Cindy Koebele started TitleSmart, Inc. in 2007, during the collapse of the housing bubble. Her intense focus on creating a positive customer experience turned TitleSmart into one of the Inc. 5000 fastest-growing private companies in America in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. Employees and colleagues alike count on Cindy’s frankness and generous nature.
A born observer of people, her curiosity contributes to her ability to find common ground with almost anyone. TitleSmart embodies Cindy’s mentality that closing on your house should be a positive, fun, and upbeat experience. The company is raising the bar for the level of service people should expect, and customers are taking notice.
In June 2015, Cindy was named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the Upper Midwest, further cementing her status as a powerhouse leader and entrepreneur. She also serves as the President of the Board of Directors for Spare Key, a nonprofit that provides housing grants to parents with seriously ill or critically-injured children.
In addition to her work at TitleSmart, Cindy is the author of Obsess to Success, a business book detailing how focusing on the customer experience can change the course of your business, as well as two children’s books, Puppa-na-wuppana: the Beagle with the Magical Nose and Puppa-na-wuppana: Living the Puppa-na-Life, based on the adventures of her family’s curious beagle.
How did the concept for TitleSmart come about?
After being in the real estate industry for over two decades, I saw a need in the market for a better escrow closing experience. I really believed in creating and maintaining a level of service that I didn’t see being offered on a consistent level by any of the title companies we interacted with. We’ve built our business on the concept that even though the title insurance and settlement process can be legalistic and overwhelming, we will never forget that the most important aspect is the people and how they feel when they’re working with us. Closing on your house should be fun!
How was the first year in business?
We decided to open our doors during what many now refer to as the worst possible time to open a business: a recession. TitleSmart opened in April of 2007, and it was a slower start than we anticipated, but we stayed focused on what we had to offer, and through persistence, we were able to grow our company from 3 staff members to over 85 in just over 11 years.
What was your marketing strategy?
Our main marketing strategy was to showcase that TitleSmart offers the absolute best in overall customer experience. We knew we could easily compete on customer experience, even when we couldn’t compete on price or company size. We were always on the lookout for innovative, positive ways to make our closings stand out. Some of the personal touches we incorporate are serving clients gourmet coffee and warm cookies, and giving away branded trinkets, from pizza cutters and mugs, to PopSockets and sewing kits.
An unwavering focus on creating a superior customer experience saw our company through one of the toughest times in our industry and left us with a loyal base of customers and a clear direction for the future.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
To be frank, we expected to be busier than we were during those first few years. We didn’t realize the housing bubble was about to burst. It was absolutely the worst time. Salary reductions and borrowing more capital for the business became necessary. There were even a few months when I thought, “This might not work.” But we always seemed to have just the right amount of what we needed. The next year got a little bit busier, and the year after that, 2009, we hit our stride and things just took off. We started in 2007 with 3 people and two locations and even though times were tough, we managed to add an additional branch office and move our main office by the third year. Today, we have over 85 total staff members and 7 locations (soon to be 8) and are closing over 10,000 real estate transactions each year with gross revenue of over $12,000,000 annually.
How do you define success?
Success is the knowledge that you have done everything humanly possible to reach your goals. Persistence and dedication to your craft will always take you far. It can be lonely at the top, so bring as many people with you and help them reach their goals too.
What is the key to success?
I don’t think there is one key to success as everyone defines success differently. For me, growth has always been one of my personal driving factors. I have not and will never settle with where I am in life. I believe that we all have areas where we can improve in both our personal and professional lives. And while we never can truly change, we can wake up each day and work on changing. I often tell people, “I don’t know how to not try to grow the business.” It’s the same concept that my Italian mother tells me about cooking: “I don’t know how to cook a small amount.”
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The absolute greatest lesson I have learned since opening my business is to not doubt my gut feeling. Any time I have looked back on something that didn’t work, I can remember having a gut feeling that it might not work and I ignored that feeling. On the reverse side, when I have listened to my gut feeling and moved ahead, I can attribute those successes to natural human gut instinct.
What are some of your favorite books?
I’m a book-alcoholic and prefer audio books and podcasts to utilize day-to-day downtime like driving, getting ready, or cleaning. One of my favorite authors is Grant Cardone and his book, Be Obsessed or Be Average. My absolute favorite quote from that book that I think about daily is, “Feed the beast and starve the doubt.” I even have this written up on the marker board in my office. Some mornings as I am driving to work, I will just go right to that chapter that talks about this concept for a refresher.
I’ve also written my own book, Obsess to Success, which highlights many of my self-proclaimed quotes that I live by: “When you feel your worst, dress your best” and “If I have to do your job, I want your money, too.”
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I can remember it like it was yesterday. One of my toughest days (was really a week rather) as an entrepreneur was when the entire staff in one of my branch locations quit and went to my competition. More than anything, I was just heartbroken as I pride myself on really connecting with my staff and taking care of them. I felt so personally betrayed and duped and also stupid at the same time. I did some real soul-searching and then dusted myself off and rebuilt that branch over the following year. I learned a lot about myself and others through that debacle. Something my husband always tells me when things like that happen: it might not seem clear now, but I will eventually come to realize that things happen for a reason and it will be clear.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I always know there are ways for one to learn and grow from adversity and that is what pushes me forward. I try not to focus on the mistakes, but rather use them as a tool to push myself to be better.
I also often find that adversity can create beautiful outcomes. When you are faced with a challenge, that is when creative problem solving and teamwork can blossom. Being open-minded during adversity can lead to outstanding results.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Focus on what makes you stand out from the competition and lean into it. Find where you can truly compete and make that the cornerstone of your marketing and sales efforts. Never stop innovating and brainstorming for new ideas. I just naturally spend hours each week combing through Pinterest and other sites looking for idea-inspiring concepts that my competition is not doing. If you are pushing yourself to be first to the market with an idea, your competition will never be able to catch up.
This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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