Welcome to Brand Story Inc. I’m your host, Jay Sharman. Every week we sit down with smart folks to talk about innovative ways they are creating content to connect with their audiences. I’d like to say every company can be a media company, and this conversation hopefully helps you understand why. Today we welcome Michael Episcope, principal and co-founder of Origin Investments to the podcast. Michael, thanks for joining us.
MICHAEL EPISCOPE: Thank you for having me, Jay.
JAY SHARMAN: I’m looking forward to learning, and I think our listeners are looking forward to learning. Since I don’t know much about real estate investment, this is a two-fer. We’re going to learn about content studios from a brand and CEO and we’re also going to learn hopefully some tips on how to make some money.
MICHAEL: Well, I hope I can shed some light on both.
JAY: Michael and I have known each other for a long time. He’s a great guy based in Chicago who started this company in 2007 after quite a successful year as a trader. He was twice named a top 100 trader by trader monthly magazine. Worked at the Chicago Merc Exchange. He is a go-to as it relates to individual investing from the likes of Forbes and Huffington Post, a frequent speaker on the circuit. And what I love about Origin, even though I don’t pretend to be a real estate investment expert, is that Michael is a disruptor, and his company has grown, I’ve watched it firsthand, and doing some really neat things to people like me who aren’t experts in investment and aren’t experts in real estate. So with that, Michael would love to just get some background from your perspective on how you describe Origin Investments and what you do.
MICHAEL: Yeah, Jay, let me take you back a little bit because I think it makes sense to kind of give you a little bit of background on the company and why we started it. And you alluded to the fact I was a trader in my former life and that’s really where I accumulated my wealth. And my partner and I met in about 2002, 2003 right around that point. And we had very similar backgrounds even though we didn’t know each other from our previous trading days. And we came together because we had an interest in managing our own wealth, sort of like a family office, if you will, and specifically around real estate. And what we found at that time was there was just no place for, I guess, the high net worth investor to go to realize the same benefits as the larger institutions.
We had invested with smaller groups, larger groups kind of all over the place. And we just kind of looked at each other and we said, “We can do this better ourselves.” We had some good experiences and some bad, but overall it was sort of like one step forward, two steps back in that space, and the original vision was always to kind of use our own capital as the starting point and create an institutional model for the individual investor. So when I say that, I mean an individual model based around the quality of deals you find, based around the fees, the terms and the PPM, everything. And I think at that time in 2007, that was very novel. And we didn’t have the vision that we had today, certainly, but that was kind of the starting point. And it all started around investing our own capital.
That’s what really attracted people to our platform. Because the reason why we buy investments and we always have is we look at it through the lens of our own capital. Do we want to invest in this? And if the unequivocal answer is yes, then generally people see that alignment and they’re a lot more comfortable investing with us. And in the beginning it was more about that alignment and the deals would speak for themselves. And then over time, that alignment manifested into a track record that we’ve been able to just really advertise and promote as a firm. And it’s helped us. And so that’s … We grew from really our own capital and two investors to 20, to 50 and now we have close to a thousand investment partners today and right around $350 million in equity under management, and more than $2 billion in transactions under our belt.
So it’s been a great ride. I’ll give you maybe a couple of details on the firm. We are headquartered in Chicago, we’ve got four offices around the country. And so we’re sort of a regional model, and we specialize in buying what we call core plus and value add investments in the multifamily space. And we’re a fund operator. We don’t do a deal by deal investment because we believe that funds are really the way that people should invest, because you’re investing with the manager and betting on the manager versus individual deals. And so that has been sort of our overwhelming theme and what has helped us grow along the way.
JAY: Yeah. I want to jump in there because I think this kind of ties into your brand and how you create content as well. And if I had to choose one word, it would be transparency. You mentioned it there. I think I’ve always thought it was compelling that you and your partner are putting monies, first monies into deals. So it’s you’re putting money where your mouth is, but speak to the disruption because you mentioned 1,000 investors, and talk about both from the app and the technology standpoint how you’ve disrupted and what differentiates, because I think it will tie in for our listeners on how that relates to the content that you’re creating.
MICHAEL: Yeah, 100%. I want to go back, because you mentioned the word transparency, and we have a saying here “you show, you don’t say” and transparency is really a word that’s so overused in our industry. If you go, you won’t find that word anywhere on our website because we don’t believe in saying it. We believe in doing it, and the way we record our technology, everything that’s set up and so many organizations, I think we did this research, it was probably around 10 years ago when we were looking for kind of the worst. Describe our organization, and you can imagine, transparency and integrity and all this. And so when you research 100 other investment management firms out there, they all said the same things: “customer service, integrity, transparency,” which is why we don’t say any of those things.
We try to build them into our process and show people and prove it and measure those as competitive advantages. But too many people just throw that word around as a way of doing business and they think because it’s on their website that it actually means something. But our definition of transparency is not that. It’s about bringing information to the forefront so that people don’t have to look for it. And what you learn about in our industry is that everybody can claim they’re transparent, right? “Oh, well we say that on page 78 of the document.” Well, if that’s on page 78, to us that’s not transparent. You have to bring that up-front and center and give people what they’re looking for. Because to us, we want all of our investment partners to know and understand exactly what they’re getting into, exactly what we do, how we do it, what fees they’re paying.
Because the worst experience for anybody in any business can be, I expected X, and you gave me less than X. Or I expected Y and you gave me less than Y. And so in our business, even if we perform as we expected, but the investor was expecting something very different, we haven’t pleased them and we create sort of a negative customer experience, if you will. When we talk about that, we really build these things into our systems and our documents and everything and put things up front. We want educated investors. And that just goes into how we do business. And I think your next question was really about content and how we kind of started on that journey. Is that right?
JAY: Yeah, in layman’s terms I look at it, and if you go to Origin Investments and follow them on LinkedIn, you’ll see some fantastic content that illustrates this, right? It’s January in 2020 and I was on there today. And there is your cofounder and a colleague looking at an investment of a condo complex in Orlando area, and literally walk you through and there was a video, five minute video showing the before and after of what you guys did. What it was like when you bought it, how you’ve transformed it, how you’re increasing the value. And I mean, It’s pretty cool. It’s entertaining …
It’s definitely directed at your investors, but you’re creating this content that does exactly what you just said. And I think it was great. Which is to show. And so I want to I want to dig into that a little bit because you are showing, and one of the best ways to show is, is there a content creation? So before we jump in, I mean, you’re unique. You’re large in terms of assets under management, relatively in the big picture, a small business in terms of headcount. So give us the headlines on the size of your company, your staff headcount, and then we can dig into it.
MICHAEL: Yeah. Then we can take it back to the content. So we are a team of 30 people. We’ll probably be, within three months from now, about 35 people. So we’re growing by headcount pretty quickly. And as you know, we have pretty much every division covered. We have on the operation side, on the real estate operation side, we have a great acquisitions team and we have a regional model where we have an individual and Charlotte who covers the Southeast region, we have an individual in Texas who covers the Texas markets, we have an individual in Nashville who covers Nashville and Orlando from there. And then we have an individual in Denver who covers Denver and Phoenix. So we really, we try to position ourselves in the growth markets. And we have 10 target markets across the United States. And then the operations are mainly here in Chicago.
So we have asset management and investment management here. And then our marketing and our technology, legal and accounting is also in Chicago. So this is where our headquarters is for no other reason than we were born and raised here. We actually don’t do a lot of investing in Chicago because it’s a great market, it has been historically, but it’s just, it doesn’t really fit in sort of the top 10 to 15 markets right now because of the fiscal challenges that are happening here. But we still … We look for deals here still, because when you’re in your backyard, you know the market better than any other market, you just do. And then sometimes deals just fall into your lap that are too good to pass up. So that’s a little bit about our company. And the only thing I’ll add to that is I talked about marketing technology and today that budget is probably 30 to 35% of our company budget.
It was probably 30 to 35% of our company budget, and five years ago, that budget, as percentage of the company, was zero. We actually put no money into marketing. We put no money into technology whatsoever, and we kind of looked at each other, I think five years ago, my partner and I, and we knew we had a great product and like any market, it just kind of makes sense. When you have a good product and you put in front of enough people, they’re going to buy it. And that was sort of what we decided at that time. Okay, let’s start putting money into marketing on that front.
JAY: Well, it’s a great jump off point, and I want to kind of jump to present day and then back to what you just said. So let’s start present day. Let’s talk about what I would call your content studio. Your staff, including marketing staff and the resources that you have in house, can you just share what you have resource wise in that department?
MICHAEL: Yeah, sure. So we’ve grown quite a bit. On the marketing side, we have a team of, I believe it’s going up to seven now and we’re actually hiring somebody in there again. So that’s going to grow even bigger than it is now. And then on the content side, we do have a content studio in house that actually do things like this, podcast, videos, etc., but a lot of what we do is take things on the road and we want to bring the real estate to people and have them understand what we do, how we do, and really educate them about the process itself. So that’s been kind of a fun journey to watch what works, what doesn’t work, what people want to see, just the way we communicate. And then I think I mentioned on the technology side, as well, that’s a big part of our budget, and technology and marketing kind of go hand in hand because of the way we are set up here. But we have four in house tech people and we’re growing that division to six in the next couple months.
JAY: So let’s talk about. Give us the scale and scope of the amount of content that you’re currently creating on a monthly basis and if you could break it down. How many videos you doing, blog posts, etc.
MICHAEL: Okay. Yeah. Well, biweekly, we send out a newsletter and that’s called Origin Insights. And we do it on a biweekly basis because people seem to like that cadence of something that’s timely. They know when it’s coming. They can sign up for it. They know what’s in it exactly. And that Origin Insights is a blog that we contribute to, everybody in the office, and it’s dedicated towards educating individual investors about the real estate space. So it’s really anything that we want to write about to sort of demystify real estate. Today, we have about 25,000 readers of Origin Insights, so 25,000 people who receive this on a biweekly basis.
JAY: That’s impressive.
MICHAEL: And we do this because we really do want to demystify this. Some people can over-simplify real estate. Some people shy away because they believe it’s so complex, and we believe it’s our job because it’s such an important asset class of any portfolio to sort of demystify it and educate people in that.
On top of the Origin Insights, we also put out videos, and those videos can range anywhere from, I would say depending on what they are, three to 10 per month. And we have an in-house videographer who does all the editing, the content creation on that side, as well, and that’s his full-time job. So it depends really what we’re doing. If we’re doing a video on how to use something, how to do something or if we’re taking it on the road and going to visit one of our properties, we have an entire video content library and also just a plan about how to reach our audience and kind of experiment, as well.
Today we have over 400 pieces of original content. I can’t tell you the exact number, but that’s between video and blog, etc. And it’s really kind of cool to see how that’s evolved because when you start on that journey and you write blog number one and look at the mountain ahead of you and you’re like, “Oh my God! This is going to take forever.”
When we started about five years ago, I was a complete skeptic. I don’t have a marketing background, but we started on the content side and we started getting good feedback and great feedback, and we were nowhere near page one on Google searches. In fact, when we wrote articles, you couldn’t find until page six or seven. And that has actually ramped up quite a bit. And so now, I think if you search anything about real estate, especially private real estate, you will find one of our articles on the first, second pages of Google. So it’s really work and the content getting it out there, I think it’s important also to have different mediums. So we have white papers and we have blogs and we have video content. We have educational videos. We have short forum, long forums, all that, and people learn in different ways and they want to consume in different ways. So you have to kind of touch them in a multitude of different fashions.
JAY: I want to stay here for a second because it’s really important, I think. We’re talking about the essence of content marketing, right? White papers, blogs, video content. But where I want to go into is really the conversion into success. And it sounds really nuanced and those that are listening to this podcast are kind of in the know on content marketing to begin with. But despite that, I still think many companies that we see still can’t help put their hand in the promotional cookie jar. Right? They have to promote themselves at the end. And you guys are so good at that. On your website it says education, and it’s truly educational. It’s not like, “And for more, call here,” right? You’re really staying true to that.
And then when you’re showing your investments, like you’re already preaching to the choir of people who invested in and you know you’re marketing to other people. But I’d love to go back to the origin and your skepticism because I think that’s important. Talk about some of the successes. What are some of the successful case studies that you look at and say that the amount of money and human resource capital you’ve put to this is paying off? How do you measure success?
MICHAEL: Well, I want to go back to what you said in the beginning, which is promotional versus educational. And we sort of follow the 80/20 rule is you have to do some promotional, but if you’re doing all promotional, you’re doing it wrong. And people generally, especially in our business, we’re in real estate investments, and we’re trying to build trust with our audiences and position ourselves as a thought leader. And by not promoting yourself, you’re actually building that trust and that wall. And when people are looking for that moment at the end of the blog where you’re pumping yourself and they don’t find it, they feel really good and that you’re acting in kind of their best interest. So I think it’s really, really important.
But yeah, I’ll share a story with you because as I said in the beginning, I was not a believer, I will say, in content five years ago. I was a little bit of a skeptic but we decided to go all in on content, and I’ll share with you a little bit there too because we had this discussion internally and I think a lot of firms, they start with the handbook Marketing 101 and they say, “Okay, we’re going to do a third of our budget in advertising, a third in PR, and a third of content. And I, personally, think that’s a huge mistake. And I think it because if you do a third, a third, a third, you’re going to be number 87 in every category in that business. And so you have to figure out where you can win.
And to me, content is the place where you can win.
And if you have a good business and you have people willing to write and contribute and you can do that, it’s going to take a couple of years and it’s more of a long game. But that’s how you can win.
And so when we started this, we said, “Where can we be number one?” And quite honestly in a small to medium size business, we can’t be number one in PR. We would just go bankrupt trying to do that. Advertising, we do a little bit in that space, as well, but the organic traffic is probably the best traffic we can get in people finding us via the internet, via people talking about sharing articles, et cetera, holding ourselves out as a thought leader. And so if I go back five years ago and I was talking to our marketing director back then and we were doing some content and I said, “Look. Okay, we’ll do this. We’ll try it for awhile. Let’s see how it is.” And I was committed about as much as I could be. And I was the one kind of saying, “Look. People don’t read articles online and Google search real estate investments and then show up and invest with you.”
And those words I kind of ate about a year later. There was this couple who came in to the office and I was just chatting with them and I said, “How did you hear about us?” And they’re like, “Oh, well, we read something about you online.” And I said, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And so I got talking more and more and it really was just all about the content. And they started reading things and they were sharing their stories about “Yeah, you really stood out amongst everybody we saw. And then we went to your website and we got comfortable there. And then we had a call and we had a call with the relationship manager here at Origin and everything just checked out. We wanted to come in and kick the tires and meet you.” It was a great example and sort of the light bulb went off and like, “Oh my God!” And you want to be right, but you also want to prove yourself wrong.
And it was at that moment we said, “Okay, we got to keep going in this direction.” And at that time, after we had about 35 investors and that was about three years ago and today we’re approaching a thousand investors. So most of those investors have come through content marketing, advertising, referral sources of some sort. It’s always difficult to completely differentiate what is your content marketing, your outreach, your customer service, your technology. How do people kind of fall in love with you, your customers? And sometimes it’s about waking up your network and just letting them know you’re relevant by staying in front of them at all times. Because at some point people are going to look for a real estate investment or they’re going to be looking for investments and if you’re in front of them all the time and they’re talking to a friend or they’re thinking about it, they’re going to reach out to you. And so it’s really worked in a fantastic way, probably better than I could have ever imagined when we started out on this journey.
JAY: Yeah, it’s interesting. As the co-founder and CEO of the company, you’re actually one of the drivers of your content marketing strategy or content studio strategy, etc. And so it’s fascinating because that’s usually where the disconnect is, right? Head of marketing goes into CEO or the CFO and is trying to make the case and “Well, show me how it’s going to make a return.” And to that end, I mean, while there’s no exact science, I am curious, what do you guys look at for your exact science. I am curious. What do you guys look at for your key performance indicators that are having you double down, so to speak, on your content creation? How do you do that on a monthly basis? How do you track it?
MICHAEL: Yeah, I’ll get in. I think what you just said earlier Jay, it’s really important that you want to be authentic in your marketing materials. For us, this business is about relationships, and while we have a lot of our investment partners who are out of town, we still want them to get to know us, and a great way to do that is through video. All too often investments are kind of esoteric, and you don’t get to meet the principals, and you see a glossy brochure, and there’s this disconnect between you and them. We really believe strongly and try to create that relationship where we can on that side. So that’s kind of another advantage to doing the content marketing side, especially through video, letting people get to know us.
JAY: Do you have a dashboard in terms of KPIs, in terms of how content connects. You have people who you’ve never met before that find out about you through the content, like you said, but now are going on the app and making 25, 50, 100 thousand dollar investments into your company, and that’s how you’re finding out about them, correct?
MICHAEL: Yes. Yes, exactly. It’s significant. I mean we have a whole operations team set up, but your point, you know when you’re doing this, you really have to look at the entire customer journey from beginning to end and understand how to service them at every point, because if you drop the ball anywhere, right? You can do all the content marketing in the world, but if somebody calls up and you have somebody who’s inexperienced on the other end of that line, you’ve just blown it. So we believe in really having high quality people along, measuring everything and making sure that we’re doing things right and getting feedback at all times. So your question before, like what do we use to measure?
So we are on a Marketo system for automated marketing tools, and we also use Salesforce for the business development side. Those are two independent systems that our different teams use. So one is very high funnel activity to mid funnel to even low funnel, which has to do with content marketing, understanding the client, and then moving them through the funnel to the business development side and then using… Then the business development side, the individuals on that side, do a great job of just following up, making sure that investors understand what they are investing in, answering questions about us, making sure that they’re reaching out, pinging them and just basically providing them with a level of service I don’t think they’re used to at a firm of our size and having that direct access.
JAY: That’s awesome. I want to put on your Hollywood hat here for a second, Michael. You and I have talked offline about this a couple of times, but you guys have really put a flag in the ground as being THE content marketer in the real estate space in terms of how you’ve created story in the ways we just talked about it.
I couldn’t help but look at your most recent video that I saw on your complex down in Orlando, and it’s that it’s got a little bit of that extreme home makeover type feel to it, right, without the entertainment side. But the thing that we talk about and when I use the term content studio, we’re not just talking about the physical place that’s in someone’s shop, we’re talking about kind of the mindset of thinking like a media company. As you look to the future, have you thought about original entertainment where you’re taking the next level and not just educating your folks but coming up with original series and things like that that are in the real estate sphere using video and entertainment to kind of further your engagement with potential prospects?
MICHAEL: Yeah, we have. It’s funny that you ask that, and we wrestle with that because part of content strategy and part of really connecting with your audience is being authentic. The challenge if we were going to do something like that, it would probably have to be in more of a documentary form because if you look at all of these kind of do it yourself shows the fix and flips, things like that, they have a lot of drama in there and they’re all… We don’t really have that here.
We don’t want to create something that’s not authentic or real, but we have thought about that almost like a white paper of video content, if you will, in more of a long form and doing it a little more professionally. For now, I think we’re going to stick with what we’re doing because if you go to those, I don’t know what, you know… If we did a series or something like that, it would also take a lot of time and effort from our team, and it’s not really what they signed up to do here.
So you have to figure out where you’re willing to go and how far and then how to be and maintain your authenticity because if you’re not, if that doesn’t come through, then you’ve really failed in your content strategy. I think too many people out there, especially when they do content, are trying to create a persona that’s not there. As in if you’re just natural, I mean that’s what works the best.
JAY: Last question for you because I think there will be many people that are listening to this that are in businesses that are not doing what you’re doing and quite candidly, C- suite folks who are skeptical saying just like you were when several years ago and you decided to invest in this. What advice would you give to a small to mid-sized business that doesn’t have a content function operating within it? I’m talking more than you know, like to the level that you’re talking, not just doing social media on a daily basis.
MICHAEL: Yeah, and that’s an easy one because I think a lot of people see the risk of putting themselves out there, but
I think the risk of not doing content is far too great.
If you’re not doing content, your competitors will, and they will eventually surpass you. I think it’s one of the best ROEs on investments that anybody can make in the industry, and then I’ll just tell you from my own personal perspective that I wasn’t a believer in this, but decided to invest in it. I was secretly a believer. Obviously if we’re going to put money in, we’re going to raise, and I think that what I said earlier I meant, is that if you have a great product, then it’s a numbers game. You have to put it in front of more and more and more people.
If you do that, you’re going to sell more. That’s kind of what we did, and that’s what we fundamentally believed. How you get there and in front of the people is always the question. But here at Origin, when we started on this, we were one of the first investment organizations to actually go public facing. There was a ton of resistance internally and I would say externally. People didn’t really know what we were doing at the time, and it was causing confusion. There was a lot of friction that my partner and I had a battle internally and we said, “Look, we are committed to this. We’re doing this.”
Today though, the opposite is happening. I would say in two to three years this script has completely flipped where the market is now chasing us and copying us and competing with us. Our team is really kind of proud of the work we’ve created, and they hear it all the time from the industry professionals who are like, “Oh my God, we use your blog content to you know, and we read it all the time and we educate our junior folks and make them read your blogs,” and it’s really great to hear. So you have even industry professionals who are consuming our content for their own personal educational purposes and then also investors along the way as well. It works, and that’s all I can say.
JAY: Awesome. Well, Michael Episcope, Principal Cofounder of Origin Investments. Thanks for joining us. You can find Michael on LinkedIn and at Origininvestments.com. Download the app, and you can see all kinds of the content that we’re talking about and get educated and hopefully make some money like Michael has with himself and his investors. But Michael, really appreciate you joining us today and sharing some insights and pulling the curtain back. Thanks a ton.
MICHAEL: Jay, thank you so much for having me.
JAY: You bet. Thanks for listening to Brand Story Inc. we’ll be back next week with another conversation, digging into the ways companies are becoming like media companies. Be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give me a follow on Twitter AT @_JaySharman and on LinkedIn.