Reinventing Real Estate: A Profile of Two Entrepreneurs

What do you get when you take a social worker and a nurse and give them a Web site? A new way to sell a home, with liberty and profits for all.

By Louisa Kamps
Photograph: Photo: Bob Stefko

On several occasions, they have even waived their fee for women going through a divorce, and they’ve reduced it for lower-income sellers. "As a nurse and a social worker, we understand where anxiety comes from, that people respond well to being treated reasonably," Murphy says. "Had we tried this in our 20s, we wouldn’t have had what it took to start this."

Committing to Success

The women remember the early days of the business, especially the sellers who sometimes drove them crazy, like the woman who called after midnight wondering whether to paint a closet. "Foolishly, the numbers on the site are our home phones," Murphy says. But they still savor seeing users hang on to hard-earned equity. "Tell her about your favorite e-mail," Murphy says. "It was from a man who’d done well," Miller says. "He said, ‘I thank Jesus foremost and you second.’"

The two have rejected offers to franchise their brand around the country — copycat sites have launched in other cities, but none have taken off like FSBOMadison — as well as an invitation to partner with a discount brokerage. "We’re the antithesis of that scene," Murphy says, "and they haven’t caught on to that yet." Instead, Murphy and Miller opted for practical changes: hiring someone to deliver signs, and a consultant to update the Web site’s design.

But when it comes to business decisions in general, clashes are surprisingly rare. "We’re the last people you’d expect to run a successful business because neither of us is very organized, and there have been moments when we both wanted to bolt," Murphy admits. "But we coordinate, so we’re never angry at each other at the same time," Miller adds, "and we don’t talk about work all of the time either."

If market predictions are true, the good run they’re enjoying could end if the real estate bubble bursts, but they seem remarkably calm about this possibility. "Our business plan?" Miller jokes, turning over a napkin to demonstrate how open the future of FSBOMadison is in their eyes. "I’m still in denial that this will continue past next week!"

What if they doubled their fee? Miller shrugs, indicating that she’s fine with it. "I mean, I used to make $11 an hour," she says. Murphy has a bit more to say on the subject. "We’re in a comfortable place, and this is not a candy counter," she says. "Every now and then we get caught up in the hype, but the secret to our sanity and success is that we’re local yokels down to our toenails."

Running the Numbers

24-7: The women work around their kids’ schedules — school events, Girl Scouts — but it’s a seven-day-a-week job. "Calls come at all hours, even Christmas," Miller says.

2 part-time employees — a landscaper who delivers signs and a Web consultant — and

1 person who works gratis (Miller’s husband)

$0 spent on their work attire, which is usually jeans and T-shirts

$300,000: Murphy and Miller’s combined annual salary

 

Originally published in MORE magazine, October 2006.

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