thing - when people reach out to me, or to you, I'm sure, there is the opportunity to add value, and to have a deep conversation, or a specific problem. And then there's the reach outs that seem even more generic, like "Can I pick your brain?"

Joe Fairless: Right. What a terrible phrase, right? Pick your brain...

Matt Faircloth: Yeah... Oh, my goodness. "Can I just take things for free from you, with no return to you at all? Can I just suck out a half an hour of your day for no value?"

Andrew Cushman: And there's no good visual that goes along with that phrase.

Matt Faircloth: Right. It's like, are you a zombie? Are you gonna eat the brain while you pick it, or...?

Andrew Cushman: Yeah. I think of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the monkey scene.

Matt Faircloth: That's picking the brain, right. But just to validate what we said, there's a lot to approaching someone with the opportunity to try and add value, or even if they're at different levels, whatever, how can I contribute, or just do something to help you as well...?

Joe Fairless: And this is the seventh year we've had the conference, and I know I've talked about it pretty much every year... That's why the thought leadership platform is so helpful, because it's instantly built in value, or at least perceived value. No one might be listening to your podcast, but at least it's perceived value... "You've been really successful. I'd love to showcase your story to my listeners, and let more people know about what you're doing." That's flattering. And not only that, but it starts to trigger the law of reciprocity, where now you've given them something of perceived value, so now they'll be more likely to help you whenever you have something.

Matt Faircloth: Absolutely. So you're laying on that bed in New York City, with no living room, then the Best Ever idea comes up, and fast forward to today... When was that that you got started, that you were sitting in the cubicle next to Holly Williams sitting right there, and working in the -- [unintelligible 00:12:20.10]

Andrew Cushman: And were you wearing a flannel shirt?

Joe Fairless: Oh, absolutely. Advertising agency? Yes, absolutely. This is a little fancier than my other flannel, so yeah...

Matt Faircloth: Right. When was that, that you drank the real estate Kool Aid and decided to have the courage to exit your job and begin your company and your journey?

Joe Fairless: Well, I was in advertising, and I think it was Hurricane Sandy that hit New Jersey... And that was in October of 2012, and that hurricane hit. And I was working W-2. Our office - it was a big building. Our office was flooded, the basement was, so we couldn't go to the building, therefore we worked remotely... And I was with my friend, and working remotely at a coffee shop in New York City, and I had the epiphany, I was like "What are these people doing walking the streets? It's 1pm on a Tuesday. How are they able to do this? I really want to have a little bit more freedom to have the autonomy and work remotely, and do these things." So combine that with the four single-family homes that I owned at the time... I'd mentioned this to the VIPs this morning; they were cash-flowing 250 bucks a month, and someone would move out, there's $5,000 expenses right there, wipes away all the profits for the year... And then it's just an appreciation play, that -- I didn't intend it to be appreciation play; i intended it to be a monthly cash flow play. And so I started teaching a class on how to do that in New York City, because people were wondering, "You're buying these cash-flowing properties. That's interesting." And I had a former boss at the time, he said, "If you ever do something larger, let me know." And I heard that from a couple of people, so I realized I had customers before I had the product... So then I started studying multifamily. And I wrote an email to my family; I have the email printed out on my wall in my office... It was in November of 2012. I said, "I'm going to be quitting my advertising job. I came, I conquered, and I don't care about it at all anymore." I was the youngest VP at an advertising agency. And when you don't care about something, that's a trigger; you've gotta move on. Steve Jobs talks about "Look in the mirror." Everyone knows that quote. "Make a change if you say "I'm not interested in what I'm about to do today" so many days in a row. So I decided to start learning multifamily, and leave at that point in time. I had been studying multifamily on the side, but I decided to leave in November of 2012.

Andrew Cushman: So how did you start studying multifamily? And if you were going to start studying today, is there anything you would do differently?

Joe Fairless: 2012... I'm not aware of conferences, or at least I wasn't at the time, that there were some conferences that were taking place in 2012-2013, that weren't pitch fests; just trying to get people in, funnel them into a consulting program or something... Which is not a bad thing, because I would also join a consulting program. I hired a consultant at that time, and he helped me learn the basics of apartment investing. It did not teach me value-add investing, and I later learned there's a difference between buying a property and -- like I did my single-family homes, because I thought it was going to be just like my single family homes - I'd buy a property, it cash-flows based on how it currently performs, and then I sell it later, or I hold on to it. So I made a big mistake on my first deal, where I went in with that same mindset... And we can talk about that, but I went in with that same mindset, and that was not a good thing.

But to answer your question, I'd go to all the conferences, I would have some sort of thought leadership platform that is interview-based, meet a lot of people, and then I would identify what are the successful characteristics that it takes to be successful in, say, apartment syndication. And then once I identify those successful characteristics, I'd then take a look in the mirror, or take your personality test and see "Okay, well, I am this person, I'm the hunter, I'm the brain, or the axe picker", or whatever other --

Matt Faircloth: The hammer...

Joe Fairless: The hammer, thank you... And then go and find the other people.

Break: [00:16:25.09]

Andrew Cushman: I would like to follow up on that first deal for a minute... If I recall right, that deal lost money, right?

Joe Fairless: It lost money, yeah.

Andrew Cushman: And somehow you are still here today, with 12,000 units. You've scaled, clearly you've moved past that... How did you do that? How does someone in the audience who maybe does a bad deal, or bought something with the wrong debt last year - how do they not let that stop them from continuing to grow?

Matt Faircloth: Before you answer that question, just to piggyback - there are maybe folks here, and I've been in this boat before, that there is a fear of moving forward because of the fear of losing money, because of the fear of making a mistake. So just addressing this to the audience here, that this man is not perfect. There's been mistakes made by Joe, by myself, by Andrew... And if you allow the fear of moving forward because "I don't want to make a mistake", you'll end up not going anywhere.

Joe Fairless: That's right.

Matt Faircloth: So tell us more about the deal, or if you want to comment on that as well.

Joe Fairless: Yeah, I agree. Well, a little bit about the deal, for context, and then I'll tell you --

Matt Faircloth: What not to do.

Joe Fairless: Yeah, what not to do, and how to emotionally navigate it as best you can, based on what I learned. So the deal is a master lease with an option to purchase. I went from four single family homes to a 168-unit apartment community in Cincinnati, Ohio, and I had 12 investors. It was a $1.2 million raise. I raised 843,000 from those 12 investors; the difference between 1.2 and 843k was the brokers put in their commissions, and I think they brought in an investor or two that they knew through an entity... And I'll tell you the specifics of it, but I'll say right now that everything was my fault. Ultimately, it was on me, and it was nobody else's responsibility but mine that if I was not aware of certain things - well, that's on me.

So the deal was... Going back to - I didn't know value at investing. So it looked on paper that the property cashflowed; it was 95% occupied, in a growing area of Cincinnati, on the East side of Cincinnati, in Amelia, for anyone who's familiar with Cincinnati... And I thought, "Okay, well, cashflowing deal. I can get in at a relatively small amount relative to the overall value of the property." And I thought I could raise 500,000 at the time, but I was able to raise 843k. So I was talking to the owner while we were doing walkthrough, and he said "Joe, if you want it to be 100% occupied, we can make it 100% occupied before closing." I'm like "So nice of you... Thank you."

Andrew Cushman: "And you - do you wanna move in?"

Joe Fairless: "This is what apartment owners are like, right?"

Andrew Cushman: Sure.

Joe Fairless: [unintelligible 00:20:55.15] "I should have been doing this a long time."

Matt Faircloth: "No problem."

Joe Fairless: So I said, "Yes, please. That would be great." [laughter] Well, it turns out that there were a lot of down units, a lot of units that weren't rent-ready... And he was literally moving people from the streets, being homeless, into these units. And these homeless people did not care about the quality of the unit, they just want a roof over their head, understandably.

Matt Faircloth: [unintelligible 00:21:22.05]

Joe Fairless: That too, yeah. They didn't care about paying the rent...
Andrew Cushman: It's called not good screening practices.

Joe Fairless: Yes. So I closed on it without looking at all these down units. There were about 18 of them. I closed on it without looking at any of these down units... And they didn't pay rent, shockingly. So we went through the eviction process, and not only did we go through the eviction process, but - well, now you've got to make ready all these down units. And one of them literally - you go in with the safety suit, with the facemask and everything... Multiple dead rodents, and other creatures that used to be living, that were no longer living for a very long time. And I was saying this morning, the owner was spraying something on his legs prior to going into the units, and I was like, "That's strange", but I didn't think anything of it. Can anyone guess? Non-VIP people, who heard this morning. Can anyone guess what he was spraying? Bedbugs, yeah. He was spraying, like rubbing alcohol on his legs, so bedbugs wouldn't latch on to him as we were walking through the units. We had a major bedbug infestation, apparently...

So we found the bedbugs in the due diligence, but we didn't know how extensive it was. We looked at the units initially, but my own fault, I got tricked on that when we closed... And most importantly, I didn't listen to multiple property managers prior to closing. There was a proforma that was put in place; I really wanted to do my first deal, and I spoke to two property management groups in Cincinnati, and they both said, "Your numbers aren't realistic." And instead of saying "Hm... They might have something", I went to a third property management company, and they said "Yes, this could work." So I was like "Alright, that's what I wanted to hear."

I closed, and there was no money in the reserves. And when I closed, the mortgage broker said, "Well, there's $21,000 needed for insurance at closing." I was like "I wasn't expecting that..." So I ended up patching out some, and eventually all of my 401k I had through my company, that I'd saved, and putting it right out of the gate, day one, right out of the gate.

So I learned a lot of lessons... And when the property lost money, I had 12 conversations with the investors, and I said, "We lost money. My commitment to you is I will pay you back, plus--" Well, actually... Yes, I did say this initially. I said, "I will pay you back, plus 14% annualized return out of my own pocket. I don't know how long it's gonna take, but I'll do it." And conversations, as you can imagine, went from -- they didn't say it, but I know they were thinking "That's BS" to "Hey, I really appreciate it, but we'll just wait and see." And it took about a year and a half, maybe two years, I don't quite remember, but I paid them all back, plus 14% out of my own pocket... And I realized from that experience you've got to have money, got to have a deal, got to be able to execute. I'm good at the money part, but the deal and execution, not my area of expertise, and we're swimming with sharks when we get into this level... And you'd better bring a decade plus of experience, or at least have people that you can consult with, that will help you... Because you're going to run across people who have more experience, who are more savvy, and have seen more things than you have, and it's necessary to have those allies that you can combat that with.

So from an emotional and mental standpoint, I remember one day -- my bank account after we closed was $1,000. And I had $100,000 in credit card debt. The property management company, I owed their vendors, because we were delaying payment on vendors, so I had to pay back the vendors, I had to do workarounds... I met with one emergency restoration company, because we had flooding at the property... I met with them multiple times at their office, and I had to talk to them about how I couldn't pay them everything now, but I'll get on a payment plan... It was crazy.

One day, in the middle of the storm, we had another flood at the property... And I'd always be looking at the Weather App to see when we were going to get rain... And it was just such a dreadful experience, just the anticipation of rain coming down from the sky. It rains a lot in Cincinnati, especially that year, it seemed like... And I would look at the app and I'd like "Oh, man, it's gonna rain..."

And one morning after a rainstorm - sure enough, we had a lot of units flooded, and we had restoration come out, and they said "This bill is gonna be $40,000." I did not have $40,000. That was one... This all happen before 10am, by the way... So I got a bill for $40,000, I was working at the time, so I met my business partner Frank, and we had started Ashcroft while still trying to solve this issue... And we were working on our first or second deal at the time, and we were in the funding process. One of our investors wired money to Africa instead of to our escrow account. He got hacked, $100,000 investment. So we ended up paying that back over time, just because it was not our fault. His email got hacked, but we ended up paying him back, because who knows what type of liabilities were involved there.

And then on top of that, I was like, "Okay, I've got to go run, I've got to go get some exercise, get away from this." We were renting an apartment at the time in Cincinnati... I take 10 steps out of the apartment, I'm standing on the sidewalk, I see this woman walking towards me, and she's walking kind of funky, like off a little bit for 10am in the morning... And I look at her, I say "Good morning", and she spits in my face. [laughs] So I called the FBI too that morning, about the wire funds being lost... So I called the FBI, got spit in my face, and got a $40,000 bill, all before 10am on that day.

Andrew Cushman: So the Best Ever guy had his worst day ever.

Joe Fairless: That's right, yeah. And I called 911 about that lady, so it was all sorts of stuff going on...

Andrew Cushman: Oh, man...

Joe Fairless: And so how do you go past it? It's something that you've got to remember. It's something that you've got to hold dear. So I document; I have a daily journal, and I document -- I can go back and I can reference that day, what was I experiencing, what was like going through... And anytime I'd start getting complacent -- because it's natural; you make a lot of money, complacency can seep in. I go back in that journal and I'm like "Holy shit, I was getting spit on, I was calling the FBI, I was calling 911, and I was getting bills, I couldn't pay, all in one day before 10am. I'm not gonna go back to that place. I won't allow it."

Andrew Cushman: That was some awesome real-life detail that you don't often get to hear... But there's one thing that you said that I think for everyone listening is probably the most key... And it's not "Don't make mistakes", because mistakes and failures are human nature. Look at Chernobyl, or the Hindenburg, or almost any Nicolas Cage movie. But the thing that you said was "Everything was my fault." Whether or not that's actually true or not doesn't matter. I bet when you had those 12 investor calls, you didn't blame anybody else. You said, "Hey, I screwed up. I'm gonna pay you back", and you took ownership for that. The $100,000 wire that went to Africa - clearly not your fault. But you treated it as if it was, and then to me, that's probably one of the biggest reasons that you're at 12,000 units today... And that early failure didn't stop you. So kudos to you. That's awesome.

Matt Faircloth: Extreme ownership.

Andrew Cushman: Yeah, extreme ownership.

Matt Faircloth: You probably asked yourself what you had done to the lady to make her spit you in the face... [laughter] "How did I contribute to that?"

Joe Fairless: That one wasn't -- I didn't deserve the spit in my face.

Andrew Cushman: Maybe your breath was bad that morning.

Joe Fairless: Maybe, maybe...

Matt Faircloth: So before we move on, what was the exit point for that deal, just to close that loop?

Joe Fairless: I think we had it under contract for 6.3, or something, and I ended up selling for 5.2 to a group... And one interesting thing, which could be relevant to anyone who is having challenges with the current interest rates and talking to investors, and if you need to pause distributions, or sell, or whatever... During that time, with that property, prior to it getting really bad, one or two groups reached out and said, "Hey, we'd like to buy this property." And it was more of a creative structure that they were bringing to the table, but it still would have worked. But it wouldn't have hit the projected returns that I wanted for the investors, but would have been profitable. And I said no, because I didn't want to go back to investors and say, "We're not going to hit what we projected", and I was disillusioned at the time. I didn't really understand what reality was. I thought that things were going to get better. And I was living at the -- did I mentioned that, that I was living at the property?

Matt Faircloth: No.

Joe Fairless: Yeah, I moved from New York --

Andrew Cushman: That's why they spit in your face.

Joe Fairless: Yeah, I'd moved from New York City -- well, I was living with my girlfriend, now my wife, at the time, at a different apartment... But once I met her, I moved in with her. But I was living at the property for -- I don't know how long; six months, eight months... I'm not exactly sure. But I was living in the model unit. I moved from New York City to Cincinnati to try and turn it around. I had been living in New York City for 10 years, but I moved from New York City to Cincinnati, I moved in the model unit. And I would pack up all my stuff in the morning at 7:30am, and I would go walk to the leasing office, and I would go show the model unit, the place I was living to prospective residents. One day I had my toothbrush out, and they're like "Is someone living here?" No, no, no...

Matt Faircloth: [unintelligible 00:30:33.12]

Andrew Cushman: "I'm trying to make it realistic."

Joe Fairless: Yeah.

Matt Faircloth: "It could be your toothbrush, if you wanna--"

Joe Fairless: I had a Toyota Corolla at the time, and I'd go up to Lowe's and I did the asphalt that you'd use to fill potholes, and I'd put it in the trunk of my Toyota Corolla with a shovel, I'd be filling potholes... I was doing whatever it took. But a good lesson there is it wasn't enough. I was all-in, but it wasn't enough, because I wasn't capitalized properly. And I went in with a bad business plan. But even if we try to do everything we can, it might not be enough. So cut your losses, and what Matthew McConaughey says in a keynote, "Don't leave crumbs." Don't do things in life where you're going to have to look over your shoulder and be like, "I hope that person doesn't show up at the conference." I've got one of the investors in that first deal here. So... Hard decisions have to be made in business. Do it in a way that doesn't leave you looking over your shoulder, and hoping that you don't come across those people again. And that was a big thing that I did, and I'm proud of how I handled it.

Andrew Cushman: That's some solid advice.

Matt Faircloth: I would like to take a moment, guys, and give a round of applause to Joe for getting real about that, for getting vulnerable. And also for doing the right thing by your investors.

There's not enough reality and vulnerability in this business. If you look on Facebook, all people do in this business is go on vacation, go to conferences, and close deals. But it's good to have somebody here that is willing to tell you guys the other side of this business, that you don't see on Facebook. So thank you.

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