Keyan Sanai has had, by any standard measure, an extremely successful career in real estate. At just 30 years old he is celebrating back-to-back years as the top ranking rental agent at one of the largest firms in one the world’s biggest markets, New York City.
Keyan prefers not to look at it in terms of success, but rather as the result of an accumulation of failures.
Elliman Insider sat down with Keyan to learn how he uses failure as a means to growth, his goals for 2021 and why he’s still in awe when he watches his Douglas Elliman colleagues at work on their trade.
Elliman Insider: You’ve now been the top NYC rental agent at Douglas Elliman in back-to-back years, and you’re only 30. To what do you owe your success?
Keyan Sanai: Failure. I have a super high threshold for failure. While I would not argue that I was born to do this, even as I have grown to be the top agent I still fail more than I succeed. In a non-masochistic way, I love failure; doing a showing where the client hates the apartment means I am one step closer to a showing where a client loves the apartment and puts a deposit down. I remember failing much more often when I first started in this business and sitting on the 1 train with a smile on my face thinking, “It won’t always be like this so I am going to remember this moment.”
EI: Tell us a little about your background. Did you always love real estate?
KS: Well, I love people, I love competition and outside of work I do not take myself seriously in the slightest which is highlighted clearly on my Instagram @NOTKEYAN. I believe I can learn something from everybody, especially if they have experienced things I haven’t.
“I believe I can learn something from everybody, especially if they have experienced things I haven’t.”
I attended Loyola University in Maryland where I played tennis and set the record for most wins in school history at number one singles. I used to dream about having the forehand of my teammate, Pierce, who played number 2 singles, or the kick serve of my other teammate, Kevin, who played number 3 singles. But, what I did have over both of them was a fiercely, almost menacing competitive spirit.
This competitiveness crossed over to real estate because regardless of the success I have had my mindset is more or less “I may just be a kid from the outskirts of Poughkeepsie with no connections but I am going to build this business brick by brick and I would rather die than fail.”
EI: Why did you choose Elliman?
KS: When I was in grade school I received the highest score on a history test in the regular history class and when I showed it to my father in his Persian accent he said, “You’re not even in the honors class, what do you want me to say? Congratulations you are king of the idiots.”
“Some of the best brokers in the world whiz past me as they negotiate deals on $60 million homes. Nowhere else in this business is the bar set higher than at Elliman and I love that.”
While that was obviously a harsh thing to say at the time but an amusing anecdote to tell years later it stuck with me. I started my career off at a smaller, far less prestigious firm and quickly became their top agent in regards to transactions and closed the biggest sale at the company at the time. But I wasn’t satisfied being a big fish in a small pond. I wanted to be number 1 at what I did at the most prestigious company that does the most rental transactions in Manhattan. Hence, I came to Douglas Elliman and it took me a few years but here we are at number 1 back-to-back years.
Another great part about Elliman for someone as competitive as myself is that while number 1 in rentals I am still in many ways a small fish. I sit on the 6th floor at our 575 Madison office and watch some of the best brokers in the world whiz past me as they negotiate deals on $60 million homes. Nowhere else in this business is the bar set higher than at Elliman and I love that.
EI: 2020 was an interesting year for everyone, how did you respond and keep hold of that #1 spot?
KS: I responded with resilience and gray hair. When the barbershops opened back up my good friend and barber, Benjamin on 14th street, joked I was looking like a Persian Anderson Cooper.
Kidding aside, while it is easy to say, “only worry about those things you can control,” it is hard to implement that during a once in a life-time pandemic no matter your threshold for failure. Yet, here we are with a vaccine rolling out, Manhattan is in the process of roaring back and I am waiting on our head of Public Relations, Mr. Stephen Larkin, to get me on the cover of a “Just For Men” hair dye box so I can capitalize on “coloring away those pandemic grays for days.”
EI: What motivates you?
KS: In a word, opportunity. Many of my family members are refugees who had to escape Iran during the revolution, some nearly dying in the process. When they came to America they took jobs as painters, line cooks and more, pulling themselves up by their boot straps to attain college degrees, good jobs and futures for their families.
As if that was not enough of a challenge, these same family members all banded together and did their absolute best to give me a semblance of a normal childhood when my mother passed away of melanoma in 1995.
I owe absolutely everything to my family and love them dearly for providing me that opportunity.
EI: Any advice for new agents?
KS: I really stray away from giving advice. This business is not an exact science and the formula is different for every individual. When people ask me about my life and my schedule and I tell them I work every weekend and have not taken a vacation in my adult life they usually say, “Ew, I don’t want to do that.” If someone does seek me out for advice I just tell them not to skip the work and be ready to embrace the failure.
EI: What are your goals for next year?
KS: If my best is better than everyone else’s best for a third year in a row and I was #1 again that would be fantastic. I just tell myself I am going to do as much as I possibly can as best as I possibly can. I have one speed, go.
With that being said, the thing I am most excited about is starting back up on the sales at 1182 Broadway: The Centurian Building (The last residential building in Manhattan to preserve the copper windows from 1908) in NoMad. Two years ago I converted the building to condominium by selling six apartments and we have been renting them in the meantime while the area continues to blossom. With the opening of the Ritz Carlton in NoMad in the summer we will fire up the sales at 1182 Broadway again!