What can we learn from a thriving referral-based business? Get rid of expensive marketing tactics.

By: Sarah Dew Whitsett

What can we learn from a thriving referral based business? 

Get rid of expensive marketing tactics. 

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, a real estate agent made the choice to create a completely referral-based business. After 15 years of success, it could be a model for how we create successful businesses moving forward. 

Kat spends her days answering emails and phone calls from clients and potential clients. She is buzzing around her office making sure all of the information on a new listing is correct and later that day she is meeting the photographer. It’s a 750K home that will be hitting the market next month. Her focus is on getting great pictures, “It’s what makes all the difference these days.”

I asked her where this client came from and she said it was a referral from a past client. She quickly rattled off their house, where it was, the fact that it had a gorgeous updated kitchen, what it sold for, and the fact that they had two adorable dogs. It was clear that she had great relationships with all of her clients. 

Kat has built a thriving real estate business. Her current sales volume is 30 million a year which makes her take home well into the 6 figures. We chatted briefly about expenses. What she said was a great example of how to keep money and energy in check as a business owner. 

“I only spend time on people.”

Kat doesn’t spend any money on advertising, social media, or email marketing. She has a Facebook page and a website but only updates them with new listings or sold homes. She doesn’t have many followers to speak of and she really doesn’t care. “I send holiday cards and the occasional ‘I love referrals note’ but the rest is just me.”

How does she make this work? 

“I made the decision years ago that my business was people. I go where they are and get to know them. I really do care and that it was has made the difference. I show up in networking groups, book clubs, charity events, you name it and I become involved.”

“It hasn’t always been easy, but now after 15 years my phone is consistently ringing and the people who do call were sent directly from someone who knows me and my work. Those are the best clients to have.”

Kat’s story is a fantastic example of how a different model can work. “It is possible to create a business that truly focuses on the people and not the marketing, without giving up revenue and growth,” she says. 


Sarah is cofounder and strategist at Las Peregrinas, a creative and consulting agency. She’s all action and no beating around the bush. A former intensive care unit nurse, if you look closely, you’ll see her continuing to run triage in her work with clients now. It’s in her bones. Sarah’s ears are tuned to the efficient and effective use of time, money, and effort, and which actions need to be taken in which order to get the result you want.

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