(Above) Scenes from my desk during the company’s early days
Editor’s Note: In 2020, RISMedia is commemorating our 40th year, and celebrating our incredible milestone with photos, stories and more, in Real Estate magazine and on RISMedia.com. We extend our gratitude to our partners for their steadfast support, and to you, our readers, for allowing us to continue delivering on our mission.
In commemoration of RISMedia’s 40th year, our founder, John Featherston, gave us a glimpse into the beginnings of the business, what’s changed over the years, and what he’s learned.
Why don’t we begin where it started…how did you get involved in real estate, and how did you launch the National Relocation & Real Estate magazine (today, known as RISMedia’s Real Estate magazine)?
John Featherston: My first managerial position was as a district supervisor for PHH Home Equity handling the company’s real estate activities in Southern California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii. The company was growing rapidly, and we were in need of a more robust network of real estate brokerage companies and appraisers to handle the needs of our clients.
In those formative years, I saw the value of identifying and connecting real estate professionals, mainly brokerage owners of multi-office firms. At the time, there weren’t many. Then there was the growing desire to connect these firms with third-party sources of new business. In this case, it started with corporate relocation and referrals; however, I believed the value would be much greater connecting local and regional real estate leaders with both third-party sources of new business and other real estate professionals.
At first, a directory was the “connector”—then, in 1982-1983, we started with a limited magazine section of our annual directory, which ultimately evolved into our magazine in 1985.
What were your biggest challenges early on?
JF: The idea of starting a business in 1980, when mortgage interest rates were 18.5 percent and the prime interest rate was 15.5 percent…who in their right mind would have said, “Gee, I think now is a great time to start a business whose very existence would be predicated on selling and closing more homes!” In the early days, we were constantly challenged with questions from prospective clients like, “Who are you?” and “I have never heard of a business like yours—why should I spend any money with you?” We were young and new, and had no history to point them towards. We also lived in a different world. In the early 1980s, there were no computers, no cell phones, no email, no internet—you had relationships and personal testimonials, and those things either opened doors for you to present your ideas and plans, or, they didn’t!
We spent thousands of hours writing letters on typewriters, making phone calls and sending out bulk mailings, all to build our name and open doors to decision makers for opportunities to tell our story.
Of course, we also had the same challenges every startup had: lack of money and skillsets. No one was more determined than we were to succeed. I couldn’t wait for success to reach us—so, I went ahead without it!
What are key moments in RISMedia’s story?
JF: Pivotal moments in our history include:
Launching our first printed directory in 1981
Launching our freestanding magazine and having our first trade booth at the National Association of REALTORS® convention in 1985—a tradition that today establishes us as the longest continuous service exhibitor at the convention
Establishing our own meetings/events in 1987
Establishing our own internet service company in 1994, which we later sold
Formally changing the name of our magazine to “RISMedia’s Real Estate” from “National Relocation & Real Estate” in 2005
Hiring a new breed of highly skilled and dedicated professionals starting in 2000, who’ve been the blueprint going forward, pushing us to improve our culture and our team (Beth, Christy, Maria, Kara, Kelli, “Big D” Dwyer…)
Who were your mentors over the years? JF: We’ve been fortunate to have had many mentors over the years. From 1980 to the early 1990s, their advice focused on structure, finance and general business. From the mid-’90s to today, there has been a constant flow of younger advisors more in-tune with change and technology, which have become the driving forces of our business as far as positioning our content and influence.
My first mentors, however—and the most important—were my mom and dad. They always believed in what I initially outlined to them in the summer of 1980, and encouraged me to follow my dream. My dad was a successful and brilliant businessman, but, more importantly, an honest person and terrific father. Mom was equally brilliant—she was named the “Small Business Person of the Year,” 10 years after my dad passed away, by the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce in recognition for her many travel books sold throughout the world.
Of non-family mentors…the list is long! Dick Schlott, an iconic real estate broker, is a mentor I’ve had for more than 35 years. In the early days, I frequently visited SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, and sought advice from many retired leaders. These were my initial mentors, and without them, this company would not have survived.
A lot’s come and gone in the industry since 1980, especially considering the evolution of technology. How did the company pivot?
JF: After surviving the early years, we realized we needed to quickly jump on the “new technology” bandwagon and produce all of our magazine pages in-house, rather than employing typesetters, which had been around since 1439, when Gutenberg invented the printing press. We had to migrate to using a new-fangled machine named after a fruit—an Apple—to stay alive and compete. We were among the first to realize that to succeed and survive, we had to learn how to use desktop publishing systems. The Macintosh 1984, 128 RAM, was the technology that propelled us forward!
Since then, technology and its adoption at RISMedia has never stopped, and drives the backbone of our business every day.
What about the “hard times”? How did the company navigate those?
JF: During the Savings and Loan Crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a third of our revenue sources went out of business in one year. That gave us a precursor to what would happen twice more in the years to come: the internet bubble of the late 1990s and the Great Recession and housing collapse of 2006-2010. That taught us to be nimble, agile, and to never, ever put all our hopes and dreams in one basket. Standing together as a team during the darkest days of the recession, we had countless discussions with industry leaders and brokerage owners, sharing with them confidence and hope that the housing market will rebound and, together, we will find a path back to success. That’ll always rank among the most challenging of times, and will also be known in our history as the catalyst for changes in how we operated.
As an advocate for the industry, what are you most proud of?
JF: You have to believe in what you do, or you will ultimately fail. We believe homeownership is part of the American Dream, and helps ordinary people become better citizens in many ways—not the least of which is allowing them to build wealth, while having the pride of owning the very home they live in. That is core to what RISMedia stands for: opportunity. We’re proud of our position. We need to continue to protect homeownership, because it helps ensure and protect all of our freedoms.
As you reflect on 40 years, what are your parting thoughts?
JF: Real estate has given me a second home and purpose, and allowed an average but driven person like me to have a meaningful career, surrounded by a great partner and so many wonderful friends to work with, both within the company and around the nation. It was Mark Twain that said, “Find a job you enjoy doing and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Well, Mr. Twain was right!
Suzanne De Vita is RISMedia’s senior online editor. Email her your real estate news ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.