Meet The Women of The Blockchain: Heather James of Cook & James

“Cultivate solid relationships and hold people accountable. Solid, long lasting relationships are built on authenticity and accountability. A friendship I made at the beginning of my career — a good friendship — resulted in our biggest client in 2010. And they’re still with us today, eight years later. Another quick example is that until our current expansion and marketing phase, all our business has been built on relationships. You don’t experience long term success if those aren’t solid relationships.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather James, half of the powerhouse duo that founded the real estate attorney firm of Cook & James in 2006. The firm, 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. Heather saw this unmet need in the industry for this over-and-above customer service experience and, with hard work, chutzpah and being attentive to technology and trends, fashioned a successful and creative business model. Today, Cook & James has completed more than 120,000 closings not only in their headquarters state of Georgia, but also in Connecticut, New York and South Carolina.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I was working at a small firm doing workers comp and personal injury law, when I met my now business partner, Kara Cook. We decided we wanted to open a firm of our own based on our vision of what a law firm could be. One day on a whim, I called a friend in the mortgage business to see if I could do some closings for him, not entirely thinking real estate was where I’d ultimately land, but just researching any way to make a few dollars. He said “yes” and I was out of there. I literally pulled my diplomas off the wall, packed up my stuff, left my key on the desk and walked out.

Perhaps not the wisest move in history, but I’m a voracious reader and I devoured everything I could get my hands on to learn the ins and outs of real estate law — all through the lens of “what’s missing” and “how can we do this better?” Kara, and I are incredibly hard workers and we drove that one connection as far as we could stretch it. Within six months we had solidified a working relationship with the largest title company and one of the largest mortgage lenders in the country at that time. We made ourselves mobile because we saw a huge opportunity the traditional firms were leaving on the table. We literally worked so hard that we’d do closings up until midnight because that’s what the market dictated at the time. But it did not matter, it was our baby and we were happy.

Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

We are in an exciting season of expansion right now. In 2017, it became clear to us that to continue to grow, we had to further reinforce our already solid infrastructure. We had perfected “at-home” refinances over the 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 community of realtors, and to be successful on the scale we wanted, we needed to do it right: market and brand ourselves to this expanded audience. It could no longer happen organically as in our early years.

We hired a branding specialist who challenged us to further define our firm to offer laser sharp communication to 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 preparation, we unveiled a new logo and a relaunched website earlier 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 not only our creativity but the fundamental connection 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 it’s our favorite color.

“At-home” closings are the sweet spot we developed over the past 12 years. Now, with this expansion, we are scaled for continued success by marketing ourselves differently and pushing out of our comfort zone. We still keep the positive customer experience at the forefront of what we do 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 marketing tactics. We are staffing up, adding new sales and marketing team members, and creating new office spaces to continue our forward momentum.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

For me, it’s a dual component. I stand on my parents’ shoulders because they are the giants who taught me about ethics and morals and made me who I am today. But my husband was instrumental in my Cook & James success. It was only four months after our first date that I walked out of that job. I was immediately filled with self-doubt and had frequent “holy crap” moments. But, instead of looking at me like a total nut case, he solidly and completely believed in me. It was his support — him saying, “you got this, you can do it” — that fueled my courage to keep moving forward. He’s one of my biggest champions and we’ve always had each other’s back. We celebrate our 10-year anniversary this year.

What are the 5 things that most excite you about blockchain and crypto? Why?

#1 — Security. Blockchain is far more secure than any other data stream. Each of the items below more thoroughly explain how secure it is but, essentially, since the entire record is validated and never deleted you can see the entire history of the chain. A new block just becomes a part of the story once it is validated.

#2 — Transparency. Anyone can download the blockchain and become part of the network. This allows blockchain to be a distributed system with no central authority.

#3 — The rules are fair. In order for a piece of data to be validated and become a part of the blockchain, the vast majority of nodes have to agree that, not only is the data true, but the order of occurrence is also true. All data is looked at equally and treated accordingly. If the vast majority do not agree then the data is invalidated.

#4 — No single point of failure. The data is stored across the network, again removing centralized points of vulnerability. The computing power needed to override the entire network is staggering, thus more security.

#5 — Trust. You have to trust that the nodes are all individuals. Right now, in my industry, you enter the courthouse, a clerk physically stamps the closing documents and it’s recorded. But blockchain is built around trust: as long as you trust each block in the chain actually represents an individual (as it does), the blockchain works.

What are the 5 things worry you about blockchain and crypto? Why?

Interestingly and ironically, many of my concerns are quite similar to those features I mentioned that excite me about the technology! I suppose that’s the nature of cutting edge ideas.

#1 — Security. At some point, there will be a handful of conglomerates who have the computing power to corrupt the system. There have been a lot more mergers of huge corporations lately. The time of the robber barons may be returning. I’m cautious that those big entities will have the resources to develop the computing power capable of overriding the network.

#2 — Trust. The very essence of blockchain is trust. Like I said before, if you don’t trust a block is an individual, the whole thing breaks down. If you don’t have trust, it fails. This is one feature that falls squarely on both ends of the spectrum at this point in the blockchain evolution.

#3 — The unknown. People by nature are distrustful of what they don’t understand. Blockchain is completely new and people are naturally hesitant of the unknown. But with research and learning, I believe it will become more and more familiar. Just like online banking was a slow adoption until people became more comfortable and familiar, I believe blockchain will follow a similar trajectory.

#4 — Job loss. Middle men are vital to so many of our systems. If our property records, for example, were only recorded in blockchain, we would no longer need clerks in the courthouse. Government employees and anyone who does any form of record keeping may fall victim to blockchain. We must to be nimble and creative to not get left behind. Robots replaced humans in the manufacturing industry; in the new world of blockchain it will be algorithms.

#5 — Difficult to understand. Blockchain is definitely a concept that’s hard to wrap your head around. People can grasp a distributed ledger system, but when the ledger is out there digitally and being validated by unknown people, the waters muddy and comprehension falters. In time, it will be useful for all sorts of things like the stock exchange, voting and property records, but we are not there yet and won’t be until understanding is more prevalent.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?

Two years ago, I started a non-profit foundation to curate kindness, the James-Staniszewski Foundation (Richard Staniszewski is my husband). I’ve been using my success with Cook & James to fund the foundation. I’m still gathering data to pinpoint the exact mission (I plan for this to be my second life), but right now I don’t want to narrow the scope too much and thus prevent growth. I think it will be more hands on and resource-driven than educational, but I really don’t want to limit myself at this point.

I am inspired by Elon Musk and how he uses his power for good in the world. I want to give back and leave the world a better place and I think kindness is the vehicle to deliver this mission.

My concept is that you don’t have to agree with someone to show kindness. Especially now, social media has polarized people and I see much UN-kindness in our world. We know too much about each other and, behind our screens, we feel emboldened to attack the religious, political and sexual beliefs of another. Knowing these differences is driving us apart as people, I believe we can reverse the tide to learn from and even celebrate each other’s differences — if we’d just practice kindness.

I’m raising a young daughter and I want her to know kindness and be kind. Together we paint rocks with positive, kind messages and hide them for strangers to find. I always try to show her how to give a little extra when I interact with people — something as simple as putting my shopping cart back. Whether or not you agree with a person, support a specific cause, or look different, kindness is always helpful. Once I get beyond my “worker bee” years and can devote more energy, I believe A Kindness Project will be an agent for change.

What 3 things would you advise to someone who wanted to emulate your career? Can you share an example for each idea?

#1 — Be willing to take risks (aka “have big balls”!). Nothing great ever comes without risk. Put your fears aside and do it anyway. My husband encouraged me through the early time of Cook & James and I emerged a stronger, more successful person.

#2 — Don’t quit. Babe Ruth was spot on when he said, “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” Life offers ups and downs; get a big client and you’re ready to throw a party but sure as anything, a low will follow. You. Just. Can. Not. Stop. For Cook & James, we formed the firm in 2006 and had just hit our stride when the market crashed in 2007. There was literally no money to be had. But we just kept moving forward. It’s just as easy to quit when things are good as when they’re bad. But never stop.

#3 — Cultivate solid relationships and hold people accountable. Solid, long lasting relationships are built on authenticity and accountability. A friendship I made at the beginning of my career — a good friendship — resulted in our biggest client in 2010. And they’re still with us today, eight years later. Another quick example is that until our current expansion and marketing phase, all our business has been built on relationships. You don’t experience long term success if those aren’t solid relationships.

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 just see this :-)

As I mentioned earlier, I’m inspired by 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.