A Tampa CEO’s ‘ideal’ solution to an imperfect process

Raise your hand if you think the home buying and -selling process is a headache. 

Ever stayed where you were for too long because the thought of enduring the move and all the “moving” parts that go with it was just too daunting? 

That’s where Ideal Agent comes in. The Tampa-based company, established by Steve Johnston in 2016, uses the latest technology to make the home selling and homebuying process less stressful. By using the best in the business, the process, from start to finish, is made easier and, yes, will cost you less in the long run. 

The fast-growing company has the numbers to back it up. In 2021, the company sold 8,000 homes, valued at $3.2 billion, and locked in $15 million in revenue. In 2022, that revenue number will more than double, with expectations closer to the $40 million mark. 

Johnston, a man of many ideas, has even bigger plans up his sleeve. 

Johnston was born in West Palm Beach in 1971. He was the firstborn to his parents. His father was an entrepreneur, and his mother was in real estate. He has a younger sister. Johnston’s parents divorced when he was 7 years old. 

He moved to Delray Beach, to live with his mother, following the divorce. 

“I got pulled out of my environment,” he says. “It was tough. It was very tough on all of us.” 

It was a hard age to relocate, move to a new town, a new school and leave all his friends. 

Johnston asks not to go into too many details, but he shares he had adversity at home and at school, challenges that made him feel like he didn’t really have a safe place to be. 

He emphasizes that his mother did a good job trying to provide for him. “She was strong,” he adds. 

His mother being a real estate agent meant that Johnston was raised with exposure to the industry. 

“A lot more work went into it back then. I used to go around with her and show houses on the weekends and do open houses, I even helped put the signs in the yard. I remember doing that when I was a kid. And, so, I grew up around it. So that’s how I got introduced to real estate sales at an early age.” 

Taking a page out of dad’s entrepreneurial-minded playbook, Johnston also had an inquisitive streak. 

“I was always trying to figure stuff out, I was always the kid breaking my toys, not always putting them back together, but breaking [stuff] to see how it worked,” he says. 

Johnston ended up following in the footsteps of both of his parents, to some degree, eventually in life. But more on that later. 

He attended a Catholic high school which, if you can imagine, in Boca Raton in the 1990s was a little like Beverly Hills 90210. 

“I parked my Hyundai in between a Ferrari and a Jaguar convertible. Everyone in Boca had a lot of money,” he says. “I knew that if I wanted that I had to work hard in life to get that. But it was always enticing to see that side. And so, I knew that I had to be driven. Nothing came easy.”

Overall, he says some of the negative aspects of his early life had a profound impact on who he later became, as an adult. 

“The things that were bad in my life that I had said I’ll never do that to my kids or my wife, and those negative impacts turned into a very positive experience for me because I learned what I didn’t want,” Johnston says. “It actually helped me. There’s a silver lining in everything, depending on your perspective.” 

When it came time for college, Johnston was ready to leave South Florida for a different lifestyle. He was accepted to the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida. His then-ex-girlfriend was headed to UCF, so USF became his school of choice. 

And he is so grateful he made that choice. 

“I love Tampa. South Florida is like a different planet,” he says. “I come up here and everyone is nice. And I’m like, I love this place. I told my mom; I was never coming home.”

At USF, he became the president of his fraternity. 

“It was enlightening because I had never led anything before,” he says. “It got me speaking in front of people. It had a significant impact on me being a leader.”

His major was political science, with the goal of being an attorney. Meanwhile, he cut his teeth in the hospitality industry at a bustling chain restaurant, called Hops. “It was a great learning experience, but I wasn’t cut out for it,” he says with a laugh. 

One of his first businesses, after college, was a roof cleaning company. “At first I was like, wait; people need to clean their roofs?” he says. 

He made a trip to Sam’s Club and purchased a pressure cleaner. Then he bought a van. He would go door-to-door, offering to pressure wash people’s roofs at their home. He called it Pressure King and that business turned into a multimillion-dollar company. 

During this time, he also moved into the consumer finance space, eventually starting his own firm, Johnston and Johnston Financial, which evolved into a large mortgage company. 

He ended up selling his pressure cleaner business when the mortgage business took off, at the time, he had changed its name to Crown Systems. This was during the refinance boom in the early 2000s. 

He brought on his sister to work at the financial services business and then added title services. It was producing so well it even caught the attention of Chris Sullivan, one of the founders of Outback Steakhouse. Sullivan put $5 million into Johnston’s business. 

“We were just crushing it,” Johnston says. 

And then, in 2006, almost overnight. Things came to a screeching halt. 

“It was just complete silence, almost overnight. I did everything in my power to try to save it and I just couldn’t. It was very humbling. We were riding high, and it was like someone turned the spigot off, everything was swept out from underneath us in a snap,” Johnston says. 

Johnston bounced back, both figuratively and literally, with his next venture. 

“I opened trampoline parks, of all things,” he says with a laugh. 

Called Airheads, the concept was a family fun place with food, an arcade and, yes, trampolines. 

The issue with trampolines? People can get hurt. And when that happened, insurance got involved and all kinds of rules had to be put in place to prevent injury and harm to the business. It literally took the fun out of it. 

“This was supposed to be a happy place, but the [injury] part I couldn’t fix,” he says. “We had to be like, ‘No flipping.’ Well, people were coming to a trampoline park to flip.”

He sold that business in 2016. The last hurrah, if you will, before launching Ideal Agent. 

“It was a godsend because they are no longer open, COVID shut them down. I was on the right side of a move, for once,” he says. 

Ideal Agent was born out of the idea that the home selling process could be made more efficient. Currently, the company serves as a “concierge” service. From finding a top real estate agent to setting up your home security in the new home, Ideal Agent can handle all of it (and does it at a prenegotiated, variable commission saving you thousands of dollars in the process.

Moving into a new home, or a new city, should not be one of the most stressful things a person has to endure. 

“The original idea was called ‘Commission Compete.’ We would have eight real estate agents bid on a listing we’d sold. We would get a range from 1% to 2.5%. And it was a train wreck of a business model like it was. It did not work,” Johnston says. 

He knew there was a winning idea here but had to flesh it out a bit. 

“I thought, maybe there is something where you could charge a referral fee. We were one of the first ones that started doing a referral fee in the business where they would pay us upon succeeding, closing on the house. And that was a game changer for us, we took 25% of the sale. Today, we take 35% of the success fee, basically,” Johnston says. “Now realtor.com and Zillow, everyone, is doing that now. So, it’s a game changer in the business.”

Ideal Agent has high standards on the agents and businesses they bring on board as their “agents.”

“That’s another thing that transformed our business, honing in on who the best is and only working with the best,” Johnston says. “That strategy has also been game-changing for our business, because you have less problems and you get better results.” 

So, what’s next for the real estate meets technology meets one-stop shop Tampa company that has commercials running nationally? 

A major deal with an investment bank will take Ideal Agent to the next stage of growth, Johnston says. “We have some amazing things going for us right now, in this market,” he says. 

And then there’s Johnston’s big, hairy goal. “My bucket list item is an IPO,” he says. With the tenacity of Johnston, chances are, he will get it. 

In the meantime, he’s content working hard and enjoying the moments with his wife and three children. 

“Everyone is healthy, the kids are in good schools and we eat well,” he says. “What else can you ask for? Life is good.” 

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