Fredrik Eklund gets more than a kick out of New York City. The Swedish multi-millionaire real estate broker and high-kicking star of the hit Bravo series Million Dollar Listing New York first visited the the Big Apple when he was 10. From inside the crown of the Statue of Liberty he stood in awe, gazing out at the sea of skyscrapers, shining like metal and glass exclamation points, punctuating the urban skyline. He was smitten.
“I was mesmerized by the energy of the city,” Eklund, now 38, recalls. Little did the energetic expert closer know he’d grow up, all the way up to 6-foot-4-inches, to singlehandedly sell over $5 billion dollars of luxury real estate in and around the high-rises below. He sold in excess of $50 million in property in his first year in the business, during which he worked at JC DeNiro, a now-defunct firm once owned by Jack DeNiro, actor Robert DeNiro’s uncle.
The hotshot “dealaholic” selling machine, who got his first taste of sales success at the age of seven selling a record-breaking number of books and Christmas calendars door to door in his native Stockholm, returned to the City That Never Sleeps at 25 determined to make it big. He didn’t know anyone, he couldn’t speak English and he refused to pack up and go home.
Eklund, on the heels of a controversial, year-long stint in California as anadult film star under the name Tag Eriksson, got to work taking odd jobs and hawking paninis outside the set of David Letterman’s Late Show. He’s come a long way from steamy porn sets and peddling hot sandwiches on the sidewalk. Today, Eklund leads the largest real estate team on the East Coast. His clients include stars like Sarah Jessica Parker, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Timberlake, Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Craig.
He’s been the top-grossing real estate broker in all of New York City for the last two years. Sure, he’s kind of a big deal. But if you’ve seen him on TV, you know that Eklund still sometimes kicks it like he never made the big-time at all. Actually, he kicks a lot, sometimes hard enough to accidentally fling his imported designer shoes off, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Eklund spoke with Entrepreneur recently, in a rare quiet moment between posh property showings and stops on a tour promoting his latest book, The Sell (Penguin Group, 2015). We chatted about his smashing success in one of the most ruthless real estate markets in the world, how to sell anything to anyone, and, yes, about that kooky squeal-kick combo he can’t stop doing. What follows is a complete transcript of our conversation:
Entrepreneur: Your signature high-kick — we love it. When did you start doing it and why? Why would you do such a wild, wacky explosive thing, even in a professional environment?
Eklund: I started doing it when I was about four, three years before the first Karate Kid movie. I was growing so tall so fast that people almost didn’t recognize me. If you look at my body, I’m 6-foot-4, but I’m like 6 foot in legs alone. I’m all legs. I would have been a great Swedish supermodel, with big boobs and long legs.
It was sort of like I had to do something with these legs. The kick was a way for people to kind of be comfortable with me. When I enter a room, it’s like, “Okay, here is the long legs guy.” Then it became part of who I am. I just kept doing it. I think it’s hilarious. What it does is release endorphins. It makes me happy, so I do it when I’m sad. I always, always do it when I’m really excited. I do it when I’m alone. I do it in front of people.
The high-kick symbolizes everything I stand for in business, who I am. I’m in a very conservative suit and I’m in a conservative board room environment, high pressure, multibillion dollar New York real estate world, and at the same time, I high kick right in front of everyone. It says that I don’t take myself too seriously and they shouldn’t either. It also shows that I have really great balance because I do it like a ballerina with perfection on one toe. Then I retract to this pose back and all of the sudden I’m back into the more conservative stance. It shows that I’m unpredictable, too.
I don’t get nervous that often, but when I do it’s as though I’m locked up and I get stiff. The high-kick helps with this, like right before I going in to do a big major, mega, mega pitch, I do a high-kick right as I’m about to open the door to the meeting room. It brings this energy circulating in the body and makes me very confident, yes. I like it. It gives me joy. You should try it. Everyone should.
Entrepreneur: What’s the craziest sale you’ve ever pulled off?
Eklund: My very first sale, an apartment on West 20th street in New York City, was a very important one because I was brand new to this city. I didn’t really know anyone. I didn’t know the language. It wasn’t like I pretended I had experience. It was just like the client never asked me and I obviously wasn’t going to point out that I was fresh off the shrimp boat, is my joke. I hitched a ride from Sweden and I didn’t have millions and billions of closed sales behind me. So to walk that thin ice and to be personal and to be me, to complete that first sale, which at the time was a record-breaking transaction, was a big win. It was my biggest sale still to date, not in dollar volume but because it was so much fun and I got paid so much money — $16,000 — which was a lot of money for me. I picked up that paycheck and was like, “I cannot believe so much fun can also pay so much money.” That was the jump start of my career.
At the time, I was 25 and I didn’t have anything. I only had a pair of sneakers. After that, I bought a new pair of nice shoes. I actually did that transaction in my sneakers in the winter. I remember running to the other agent to give my offer because I was so afraid that it would disappear in cyberspace or get eaten by a fax. I ran over in the snow in those yellow sneakers and I handed the offer over in a folder. I’ll never forget it.
Entrepreneur: What’s your number one sales tip or trick, your go-to technique?
Eklund: I think it’s the most basic one, which is very easy to say and difficult to get to. It’s to be yourself. It sounds easy, but it took me years in real estate to fully integrate all of the sides of me and who I am and share me authentically with everyone. The show has been good for me in this area because it’s kind of forced me to be eccentric, colorful, happy, quirky — all of me — and being vulnerable in front of clients and the audience and crying. The more authentic to me I am, with all of the good and ugly, with all of the colors of the rainbow, the more successful I become.
Why authenticity is important is because in sales it’s all about trust. I think old-school tactics like the Three Cs of sales, pushy car salesman stuff doesn’t work any more, especially not if you’re selling a lifestyle or a dream, or millions or billions of dollars of real estate. People need to believe in you and trust you, so if you’re playing a role or hiding behind some sort of sales tactic it’s not going to stick with people. The first third of my book is all about how to do this, how to cultivate and bring out the best in you and share that in an honest way with the world.
In business, when you’re going into very serious transactions with someone, financial transactions, it’s important not to play a game or hide behind behind some made up identity. That gets very weird very quickly.
Entrepreneur: What’s the best way for a salesperson — or any business person, regardless of their industry — to immediately establish trust with a client?
Eklund: I make them see the person behind the salesman. My standard thought here, especially with big celebrities, because everything is pushed to the extreme when you’re working with with them, I try to think, if Jennifer Lopez, a client of mine…If she says, “Fredrik, I’d love to go to lunch with you,” which she did, I think, “Okay, this is just me and her talking.” If I can do that, then I’ve succeeded. That’s not her taking out a real estate agent. That’s her taking out hopefully a friend. That’s how you gain trust.
A more detailed tactic I have for establishing trust is pointing out the negative. Don’t just pour the buyer full of all of the amazing features and all of the positive information about how great this product or apartment or whatever you’re selling is, because a warning signal is going to go off in the buyers head. It’s like, “What is wrong here. Nothing is life is always amazing. Something’s got to be wrong.” So, proactively, before they’ve had a chance to think that, I point out a few minor defects or what could potentially be a problem for someone. Then I sort of wrap that in a nice package and then go back to maybe 80 or 90 percent more of the positive. That way, I’m trustworthy because I take in all of the information into consideration and share it. I’m careful not to neglect the bad stuff.
Entrepreneur: It sounds like you’re saying be completely 100 percent honest with your clients? Hold nothing back. But you’d think it would potentially hurt sales to highlight the negative right off the bat, right?
Eklund: Well, completely honest, yes and no, because you have a job and you want to hit the highest price, especially if you’re in sales, but you don’t ever want to lie. Still, you have to create urgency and you have to bend, especially time and how we perceive time and really create this need in people. So, on complete honesty with clients, why I’m hesitant to say yes is, well, it’s such a subjective thing anyway. I feel like I would give people a disservice if I started pouring my own subjective feelings about something into an apartment listing. It’s my job to lift up what’s really amazing and, not completely neglect, but downsize or turn down the negative stuff, regardless of how I feel. I detach myself from product.
Entrepreneur: What’s the toughest challenge you’ve faced in business so far and how did you overcome it?
Eklund: For a long time I was really scared of failing. I think as humans, as entrepreneurs, as business people, as anyone successful, you’re obviously never going to want to fail. Nobody wants to fail. But we have to stop being so damn afraid that it makes you locked up and not taking any action or expanding or renewing or trying new projects. I think that’s the biggest reason why people don’t change industries or change jobs or start that new company or take that new position. We hold ourselves back because we’re so blind or so scared of that potential failure.
So, these days, I try to, and once again this is easier said than done, but I try to analyze my own thinking when I’m about to start a new project or company or venture. I dissect where this fear is coming from. When I feel I it, it’s almost like [Eklund makes a soft, repeating alarm-like sound]. An indicator goes off in my head. I try to move towards it and lean into the fear.
We get really scared when we’re about to fail. But once you fail, you’re like, “Oh, okay. It’s not so bad. It was all in my head.” Then we acknowledge our failure and then it vaporizes and it’s gone. It’s the same with bad relationships. Over time, you think, “It didn’t work out. That’s not so bad after all.”
Entrepreneur: You’ve come quite a ways from wearing tattered yellow sneakers in the snow. Now you’re dressed to kill day and night, in expensive, tailored suits that you say give you “magical powers.” Even your socks, which you’ve taken some heat for from your colleagues, make an unforgettable statement. How much of your look is all you and how much of it is a stylist?
Eklund: I’ve never had a stylist. I’ve never had a designer. I always pick my own clothes out. Sometimes I have an epic failure, like when I look at the show and I’m like, “What the hell was I thinking?!” But, once again, no one’s perfect. We all fail. It comes from me. The first season I got a lot of flack on social media because I was wearing a knitted sweater that has two reindeers. People were making fun of me. It was obviously a very Swedish-looking or Scandinavian, Norwegian-looking sweater.
It doesn’t matter what people think, though. Wear what makes you feel good anyway. What’s you. Then, maybe like the high kick, you want to turn it up a little bit, just because it’s you and it’s fun and own it. Make it memorable. For example, if you love wearing a T-shirt, and that’s all you want to wear, well, then wear that. Walk into a meeting and talk about that T-shirt. I don’t think anybody in this day and age has a problem with it if you really explain and own it and make fun of yourself a little bit. A suit and tie is not the end-all-be-all of dressing for success. Definitely not.
Entrepreneur: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs hoping to make as a huge a killing in the cutthroat real estate business as you have?
Eklund: My number one tip for when you are new in real estate is to start working with a team. That’s a big mistake that I made. I was by myself and I lost a lot of time trying to learn this business. If you’re new to a city or to real estate I would find the number one-grossing team in your area and ask them to train you for free basically. You would assist in getting coffee and sit in their boardroom like a sponge and attract and suck up all of the experience and information in the room, decades of knowledge. What we do is really hard to learn in school. It’s about reading people and it’s about the nuances of negotiation and body language and creating urgency and the unification of all of these moving parts. All of that you can’t get by yourself. If you go it alone at first, you’ll lose five years, like I did.
Entrepreneur: What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Eklund: I’ve gotten so much, but one that stands out is to take five years to become successful, rather to be good at anything. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, it takes five years, like learning French. Most people quit something or change after three-and-a-half or four, four-and-a-half years. But if you stick it out longer than that, something finally clicks. It did for me after the fifth year of real estate, like “Wow, boom!”
Bottom line, regardless of what you do, you need five years under your belt before you can say if a job or a career is for you or not.