How I Made It John Burns, real estate guru

IRVINE, CALIF. -- TUESDAY, MAY 16, 2017: Profile on John Burns, chief executive of John Burns Real

John Burns is chief executive of John Burns Real Estate Consulting, an Irvine company that provides research and business advice to home builders across the country. The firm has hundreds of clients nationwide.

Burns describes his job as running around and talking to a lot of “insanely smart people all the time.” The 54-year-old then takes knowledge gleaned from industry leaders, small contractors and economic data and figures out where the housing market is headed.

Burns makes his money by selling that knowledge to clients. Those who’ve signed up for the research include major home builders like Lennar Corp. and single-family rental companies like Invitation Homes.

A failed start

Burns originally had no desire to go into real estate. Instead, he wanted to build a business in the late 1980s based on fantasy baseball or, as it was then called, “rotisserie” baseball after a restaurant where its founders came up with the idea.

Today, fantasy sports are multibillion-dollar industry. But before the Internet became widely available, players tracked down stats from the newspaper and manually calculated how well their roster did each week.

Burns thought he could improve on that system, using his computer knowledge to download stats and craft formulas that would automatically churn out results.

But it failed spectacularly. The main mistake? Marketing the product to fellow students at UCLA and others across the country, Burns says.

“I just didn’t know what I was doing,” Burns says. “I learned the hard way students don’t have a lot of money and they also don’t trust a company they never heard of.”

An ‘accident’

With the fantasy baseball business in ruins, Burns finished business school at UCLA and got a job as a consultant at KPMG. Then what Burns calls an “accident” changed his career trajectory.

“I am there three months and they reorganize the company by industry and my boss picks real estate. So I ended up in real estate.”

Though Burns says he had “no passion” for real estate, he quickly found one. He says he found it fascinating how companies, particularly home builders, made big investments while doing little research to back up those bets.

In 1997, he left KPMG to join a local real estate data company where he did consulting for home builders. In 2001, he struck off on his own, hoping for better result than his first time as an entrepreneur.

“I got a bad taste in my mouth after doing it one time,” he says. “But I wanted to come back and do it again.”