Reflections on the Laguna Summit

By Matt Burk

Matt reflects on the successful fourth rendition of the SBRE Investment Summit Laguna Beach.

Rock Jetty Sunrise

In July of 2014 on our flight home to Portland from an east coast family office conference, a conference like so many others with which we were utterly disillusioned and disappointed, Darris Cassidy and I wondered aloud why there wasn’t an event that truly delivered what we were looking for.

As a non-institutional sized real estate asset based fund manager needing to raise capital consistently and repeatedly in order to execute on our business model (the very definition of an SBRE entrepreneur), we had attended dozens of diverse conferences, events, and gatherings whose value proposition was ostensibly to connect sponsors/fund managers with investors in search of the Holy Grail.

Unfortunately, none of them ever really came close to meeting our expectations, which became increasingly modest as each successive event failed to produce any investors who seemed to have any real interest in even having meaningful dialog about investing with us, let alone in actually making an investment.

This is absolutely not to say that these events did not have some value – education, networking with other industry people and service providers, staying current on market trends, etc. They did and they do. But when it came to initiating and fostering relationships between fund managers and actual investors and facilitating real interaction between them, it just flat out never happens.

What we discovered is that unless you manage a half billion dollar or more sized fund, or you want to run a managed account, there really just aren’t any investors at these events who are remotely interested in discretionary small balance real estate funds.

On that long plane flight home, we talked about the shortcomings of these events for SBRE entrepreneurs and the types of things we’d do if we were organizing something that delivered what we really wanted and needed.

Instead of bringing some paid employee of a multi-billion dollar pension fund, family office, or gigantic hedge fund to be there as an “investor”, we would bring the actual people with their own money to invest who are genuinely interested in small balance real estate funds.

Instead of boring and repetitive panel sessions with paying sponsors repeatedly discussing overlapping topics all day long, we would provide deep, meaningful content that directly addressed practical, real world issues and challenges for both managers and investors.

Instead of a mish-mash of fund managers from every investment strategy under the sun and no particular focus on any one thing, we would focus exclusively on the unique characteristics of small balance real estate asset-based funds.

Instead of crappy continental breakfasts, mediocre lunches, and a brief cocktail hour followed by no dinner, there would be top notch food, fine wine and spirits; all-included in the conference price.

In fact, instead of allowing (even forcing) fund managers to fend for themselves for dinner each night, losing what we think is the best time to actually get to know investors, we would host an organized dinner event every night where these real investors would sit side by side eating, drinking and opening themselves up to meaningful conversation with fund managers.

Instead of leaving everyone on their own to get to the event in a random cab or rental car, we’d arrange for fund managers and investors to be picked up from the airport and share rides together on their way in to create a connection from the moment they hit the ground.

Instead of having the only opportunity for fund managers to talk about what they do being either on a panel session (where they even really talk about their fund) or at their booth next to some law firm or technology service provider, we would give each fund manager 20 minutes on stage to talk specifically and directly about their fund, their strategy, their team, their returns, and what makes them unique in front of 100 or more actual, bona fide investors.

Instead of hoping investors will engage with fund managers, we’d promote, encourage and facilitate open, mutually respectful communication throughout the whole event. In fact, we’d supply investors with assigned, hand-held electronic devices to easily indicate interest in the funds they like and then capture their contact information and provide it directly to the respective fund managers to enable them to engage together both at and after the event.

Instead of letting the fund manager just give their live presentation and then have it be lost and gone forever, we’d film the presentation, capture it on video, and provide a professionally edited and polished version of it to the presenters so they could repurpose and reuse it in other marketing efforts. Maybe we’d even live stream it on the web to other interested investors who couldn’t make it there in person.

The event would be invitation only, for both investors and fund managers, so we could help ensure the quality, the mix, and the chemistry of the people to maximize value for everyone.

Yes, wouldn’t that be great if something like this existed? Alas, it did not. We knew that there are a lot of other fund managers, syndicators, private lenders, and other SBRE entrepreneurs out there with the same frustrations we had with other events who would love it. And it sure seemed like it would also be very appealing to high net worth investors and even certain family offices, registered investments advisors, and other non-institutional investors who were actually interested in learning more about and investing in this space.

There are just so many quality funds and fund managers that are too small for institutional money but that can and do produce very attractive, risk-adjusted returns in all types of real estate asset based strategies.

Yet both they and their ideal target audience investors have no forum like this to bring them together for mutual benefit. Why couldn’t there be an event where the investors were real, not someone working for someone else, where they are not someone else in disguise, and where they actually wanted to talk to fund managers? Why couldn’t an environment be created that encouraged – or even required – those investors to engage with fund managers in a mutually respectful and considerate way? Why couldn’t someone take the things that worked from different events and formats, discard the ones that didn’t, and combine them together in a new way that delivered value and benefit to fund managers and investors at every step along the way?

Before we landed, we decided that there could and should be such an event and that since no one else was likely to create one any time soon, we might as well do it ourselves. So we did.

Less than four months later, in October 2014, we held our first Small Balance Real Estate (SBRE) Investment Summit in Seattle WA. Boy, was that first event HARD to put together. Getting people to come required explaining to them what it was upfront and convincing them of the value. No one had ever heard of such an event before because, of course, no such event existed.

Making it pencil out financially was not easy either as getting fund managers to pay more money to come and present than they paid to attend other events, regardless of how incomparable they really were, was also challenging. Getting bona fide investors to come listen to the content and mix and mingle with the managers was equally problematic as they had no idea what to compare it to either.

We decided a high profile keynote speaker would be a draw so we hired the NFL’s all-time leader rusher (who also happens to now be a real estate guy), Emmitt Smith, to highlight our event. We took a very big leap of faith, put our you-know-whats on the line, and went for it. We hustled like crazy for four months, filled it up with fund managers and syndicators, and did everything we could think of to convince investors it would be worth their time to come and check it out.

The things we thought would work did work, better than we imagined, and the event blew people away. I had multiple people who attended that first event tell me it was the single best event they had ever been to in their life.

Before we had even held the Seattle event, we had already booked our 2015 venue in Dallas for the following October, then over a year away. But the success and euphoria of Seattle was so strong and palpable that we decided we didn’t want to wait an entire year to have another one. We quickly decided we would host one in the spring of 2015 and chose Scottsdale as our location, figuring the weather would be a draw that time of year.

We had learned a great deal from Seattle and made several improvements in Scottsdale, including hosting the event at a luxury destination and encouraging investors to bring their spouses. That latter decision has since proven to be one of the most powerful components of the event as it allows investors, both husbands and wives, to attend together in a comfortable, resort type environment and to directly meet the managers with whom they might invest (as well as other people like them who are doing the same). Having both parties there significantly increases the trust factor and accelerates the decision making process.

Investors who had come to Seattle and loved the event told their high net worth friends (birds of a feather flock together) about how much value and enjoyment they got out of the event and we encouraged them to invite those people. The quality and quantity of investor grew significantly as a result. Fund managers also quickly recognized the differentiating value of the event and word spread in the SBRE entrepreneur community, and we were able to attract a very solid lineup of presenting managers with a nice mix of repeat and new. Magic Johnson highlighted the final evening and the atmosphere was absolutely electric. And Scottsdale blew Seattle away. It was now on the map and people began to really understand the power of the formula.

Six short months later in October 2015 we repeated the process again with our third event in Dallas, and it got even better. More and more investors requested invitations and brought their friends, making it a very attractive and social environment. Fund managers responded equally enthusiastically and we produced another quality mix of repeat and new presenters to fill the roster and we sold out the slots.

We bought out one of Dallas’ best restaurants on Thursday night and served amazing food and wine to investors and fund managers who dined, drank, and talked side by side with one another all evening long.

We brought more than 100 ever higher caliber investors to learn about SBRE fund investments and watch 17 presentations by fund managers from all over the United States. I interviewed President George W. Bush on stage the final evening after another formal dinner with investors and fund managers talking and interacting throughout. And Dallas topped Scottsdale. I had several investors in their 60s and 70s tell me it was one of the most memorable evenings of their life. The formula was working beautifully.

Two weeks ago in Laguna Beach CA, we held our fourth SBRE Investment Summit in less than 20 months. We had 50% more investors than we had in Dallas, the event completely sold out, and it was the best one yet, by far (expressed by many investors and fund managers alike). I could never have imagined just under two years ago when we conceived of the event how powerful and popular the formula would become.

I suppose it is owed to the fact that it is specifically designed to cater to the genuine needs and desires of each of the important constituents in the equation – high net worth investors and SBRE fund managers and entrepreneurs – and every decision and detail about what to do and not to do is made in that light.

The Summit has quickly become the key live event for a community of SBRE entrepreneurs and investors and sometimes already feels like a reunion of people who have known each other for years. Because it is so much effort to put together, and our business is NOT putting on events, we decided that doing two per year is just too much work. Our next one will be in Del Mar (San Diego) CA next April.

We already have commitments for nearly half the presenting fund managers and several dozen investors. I am 100% sure the event will sell out and I can tell already that we will have to decide how much we will allow it to grow, balancing the competing desires of keeping the atmosphere close and intimate and building a larger and larger community of SBRE entrepreneurs and investors. It is a nice problem to have.

I share all of this for two reasons. First, creating and hosting these SBRE Investment Summit events has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my career. The value we have been able to provide and the feedback I have received has been overwhelming. We saw a need, had a vision of how to address that need, and have since been able to successfully execute that vision in a way that far exceeded our expectations. This is, of course, very satisfying.

Second, even though our initial objective was to help SBRE entrepreneurs (ourselves included) raise more capital, the primary outcome of these events has been to create and foster a growing community – the SBRE community of investors and entrepreneurs. Although people frequently talk about community building, they are typically referencing a “community” that exists only online and the members of these “communities” never actually meet one another face-to-face. The burgeoning SBRE community is unique because it exists both on-line and, as a result of the Summits, in person.

One of the primary responsibilities of being a engaged community member is to help maintain and grow the community of which one is a part. For the benefit of the entire community, my request to both investors and SBRE entrepreneurs is that you continue to tell others about small balance real estate.

We have developed to be the on-line gathering place for this community—a space where interested parties on both sides of the equation can go to learn more about the SBRE space. The more this happens, the more capital will flow into the space and the more strong managers will use the community to present opportunities to that capital. Similarly, the higher caliber investors and managers we are able to attract to our summit events and to, the stronger our true community will become and the greater the benefits everyone who attends will receive.

In short, if you have attended one of our Summit events, please consider whether you know other investors or potential presenters who might benefit from attending the next one. Please also use as a way to learn more about the community and to introduce it to others. If you haven’t attended a Summit, consider joining us next April. If you haven’t logged on to, do so today and see what it has to offer. I believe that the rewards and success of both investors and SBRE entrepreneurs will be meaningfully enriched as the result of spending time in this community. I look forward to continue to be a part of it alongside all of you!

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