Chellie Mejia, B.Sc.


Continuing education: Should you go back to school?

I come from a family of school lovers. I’ve been raised with a deep respect for education and the role it plays in career success. My parents have about four or five Master’s degrees between them, and my little sisters have followed suit, taking every opportunity to gain as much knowledge as possible through different avenues.

I’m pretty sure this thirst for knowledge has played a big role in any success I’ve had in business – not only my post-secondary education, but more specifically the importance I’ve placed on continuing education in my fields.  It’s not always possible or efficient to take a full degree program, and really, it’s not always necessary either. I’ve found that especially in a city like Toronto, the options we have for furthering our skills and knowledge set are numerous. I’ve taken single university classes according to my preferences and enrolled in continuing education courses, online seminars, or weekend workshops to learn more as I’ve taken on different roles within my company or different projects as they come.

What it comes down to is having a good grasp on your strengths and your weaknesses. My strength has always been marketing and communications, but in starting a business from the ground up, I’ve had to learn other skill sets as well. I’ve taken additional courses in accounting and management to build a foundation for skills that I knew were imperative to the functioning of a business.

I’ve also found that not all education takes place in a classroom environment, so I make sure to keep myself open to furthering my development through networking with other professionals to exchange knowledge and advance learning as well. I’ve attended trade shows, conferences, and other industry-specific events that have done wonders in helping me to be more confident in knowledge of any facet of my business. The Internet is also an amazing resource, as are books that provide a convenient way to advance knowledge.

If you’re a business owner who wants to keep learning, through the busy schedules and the demanding itineraries, it is absolutely possible to find a way.  Whether it’s through getting an actual degree or taking short-term courses to bolster my knowledge, in my personal experience, continuing education helps in achieving my ultimate vision of success.

Real life real estate

I’m a sucker for real estate reality television. Property Virgins, House Hunters, and 2 a.m. reruns of the Property Shop – I live for these shows, and always love watching couples and families go through the highest of highs, the lowest of lows, all to finally find the property of their dreams, and right on budget too.

As a real estate agent though, sometimes I have to giggle at how easy it seems. House showings to key pickup, all wrapped up in a 22 minute time slot. Of course, with the time limitations, there isn’t enough time to get into the intricacies of a normal, average real estate transaction, but I imagine that most viewers who haven’t actually been through the process might romanticize the experience with the information provided on these shows.

In the real world, the process can take months. Buyers have to talk to financial professionals to apply and qualify for financing or a mortgage, and then find the right agent with knowledge of their circumstances, their needs, and the area that they’re looking to purchase in. Then there are the house showings. On television, they show three houses and decide between the given options. I’ve had clients go on as many as 15 showings before deciding on a property, and rightly so. This is not a pair of shoes, this is a home, for families with children, dogs named Rover and cats named Meow. While timing can be of the essence when it comes to getting your home once you’ve decided on a property, finding the right home for you is a process that in my opinion shouldn’t be rushed or double-guessed.

Even after getting an approved offer, we’re often not ready to pick up the keys just yet. Accepted offers are usually “conditional”, meaning we now have to deal with home inspectors, appraisals, and final steps for financing. Your dream home might end up being a nightmare property if an inspector turns up foundation issues or termites, so there’s usually a period of time when a buyer can walk away from a property.

But I’ve seen firsthand how these shows have affected the real estate market in a very real way. Buyers and sellers are more educated now, and real estate professionals have been forced to step up their game. Sellers understand the value of “curb appeal” and not having animals or dirty laundry in the home during showings. Buyers are learning to see past superficial things like bad paint colours and minor improvements to see how a home can be made to fit them. Knowledge is power, and in the real estate game it can be the difference between a make or break deal.

All in all, these shows, by necessity due to timing and probably in large part entertainment, are condensed versions of what to expect when you’re purchasing a property. I take whatever lessons I can from real estate powerhouses like Tatiana Londono, but in the end, I really just take it for what it is: entertainment. Good, clean, funny, exciting, licorice and white cheddar popcorn on a Thursday night entertainment, and I love every second.

Choose your rep carefully

I’m a firm believer in the fact that research is the key to being a smart consumer. If I’m buying a car, I pay attention to standards and testing results. If it’s a used car, it means a thorough check-up at my mechanic, not theirs. Upgrading my entertainment system means a day spent going through price comparisons between stores, and purchasing a house means home inspections and title searches. It makes sense then that the person I choose to represent my interests, in what may very well be the largest single transaction of my life, provide the same standard of service I’ve set for myself.

While most home buyers or sellers will make this decision based on a gut feeling or positive first interaction, there are some questions I find worth asking if you intend to be selective about your agent.

· How long have you been in the business? This question may seem cut and dry, but it’s important to consider the pros and cons of the response. There is of course the benefit of the seasoned veteran with 20 years of experience and a great track record, but there’s something to be said for the enthusiastic newcomer with less bad habits, more time to concentrate on you, and access to competent mentors.

· What’s your plan?  If you’re buying a home, you might want to know what resources your agent will be taking advantage of to find your dream property. If you’re selling, inquire about direct marketing campaigns and advertising mediums. Does your agent rely solely on online marketing, or is print media also utilized? Is it necessary? Are there samples available for you to see?

· What’s going on in my area or in the area I’d like to move to? A quality agent, before meeting with you, will have done their part in researching the target area and getting a good understanding of current price trends as well as availability. An agent who’s done their homework is already demonstrating how hard they’ll work for you if they’re hired.

· How much do you charge? You’d be surprised at how many people neglect to ask the most fundamental question! What percentage or fee is expected at the end of a completed transaction and is it negotiable?

· Do you have any references? The best indicator of what an agent will be able to do for you is what they’ve done for others. Don’t be afraid to ask for references to give you a more complete picture of an agent’s work.

Choosing an agent is a complicated balance between finding a personality that works with yours and determining the skill sets that will best fulfill your business needs. It’s an important undertaking that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The wrong decision could cost you thousands, but choosing just the right representative is likely to make all the difference in the world.

My ‘uh-oh’ investments

End users purchasing homes tend to come out in full force in the Spring and Summer months, but right now? Tis the season for investment shoppers. I’ve been fielding requests and questions over the last few weeks from new and seasoned investors planning their strategies for getting the best out of their real estate investment choices, so I thought it might be a good time to share some of my own “uh-oh” investment mistakes.

My first and perhaps most obvious mistake was assuming that trends from yesterday (last month, last quarter, last year) would continue moving forward. My first investment was actually in the subsequent phase of a development project that a close friend had made a lot of money in prior. Luckily for me, even though I didn’t bring in the profit that she did, my margins were still enough to not turn this rookie mistake into a complete loss, but my thought process behind it definitely set the stage for a potential investment disaster. I’ve since shied away from buying real estate counting on short-term appreciation and am always prepared to hold onto investments for as long as five years just in case, although I usually end up flipping it within the year. Even if I have to hold onto a property for longer than anticipated, real estate markets virtually always bounce back in the long run, so as long as I’m not sweating in the short term, I’m okay.

I’m a little undecided about this next rookie mistake. My impulsive nature works in my favour most of the time. I jump head first into opportunities and take full advantage of benefits gained while most are still running the numbers by their accountants, financial advisers, mother-in-laws and that lady at work who bought a house that one time. But I’d like to think that my decisions to dive right in aren’t as blind as they were when I first started with this.

Real estate risk is directly proportional to knowledge. There’s a pretty big learning curve, but learning is still key. Blindly making such large transactions based on incorrect advice from well-meaning observers with a complete lack of education is so, so dangerous. Nowadays, I take advantage of seminars or training programs that come across my desk and that teach me how to best make my money work for me. I’m always learning, I’ll never stop, and I know it has made a difference not only in my approach towards my craft, but also in the numbers in my portfolio.

One mistake, however, that I’m glad I never made was looking at real estate investments as anything other than a business. I find that a lot of people get lured into the world of real estate investing because of the idea of making a lot of cash fast. It really isn’t the case though. Most of the return I’ve seen on my investments took about five years to really come to fruition, and in that time, I’ve seen a lot of enthusiastic first time investors taper off into zero activity due to lack of action and unrealistic expectations. When dealing with this much money, it only makes sense to treat it with the seriousness of a career. Work hard. And get the training and information you need to develop a long term plan that makes sense for the goals you’ve set up for yourself and your family.

Good luck!

Maybe she’s born with it: The art of networking

The social art of networking is an almost necessary skill for most successful business people, particularly those in entrepreneurial capacities.  The very nature of the role calls for the ability to get out there, create, and maintain business relationships, almost from scratch. Books and seminar tickets are sold worldwide – a multimillion-dollar industry – all focused on giving business people the tools and knowledge necessary to become effective networkers.

Earlier this week, a male colleague made the passing comment that women don’t realize the advantage they hold in the business world by being natural-born networkers. I took pause at that comment. I mean, the women in my life do seem to possess a lot of the traits necessary in succeeding at this task. They’re outgoing, pleasant, great listeners, diplomatic, generally non-threatening, and have often perfected juggling a myriad of personal and professional commitments at any given hour in the day. So why then, with networking being such an integral part of managing business relationships and women supposedly having such a natural disposition towards it, does it seem like there are so many challenges when women face a professional environment for networking? Are we just not putting these natural talents to use? Or does it require some tweaking on our part to translate these skills into an effective business model?

I took it upon myself to do a little surface research, speaking to some of the women in my life and asking them about their individual networking patterns and experiences. The results of my little mini-experiment were quite revealing. There was almost nothing significantly different in the way that these women introduced themselves, carried themselves, appropriated body language, or maintained contact after initial meetings. The logistics were all pretty standard and could have come right out of a ‘How to Network Effectively’ handbook. The only difference? The most successful (attributed to financial and career success) were able to identify these behavioural patterns as “networking,” while the others insisted that it wasn’t “networking” – it was just meeting new people.

Of course, my conversation with six or seven friends can hardly be considered conclusive evidence, but I think there’s some validity to these findings. While the skills could very well be inherent in women to be effective networkers, perhaps what’s actually needed is a consciousness of the value these skills bring within the corporate sphere. This recognition could very well enhance the most important part of any networking opportunity: translating that first introduction into a viable business transaction, whether through the trading of services or the exchange of money for products or services.

So are women natural-born networkers? I’d hesitate to paint an entire gender with so broad a brush. But for those of us who are blessed with the gift of gab and a knack for meeting new people, a full understanding of the value of that gift can enhance any opportunity to gain new and valued client relationships, and furthermore, can do no harm in working towards ultimate business success.

Little expenses can make a big dent in your finances

I just spent $2,000 on car repairs. I know it’s not a lot in the grand scheme of things, and to be fair, my car does treat me quite well considering my complete and utter lack of care for it, but no matter how much money I make, I will always resent the unforeseen high dollar expenses that seem to pop up when you least expect it.

I tried to explain this to my sister, and she laughed at me!  Her response?  “You spend more than that per year on sushi.”  This got me to thinking; I have mini heart attacks about something like an expensive car repair, but I don’t think twice about the unnecessary smaller amounts that I spend every day. When you stop and add them up, those little expenses can add up in a big way. So, I decided to make myself a list of the daily little expenses I indulge in and calculate what kind of a dent they actually make in my finances.

First on the list? My daily vanilla cappuccino. At $3 a day about five days a week, that sets me back almost $750 a year, taking into account vacation weeks or miscellaneous missed days.

Then of course are my lunches on the go, and with my tendency to avoid the fast food joints, this easily runs me about $10 a day. That’s $50 a week and $2500 a year.  Yikes!

I’m also a convenience junkie, and that reflects most prominently in my monthly bank fees. I can seldom be bothered to find my bank’s ATMs when I need cash, and depending on the machine, the fees can range anywhere from $1.50 to $3.00 per transaction.  A few of these per month and I’m probably spending an extra $200 a year.

I’m sure there are more incidences that have become so habitual I can’t even think of them off hand, but I’m sure there are solutions to these unnecessary expenses that would work for my bank account and my lifestyle.

I could invest in one of those fancy schmancy premium coffee makers and have my daily vanilla cappuccinos at home. Making my lunch at home might be a little more time-consuming, but I would certainly reap the benefits of a lower price point and even healthier (and probably tastier!) lunches.  As for the bank fees – I guess I’ll just have to suck it up and spend the extra five minutes to actually find my bank’s ATMs.  I have a smartphone – I’m sure there’s an app for that.

I certainly don’t think I should have to forego all of life’s little pleasures in favour of a strict and unyielding need to save, but maybe there’s a way to enjoy all of my little luxuries in a more cost effective manner.

3 ways to market yourself and your business

In adding a new capability to my firm’s services this year, one of the biggest tasks I have ahead of me is creating a buzz for this new venture while balancing any investments with potential returns.  I’m not naïve to the state of our economy right now – I hear the constant reports of doom and gloom that seem to permeate the airwaves these days, and my newest real estate project seems especially vulnerable to any sudden turn or drop on this economic rollercoaster.  While I’m an unapologetic optimist, I’m also a businesswoman, so the debate between investing in marketing and promotions and holding on to my cash is a very real one.

So my approach in moving forward this year will be investing in inexpensive promotional activities that offer a key value for the money being spent.

1. Online marketing

For one thing, most of my efforts will be focused on online marketing. The days of ignoring online marketing are definitely gone, and there are many businesses that wouldn’t survive, were it not for the money brought in by traffic to their websites. Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising is especially unique, because it allows you to pay only for potential consumers or clients who have actually received your message. Facebook has incorporated some unique PPC advertising methods that I plan on doing a little more research on. The added bonus for this is that it boosts your online presence and could even result in a higher appearance in Google’s organic rankings. Researching Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and seeing how I can drive new traffic to my site will definitely be near the top of my list.

2. Promotional gifts

Promotional gifts are not usually my cup of tea – the idea of spending money on an obscene amount of trinkets and handing them out to any and everybody and then seeing them strewn across the parking lot of an expo on your way to your car after an event is not fun.  (Sorry for the rant, personal experience).  But using gifts to maintain relationships with my best clients, that may be in the market for this newest service stream, could be well worth the bottle of wine and postcard.

3. Word of mouth

But the best type of marketing, I think, might just be the oldest: word of mouth.  It’s low cost, meets business objectives, and is the most compelling way to bring in new customers. Think about it: we’re bombarded with countless messages every day – print ads, radio ads, TV commercials, salesmen, spokespeople – and most of us don’t put much stock into what we hear from any of those mediums until we experience it ourselves. But word of mouth marketing is genuine, because the only way to effectively use it marketing is to deliver a kick-butt product or service. Putting my clients first and developing a continuous referral program where they’re encouraged to talk about my awesome service is something I’ll be putting a lot of energy and effort into.

The timing may be a little scary, but I’m focusing on the quality of my promotions rather than the quantity, and putting myself in the best possible position, even if the worst-case scenario should come true.

This article was previously published on February 7, 2012.

How to deliver a positive first impression

As the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and with the launching of the new real estate capability of my firm, I’ve been focused on that old adage more than ever. I’ve been meeting new people constantly, from other realtors to corporate builders to potential clients, I’ve been painfully aware of the fact that those initial defining moments can be the determining factor for whether my firm is hired or not.

One of the things I’ve had to remember is our first impression is very rarely a face-to-face “hello” with the person on the other end.  First contact is often made by email, phone, IM, social media, or even through a receptionist or personal assistant, and even if this connection is not in-person with me, it’ll still have a lasting impact on how I’m perceived personally and professionally.  So, I’ve gone to great lengths to ensure that this impact is positive. I’ve retrained my staff on the basics – everything from answering the phone in a positive and upbeat manner to proper email etiquette so that non-verbal cues are easily presented and nothing is misconstrued. I’ve made sure that my website and social media sites are free of typos and grammatical errors and that, aesthetically, it’s a balance between the professionalism and personal image that I want people to get about who I am.

When I do make a one-to-one contact with a potential client or colleague, I make sure they get the highlight of the message I want to convey: I value their business and their time.  For a schedule as hectic and busy as mine, that often means slowing down and taking the time to have a conversation without rushing to get off the phone or get through the meeting. Of course, anyone I meet knows that I have other clients and other responsibilities, but it’s my job to make sure that they know their project is important and worth my time.

On that same note, no matter how many emails I have in my inbox, I always respond to communications in a timely manner.  My standard of service guarantees a response within 24 hours, and I find that the quicker you respond to a client, the more likely they are to be pleased with this first impression. A good way I’ve learned to stay on top of this is to allot a special time out of your day – an hour, let’s say – dedicated to communication response and avoiding an insurmountable mountain of messages.

It’s not an exhaustive list of how-to’s, but I’m hoping that this focus on delivering a positive impression right off the bat and following through with a superior standard of service will be just the recipe I need to establish a competitive brand in the marketplace.

Personal finances: Is your budget right for you?

Corporate budgeting in itself is a complex but widely understood concept. The goal is clear and usually easily defined, if not easily achieved: make more money. For me, the practice of sitting down and working out a corporate budget is standard and non-negotiable. This is business, and in business you sit down and draft a plan. Review your fixed costs, control the variable expenses, mitigate the risks, align the budget with the corporate strategy, and maximize profit. It’s been an interesting shift for me to apply this same formality with the way I budget in my personal life, but a shift that has definitely paid off in helping me to have a better grasp of my personal finances and a more accurate view of how and when I’ll achieve my personal goals.

Fixed costs

My fixed costs are often beyond my control: mortgage, home insurance, auto insurance, life insurance, travel costs, etc. They are usually the biggest part of my budget and usually the most necessary and uncompromising.

Variable expenses

My variable expenses I have more control over. Things like my Internet and phone expenses provide opportunities to review current plans and research new offers from competing companies. I make it a habit to review this annually (or in some cases, as contracts come to the end of their term) to see where I can get the most for my dollar. I’ve found on occasion that it’s even works out in my interest to cancel a contract and pay the penalty fee in favour of a greater discounted rate from another source. Take a real look at the numbers and see how they balance out.

Highly variable expenses

Highly variable costs of course vary for me by the season, but are often where I slip up in practicing effective management. Movies, concerts, eating out and ordering in can all add up. Wedding gifts were my vice this past summer and Christmas gifts will probably be my vice in the coming winter. And of course, anyone who knows me knows my weakness for online shopping, handbags and shoes. Personal care is also a very important part of my routine, and even though it’s among the first things that women will cut out in the event of a budget crisis, I’d say it’s necessary in presenting yourself and representing your business. Proper grooming is essential and personal image does count.

Mitigating risks

Mitigating risks has also been an interesting concept to apply to my personal life. My sister and I often joke that in this context, it probably has more to do with people than with market shifts and potential competitors. Bottom line is that every risk should have a contingency plan, no matter how unlikely the risk appears. Do you have a sibling, parent, close friend or family member who is likely to default on their rent payment and ask you for a bail out?  Decide whether this is critical personnel that should be subtracted or whether you should establish a contingency fund to cover unexpected expenses. Are you sensing another impending breakup between your best friend and her significant other for the fourth time this month? Build extra time into your schedule for the “you don’t need him anyway” late-night movie marathon and the subsequent “I’m so glad you guys are back together” brunch.

Lifestyle alignment

Above all, I make sure that my personal budget aligns with my lifestyle. My budget is realistic for me, and what makes sense for me or for you might not make sense for others. I budget for my yoga classes because that is an essential part of my life. I make sure my budget and my life are tied together by goals that are important to me, whether it’s dealing with acquisitions, personal health, or just enjoying where I am in life. All in all, it’s become my personal strategy for defining where I am and deciding where I’m going.

My Toronto – showing off your city

I absolutely, positively love travelling. I’ll go anywhere really, and there was a time in my “less responsible” years that I would literally get on a plane and go anywhere. No planning, no warning, no worries.

That being said, I am not by any stretch of the imagination a typical tourist. I can only spend so long in the restrictive confines of a resort or hotel, I am very rarely interested in any of the “attractions” listed in the city’s airport brochure, and I’m quite content snapping memorable photos on my smartphone in lieu of lugging around the professional camera and lenses that being a seasoned tourist requires.

My travel mantra is authenticity above comfort. My soul longs for the real neighbourhoods where families actually live and the local restaurants where the waiters don’t speak English. What better way to get to really know a city, inside and out, than from the perspective of the people who live there?

That’s what I like to offer my friends and family that visit Toronto. I can dedicate a day maximum to sights like the CN Tower, Casa Loma, etc. But if I don’t visit those places and I live in Toronto, then how does that reflect my experience in my city?

I take my visitors to Kensington market, where they can literally feel with all their senses the vibrancy of Toronto. I bypass the Eaton Centre for some summer shopping along Queen West, with the abundance of trendy boutiques that underline the city’s incredible sense of style and fashion across all spectrums.

Walking through the downtown core provides the perfect setting for some quality street meat. Yes. That’s what we do in Toronto. And it’s amazing.

Taking in a Raptors game is always fun, and is always a good opportunity to get tourists cheering for your city too. I just love the sound of my New York City cousins yelling “Go Raptors Go!” at the top of their lungs.

And after a fun filled week of running through the shops, restaurants, neighbourhoods, and areas that make up this city, what better way to cap it off than with a day at the Toronto Beaches or, even more authentic, a backyard BBQ with a couple of beers and an awesome crowd.

That’s what I want my friends and family to see. It may not be the Toronto depicted on tourism websites and train station pamphlets, but it’s my Toronto, and I know if they can experience what I experience every day, then they’ll fall in love with it too.