Photo by Duane Tinkey
Photo by Duane Tinkey

If Matthew Smith’s mind seems to wander, don’t be alarmed. He’s just in dream training.

His dreams are carrying him at the moment to, something of an online shopping mall where real estate agents and potential customers can mingle and, with luck, close a deal.

Chances are good that his dreams won’t stop there. After arriving in Greater Des Moines a few years back, Smith launched S & G Real Estate Investments Inc. with a local partner. The business buys and flips homes. He received a best historical restoration award in 2007 as a result of his work.

At the time, he was in the middle of a 10-year adventure in capitalism, a switch from his decision early in life to follow in his parents’ footsteps and become an educator.

He studied religion in college, because he had a lot of questions about life. The thought was that he would become a college professor, but his mind’s eye couldn’t capture the image of sitting in an office stacked to the ceiling with papers.

Smith wasn’t sure that he was living his dreams, maybe just training to live his dreams, like preparing to run a marathon.

“You can’t just wake up one day and run the Boston Marathon,” he said.

Smith imagined that people in business were exercising their curious natures to solve problems, so he pursued business.

Watching late-night television, he saw an infomercial about making money in real estate. All he needed to do was pay a $5,000 for a mentor. He charged the money to a credit card and set off to make a living rehabbing old houses.

The financial rewards would offer freedom, Smith said, and that’s what he wanted. There is no point in having pint-sized goals, he said.

He was 25 at the time.

Smith and his wife, Kristen, moved to Des Moines when she was offered a job with a pharmaceutical sales company.

He decided to try his hand at sales and went to work for Bankers Life and Casualty Co. He was a good salesman.

He was making more money than ever and vacationing in Cancun, Mexico. Still, it wasn’t making a big dent in the dream search.

Smith quit the insurance game – he told Kristen after the fact – and launched S & G Real Estate Investments.

While working with real estate agents, Smith realized that they didn’t have a convenient way to draw wide attention to their listings.

The agents weren’t taking full advantage of social media to drive traffic to their websites, he said. People were gravitating to social media, such as Facebook, which offered limited ability to display listings.

“Facebook Fan Pages don’t give buyers an opportunity to search listings.. When people are in the market, they will just search for homes when they are interested,” Smith said. “On the agent side, they hope that people happen to find their listings when they are in the market.”

The agents were spending a couple of hours a day on social media, updating information about family and friends, but driving little traffic to their Facebook fan pages, which in turn offered potential buyers only limited ability to search listings.

“If all of the presentation doesn’t result in sales, then it’s just branding,” Smith said. “The challenge is to find a way to get people to leave the(Facebook) mall and go to my website. The conclusion is that they don’t want to leave the mall.

It’s logical to have a presence where the people are.”

He decided to bring buyers and sellers together via the Internet, but had no idea how to do it. That led to another search, this time learning the lingo of designers and programmers.

He was one of the first people to take a spot at StartupCity Des Moines, where he was surrounded by more dreamers and, just as important, tour guides through the puzzling world of Internet technology.

“Half of my time was spent just learning what the words were,” he said. “I always asked, ‘What does the guy before you do, what does the guy after you do?’ Using this process, I was able to determine the steps necessary to build a product.”

Smith said he was something of an “atypical” person in the world of computer programming and web design.

He also had little experience dealing with the vagaries of working with various layers of subcontractors in the web business space.

At one point he found himself with little money and no developers. He didn’t panic.

“Sometimes I like to paint myself into a corner where I can’t give up. I don’t like to exercise the weasel clause,” he said.

RealEstateFanPages is in beta testing at the moment.

Smith is still pursuing his dreams.

Q & A

What is the biggest risk you have taken?

The one that I’m taking right now with RealEstateFanPages. Sold two buildings (to) invest in it, had to take on additional partners, trying something I’d never tried before.

What is your one piece of advice for other entrepreneurs?

Ideas are great, but execution is all that matters. You need to build a team of A-level people who complement you where your strengths stop and theirs begin.

What is your guiding principle?

Start all business relationships and most relationships with, “How can I help you solve a problem that you have?” If you can help somebody solve a problem as opposed to asking them to help you do something, it’s much easier to start a relationship with somebody.

What is your next goal?

My goals in life are more self-actualization things and figuring out what it’s all about through action. By taking action, I elicit discovery; through discovery, I learn what things are all about; and so my next goal is to continue to take more action, find more adventure, see projects through to completion so I can prove certain things to myself.

What would you be doing if you weren’t working on RealEstateFanPages?

I think it would be fun just to have a master’s degree in storytelling. … You learn to be true to who you are as a person and who your family is through stories … but you also learn how to live a good life.

What frustrates you?

When I have an idea that rattles around in my brain that I can’t get it out. … Just having an idea that sits in my brain.