After law school, Tao spent five years practicing business law at a mid-sized San Francisco firm. Then, “like everybody else who was young and dumb in 1998,” Tao helped launch a dot-com. Specifically, he worked at Startups.com, which put together infrastructure (HR, insurance, and other operations teams) for other burgeoning dot-coms, until 2001 when the Internet bubble burst.
At that point, Tao considered returning to law practice. “Being at a law firm is hard work, but it’s also a cocoon of security,” he explains. While returning to law would have provided job stability for Tao, he wanted to have “more input in shaping the world I’m in,” he recalls. “It was a big deal to break away from the law firm mindset. But I realized I can still be successful without being in a firm.”
So he entered what he describes as “the next great bubble––real estate,” becoming a developer at AGI Capital, which was founded by a former law firm client. Tao describes the role of real estate developer as akin to a movie producer who finds a script, and a director who shops a film to studios. “We look for dirt. I evaluate economics, look at how we can monetize a project. I find an architect, go to lenders, financiers, and investors.”
Tao’s projects have included everything from luxury residential high rises to office developments to industrial and retail spaces. Though he knew “nothing” about real estate when he joined AGI Capital, Tao has since overseen close to a million square feet of real estate acquisitions, financings, developments, and dispositions, totaling more than $400 million.
To become successful in this previously unknown specialty, Tao drew on the critical thinking skills he acquired in law school. “I have no fear of the law and I know to rely on facts. I don’t rely on rumor or conjecture. I pull up the law, and read, digest and interpret it.” Though his job now carries a “huge amount” of risk, he’s been able to “fit all its pieces together in a logical way” thanks to his legal training.
Having a legal background also helps Tao stay entrepreneurial and remain a risk taker. “I have the knowledge that if it all falls apart, I can always go back to law.”