The continuum from laborer to real estate tech company goes from low to high specific knowledge, accountability and leverage.
Laborers get paid hourly and have low accountability
Naval: The tweetstorm is very abstract. It’s deliberately meant to be broadly applicable to all kinds of different domains and disciplines and time periods and places. But sometimes it’s hard to work without a concrete example. So let’s go concrete for a minute.
Look at the real estate business. You could start at the bottom, let’s say you’re a day laborer. You come in, you fix people’s houses. Someone orders you around, tells you, “Break that piece of rock. Sand that piece of wood. Put that thing over there.”
There’s just all these menial jobs that go on, on a construction site. If you’re working one of those jobs, unless you’re a skilled trade, say, a carpenter or electrician, you don’t really have specific knowledge.
Even a carpenter or an electrician is not that specific because other people can be trained how to do it. You can be replaced. You get paid your $15, $20, $25, $50, if you’re really lucky, $75 an hour, but that’s about it.
You don’t have any leverage other than from the tools that you’re using. If you’re driving a bulldozer that’s better than doing it with your hands. A day laborer in India makes a lot less because they have no tool leverage.
You don’t have much accountability. You’re a faceless cog in a construction crew and the owner of the house or the buyer of the house doesn’t know or care that you worked on it.
General contractors get equity, but they’re also taking risk
One step up from that, you might have a contractor, like a general contractor who someone hires to come and fix and repair and build up their house. That general contractor is taking accountability; they’re taking responsibility.
Now let’s say they got paid $250,000 for the job. Sorry, I’m using Bay Area prices, so maybe I’ll go rest of the world prices, $100,000 for the job to fix up a house, and it actually costs the general contractor, all said and done, $70,000. That contractor’s going to pocket that remaining $30,000.
They got the upside. They got the equity but they’re also taking accountability and risk. If the project runs over and there’s losses, then they eat the losses. But you see, just the accountability gives them some form of additional potential income.
Then, they also have labor leverage because they have a bunch of people working for them. But it probably tops out right there.
Property developers pocket the profit by applying capital leverage
You can go one level above that and you can look at a property developer. This might be someone who is a contractor who did a bunch of houses, did a really good job, then decided to go into business for themselves and they go around looking for beaten down properties that have potential.
They buy them, they either raise money from investors or front it themselves, they fix the place up, and then they sell it for twice what they bought it for. Maybe they only put in 20% more, so it’s a healthy profit.
So now a developer like that takes on more accountability, has more risk. They have more specific knowledge because now you have to know: which neighborhoods are worth buying in. Which lots are actually good or which lots are bad. What makes or breaks a specific property. You have to imagine the finished house that’s going to be there, even when the property itself might look really bad right now.
There’s more specific knowledge, there’s more accountability and risk, and now you also have capital leverage because you’re also putting in money into the project. But conceivably, you could buy a piece of land or a broken-down house for $200,000 and turn it into a million dollar mansion and pocket all the difference.
Architects, large developers and REITs are even higher in the stack
One level beyond that might be a famous architect or a developer, where just having your name on a property, because you’ve done so many great properties, increases its value.
One level up from that, you might be a person who decides, well, I understand real estate, and I now know enough of the dynamics of real estate that rather than just build and flip my own properties or improve my own properties, I’m gonna be a massive developer. I’m going to build entire communities.
Now another person might say, “I like that leverage, but I don’t want to manage all these people. I want to do it more through capital. So I’m gonna start a real estate investment trust.” That requires specific knowledge not just about investing in real estate and building real estate, but it also requires specific knowledge about the financial markets, and the capital markets, and how real estate trusts operate.
Real estate tech companies apply the maximum leverage
One level beyond that might be somebody who says, “Actually, I want to bring the maximum leverage to bear in this market, and the maximum specific knowledge.” That person would say, “Well, I understand real estate, and I understand everything from basic housing construction, to building properties and selling them, to how real estate markets move and thrive, and I also understand the technology business. I understand how to recruit developers, how to write code and how to build good product, and I understand how to raise money from venture capitalists and how to return it and how all of that works.”
Obviously not a single person may know this. You may pull a team together to do it where each have different skill sets, but that combined entity would have specific knowledge in technology and in real estate.
It would have massive accountability because that company’s name would be a very high risk, high reward effort attached to the whole thing, and people would devote their lives to it and take on significant risk.
It would have leverage in code with lots of developers. It would have capital with investors putting money in and the founder’s own capital. It would have labor of some of the highest quality labor that you can find, which is high quality engineers and designers and marketers who are working on the company.
Then you may end up with a Trulia or a RedFin or a Zillow kind of company, and then the upside could potentially be in the billions of dollars, or the hundreds of millions of dollars.
As you layer in more and more kinds of knowledge that can only be gained on the job and aren’t common knowledge, and you layer in more and more accountability and risk-taking, and you layer in more and more great people working on it and more and more capital on it, and more and more code and media on it, you keep expanding the scope of the opportunity all the way from the day-laborer, who might just literally be scrappling on the ground with their hands, all the way up to somebody who started a real estate tech company and then took it public.
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