When he was 16 years old, Luis D. Ortiz told his parents he was going to the beach, but instead, secretly hopped on a flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. with his twin brother. To make ends meet, he held down three jobs. Now, at age 29, he's starring in reality TV series "Million Dollar Listing" on Bravo (owned by NBC Universal). In between, he became an award-winning filmmaker. In this Q&A, he talks about how he went from runaway teen to superstar real-estate broker.
What drove you to leave home at age 16?
I finished high school at 16, the youngest one in my class. After that I left Puerto Rico and went straight to Fort Lauderdale with my twin brother, Daniel. My parents were very strict. They raised us the old fashioned way, with branch whippings on your legs. My mother meant well, but even when I was young, I always reacted negatively to an environment that did not allow me to move forward. We told our parents we were going to the beach for the weekend. But we left a note saying we were leaving.
You were just a kid. How did you raise enough money to travel to the U.S.?
I used to sell lollipops. I'd buy them in Sam's Club and sell them at school. I made probably a thousand bucks over the course of a few years. My brother was an MC for high school parties and was a club promoter. There was nothing to spend the money on. We just put it underneath the bed.
You went from runaway teen to award-winning filmmaker. How did that happen?
I started working at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, helping rent camera equipment. I hustled my way into getting classes, too. I wanted to make films but none of the students I met had time to work with me. Then a friend said to try New York. I arrived in Feb of 2006 and enrolled at the New York Film Academy. At the end of the year, we did our thesis film. My short film, "Amalia," became an official selection at Cannes Select. I also won best director in the Puerto Rico film festival and re-established my relationship with my parents. My mother, who was mostly scared rather just furious, is now my No.1 fan.
"I've been a film director, skate boarder, janitor, real estate agent and TV star. I never dreamed of becoming those things, I achieved them by putting myself as the priority and not allowing my career or any job decision to define me."
So, why did you give up filmmaking for real estate?
In 2007 I shot another film, "Theater of the Absurd." I got money by asking restaurants to invest. I couldn't promise profits but I told them it would take me to the next level and I would return the favor. My pitch was rejected by 98 percent of the restaurant owners, but four Mexican restaurants gave me money. I raised $17,000! I felt like I was directing an Academy Award-winning film. But in the editing process, I realized it was a disaster. I got very depressed. I was sleeping on a friend's couch. I had no money, but I needed to find an apartment, so I went on Craig's List and saw an ad for a Philippe Stark-designed two bedroom apartment on Wall Street for $2400 a month. It was like something from a movie. I called my brother and said we have to get this apartment. We filled out the application. They came back and said "you don't have a job." I told them I can pay. A bank gave us a loan; we put six month's rent up front and got the apartment. The broker couldn't believe it. He asked, "How did you do it? You're the most unqualified candidate ever. You should try real estate."
As a broker, you found immediate success. How did you get the gig on "Million Dollar Listing"?
I joined Blackstone properties and did my first deal in three days. I got half of the $3200 commission, enough to pay my rent. I was killing it, sometimes I had seven clients around me at the same time, showing apartments like a tourist guide. Doormen were good friends of mine. I gave them "coquitos" (Puerto Rican eggnog) on Christmas. In 2012, I received a call from World of Wonder, the production company for "Million Dollar Listing." They were looking to replace a cast member and heard I was someone they should see. At the end of the audition, they said I was great, but too nice for the show. So, I let it go. Three weeks later I got a call from the executive producer. They were never looking for someone like me, but when they saw me, they realized I would be better than the person they were looking for.
Who are some of your biggest clients?
I have a list of very influential people. Leonardo DiCaprio is one. I'm currently selling Marc Anthony's house.
You must make a lot of money. What’s your annual income?
I make a very good amount. I have sold close to half a billion in residential real estate since 2008.
What’s the best business decision you ever made?
Trusting my gut at all times. I've done everything out of instinct. Your gut always knows. You just have to know how to get along with her.
What’s your advice to others trying to make it in business?
I've been a film director, skate boarder, janitor, real estate agent and TV star. I never dreamed of becoming those things, I achieved them by putting myself as the priority and not allowing my career or any job decision to define me. I'm a big fan of the journey, that's technically what I live for.
Luis D. Ortiz is a real-estate broker with Douglas Elliman and star of "Million Dollar Listing" on Bravo. He recently hosted the 14th Annual Latino Trendsetter Awards. Follow him on Twitter @luisdortiz.
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