Meet The Disruptors: Matthew Bizzarro Of The Bizzarro Agency On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Bizzarro.
Matthew Bizzarro is the owner, CEO, and principal broker at The Bizzarro Agency — aka BIZZARRO — a diverse and passionate real estate team that's widely regarded as the most knowledgeable and well-connected group of agents in Upper Manhattan and The Bronx in New York City.
Matthew's goal is to completely remake the industry of real estate in New York City by putting people over profits and careers before commissions while partnering with local charities to create community in NYC.
He was named the Best NYC Buyers Agent at the 2019 StreetEasy Awards, and, in 2021, was elected chair of the Upper Manhattan Committee for the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY).
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your "backstory"? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in Massachusetts, outside of Boston. When I was a kid, my family was always doing service work — going on mission trips, volunteering at nonprofits and helping out at soup kitchens. I loved it. I knew when I grew up, service to others was something I wanted to be central to my life.
But I knew I needed to make money as well, so I graduated with a marketing-business bachelor's degree. After college, before jumping right into the labor market, I did a year of service work in Syracuse, New York. When that year of volunteering ended, a Catholic all-girls school — Mother Cabrini High School in the Hudson Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan — hired me to help graduating seniors complete their service requirements, which was a perfect fit for me. I came to New York City in 2001 — three days before 9/11.
During my time at the school, I also earned a master's in the Business of Youth Development and started teaching at the school, including courses on everything from business and marketing to theology and scripture.
To make a little extra income in the summers, I started working in real estate at a local brokerage that specialized in Upper Manhattan. I was instantly hooked on the human side of real estate. I loved serving clients and helping them find their way through New York's extremely complex and challenging home-buying process. It was fascinating, and I saw I could not only help people solve major housing problems, but I could also lead them to achieve their dreams of homeownership, which is a feat New York City!
In 2013, my life abruptly changed. That's when the school's leadership announced it would be closing. Though I had been on the inside strategically trying to save the shrinking school, which served primarily Latina students at that time, I knew the end was coming. What I didn't know was that the leader of my real estate brokerage was also calling it quits and selling his company. He didn't think he could compete with the big guys in NYC. It was devastating as there were agents who had been there 30 years. I had been there for 10! We were all blindsided.
That day, I lost two jobs in the span of about two hours. I knew I couldn't work for a new firm or a giant corporate outfit, so I made a bold decision. I decided to start my own team. I thought my old broker was nuts, thinking that our team's local market insight wasn't enough to compete. Nobody was doing a better job serving the area of Uptown NYC than our team — and I didn't want to lose that to a corporation.
I went with the name The Bizzarro Agency because of my unique name and to pay homage to my grandfather who in 1953 started The Bizzarro Agency in New Jersey. Since then, we've become widely regarded as one of the most knowledgeable and well-connected brokerages in Upper Manhattan. What I'm most proud of is my reputation — and our reputation — for honesty, integrity and professionalism.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you're doing that's disruptive?
We do what other agents won't — serving people with dignity and respect, even if they can't necessarily purchase. We specialize in Upper Manhattan — everything north of 110th Street / Central Park. That includes Washington Heights (of In the Heights fame), Harlem and Inwood. We also work in The Bronx, which is the hot new area for families. We work in places where you don't have to be a millionaire to own a home and live the American dream. Although we work in luxury real estate as well, our goal is to take care of each other, our agents and, above all, our clients.
At BIZZARRO we strive to make "the impossible" possible for our clients. We understand how bewildering it can be to embark on buying a home for the first time. No one likes feeling left in the dark, and we insist on holding up a light for our clients. That's what fuels us.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of my first luxury listing appointments was for a $4 million place that I had never set foot inside. When the day came for the listing pitch, I went to meet with the seller in the home. I knew that the residents were identical twin sisters and that only one could be there for the meeting. The problem was, I didn't realize which one was going to show up. Well, I thought I knew — for about the first 30 minutes. As she gave me a tour of the home, I called her by the wrong name. I was mortified — and so sure that was the end of me breaking into the NYC luxury circle. Faced with this ego-busting embarrassment, I just decided right then and there to own my blunder. I said, "Look, I'm not going to try to talk around this. I made a mistake."
I got vulnerable in front of her and apologized with respect. I didn't make up some total BS, resort to blaming or start fashioning excuses. It was too late to save face. The lesson I learned was that you have to own your mistakes. After that, I just assumed she wouldn't want to use our services to sell her home. But we ended up getting the listing! People want to work with people who are humble and human and take ownership of their mistakes.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
During my time at Mother Cabrini High School, I met a deacon who — in the course of just a few minutes — made an impact on my life. His name was Uriel Durr. He was the chaplain at our Mother Cabrini sister school in New Orleans.
After Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans, Uriel happened to be visiting our school in NYC. Though he didn't have much time, he gave me 5 minutes. I remember because I had to pull him out of another meeting just to talk to him.
I said, "How can we help? I don't know what we can do, where we can do it or how to make it happen. But we want to help." He said: "Great, let's do it. Give me your number." After that, we partnered with him and the school to bring half a dozen groups of school kids to New Orleans and Texas to help with demolition, cleaning up and rebuilding. It was a life-changing experience for everyone.
Even though he didn't know anything about me, we were able to connect quickly on that one mission — service. There was just something about him. I could tell we were like-minded. He taught me that there are other people that think like me: You take your idea and you get it done. You don't talk yourself out of it. You find people who see and want to do your vision — and you just do it. Whatever it takes, you don't drop it.
Like me, Uriel has many kids. He knows the journey is all about life, family and contributing. He showed me you could balance all that stuff and be successful, even with service at your heart. You can give back no matter what you're doing or where you are. That's the cool thing about service: You don't need money or status to give back. It's just a matter of giving your time.
Uriel also had that "get back up" kind of Southern charm. It's that attitude of getting knocked down and saying, "Yeah? ... AND? What else you got?"
In today's parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has 'withstood the test of time'? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is 'not so positive'? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Being disruptive dramatically elevates your level of risk precisely because you're going outside the tried and true. When you're disruptive, that means you're taking a lot of big swings and, guess what, you miss sometimes. You have this big idea, but you don't always know how to get there. You don't know the collateral damage that the process of trial and error might cause. But it's worth that shot. As Henry Ford famously said: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."
Our mission is to disrupt in the total opposite direction — to make real estate less, not more transactional so that we have trusted clients for life, so that people are making this huge life decision with someone they trust and someone they can go to for real advice. When you marry that with our community service work in Uptown, we are changing what it means to be a real estate agent. It's not about transactions. It's about community.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you've gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
"People won't like you and you will live."
In our society, everyone cares about what other people think. People are so concerned about fitting in that they don't break free from the status quo. If you're going to be a disruptor, you don't worry about what people think. Being a disruptor is specifically going against what everyone else wants to do.
I'm not concerned if people adore me or what we're doing. Because we walk our own path as a boutique agency — and we're actively working to take market share — we have a big target on our back. You can't care about what people think: You have to know what your vision is and find the people who believe in what you're doing who will join you. Invariably, you'll piss people off along the way. You may have to fire an agent. Not everybody likes it. But you have to look at where you're going and how to get there as a team on a single ship.
"The world is full of successful people who were told time and time again that their dream was impossible. They chose not to listen."
For us, it sometimes feels against the norm to follow our mission. Why? Doing what's right and honest and transparent isn't easy. It's really hard, actually. You have to stay in those principles.
"Be stronger than your strongest excuse."
We all have that voice in our head that says: "You can't do that. It won't work. Why would THAT work?" Sometimes that squirrel in your mind just gets you. You have to stay focused on your principles, your inner knowing, your core values. Just do what you say you're going to do and don't quit.
We are sure you aren't done. How are you going to shake things up next?
At BIZZARRO we're going to change the entire landscape of NYC real estate. I'm not ready to talk about how we're going to do it. But get ready!
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that's had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I'm really enjoying the NPR Podcast: How I Built This with Guy Raz. It's about innovators, entrepreneurs and "idealists" — and the movements they built. Interviewees include people who created brands like Starbucks, Lululemon and others. I love seeing that business success stories are all over the map. Every person has their own story. And every story is different. In business, how you build something isn't the same for everybody. Even if it's the same industry, each person is on a different path with various obstacles.
Can you please give us your favorite "Life Lesson Quote"? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
"Do small things with great love." — Mother Teresa
Doing real estate deals is no small matter, especially not in New York City, where the process is by far longer, much more expensive and certainly more difficult than anywhere else in the nation. But all the little things we do as agents — if done with great love — can positively and deeply affect our clients.
For example, in our industry, sometimes you have to advise clients against things that might hurt them in the long run, even though closing the deal would greatly benefit you in the short run. Sometimes, you have to tell a client: "This actually isn't the right place for you. Here's why."
Inside you might be thinking, "I could have done a sale and made money!" But at our agency, we pride ourselves on doing the right thing. It's our differentiator. If, as an agent, I see that a train wreck is coming for a client and their chosen property — and let my client move in — I'm setting both of us up for disappointment. When you decide to treat the human first, it's not always the most profitable path. But we hope it's the most appreciated path. We hope we're building friendship, loyalty and clients for life. Now and then, it can slow the progress of your business, but you've got to choose — kindness or business. Unfortunately, most people choose business. I don't think that's right.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
When I started BIZZARRO, I knew we would be very active in philanthropy in our community, and we are! Every year for almost a decade now, we've sponsored the Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra and the Uptown Soccer Academy. We also contribute to the Good Shepherd Women's Shelter and other charitable organizations in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx as part of our #SupportUptown initiatives. This summer, we're putting on free pop-up concerts in the park.
Soon, we're going to take things a step further with the launch of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to battle homelessness and hunger — and to support marginalized groups. It's about getting basic needs met — food, shelter, water and love.
We're tentatively calling it IABYA: I Am Because You Are. This is a reference to the Bantu African concept of Ubuntu, which is about the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all of humanity. We're going to start in our community in Uptown Manhattan. But, as with everything, we'll take it wherever it leads. We're just waiting for final federal approval on our nonprofit status.
One of my favorite quotes is: "The things you take for granted, someone else is praying for." While you're worrying about making sure you have the fanciest clothes, house, car, preschool or vacation, there are those without basic human dignity. We want to buy and sell homes in one of the craziest housing markets in the world — while constantly seeing the humanity in all of us. That's how we make the impossible possible. We see that bigger picture.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!