After 15 years in the industry, building a successful business wasn’t an obstacle for Cody Sperber. Once he perfected his marketing and became a “transactional engineer,” he realized it was best to focus on his strengths and outsource/delegate/delete the rest. In this episode, Cody talks about how his mindset shift led to making even more money, without just focusing on cash flow and profit.
Cody Sperber Real Estate Background:
- Founder & CEO of the Clever Investor, LLC
- 15 years of real estate experience
- Has flipped over 1,000 properties
- Based in Tempe, AZ
- Say hi to him at: www.cleverinvestor.com
- Best Ever Book: Never Split the Difference
Joe Fairless: Best Ever listeners, how are you doing? Welcome to the Best Real Estate Investing Advice Ever Show. I’m Joe Fairless. This is the world’s longest-running daily real estate investing podcast, where we only talk about the best advice ever, we don’t get into any of the fluffy stuff. With us today, Cody Sperber.
How are you doing, Cody?
Cody Sperber: I’m here, man. Thanks for having me.
Joe Fairless: Well, I’m grateful that you’re on the show and I’m looking forward to our conversation, and you’re welcome for having you. Little about Cody—he’s the founder and CEO of the Clever Investor. He’s got 15 years of real estate experience. He’s flipped over 1000 properties, based in Tempe, Arizona. Nice, warm, Tempe, Arizona.
With that being said, Cody, do you want to give the Best Ever listeners a little bit more about your background and your current focus?
Cody Sperber: Yes, so I own a for-purpose development company called Green Elephant Development, with two of my best friends. We run about anywhere between 10-20 rehabs at a time, normally around the 15-20 mark. But real estate’s hot right now, so we’ve been ramping up. So we do a lot of rehabbing, and the reason we’re for purpose is a portion of all of our proceeds/profits goes towards animal conservation, which we’re really big on the giveback component of why we do what we do, and so underprivileged kids and helping animals is two major causes we support.
And we’re also pretty aggressive wholesalers out here in Arizona, we wholesale a house every other day. Been doing wholesaling for a really long time and own a large rental portfolio, a lot of creative deal structuring, wraparound mortgages, sub-to’s, seller carrybacks, contract for deeds, those kinds of things… And just been investing for forever now.
At this point, I own a bunch of businesses outside of the real estate space; I started education company called Clever Investor in 2010 as a little side hustle project, just because I was so passionate about real estate and teaching. And when I was a little kid, I wanted to be a history teacher. So I’ve always kind of had the teaching thing in my blood, and when I finally found my passion in real estate and what it’s done for me and my family, I started teaching it and it blew up. Now we’re one of the largest online education and software companies in the real estate space.
And then I run some high-level masterminds, one called the Avengers Mastermind Experience; we’ve got about 200 members in that. And then I run a high-level entrepreneurial mastermind called The 100 Million Mastermind Experience, we’ve got 100 members in that; that’s $100,000 to join. And I’ve just been very blessed man, this has been a roller coaster. It’s been good. Family’s good. I’ve got two amazing kids. I’m married. Since day one, my wife’s been my biggest cheerleader, she’s taken the ride with me, and anybody that’s married that is listening to this, she’s put up with a lot and has stuck with me, which is amazing. And she’s always giving me my best advice… And two of the best children I can ask for. So yes, that’s a little background on me.
Joe Fairless: How do you decide what to focus on?
Cody Sperber: I don’t do a very good job of deciding what to focus on. I think a lot of entrepreneurs are cursed with OCD at the things that they’re excited about, they obsess over them. And so whatever I’m really into, I just go down this rabbit hole where it just consumes me, I can’t control it. But I also neglect everything else. So I have a hard time with the concept of balance. I don’t believe in it, I don’t want to do it. I want to obsess over the things, that’s what made me great. And how I compensate for it is I have a lot of people around me that I’ve put in place on my team that helped me pick up those pieces. So I have a full-time executive assistant, I hired my wife, a full-time executive assistant. And without those team members keeping me on track and helping me with all those other areas, I would totally be a hot mess.
So I give all the credit to the team. They just make me look good and on point and I just stay within my wheelhouse of the things that I’m actually fantastic at and really good at, and I outsource, delegate, delete or automate everything else.
Joe Fairless: What are some things you’re really good at?
Cody Sperber: Marketing. I’m a beast when it comes to marketing. My mentor, called it “transactional engineering”. And when I say I’m a beast, I’ve got to give credit where credit’s due. My first real estate mentor was a guy named Lyle, and he was this old salty dog that’s been in the real estate game for 40 years, and just super creative. And he taught me to be what he calls a “transactional engineer”. That’s when you show up at a seller’s house, and every other wholesaler in town just makes an all-cash offer, and he would immediately say, “Alright, I want you to go to this appointment. You can make it, but you can’t take an all-cash offer. You’ve got to convince the seller to take a creative terms offer.” And he would challenge me to all these different ways of doing real estate and creating income streams.
So yes, I’ve learned a lot from him. So I’m really good at the marketing side of things. I learned I’m good at systems. I’m weird, man. I’m weird. I’m right brain/left brain. You ever meet somebody that’s a little bit of both?
Joe Fairless: Sure.
Cody Sperber: I think that’s my superpower is that I’m very analytical, but yet, I also think in pictures. So it’s weird. It’s a weird dynamic. But I’m also really good at building high-performing teams.
When I started scaling Clever, it was my first time scaling anything. We had 100 team members at Clever Investor, at our peak. I’m down to about 70 right now. But at our peak, we’re at over 100, and the wheels fell off at 35. So I’m like, what do I know? I’m a kid from a lower-income neighborhood, with a dad that’s worked a job his whole and a mom that was working her whole life at call centers and stuff like that. I didn’t have a lot of success around me. So it’s not like I was taught how to run a business or taught how to grow a team. So I just screwed it all up along the way. And then I started getting pretty good. I read a lot of books like Traction, trying to figure out like an entrepreneur operating system. How do I scale a business and not have regrettable turnover, and put the right people in the right seats of the bus, connect them to the culture, connect them to the “Why.”
And more importantly, and I think this is the piece that most entrepreneurs that are listening to this fail to do, and it’s what I failed to do in the beginning… And that’s being able to clearly explain, not just what we do, how we do and why we do it, but what’s in it for you when I take an intrapreneur and put them on the team and say, “Look, dude, I’ve got this big vision, you have this big vision. Can your vision fit in alignment with my vision?” Alignment equals velocity. And once I started figuring out how to have that money conversation with the, “What’s in it for you?” Because entrepreneurs, we normally are flying by the seat of our pants, so we don’t know what we’re doing. So it’s hard to talk about the future.
Joe Fairless: Mm-hmm.
Cody Sperber: And I got good at going deeper with people and understanding who they are, what their fears are, what they love to do, what they really want to do, and then connecting that and getting in alignment with that, with my vision, and then creating a culture along the way of extreme ownership. So once all that magic kind of started to happen, we scaled and things got really good. We started winning culture awards, my regrettable turnover went down to less than 1%, and we started printing money, and I haven’t looked back since. I deal with every one of my businesses and it’s been the reason that I’ve been able to grow the brand and do hundreds of millions of dollars from my brands and my companies.
Joe Fairless: I’m grossly simplifying this, so forgive me in advance, but it’s doing the things that we likely know we should be doing, which is having a good strong culture, knowing the why behind why we’re doing it, but then also a lot of people – and I’ve definitely been guilty of this – have neglected the “what’s in it for you”, the team member, when we accomplish these objectives. And really making sure that whatever that reward is, that it aligns with what they’re looking to get out of their career. Is that correct?
Cody Sperber: Yes. I don’t even think you simplified it too much. I think that’s perfect. And it’s scary, because you feel like you’re making a commitment, and one of the reasons we became entrepreneurs is to be nimble, and to not be locked into something. But it is necessary. And a great leader understands it’s not just about raising your enthusiasm; it’s not just about raising your intention. It’s how do you transfer that energy to somebody else so they raise their enthusiasm and intention? And it’s very hard to do that for any length of time if they don’t truly believe in it. So yes, they’ve got to have a path, man. You get that part down and you’ll start winning the game. And real estate’s a team sport, by the way; business is a team sport. I think it was maybe Zig Ziglar or Jim Rohn, I forget who said it, “Teamwork makes the dream work.” How true is that?
I’ve got millions of social media followers and all these companies, and we’re printing money, and a lot of them. And there’s no way, Cody Sperber, the C and D student that smoked weed his whole childhood, and—my parents moved nine times by the time I was 10 years old, to different states; I was always uncertain. I was a really little guy, I had hyperactive disorder, whatever they call it. I was always getting in trouble. I had very little supervision, because my parents were always working… Nobody would have said, “That guy’s going to make it.” I’m not at the class valedictorian. I didn’t play football, I wasn’t cool. I was just a kid with a little bit of hustle that figured out that if you can put the right people on your team and get out of their way, and give them the resources and get them bought in, then that’s how you win the game. And I started doing that, and I haven’t looked back.
Joe Fairless: I love that insight, and having that conversation with the individual team members. And I love your comment about, you can only have so much enthusiasm, but eventually, that’s going to wear off on other people. It will not sink in for as long as you’d like, I should say, with other people unless they have it internally. And this is the way to get it for them internally. You mentioned you had 100 people, now you’re at 70. What happened so it decreased by 30?
Cody Sperber: Actually, I did that on purpose. I had it backwards there for a few years. I was more focused on top-line revenue than I was anything else. It was growth, growth, growth. “Come on, let’s take over the industry. Let’s grow the brand.”
Joe Fairless: Profits.
Cody Sperber: Yes. “Let’s spend whatever money necessary. Let’s just go”, and I scaled to 10, and to $15 million and to $20 million. And it was like we were crushing everybody… But we weren’t. On the surface we were, but the profit margins were shrinking.
Joe Fairless: Right.
Cody Sperber: Our cash flow was shrinking. And I had to spin the whole model; it wasn’t top-line revenue, then profit, and then the last thing I looked at was cash flow. I flipped the whole model around – the only thing I looked at is cash flow, then profit, then top-line revenue. And once I got that switch, I started asking myself better questions, right? Like, instead of making $20 million a year, but only having a 6% or 7% or 8% profit margin, could I make $10 million a year but have a 40% profit margin? Can I get it to where the cash flow is so sick in my business, that I’m never stressed, that I float into work every day, and I just love life? And I just started rearranging the pieces, and you’ve got to learn lessons in business along the way, I didn’t know.
Joe Fairless: What positions were eliminated or rearranged?
Cody Sperber: Well, just consolidated… First off, what happens when you start scaling is, in the beginning you hire people and you infuse them with your energy and your culture. Then as you scale, they then hire people. You’re no longer the person hiring; your downline, your leadership team is now hiring and training. Well, by the third evolution [00:13:48].00]
Joe Fairless: It’s a game of telephone, right?
Cody Sperber: It’s a game of telephone. And you’re like, “What happened? What happened to that youthful, nimble startup energy? What happened to that — everybody understood our main core values, and everybody was bought in. Why am I being sued now by an ex-employee that I don’t even know who they are? Like, how did this breakdown? And why aren’t we paying people correctly? And how come our bonus plan has gotten out of control? Why is one guy making a million dollars a year in my business, and then there’s other people that are completely suffering? This doesn’t make sense.” And it just over a 6-7 year period, it just starts to happen. And if you’re not an experienced CEO, you have to go through that to learn, or have a great mentor.
So that’s just what happened. I just stepped back and that’s when I really dove in. I read the book, Scaling Up. I read the book Traction. I started hiring business mentors to come in. I’m big on paying for speed. When there’s a problem, I have zero problem hiring. So I just hired somebody yesterday to help me with the VSL, and it’s the third person I hired for this particular marketing piece that I need to create.
Joe Fairless: With a what?
Cody Sperber: For a video sales letter.
Joe Fairless: Oh, okay.
Cody Sperber: I paid 20k, 30k, 50k a year to be part of masterminds, to get proximity to people in different industries, different niches, people that I admire or want to learn from. I have my own personal mentors in different areas of my life, and it’s like a good thing. If anybody’s listening to this, don’t be scared to cut that cheque. If there’s one thing I will spend money on, it’s on myself. I bet on myself any day of the week, whether that’s going to college or hiring a business coach. I always encourage people to go for it; you’re going to get a lot out of it, especially when you know how to hire the right person.
Joe Fairless: In your opinion, because you were not focused on profits, you were focused on revenue starting out, and that’s how you grew the beast, and then you called it down some to then focus on cash flow and profits – would you recommend someone starting to build their business be focused on the cash flow and the profits initially? Or did being focused on revenue help you build the monster that you’ve built, and then you had the opportunity to optimize it after the fact, so that’s what you would recommend? Which of those scenarios would you recommend for someone starting out?
Cody Sperber: Great question. Depends on where your heart is and what you want your outcome to be. For me, I just didn’t know any better and I wanted to shake up the industry. I was sick and tired of the guru model that was boring and old and outdated. You watch—not a seminar, what do you call it? Infomercial, and all of a sudden, next thing, you know, you’re at a seminar and they’re pitching on a three-day boot camp. I didn’t want to do any of that crap.
I thought, “Alright, let’s make it edutainment. Let’s make it fun. I want to be big and bold and take over the game.” So looking back, if I could do it all over again, I think it worked out perfect for me the way I did it, because that brand that I built, even though from a business model perspective it wasn’t probably the best business model, my brand got so big that it opened up 100 doors, and I was able to pick which ones I wanted to walk through, which has now made me tens of millions of more dollars.
So it worked out for me. A lot of times you’ve got to have that breakdown before you have to breakthrough. And I just had to hit that stress point where it was melting, and I was unhappy, and I just could not stand moving forward that way any longer. This happened for me in 2017. This is when I started to make this shift, in 2017. And it was tough, because I had to make some decisions that were going to lose me a lot of money. I had to fire some relationships, I had to stop doing some projects, I had to abandon projects that were in motion that I’ve already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on in mid-motion just to say, “You know what, this isn’t going to serve my bigger purpose of where I want to go next.” So it worked out for me.
If I was to do all over again, and if there’s somebody listening to this, with the power of technology that we have now, I would say focus on the cashflow, focus on the lifestyle. You can still build a brand, it might take you a little longer, but focus on that.
I would flip the model back to what I’m currently doing, because I’m so much happier. And I think happiness is important as an entrepreneur, because a lot of us, once we solve the money problem, we think we’re going to become happier, but we build a luxury prison. And that’s what I want people to come away from this conversation, is make sure that you want the luxury prison before you build it for yourself. Otherwise, block your calendar out and say, “These are the things that are important to me, I’m not working these days. I’m focusing on family, I’m focusing on travel, I’m focusing on lifestyle… And these are the days that I’m willing to work.” And if I can build a model where I could do some real estate and maybe some education and maybe have some other side hustle income, and it all fits within this time that I want to put into my money-making time, then I love that model much better. And even if you make a little bit less money or it takes you a little longer, you’ll be happier.
Joe Fairless: What venture have you lost the most money on?
Cody Sperber: You know, education is much tougher than people think it is, and it’s much less profitable when you go big. When you’re real small, it’s fine and it’s fun and then the first few years, it’s fun. I’ve been doing online education and software for over a decade. So I’ve lost probably $300,000 or $400,000 trying to build software. Software is like a rabbit hole. You don’t really realize; every internet browser, every phone, every—everything doesn’t work the same.
Joe Fairless: Yes.
Cody Sperber: And you’re sitting there staring at your laptop, like, “Why doesn’t this thing work?” And next thing you know, you have customer support problems and you’ve got 15 people in a customer support situation dealing with your Internet Explorer issue. So it’s not as glamorous as you think, you just build it and you [Crosstalk]
Joe Fairless: The answer to that is, don’t use Internet Explorer, but that probably wouldn’t fly with the customer.
Cody Sperber: Yes, so a lot in software—somebody asked me the other day on Clubhouse, “What would you change if you could go back and do it again?”
Joe Fairless: I know, I’m not asking you that question, because you wouldn’t change it, because that got you to where you’re at.
Cody Sperber: Exactly.
Joe Fairless: I wouldn’t ask that question.
Cody Sperber: Yes.
Joe Fairless: But I asked if you come across a similar situation in the future, how would you approach it differently? But we don’t need to get into that. Alright, so software, a $300,000 to $400,000 loss.
Cody Sperber: Yes. And marketing, I’ve spent a fortune on marketing that hasn’t worked. I have made infinitely more, because my marketing worked. And I think that’s, like I said—you asked, one of my superpowers is marketing. I am an aggressive, intuitive marketer. And what that means is, when I feel the messaging, when I can meet people where they are and I get on point with my messaging—
Joe Fairless: Yes.
Cody Sperber: —I am not scared to spend a lot of money on buying cold traffic, on sending out direct mail, on doing pay-per-click, on doing all the marketing stuff that you should be doing, and you know you should be doing, but most people are scared and they look at it like an expense. I look at a marketing like an investment. I’m going to learn something amazing, I’m going to test and tweak. I understand that it’s all about consistency. And when you get good at marketing, you realize it’s all about exponential returns. Most people look at it incrementally, I look at it exponentially. I know that there’s a tipping point, as my marketing message gets out there enough, that all of a sudden I get this hockey stick effect where that direct mail campaign that wasn’t doing anything, and I was getting one call, most newbies get pissed off and they bail on their second or third campaign. They’re like, “I spent 1,000 bucks, I didn’t get anything.” “Well, yeah, dude, you’re three feet from gold, you’re right there. If you stay consistent—”
Joe Fairless: Great book by the way.
Cody Sperber: Yes. “And you’re right there, all you’ve got to do is stay consistent.” Guess what, one deal changes everything. And we’re not slinging T-shirts in this business, that you’re going to make five bucks. You’re going to make $15,000 or $50,000 or even $100,000, and it changes everything. And all of a sudden, now you’re walking around like a stud like, “I always knew it would work.” Right? And it’s like, “Yeah,” you know…
Here’s the truth, when it comes to marketing, people can’t convince me that planes don’t fly. That’s how I explain it to people. We all know planes fly, but you wouldn’t believe it. If you’re from the 1800’s and you looked up, you’d be just dumbfounded. You’d be like, “This is witchcraft,” but it’s not. There’s mechanics behind it that make it work, and that’s what’s marketing. So stay consistent with your marketing for a long enough period of time, and you’ll come out the other end and you’ll win way more than you lose.
Joe Fairless: Taking a step back, what’s your best real estate investing advice ever for investors?
Cody Sperber: Best advice ever, I would say my best advice that worked for me, I try not to give people advice because I don’t like it when people try to steer my ship. But I will say what worked for me, Joe, was I tried going at this alone for nine months in the beginning. This is back in 2003/2004. I flew all over the country, following all these seminars around, buying every book taping course, trying to do it on my own, ego, right? Just thinking, “I’m smart enough, I could do it.” And nine months, I couldn’t put a deal together. I overcomplicated things, I kept changing directions, I wasn’t consistent enough and I didn’t understand business or real estate enough. So I just didn’t pull a deal together. I quit the business. Then I finally got back in four months later. I went and got a job as a bookkeeper, then four months later, my friend dragged me to another seminar. That’s where I met Lyle. And that was the key denominator for me is, I finally realized that it’s okay to ask for help from the right person.
And when I asked Lyle for some help, and he pivoted and made me a priority, he taught me things you can’t learn in books. And that mentorship helped me get to my first deal because I realized something, in this business it’s all about leverage, and leverage is power. And when I was able to leverage his experience, when I was able to leverage his money, leverage his business contacts, leverage his speed and get those questions answered right away, guess what? I got my first deal. And I got it to the finish line, and I made 40 grand, and it changed my life.
And I looked back at those nine months, and I said, “Why did I wing it for so long by myself?” So find people that are already successful, get proximity to them at all costs. And I not only paid Lyle to be my mentor, and I just met Lyle at the bar at the seminar. He was just chilling up the bar, but I knew he was a yoda of creative real estate. I had to get close to him. So I said, “What do I got to do?” And he goes, “Man, I’ve heard this a million times, everybody wants me to mentor them.” And I said, “Well, I’m different.”
Joe Fairless: Yes.
Cody Sperber: You know, and he’s like, “Uh-huh, I’ve heard that a million times.” And nowadays, with social media, how many times do you get pinged on a DM saying, “I’m different, teach me?” So I just said, “Not only will I pay you, but I’ll bring you deals.” And after about an hour of talking with him, he finally looked at me and said, “Alright, Cody, I’ll take you on, but you have three strikes, you’re going to pay me 10 grand, you have three strikes like baseball. And if you make three strikes, you’re out. I’m firing you as a client and I’m keeping your money and you’re out of my life.” And within a very short amount of time, I blew through two strikes. So he was such a great mentor. He understood the accountability part, he understood how to allow me to discover the truth. He poured love into me in the moments where I needed it. He kicked my ass in the moments where I needed an ass kicking. And he helped me get that deal and it changed everything for me.
And that’s why I love teaching and mentoring now because of what it’s done for me. So that’s my best advice for somebody new is don’t be scared to ask for help. And whatever you’ve got to do, your future goals, your future best self is worth every penny, and you should be willing to do whatever it takes to unlock that next level.
Joie Fairless: Amen. You were talking about the team earlier and fortunately, in this business, regardless of what property type or what strategy you use, you’re going to have team members and it’s necessary to ask for help because if you try to do it alone, you’re not going to scale and you probably won’t get much done.
We’re going to do a Lightning Round, are you ready for the Best Ever Lightning Round?
Cody Sperber: Let’s do it.
Joe Fairless: All right. First, a quick word from our Best Ever partners.
Joe Fairless: Best Ever book you’ve recently read.
Cody Sperber: Best Ever book that I’ve recently read probably, was—what was that negotiation book I just read?
Joe Fairless: Chris Voss?
Cody Sperber: Chris Voss, yeah.
Joe Fairless: Got it. Chris Voss.
Cody Sperber: Never Split The Difference.
Joe Fairless: Yes. What’s the best ever way you like to give back to the community?
Cody Sperber: I do that quite often. I do that with every transaction that I do. And I also volunteer a ton of time working with underprivileged kids here in my local community. Last year, we raised $1.3 million, all stayed locally, and it changed a lot of kids’ lives that unfortunately, their parents can’t afford to give them a lot of things. I’m big on to give back purpose, so that’s right in my wheelhouse. I do that every day as much as I can.
Joe Fairless: How can the Best Ever Listeners learn more about what you’re doing?
Cody Sperber: It’s @cleverinvestor on all social platforms. My latest training, you can check it out at the freehouseformula.com. It’s freehouseformula.com. And it’s a creative real estate investing training. It’s awesome. It’s the best training I’ve ever produced. And it’ll teach you how to go out there and get houses where sellers are happy to give them to you. And you can use seller participation to get them, bypass the banks and build wealth and get cash flow for yourself.
Joe Fairless: Scaling businesses, transactional engineering and asking for help along the way, and the importance of doing so and investing in yourself; all themes that you touched on and I’m grateful that you did. Thank you for being on the show, Cody. Hope you have a best ever day and we’ll talk to you again soon.
Cody Sperber: Thanks for having me.
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