Carole Ellis with Joe Fairless on a Best Ever Show flyer

JF1456: How To Interview Big Name Investors & Entrepreneurs with Carole Ellis

Carole is editor-in-chief at Think Realty Magazine, and has a ton of interviewing experience. Since she’s interviewed some big investors and entrepreneurs, Joe spent some time asking her about those interviews. He asks Carole what she’s learned from the interviews, how she prepares, questions she asks, and how she was able to get ahold of these people in the beginning. If you enjoyed today’s episode remember to subscribe in iTunes and leave us a review!


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Joe Fairless: Best Ever listeners, how are you doing? Welcome to the best real estate investing advice ever show. I’m Joe Fairless, and this is the world’s longest-running daily real estate investing podcast. We only talk about the best advice ever, we don’t get into any of that fluffy stuff.

With us today, Carole Ellis. How are you doing, Carole?

Carole Ellis: I’m doing well, thanks for having me.

Joe Fairless: Well, I’m glad to hear it, and it’s my pleasure. A little bit about Carole – she is the editor-in-chief of Think Realty Magazine. She’s the co-founder of Self-Directed Investor Society, she has been investing, writing, reporting and educating in the real estate space since 2006. Based on Hotlanta. With that being said, Carole, do you wanna give the Best Ever listeners a little bit more about your background and your current focus?

Carole Ellis: Absolutely. I got started in real estate because I bought a house with a no money down loan, and I was the person that all of your Best Ever listeners hate; I was the person who’s at the closing table and randomly decided I need to read every word in a document… And I swore I’d never be in that position again, so I got my real estate license, and then the market crashed.

At around that time, I was actually working at a magazine, and I was also creating a lot of real estate educational content. So if you bought a home study course in the early or mid-2000’s, there’s quite a decent chance I either wrote it or helped write it.

When the market crashed, my husband Brian and I started working on education and teaching people, honestly, overseas, where their money was strong against the dollar, to invest in the United States. So we did a lot of coaching, a lot of teaching throughout that entire period; we were sort of doing various things of our own too, and eventually, after quite some time, I ended up at Think Realty Magazine, which is my dream job; I am editor-in-chief at that magazine, and that’s where I am today.

Joe Fairless: How were you reaching international investors when talking to them about investing in the U.S.?

Carole Ellis: Well, you have to remember we’re going back about 10-12 years, so the concept of virtual real estate or virtual investing was much newer, and it was kind of the Wild West in terms of — today I would just go on Craigslist or somewhere like that and say “Hey, I need a website”, and I’d probably get 50 people offering to make me one, and probably ten of them would be really good. At that time, it was a much more alien concept.

We did a lot of webinars… Goodness, I think maybe when he started he was still giving teleconferences, but that was before me… So we’ve had a series of websites, and we learned how to find motivated sellers; those people needed to be walked through contracts, and things like that, because it’s a different system. We had a huge, physical manual that I wrote… All sorts of stuff that today people would be like “Yeah, that’s great…”, but at the time incredibly useful, and a wonderful resource.

A lot of people ended up using them for their own businesses; sometimes they didn’t even have anything to do with real estate by the time they were done customizing them. It was amazing.

Joe Fairless: Now you’re the editor-in-chief at Think Realty Magazine… What are your responsibilities?

Carole Ellis: My responsibilities are wonderful. Every week I speak with dozens of real estate investors about the strategies they’re using, the markets they’re working in, I get to interview economists… Anybody related to the real estate industry we’re talking to, in order to pull in as much actionable, insightful information into one place – our magazine – so that when you pick it up and read it, you can really get a very good handle not just on how the national or a specific regional economy is working, but also what real people are doing right now and why it is, or in some cases it’s not working.

Joe Fairless: What’s an interview that stands out?

Carole Ellis: Well, honestly, I would say all of our cover interviews really stand out to me, because especially this year – and this is a real honor – we got to interview Samuel Freshman, from Standard Management Company, I got to interview Svenja Gudell from Zillow, Rick Sharga – I have long admired him, so I was thrilled to interview him in June. [unintelligible [00:07:07].08] all of these people are people who took time to talk to our readers and say “Real estate investing matters, and you as an individual investor matter”, and here’s some steps that they know that maybe you wouldn’t know just on an individual level… So it was just really amazing.

Joe Fairless: Do you have a process for preparing for an interview?

Carole Ellis: Yes. To be interviewed, or to interview?

Joe Fairless: To interview someone.

Carole Ellis: Yes. I have eight ice-breaker questions, and I always use them all. They are incredibly generic, and I use those because when you’re talking to someone to learn something from them, I feel like it’s really important to let them tell their own story, or their own strategy, or whatever it is. So I do a lot of research in terms of I Google-stalk them and I read everything I can about them, but I don’t ever say “I know you wrote this in the Wall Street Journal”, for example; I always start with a really generic question, like “What’s your favorite strategy/favorite market/favorite deal/proudest moment? If you weren’t in real estate, what would you be doing instead? If your life was a headline…?” – things like that, that are wide open… Because I can always ask about the Wall Street Journal article or whatever it is later, but I don’t know necessarily if that’s really the thing that is the best thing for us to pull out of that. So I always do a lot of reading, and then keep everything very generic, and I always warn them ahead of time, because I don’t want them to think I don’t care.

Joe Fairless: Yup. And with your approach, it sounds like you want it to be open-ended… At the beginning allow them to take the lead, and then you play off of what they say after that…?

Carole Ellis: Absolutely. So one of the interviews that we did this year – and I hope that he forgives me if I don’t say his name perfectly… He’s the CTO at, his name is Amit Aggarwal… And there were so many interesting things about what he did before he got to Auction, in terms of being involved in some banking and finance software, some of his own views on education, and how that affects real estate, and how you should be strategizing, that we never would have ever gotten if I had started out saying “You’re the CTO over at” and going from there, because it wouldn’t have come out.

Joe Fairless: How do you apply that approach to other interviews?

Carole Ellis: I think it holds true in everything. If you’re gonna go talk to a motivated seller – and I’m sure your listeners have heard this ten thousand times, but you know, if you go in and you talk to a motivated seller, and you go in telling them how they feel, you automatically sort of put yourself at a disadvantage; you knew how they actually feel, and then figure out how to solve the problem. That’s not ground-breaking information… But it’s really the same thing for everybody. Investors are incredibly innovative, they’re incredibly creative, and a lot of times they’re not as proud as they should be, or as aware of how amazing they are in terms of finding flexible and new solutions to things, as I think they should be.

So I really wanna go in, and if I interview someone, I wanna make sure that I’m getting everything I can out of them, but I also really want them to come away from that feeling like they’ve done a service, because they have… Not just for me, but to every single person who’s reading the magazine, or going to the website, or anything… And I really want them to feel that, because it’s an honor.

Joe Fairless: What are some lessons — you mentioned the investors that you speak to, they’re incredibly innovative and creative… What are some lessons that you’ve learned through the interviewing that are real estate specific?

Carole Ellis: Well, I think that you have to be very careful in real estate not to get into a box. Most of the people honestly that we interview – it turns out they’re not in a box… But in terms of looking at an investment – again, not groundbreaking information; you need to have an exit strategy, you probably need more than one, you need to look at the worst-case scenario… All of those things are so standard, I think a lot of people – including me, from time to time, sort of forget about them, and then it’s like “Well, what am I gonna do with this? It’s not working the way I wanted it to work.” Well, when you interview pretty much any investor, every single person, you would get a different answer as to how to solve that problem, whether it’s “Oh well, I used to wholesale, but I got stuck with a couple deals that I couldn’t move, and I didn’t wanna not buy them, so now they’re Airbnbs”, or really flexible things like that…

Lots of things in terms of financing… Anybody who is involved with self-directed investing usually has about 1,000 different legal creative ways to accomplish whatever it is that they want in their specific retirement account. The strategy is boundless.

Joe Fairless: When you said “Don’t get into a box” – will you elaborate on what you meant by that?

Carole Ellis: Sure… Like, there’s a box; if I say “My name is Carole and I flip houses.” That sort of puts a box around me. I flip houses, that means theoretically I buy at a certain price, I improve to a certain extent, I sell at a certain other price… But if you say “My name is Carole and I’m a real estate investor”, all of a sudden you get all these other opportunities, and if any of those points along the way don’t work, or the gear gets stuck, or something like that, all of a sudden, if you’re not a flipper, you’re a real estate investor, it just changes the mindset. Does that make sense?

Joe Fairless: Yeah, it does. It’s more of an evolution. When you’re in an interview and you are looking for something beneath the surface – perhaps you’re getting canned answers – how do you get beneath the surface with someone?

Carole Ellis: See, now you’re making me nervous… [laughs] I’m afraid I’m being canned.

Joe Fairless: Oh, no, I wasn’t talking about you… [laughs]

Carole Ellis: No, I was kidding. So that does happen; I think pretty much everyone that answers questions regularly ends up with a set of things that they really like to say… At that point, that’s when you kind of like dig out the Google stalking results, because that shows that you did care and you did have questions… I ask them about something more specific, and I guess if even that doesn’t work, then you just tell them. I have an advantage, because my interviews aren’t live.

Joe Fairless: Oh, got it…

Carole Ellis: So I can say “I really wanted to talk about this, and you’re not talking about it… Would you please start?” I don’t know if people would appreciate that if I did that in a live setting. I probably wouldn’t.

Joe Fairless: So as editor-in-chief, what are some additional things that if you were to speak at a conference that you would speak about, as it relates to your experience?

Carole Ellis: Man, I would love to speak at a conference… [laughs] Usually, when I speak – and I don’t do a lot, because Think Realty has ambassadors and other people who do that… But usually, I am fortunate to get to do one of two things, both of which I really like. One, I already mentioned – anytime you put me in a room with a group of real estate investors and give me a microphone, I really want to just convey what an honor it is to be able to write about them, to report on them… And not in a bragging way, but everybody who is active in real estate should be incredibly proud of themselves; it’s just such a diverse, innovative group. I can’t get over that, and I just really want every Best Ever listener and every real estate investor our there to really take in and to appreciate what they’ve accomplished by being a real estate investor.

So that’s one thing, and every once in a while I get to say that, and I think it’s important… I love it, I love to say it. The other thing I get to do that I really enjoy is every now and again I get invited to do market analysis, which is we’ll either pick apart a market in terms of what it’s been doing recently, what it did long-term, what does the community masterplan look like, what are trends, what’s local policy, and I really try to dig into indicators of what might happen in the future, what’s happening now, what to be aware of, things like that.

Joe Fairless: With the market analysis, how do you gather the information that you just said, which is what it’s done recently, what it’s done long-term, community masterplan, trends in local policy?

Carole Ellis: Well, thanks to Think Realty, I have an incredible advantage because we get to work with ATTOM Data Solutions. That is a wonderful starting point for anything like that, because they’ve got (goodness, I don’t even know…) data on data on data on data… It used to be RealtyTrac and it was all about foreclosures, now it’s so much more.

So you can kind of say “Okay, well here’s some things that I think would guide me towards…” For example, we’ve recently  created a list of notable turnkey markets. “Here’s some things I think would be interesting to start with in terms of turnkey markets”, and of course, ATTOM’s data happens to have a lot of very specific turnkey data, so we just use that.

But then from there, once you’ve got your list of very hard data and some markets that you’ve decided are interesting for whatever your purposes are, then you go and you read everything you can on the Chamber of Commerce. I would never cite Wikipedia, but it is a good place to start, n terms of  — I don’t feel like you can believe it in terms of being research, but it’s a great place to look to find trends in the economy, or if you want a little history or whatever it is that you’re trying to do, that’s a good place to start, and then you kind of go and google that stuff out, to make sure it’s actually true.

A community masterplan should be available online to the public, you just have to google around until you find it…

Joe Fairless: What is a community masterplan?

Carole Ellis: Oh, they’re so cool. It sort of depends, because they’re kind of a [unintelligible [00:17:12].11] thing that communities use to get grants, if they’re using them right a lot of the time… But it basically says “Here’s our community now, here’s what we want it to be, and here’s how we think we’re gonna get there and here’s what we need, whether it’s money, or population, or a different industry…” Sometimes they’re just that. If that’s all they’ve got, then I would say it’s maybe not all that much of a masterplan… But a really good one will say “Here are the 20 grants from state and federal sources that we could qualify for if we did this to our main street”, or maybe if you go and you match up a masterplan with Public Department of Transportation information; you can say “Okay, well they said they needed to get more people working in this area”, and you can see that there are bus routes in this area now, or planned for 12 months from now, or whenever. All of that is technically public information. Not everybody has a community masterplan, so if it’s not, then they may just not have one… But basically, it’s just a chart of where they wanna go, and then you try to sort of match it up with where they are now, and also with what kind of progress they’re making… But if they hadn’t made any, then it’s great to have a plan, but they may not really be doing anything.

Joe Fairless: That’s right, yeah. It’s nice to verify the progress, that’s for sure. Based on your experience interviewing successful real estate investors, as well as your own experience investing, what is your best real estate investing advice ever?

Carole Ellis: I think probably to be articulate… Not in terms of being persuasive or making a sale, but in terms of just being really careful to say what it is you want out of your investment, or the person sitting across the table from you, or the guy on the other end of the phone. Be very clear, not in a rude way, but just “This is who I am, this is what I do, this is why I’m doing it”, but not to get too overboard in terms of being articulate until they’ve told you those things.

Joe Fairless: Do you have a personal example of this?

Carole Ellis: [laughs] So I like to talk, and I have lots of things that I think are really interesting to say. However, it is basically — you just made my day by letting me do this, because normally, my job is not to talk… And it is so hard, because when you’re interviewing somebody and they’re saying all this great stuff, and you wanna tell them what you think about it – you have to remember they didn’t tell you you could interview them so they could have a conversation with you and get your insights; it’s not what you’re gonna get out of it. What you’re getting is their insight, and sure, if you have a rapport and you end up being friends, that’s wonderful, but… That’s really the thing, and fortunately, I learned it a long time before I ever even got into real estate at another magazine that I was working at, so I didn’t ruin any interviews recently, but I definitely blew a few early on.

Joe Fairless: We’re gonna do a lightning round. Are you ready for the Best Ever Lightning Round?

Carole Ellis: I’ll try.

Joe Fairless: Alright, then we’ll do it together. First though, a quick word from our Best Ever partners.

Break: [00:20:07].03] to [00:20:58].09]

Joe Fairless: Best ever book you’ve recently read?

Carole Ellis: Principles of Real Estate Syndication by Samuel Freshman.

Joe Fairless: Best ever deal you’ve done?

Carole Ellis: Honestly, I think it was writing an article for Think Realty Magazine a couple years ago, when I first started… Because otherwise, I’d never be here right now.

Joe Fairless: What’s a mistake you’ve made on a transaction in real estate, or just in business?

Carole Ellis: Talking too much.

Joe Fairless: Best ever way you like to give back?

Carole Ellis: I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to say for this one… Obviously, I really do feel like Think Realty gives away a lot of really amazing information, including the magazine digitally, which is free on the website… But I also have a — it’s not mine, but I support a charity called No Hungry Children; there’s basically like no administrative intervention in terms of money. If you give them a dollar will feed a kid for like a week… And they’re amazing. They do a lot of work in Africa, with a lot of kids who just have no food and no school or anything, if they didn’t have the support of that charity. I really like that charity.

Joe Fairless: Best ever way the Best Ever listeners can learn more about what you’ve got going on and get in touch with you?

Carole Ellis: Actually – and everybody laughs at me for this, but really the easiest way to do this is to e-mail me. My e-mail is Everybody laughs, because they’re like “Don’t give out your e-mail”, but it’s in the front of every magazine, so… That’s what I do. [laughs]

Joe Fairless: Fair enough. Well, Carole, thank you so much for being on the show, talking about the process you used to open up conversations with people who you’re interviewing… You have eight different ice-breaker questions that are more open-ended, that way you get them talking, and then you evolve the conversation from there. Then the lessons that you’ve learned from those interviews as well, in terms of the real estate lessons that you’ve talked about, to things that you also focus on, which is the market analysis and things to look for there, and how to do that if we don’t have access to a database, and what to look for… So thanks again for being on the show. I hope you have a best ever day, and we’ll talk to you soon.

Carole Ellis: Thank you so much.


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