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For Sale by Owner: Nathan McCully talks startups and sales

McCully, who helps people sell their homes themselves, just sold his business

Dec 5, 2013

by Michael Ganley

Nathan McCully
Photograph Heather Saitz

In 1999, Nathan McCully listed peoples’ homes on his website, Back then he was a pioneer. The Internet was still new, and there wasn’t nearly the commerce being done over it as there is now. McCully spent much of his time explaining to people that their homes, if listed on his site, would be seen not only by people in Calgary but also across the country and around the world. Last summer, McCully sold WeList to Quebec-based ComFree, the biggest player in the thriving for-sale-by-owner real estate space. We sat down with McCully to talk about launching a business in a brand new field, the pros and cons of selling your house yourself and why he sold his business.

MG: You were a pioneer in the for-sale-by-owner space. What was it like to launch a blue sky business?

NM: I’d been working on business ideas from the time I was 12. Instead of a lemonade stand, I picked raspberries and sold them, because I thought lemonade stands were cliché. I saw a huge gap where real estate was sold using an old-school model. It wasn’t a monopoly, exactly, but there wasn’t an opportunity for people to market their home outside of the existing real estate system and the Internet changed all that. But I had to convince people that the Internet was a viable model to advertise your home on. A lot of customers didn’t understand the concept that their home would be shown potentially to anybody in the world.

MG: What did your first website look like?

NM: [Laughing] It was rough. I taught myself everything – HTML and what not. But what I really focused on was search engine optimization, before it was recognized as SEO. There were eight or nine search engines, and it would do no good to invest in a product no one can find. It would be like having a book in the library but not being in the card catalogue. I spent a year just developing pages and experimenting with SEO before I launched.

“It’s very rare in the business world where you get to brand yourself on someone’s lawn.” – Nathan McCully

MG: How did you get your name out there?

NM: I had no money for marketing, but I found two things that were fundamental: SEO and signs in the ground. In the real estate business, it’s as simple as that. It’s very rare in the business world where you get to brand yourself on someone’s lawn.

MG: I’ve sold two houses and used a Realtor both times. I think I got value for my money. For instance, their advice in setting the right list price can be so important.

NM: I agree, and in our early years that was a problem. People would say, “I want to use your services and not pay commission, but how can I be sure I’m getting all the value for my house? If I end up selling my house and giving away $20,000, then I might as well have used a Realtor.”

But that’s where the game has completely changed. We have people that only do that service [listing] for a living. They’re completely dialed in. The newest thing we’re offering is negotiating assistance, because sometimes people are intimidated by the thought of playing with the big boys. If a Realtor comes into your house with the buyer and he’s doing all these negotiating tactics on you, some people felt, “I’m also losing out on that. I would have seen the value of a Realtor.” So now we offer that too.

MG: Is this kind of service for everyone?

NM: It’s not, but it’s for the vast majority of the population, especially now that we offer more. Eight or 10 years ago, it was not for everyone. You needed to be able to confidently show your home. You were effectively replacing an agent, and most of them are great at their jobs. Now, you don’t have to be all those things.

MG: So why sell WeList, then?

NM: I’ve been doing it for a long time and had taken this idea from a pen-on-paper concept to a thriving brand. I had taken it as far as I could go. It was part of my dream: Start something, execute it, have it work and then sell.

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