While the success stories of many modern-day entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg are extraordinary, some of these stories are fiction. Often, the real story of success is generational wealth and large loans from friends and family members.
But this is not the case with Anne Sperling, CEO of 3Gs Consulting. Sperling started a virtual tour company from the bare ground up and built it into a national company without the funding and fortunes which enable most entrepreneurs.
Sperling began her career in an entry-level sales position, then worked as a managing broker, and then as a sales recruiter. From there, she teamed with people in her network, a technician and a photographer, to develop her first patented business — a dot-com virtual real-estate tour company.
“We didn’t have any profits for the first few years,” she says. “Starting a business without money went against all the rules, but we just rolled up our sleeves, connected with people, and made it work. We used people power to create a pioneering dot-com real estate virtual tour company.”
To grow her operation, which was established in 1995, she created a key partnership with several companies, including Kodak. The services she created formed the basis for such online resources as Zillow and the ubiquitous, camera-rigged vans archiving Google Maps.
Sperling persevered with her idea of virtual tours, even though at the time, less than 10% of the American public were regularly using the internet at dial-up speeds, according to the World Bank. Real Estate Listings were invite-only. Open houses were exclusively in person. And pictures were still printed on photo-paper.
“Sharing digitized listings of home interiors online terrified real estate professionals and caused caution to investors,” Sperling recalls. “Online listings actually started an industry war called the IDX wars, with brokers fighting over whether one broker’s listings could be shown on another broker’s webpage.”
“Being the first definitely was a big move. We earned trust from the real estate seller while convincing our customer, the real estate professional, that the internet wasn’t a fad,” she says. “There were a lot of ‘firsts’ we had to break through as a company — and we did it.”
Jumping through hoops as a tech-real estate startup in an uncharted, emerging industry is one thing. As a CEO and Board Chair, Sperling had to find ways to survive the dot-com bubble burst, Y2K, the Great Recession, and a national tragedy — 9/11 — all of which showed an extraordinary level of resilience.
Homebuyers took a pause after the Twin Towers crumbled. Then, when the market recovered, multi-million-dollar companies eventually sniffed out the profit to be made in online real estate. Yet Sperling led her virtual real-estate tour company through these challenges, and her company maintained a thriving profit margin while retaining 98 percent of its customer base.
Sperling’s company was eventually acquired, and today, as a full-time strategic board advisor, she now works with companies to develop happier people, higher profits, and creative solutions for long-run success and sustainability. In doing so, she speaks from the trials and tribulations faced during nearly 30 years of experience in business and board service.
“I’ve honed a healthy instinct in balancing calculated risks and safe bets. I am a firm believer in using the entrepreneurial spirit to build dreams, to live lives we want to live, and to share success with others.”
Today, as CEO of 3Gs Consulting, her firm provides strategic board advisory services to privately-held, existing, and startup companies to support them in achieving their own visions. From her headquarters in Agoura Hills, she crafts curated, people-first strategies to fresh, entrepreneurial companies new to their industry and existing companies that want to focus on thriving sustainably, to facilitate the well-being of their people and expand the footprint they make on the planet. Working with business owners and their boards of directors, Sperling builds out a framework in her specialty — stakeholder capitalism — that prioritizes Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) standards.
“When you think about it, these are the people who have the greatest power — through economic and human resources — to make positive change and ensure the sustainability of their companies, people’s lives, and the planet’s future,” she says, in reference to CEOs and their Board Directors. “They set the table for what’s to come for the rest of us.”
3Gs offers three services. Their 45-minute challenge strategy session guides senior executives through an assortment of conflicts, such as overcoming resistance to new ideas and solving lack of familiarity in working with investors. Clients also may book a three-hour planning session to discuss vision, probable outcomes, and success metrics or an advisory intensive for a more comprehensive assessment on a company’s challenges or a project’s state of affairs.
Sperling credits her success to relationships, and to building an enterprise out of people-first values. Her framework of choice is a stakeholder structure, where every stakeholder experiences a win in company decision-making.
“Unity in mission effects preservation and maintenance and the end result is endurance. Stakeholders are invested in a company’s mission and are more likely to stand by in tumultuous times,” she says.
She notes that as observed in George Serafeim’s Purpose and Profit, after two years of Covid, Stakeholder companies out-performed, other companies.
“When you’re in trouble, the difference between a shareholder company and a stakeholder company shows,” Sperling says. “Often, in shareholder-profit scenarios, it’s all about that initial transaction. People are generally the first to go.”
These companies study spreadsheets, then cut the bottom 10 percent of people in order to keep their profits in line with their projected revenue forecast. Conversely, in a stakeholder structure, Sperling describes a team effort, bootstrapping through the storm.
“From the start, Stakeholder companies make sure that everybody knows the value that each unique player brings to the table,” she says. “Instead of intra-company rivalries, it’s everybody competing for the best outcome, together.”
Sperling further breaks down the advantages of the stakeholder model: Aligning employees, partners and customers in an upstream-downstream channel of open communication is a prerequisite. When people feel heard, they feel valued and emotional intelligence kicks in. This leads to a smarter, more nurturing B2B or B2C culture, resulting in higher productivity and an iron-clad network webbed together by crash-resilient relationships. Recruiting and training becomes less expensive, because devoted and highly qualified people will actually seek your company out and vie for a team spot. Down the line, this translates into increased profitability and company worth, accelerating business growth. Retention of employees and partner affiliates become a given.
“Stakeholder companies are in it for the long run,” Sperling says. “Everything comes down to the way in which problems are approached, with everyone collectively thinking, “Alright, how are we going to make this last? What if we try it this way?’ That ensures a business’ future.”
As an expert in this field, Sperling provides her top three consulting tips for boards and company leadership in the making of a thriving profitable culture.
“First, show gratitude for the job opportunity by building orderliness into your infrastructure and systems that demonstrate respect and kindness towards all stakeholders,” she advises. “That’s a short way of saying that people need to feel appreciated in order to succeed in their work.”
Second, Sperling prioritizes company culture and the importance of demonstrating generosity.
“Go the extra mile to think about your impact on the people around you, specifically, the user experience of your work,” she says, mixing together a company’s hired insight with client collaboration. “Follow your work to the end — then go all the way around it. Make sure it makes sense to the user. It needs to be simple to use and understand.”
Finally, a reminder to be present. “Showing up as mindful and being gracious in meetings means being prepared, being forthcoming in your contributions,” she concludes. “You want to keenly listen; you want to humbly learn from everyone in the room and modestly share your insights. It’s welcome to challenge — politely — the thinking of the whole board and their visions.”
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