“Let Youth Work for You” The 5 Lessons I Learned Being a 20-Something Founder

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kara Cook and Heather James, the powerhouse duo that founded the real estate attorney firm of Cook & James in 2006 when they were each only 26 years old. Cook & James, now 20+ people strong, serves a unique need in the real estate industry with “at-home” closings: they bring the closing to the client where ever is most convenient. We decided to do this Q&A with both founders because, like they say on their website: “History is full of feisty female duos that team up and take on the world…but none pair up quite like Kara and Heather. And it’s quite possible that more than a few clients aren’t quite sure which is which, but that’s okay.”

Jean: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory” of how you become a founder?

Heather: I hired Kara as my legal intern in 2005 while I was working at a small firm doing workers comp and personal injury law. We immediately hit it off personally, became fast friends and daydreamed about how cool it would be if we had our own firm. We had long since realized that the typical culture of a law firm did not resonate with us. With eerily similar work (and life) ethics, a heavy dose of humor and an odd mixture of kindness and snark we decided we would just do it. With less vision and more guts than we had any right to have, we played rock, paper scissors to see whose name got to go first. Clearly, I suck at that game.

Then, one day, I called a friend in the mortgage business to see if we could do some closings for him, not entirely thinking real estate was where we’d land, but just researching anything we could do to make a few dollars. He said “sure” and I was out of there.

Kara: She’s not kidding. She literally pulled her diplomas off the wall, packed up her stuff, left her key on the receptionist’s desk and walked out.

Heather: To be fair, it is a very long story how it came to that point. I had $1,200 to my name and that’s exactly what I needed for rent. I didn’t even have money for food.

Kara: Even though I was eager to go with her, I knew I’d feel bad if both of us left at the same time. So, I stuck it out another two months working part time while Heather and I hustled full time and learned everything we could about real estate law.

Heather: Working 24/7 (and all major holidays) we worked that one connection as far as we could stretch it. Within six months we had solidified a working relationship with the largest title and settlement company and one of the largest mortgage lenders in the country. We learned how to work with other attorneys and built our network with like-minded people.

Kara: It was incredibly organic at first. We closed loans at people’s houses because we saw this opportunity the traditional firms were leaving on the table. We literally worked so hard that we’d do closings up until midnight because the mortgage boom dictated that schedule. We were so young and hungry, we didn’t know this wasn’t “normal.” Failure was not an option.

Looking back, we were too naïve to know what we didn’t know. But that is the brilliant part about doing things like this when you are young — you can be fearless and free and full of hope. You have a fresh and new perspective on well-established industries. In our 20-something minds, we simply saw a need in the real estate industry and figured out how to meet it.

Heather: In fact, just this summer at a conference we just ran into a friend that we worked with in those first crazy days but hadn’t seen in years. We were reminiscing and he told us, “you two were the ‘ballsiest’ 26-year-old attorneys I had ever seen.” That was a nice compliment.

Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Heather: When we launched, there were two, maybe three other companies offering mobile closings. We were able to take “at-home” closings to a new level and run with it because we’re not afraid of trying new ideas and figuring out how to make them work. Now we really own the space because we’re open to going the extra mile to make closings easy for our clients — we have some pretty crazy stories of going beyond the kitchen table and executing closings at gas stations, on pick-up truck tailgates and with pets on our lap.

Kara: I would add that, in addition to “at-home” closings, Cook & James is known for integrity and authenticity. Before we even knew what “corporate culture” was much less grasp its importance, we intuitively hired people with whom we could get along and whose ideas we respected. This has provided us longevity and a common code — something we call our “Canons” or the phrases that define our beliefs which shine through all our internal and external interactions. We like to think it’s because we fiercely abide by those Canons that each one of the first four people we hired are still with us.

Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?

Heather: I think our current season of expansion is really exciting. In 2017, it became clear to us that to continue to grow, we had to further reinforce our already solid infrastructure. We had been doing “at-home” refinances for years but we were getting more and more requests to take that solution to our purchase closings.

Historically we didn’t have a huge presence in the local community, having spent much of our career focused on national lenders, and to be successful on the scale we wanted, we needed to market and brand ourselves to this expanded local realtor audience. It could no longer happen organically as in our early years.

Kara: We hired a branding specialist who challenged us to further define ourselves so we could be successful with realtors, but not dilute our message or confuse our loyal refinance clients. Because attorneys are more highly regulated than other industries, we had to move deliberately and consult trusted experts.

After about eight months of planning and strategy, we unveiled a new logo and a relaunched website early this year. We got rid of our previous scales of justice logo not because we intended to be any less ruthlessly and expertly “legal,” but because the intertwined C and J better represented our fundamental connectivity to each other and to our clients. We retained the purple color because it combines the calm stability of blue and the fierce energy of red. And, purple is our favorite color.

Heather: “At-home” closings are the sweet spot we developed over 12 years of hard work. Now, with this expansion, we are scaled for continued success by marketing ourselves differently and pushing out of our comfort zone. We still keep our customers paramount and go to all the conferences and networking events, but are positioning ourselves more aggressively as industry thought leaders via our website blog, news links, media presence and creative tactics. We are staffing up, adding new sales and marketing team members, and creating new office spaces to continue our forward momentum.

Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

Heather: Well, I’m kind of a freak of nature because I read about two books a week. I read “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand in high school and it was the life changer for me. My daughter is even name Roark after the main character, Howard Roark, and a photo of the opening scene from that book has hung behind my desk for 17 years. To me, Rand’s books represent integrity and accountability. She was also a symbol of capitalism over communism as she fled Russia shortly after the 1917 revolution. Her ideals and her beautiful prose inspired my 16-year-old self and I feel set me on my current path.

Kara: She’s right, she devours books. In her bio, she claims if reading were an Olympic sport, she’d probably win gold. Me? I’m a normal reader. However, I’m proud to say the books I’m reading now are books that Heather has not yet read — yet!

Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a Twentysomething Founder” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

1 - Let youth work for you.

We are fond of saying we were “too young and stupid” to know any better but honestly, that youth worked in our favor. Neither of us were married at the time, had kids or any money, so we had nothing to lose. When you’re young, you don’t have the fears and don’t know it’s not “normal” to work 16–17 hour days. Youth was definitely the time to strike for us.

2 - You have to work harder than anyone else and eat what you kill.

You can’t think that because you’ll be working “for yourself” you’re going to work less; that’s just BS. When you don’t know all the rules, it’s not clear what you’re supposed to be doing. But the flip side of not having a clear roadmap is that you can blaze a new trail, carve out something no one else has created before. However, you do have to deal with the consequences, good or bad. Take our “at-home” closings — we literally worked until midnight closing for clients — we did not realize that wasn’t normally done and some would say we created a monster, but if so, we are happy it is our monster.

3 - Don’t let the slumps stop you (aka: don’t quit).

If you have a dream or a vision, don’t let the bad things get you down. Life will always happen, good or bad. If it’s good, do not rest on your success, keep trucking. If it’s bad, keep trucking. We started Cook & James in 2006 and in 2007 the market crashed. There was no money to be had. Nobody could get a loan and the lending completely halted. Huge companies went out of business. It was serious for us because we had just hit our stride, then our stride was broken. We got lean and mean and kept going. It took until 2010 and it was a rough three years, but we survived because not moving forward was just not an option for us. We epitomized the saying: “It’s really hard to beat someone who never quits.”

4 - Ponder your corporate culture, define it, and don’t waiver.

In our twenties we didn’t even know what company culture was. We were so young, but we were hiring people we liked and fit with our personalities. We figured we can always train them but first we have to enjoy and respect them and have that common ground. The other thing with corporate culture is you need to talk about it; a robust idea share only makes the culture that much more rich.

5 - Be authentic.

This means a few things: guard the reputation, make good relationships, but don’t be afraid to stand out and be yourself. Cook & James has been successful largely because of the first people we met in the industry. It was our relationships with each of those professionals who valued working with us, went on to different jobs, and continued our connection in the new capacity. Since we didn’t fall prey to the industry popularity contest at whatever cost, we cultivated professional contacts with whom we shared solid respect and good working relationships. This is harder to manage as your team gets larger but, honestly, I will say it helps that we’re a team that holds each other accountable. As we entered our expansion phase and developed our external face, we wanted our website to reflect the authentic us. It’s funny and snarky because that’s who we are. If someone doesn’t like our way, that client is probably not for us and sobeit. Stand out and don’t be afraid to be your authentic self.

Jean: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

Kara: Anthony Bourdain. I was completely heartbroken when he passed this summer. I respected his authenticity — he was himself all the time. He was able to meet and connect with people from all walks of life simply by sharing a meal and he brought the viewers right along with him. Anthony was an amazing storyteller and I admired his talent. I would have loved to share a meal with him

Heather: For me it is Elon Musk. He’s the real-life Batman and the world is his Gotham. He made his money and he could have checked out. Most people would have. Instead he decided to make the world a better place. He has come close to losing everything a couple of times because he put his private money into a project he believed in. I admire him as the kind of person who puts it all on the line to make the world a better place. I believe there are only a few visionaries in the world at any point in time and consider Musk one of them today. Hopefully, philanthropy will be my second life and I’d be thrilled to sit down with him and pick his brain.

Jean: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

— Published on June 27, 2018