What’s up everyone and welcome to another episode of Become A Local Leader! In today’s episode, we have Erika Benson, Land Investor and Co-Founder of Gokce Capital.
Meet Erika Benson – Our Featured Local Leader
Erika Benson is a Land investor based out of New York City and is the co-founder of Gokce Capital. Erika is involved in buying and selling throughout the United States. Prior to starting Gokce Capital, Erika worked in the affordable housing industry, specifically financing affordable housing projects in New York City. And before that, working as an architectural designer.
Where are you from originally and where do you live now?
I’m originally from Chicago but I’ve been in the New York City area for about eight years now. And before that, I was out in Los Angeles.
Do you work in the same community you live in or is it elsewhere?
We do buy and sell some parcels of land in New York but we don’t really work in New York City or in the New Jersey area. For the most part, we work outside of where our company is based. But again, we’ve bought and sold a number of parcels in upstate New York. And then in Pennsylvania as well.
The buying and selling of land, does that have anything to do with the community? And if so, what do you love about your community specifically?
In terms of the community that I live in, I actually live out in New Jersey. Not too far from the Pennsylvania border so we are in a really nice town. There’s a really great state park nearby. We’re in a lake community so there’s a great sense of community here and a lot of nature, so I think that’s one of the best parts here. A lot of people are pretty committed to keeping the area or the environment sound because most people who come out here are very into fishing, or hiking, things like that.
And in terms of the communities that we work in, I think that it’s fairly similar. Because we buy and sell rural vacant land, you’re looking at parcels that are in areas with either a lot of forests or they arere desert parcels. You’re looking at areas with a lot of natural resources and very beautiful areas.
A lot of people don’t invest in these kinds of parcels but there’s a lot of beauty out there. There are a lot of people who are interested in buying land, just because they want a quiet place to go camping or they like the idea of now owning a part of a beautiful area. There are a lot of them in the US.
You worked in the affordable housing industry. How did you get into that? How long did you work there before you worked in your line of business now?
I was with New York City for a little over three years where I started out as an architect but I found that I was much more interested in the real estate side of things. You have more control over what actually gets built and developed when you’re in the real estate industry as opposed to just being the designer on a project. I also always had an interest in doing something that helps my community.
So, it started out with affordable housing, I think in New York City in particular. That’s a very big need. It was very rewarding to work in that industry for a while. And even though land investing is very different, different scale, different kind of asset class that you’re working with, I think I am doing something very similar in that we’re able to bring properties to market at a good price. So, I went from providing affordable housing in New York City to helping folks throughout the US find affordable land. That’s a big priority for me.
What is your superpower as a professional, as an entrepreneur in the real estate industry?
I don’t know if it’s a superpower but one thing my partner and I are committed to is customer service. I think we do try to work with people. We try to answer all calls ourselves. At least we’ll do that for as long as we can. So, I think one thing would just be talking on the phone and being available too.
In land investing and that kind of stuff, how long have you been working in this industry? What do you like most about it?
Our company is about two years old now. There are two things that really drew us to it. For me personally, it was the ability to provide an affordable investment or affordable land for many folks. A lot of our buyers are first-time land buyers or first-time buyers of real estate and this is their entry into the market. That’s really rewarding.
But the thing that drew both my partner and me to the business was the ability to get to know so many areas in the US that we wouldn’t have if we weren’t investing in them. We had actually gone and visited all 50 states before. We both love nature so just getting to know the US and getting to see all the beautiful places that are out there has also been very rewarding.
How many transactions do you do per year and how has that changed over time? Has it progressed significantly? Are you flattening out? How is that working for you?
We’ve been on a steady increase. Last year, we did about 100 deals. This year, we’re on track to do more than 200. We’ve been steadily increasing our deal volume. At some point, we’ll probably plateau unless we decide to take on some additional help.
Has COVID affected that growth at all? How has it affected your business in general?
We were worried about how COVID would affect the business. There was a small dip right when COVID first hit, but it actually forced us to rethink some of our marketing strategies. It actually ended up making us a bit stronger. We’ve seen a higher deal volume in the past couple of months after we revamped everything. And so, it really hasn’t slowed things down. That may be because it’s rural, vacant land. So right now, people may have an increased interest in it given that they’re looking for places that are far away from the crowds.
What percentage of your business is repeat versus new business?
I would say the bulk of our buyers right now are first time buyers from us. We do have a couple of repeat customers. There are a handful of folks that buy from us on a fairly regular basis. But yeah, for the most part, it’s a lot of new customers.
Do you know why it’s mostly new buyers as opposed to return clientele?
Probably because most people who are buying rural vacant land are buying it for a specific purpose. We’re not necessarily selling to other investors. And for the most part, other land investors have their own way of acquiring properties. They’re not going to buy unless they’re looking at an investor who’s really wholesaling their properties. But we don’t necessarily sell our properties at wholesale prices. So, we don’t attract as many investor clients as maybe other land investors do.
What percentage of your business is relationship and referral business versus advertising business, people coming in from ads?
It’s not really relationship-based. At least not at the moment. I think that’s just because we’re all over the US. Maybe other land investors who have very specific expertise in one area would have a greater percentage of their clients coming from word of mouth or referrals. But most of our buyers come from listing sites or ads. We also get a fair amount of organic traffic because we have a pretty active blog that we started a few months ago.
Database wise, how many people do think are in your database as of this year of 2020?
That’s a good question. I’d say at least a couple thousand.
How are you guys building new relationships or are you trying to build new relationships?
We don’t necessarily do a lot of outreach looking for partners but we do try to build relationships in the sense that anyone who contacts us, we try to talk to them personally. I try to answer the phone right away. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but we do try to keep in touch with all of our buyers by sending them monthly letters and weekly emails. We don’t actively search for partners.
Have you ever had people refer your business in the past? If so, who? Were they business owners? Were they friends and family?
Well, sometimes we have someone who purchases from us and then they refer a family member to us. Especially if they see that we have a couple of parcels in a similar area. We don’t get many referrals from businesses but I think that’s part of because of the nature of our asset class. It’s rural so they’re not necessarily many businesses around our parcels.
Do you do advertising? If so, what works well for you and what doesn’t?
We do post on numerous listing sites. We pay primarily for land.com. They’re a land specific listing group. It’s actually three sites that you get with their membership. That’s where the bulk of our advertising money is spent. Then we’re also on some free sites like Zillow and Facebook marketplace. We run Facebook ads, but we don’t spend that much money on a daily basis on Facebook ads. It’s a combination of land.com and the free listing sites, and then our own organic traffic.
What do you find works the best for you?
Well, Facebook works very well. I think that’s maybe surprising but it’s a great marketplace for vacant land. And land.com is a really good resource. Out of all the land specific listing sites, they have the highest amount of traffic. That’s why we pay a premium to them. And then, the organic traffic helps as well. But at the moment, it’s primarily from land.com and Facebook.
What mistakes have you made in general?
I can think of a couple. Actually, on one of our website pages, we wrote out our whole story about how we learned how to do land investing properly. There were a lot of mistakes in how we went about it that we’ve learnt to avoid. I think one of the big ones that we maybe didn’t cover in that particular post though was not having a strong online presence as early on as we could have. Doing YouTube videos, having an active blog, just posting on social media, we ignored that when we are starting out. It’s been a great resource now that we’ve been doing it more regularly. So, I wish we’d started that sooner.
What do you think your clients have to say about you in a good light? What do they rave about when they think about you, or when they’ve done business with you?
Well, I hope that they would say we offer good customer service. That’s what we strive to do. I try to answer the calls myself and I always try to make myself available. We also try to have a pretty streamlined buying process. We make it as quick as possible. As soon as you put the money down, you’ll have a deed in a few days.
What sets you apart from your competitors in that regard?
I don’t want to speak poorly of any of the other land investors. A lot of them are our friends. But I think one thing that we strive to do that maybe you don’t see as much in the land investing space, is that we focus on customer service. It can be tricky when you’re doing high volume, you are doing over 200 deals a year. It’s an easy thing to drop or to offshore but one thing that we try to focus on is still answering all our emails and our calls ourselves and trying to provide that level of customer service.
What are some things you do to give value to the people who live and work in your community?
If you take our community to be the land investing community or the community of people who are interested in rural vacant lands, one of the things that we’ve really been trying to do recently is providing a lot of content on social media, YouTube, and our blog. The content covers some of the lessons we’ve learned, some of the deals where we may have made a mistake or missed something. And also, just information on things you should know if you’re buying land.
I think you do need to do a fair amount of due diligence when you’re buying land, probably more so even then when you’re buying a house. The reason is that you don’t have as many resources available to you. When you’re looking at rural vacant land, there’s a lot more that could potentially be wrong with the parcels since sometimes there’s a reason it’s vacant.
Do you do any networking within your community? And if so, how do you do that?
If we’re talking about the community of land buyers and land investors, we try to be involved in the online space a lot. We were active on forums for a while. And now we’re focusing more on YouTube and blog. But I think a lot of our community engagement because we work throughout the US, is through our online platforms.
What are the goals that you have for your business moving forward?
Well, I think right now we’re really focused on trying to grow our brand. A big part of that is figuring out how we can give value through the content that we produce. So, thinking of different ways that we can help people get the information that they may struggle to find, different ways that we can help first-time land buyers navigate all the decisions they need to make when they’re looking for the right parcel of land. Then, of course, we’re always trying to streamline our marketing and sales process. So, anything that makes it easier for our buyers or that helps us expand our outreach and get more people looking at the properties that we have for sale.
What are some of the biggest challenges and/or roadblocks you’ve had or having trying to achieve these goals?
Well, I think there was a bit of a learning curve when we were expanding our digital marketing efforts. There’s a lot to learn. Producing good content isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Our blog posts are at least 2000 words each. And we spent a lot of time especially with COVID and the fact that we’re stuck at home all day just learning the basics on how to really make good content and content that provides value. So, our goal now with a lot of what we do is to provide value first without asking for anything and trying to be a resource for buyers and other land investors.
Do you buy leads from Zillow or any other websites like that?
No. We don’t buy leads. What we spend money on is just access to certain platforms like land.com but no we don’t buy leads.
You did talk about you paying for Facebook ad space, that kind of stuff. Is it specifically Facebook or have you paid for ad space and other social media platforms as well?
Primarily Facebook. But again, we don’t spend that much money on paid ads. So far, we haven’t needed to. I think just using Facebook Marketplace has been fine for us at the moment.
How much do you spend on a regular basis? What kind of leads do you get from that? Is there a positive ROI?
It’s tricky for us to measure the ROI because our ads aren’t actually targeted at leads or buyers so we’re not putting ads out for a specific property. We’re putting ads out for some of our promotions like we have a free land giveaway. Sometimes if we have a really great blog article that we want to share, we’ll actually put an ad out for that. We don’t calculate a return on our investment in that way. It’s more just about trying to get our name out there. So, it’s more a branding exercise than it is a way to get leads.
Do you pay a digital marketer at all to do any of these things for you?
No. We do most of our branding exercises ourselves. That’s something that we still want to keep in-house just because it’s a very important part of the business for us and what we’re really focused on at the moment. We do sometimes have copywriting help but for the most part, we do everything ourselves.
Do you advertise at all on billboards or bus benches or anything like that within a certain area?
No, we don’t do that. I think that’s because of the asset type that we work with. A lot of our buyers are out of state buyers so they’re buying property a couple of states away, sometimes all the way across the country. So, with rural vacant land, we don’t necessarily see the benefit of billboards or physical ads in a specific location.
Do you do any direct mailers, flyering, door hangers, that kind of stuff?
We do but on the acquisition side. On the sales side, we do sometimes send out neighbor letters. But for the most part, our direct mail campaigns are targeted on our acquisition side, so it’s to the people that we’re buying properties from.
What do you read the blogs about?
A little bit of everything. One of our big focus points is due diligence. I think due diligence can be harder with rural, vacant land. There’s a lot that you have to think about. It doesn’t mean that for every parcel of land out there, you need to run through the whole checklist that we provide. At the same time, there are a lot of things that you can find, I don’t want to say wrong with a parcel, but that may create an issue or an extra hurdle if you actually wanted to build on the plot of land.
I think a lot of the things that come up most people, even someone who’s a savvy investor or who has bought real estate before probably wouldn’t think to look into. That’s one of our big focus points in both our YouTube videos and our blog is just trying to list out all the different things that you may want to think about before purchasing a parcel of land. And also, depending on what you want to use the parcel for. If it’s just for recreational purposes, you probably don’t need to do as much due diligence. But if you’re really looking to build on the parcel of land, here’s all the things that you should think about and look into before buying a parcel.
Do you create video content at all?
Yes, we do have a YouTube channel. We make a video for all the parcels that we sell. But we also make videos that complement our blogs. Sometimes it’s similar content to a blog post but in a more condensed form or in a video form. But another thing we do with our YouTube channel is give little case studies. So, if we had a deal, where we may have missed something or there was a good lesson learned, we try to share that as well.
What do you mostly post about in social media? Is it the listings themselves or is it different things?
We’re most active on YouTube. On the other social media channels, we tend to post the content that we’ve created either on our blog or on YouTube. Most of our posts are either sharing our new blog posts or new YouTube videos. Well, because we do a lot of videos for our properties, some of those posts are around a particular property. But for the most part, we use the other social media platforms to share the content that we create on YouTube and our blog.
What is the frequency of your email newsletters and what’s on it?
We try to keep it to just once a week. We don’t want to bombard folks with too much. We’ll highlight any new properties that we’ve acquired over the week. We may share a blog post or content that we think specifically our buyer’s list would be interested in. Or we may just share an inspirational story or quote or something to brighten people’s day.
What type of follow up do you do to kind of work your database? Do you like to pop-by, write personal notes or do you send gifts? What would you do to follow up with them?
The one thing that we do is we send out letters every month, physical letters to anyone who’s bought from us. That’s one way that we try to keep in touch. But beyond that, we also send out our weekly newsletters. And then, some of our buyers are more engaged than others. For those who are really engaged, we may have a few phone calls every now and then with them. Just check-in and see. Especially for someone who’s bought on owner financing, so they’re still paying for the property. We may talk to them every now and then and just see how things are going.
Any final thoughts?
We have our whole story on how we started out with land investing and some of the mistakes that we made as we learned how to build our business on our website at GokceCapital.com/land-investing. So, if you’re interested in the land investing business, you can learn a little bit about what things to avoid as you’re starting out.
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