DNA of a Master Developer

Master Developers are real estate developers who build Master Planned Communities. This post expands on the ingredients needed to become a great Master Developer, outlined by Urban & Civic, a Master Developer, in their infographic.


Target big, complex sites in key growth locations

Study urban growth patterns and predict where new developments will happen. Acquire the most land you can afford to benefit from land appreciation created in the first phases.

Invest in the land for long-dated returns

Master-planned communities are like icebergs — they are massive and move slowly. MPCs require a lot of investments to transform undeveloped land into developed, functional, and aspirational for the first residents to move in. Recruit partners who have long-term investment horizons.

Work with like-minded partners

Attract high-quality shareholders, talent, and clients who share your values and add value to the project. Work hard to maintain and raise the quality bar in every aspect.

Recognize every site demands a customized approach

Every site has unique topography and engineering challenges. The market is always different. Learn to adapt to the context and attempt to understand the market. Highlight and incorporate natural environments into the master plan.


Ensure senior team engagement with stakeholders and communities

Master-planned communities significantly impact the city. It is human nature to resist change. That is why the NIMBYism movement against development exists. Therefore, excellent relationships with public entities and surrounding stakeholders are paramount to minimize unforeseen setbacks.

Trust is earned by making and delivering on promises

Build what you say you will build and work to exceed stakeholders’ expectations. The job of a Master Developer is selling a vision, securing funding, and making it happen. Rinse and repeat.

Cut through jargon and complexity – explain, illustrate and guide

It is hard to transmit the idea of an unbuilt vision. Make sure to develop clear communication skills and invest in graphic materials, like renders, of what you will achieve. Make sure to align the design and construction with the marketing material.

With a 20-year consent – build in flexibility from the outset as things will change

The needs of the market change with time, and master plans must evolve to capitalize on those changes. That is to say you don’t need to have the last phase designed in detail from the beginning. Create space to incorporate lessons learned into future phases.


De-risk issues at the earliest opportunity

Recognize all possible risks and have a strategy to mitigate them. For example:

  • Lower market risk by attracting anchor tenants like universities, schools, and town centers.
  • Lower finance risk by conducting feasibility studies, buying land at the right price, having wealthy shareholders, excellent relationships with banks, and having long-term financing.
  • Lower construction risk by hiring outstanding engineering designers, general contractors, and third-party inspectors.
  • Lower product risk by conducting market studies and understanding your customer.
Assume responsibility for the delivery of infrastructure to maintain momentum

The project should always be moving forward. Master-planned communities behave like a snowball rolling downhill; they start slow and small, but as you move forward, it moves faster and bigger. To clarify, more infrastructure and residents increase the market size for potential new businesses, thus increasing the value of the project and creating a virtuous cycle.

Work at scale to create efficiency

The headache and management costs of building a 1-kilometer road are almost the same as building 5 kilometers. As a result, you should build the most you can while maintaining a healthy percentage of sales (>40%) and keeping your debt in check.

Establish multiple points of sale to enhance absorption

Experiment with various markets to understand what works and double down on those who do. Make sure to understand which price points can have high absorption and differentiate your product. Experiment with age groups, price points, and interests.


Keep control by not selling off large parcels

Selling large parcels might make you lose control and put the vision at risk. All pieces of land must follow the code and add value to the project. The job of the Master Developer is to build out the vision from start to finish.

Package land consistently across phases and sites

Master-planned communities must be thought of as an assembly line. When building one phase, you must plan and sell the next one. Designing, financing, and building is a continuous endeavor. Build a constant supply of residences to keep the ball moving forward.

Create a level playing field for all sizes of housebuilders to compete

Help everyone involved in the project make money. This creates a virtuous cycle of repeat customers because they reinvest in the project. Especially help homebuilders. Their success is your success, and their failure is your failure. The Master Developer must orchestrate homebuilders, so they must enact equal rules and allow fair competition.

Be prepared to self-deliver the more difficult plots to maintain quality and values

There are always hard lots or residences to sell in every project. Not all properties can have the best views and locations. Acquire the skills to develop those lots.


Establish a quality benchmark from the start

The first project in the master-planned community sets the standard for the rest of the project. Make sure to control it and do the best job possible. This is a high leverage move.

Use planning, contracts, and the example of self-delivery to maintain standards

Develop a code to maintain the vision and build the first project according to it. Make sure to include the code in the purchase agreement contract.

Ensure your team cares about the details

The heart of the customer is in the details. Become customer-centric and ensure everything you build is functional, feasible, and beautiful. Architecture must get inspiration from local, vernacular architecture and respond to the climate. Public spaces and street trees must be exceptionally well thought out.

You don’t need to spend more; you need to spend it smarter

Some solutions might cost the same, but one is much more beautiful and aspiring. One example is brick roads vs. concrete roads. A misconception is that brick road are more expensive, but they might be cheaper depending on the market, materials chosen, and labor costs. Another example is to provide spaces early on for basic needs like convenience stores, access to urgent care, and education. These services offer outsized values to residents with marginal investment.


Patient, experienced capital, is required

Master-planned communities are often intergenerational endeavors. Investment returns might take more time to materialize than usual real estate development projects. Raise funds from investors with know-how who can provide advice and resources.

Investment needs to be aligned with a commitment to quality

Invest in great architects to generate great designs, especially the master plan. Invest in materials that stand the test of time, and that can be easily maintained. One example is investing in street trees; time makes those streets look better.

Actively use public funds to accelerate delivery

Use the financial markets to increase your leverage and build faster the master-planned community. Raising public funds creates more ambassadors and alignment with the community.

Maintain delivery throughout economic cycles

Master-planned communities are multi-decade ventures; therefore, they are bound to experience bearish economic cycles. Plan for them and make sure to keep the momentum strong.

Download the infographic of the DNA of a Master Developer:

Join my blog:

Success! You're on the list.

What is a Master Planned Community?

Master Planned Communities (MPCs) are urban-scale, mixed-use real estate developments where residents live, work, and play. They are built on undeveloped land, called greenfield development. MPCs are frequently located strategically on the edge of a city with strong projected urban growth. They are self-contained towns with clear boundaries, built for convenience, aiming to satisfy all needs within the community. You can think of them as the real-life version of Sim City.

MPCs usually have more than 1,000 residences and 247 acres (100 hectares); these numbers can be much more significant. Common amenities include cultural centers, golf courses, medical centers, parks, playgrounds, public spaces, restaurants, schools, sports facilities, temples, tennis courts, town centers, universities, walking trails, and more.

Private real estate developers typically develop master planned communities, in this case, called Master Developers. Master Developers must have the skills to craft a vision and coordinate a wide variety of real estate-related professionals that can help the project come to fruition.

Master Developers develop the infrastructure and public spaces. Using industry terms, they build everything “horizontally”; which includes basic infrastructure systems like sewage, stormwater, water, electricity, telecommunications, and roads. Master Developers sometimes decide to construct buildings or develop “vertically.”

The MPC standard business model is that the Master Developer buys a big plot of land, subdivides it; builds infrastructure and amenities; and sells land to anchor tenants like schools or universities. Some Master Developers choose a decentralized model where they sell to homebuilders to develop neighborhoods and commercial developers to build restaurants, shopping centers, etc. Others prefer a centralized model and align vertically to build residential and commercial buildings.

MPCs start by designing a Master Plan. Then it is built in phases throughout a multi-decade time horizon. They usually have a unified architectural vision encoded in the Architecture Code. All lots and buildings must be built according to it.

MPCs include a wide diversity of land uses, lot sizes, housing, and prices designed to attract multiple market segments. MPCs typically have private governance, such as a Homeowners Association, to regulate the relationship between owners, maintain public spaces, and enforce the vision.

Common marketing characteristics include great infrastructure, planned urbanism, housing for all age groups, a sense of community, a connection to nature, an active lifestyle, a healthy way of living, and convenience.

More often than not, urban development patterns are suburban and exclusively car-oriented. However, the New Urbanism movement has influenced MPCs making them more urban and walkable.

MPCs can grow very big and complex. Their evolution usually starts with a few residences, then to neighborhoods, then to a town, and then to a city. Company towns are prime examples of master planned communities.

Entrepreneurs who want to build ambitious Startup Cities can learn a lot from studying patterns of master planned communities and their Master Developers.

10 examples of Master Planned Communities



City of Irvine

Las Catalinas

Porta Norte

  • Website: www.portanorte.com
  • Concept: Solarpunk new urbanist town inspired by Casco Viejo and designed by Andres Duany.
  • Location: Panama City, Panama




The Villages

The Woodlands

Join my blog:

Success! You're on the list.

Becoming Optimistic and Definite


Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One deals with startup strategies to build a better future. Peter is one of the most recognized entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, a co-founder of PayPal, Palantir, and Founders Fund, and was the first external investor in Facebook.

The book details the philosophy and strategies necessary to create startups with exponential growth: creating monopolies, avoiding competition, betting on new technology, creating cults, the importance of founders, and more. The title, Zero to One, refers to two types of companies:

  • 0 to 1: Use technology to invent new products or services. Ex: Google, Apple, etc.
  • 1 to n: Copy or expand existing products or services. Ex: restaurants, gas stations, etc.
Peter Thiel Graph of Technology vs Globalization

This post focuses on chapter 6, You Are Not a Lottery Ticket, which develops different visions of societies. A society can have two types of visions:

  1. Definite: the future is clear, allowing you to craft a plan and try to build it.
  2. Indefinite: the future is unclear, preventing you from crafting a vision.

Building an ambitious vision makes sense if the future is definite. But if you think it is indefinite, you cannot visualize the future; you will give up trying to modify it, attribute changes to luck, and watch others make history.

Society also has two other perspectives:

  1. Optimistic: which looks forward to a bright future.
  2. Pessimistic: which is afraid of a worse future.

Combining these four definitions in a 2×2 matrix generates four quadrants of society’s visions.

Peter Thiel Graph (Optimistic, Pessimistic, Determinate, Indeterminate)

Now I will explain each quadrant using the examples from the book. Then I will explain Panama’s past, the present, and the road to an optimistic and definite future.

Pessimistic and Indefinite

All cultures have a myth of a decline from a golden age. A society with a pessimistic and indefinite vision foresees a worse future and does not know what it looks like or what to do about it. Historically this is the most common quadrant.

This is Europe’s quadrant since 1970, when the continent was subjected to a visionless bureaucracy, increased socialist policies, and enacted too many laws creating a straitjacket to innovation. From the inside, they know that they have unsustainable policies that will lead to hard times.

Pessimistic and Definite

A society with a pessimistic and definite vision foresees a worse future, has a clear idea of what it looks like, and is prepared to face it.

China is pessimistic and definite. Its growth strategy is to copy what has worked in the West without regard for innovation. In China, the middle and upper classes, which consume far more resources than the lower class, have expanded dramatically. China has 1.44 billion people (at the end of 2020) consuming natural resources. They are in trouble because demand is increasing, and natural resources are becoming scarcer, resulting in a higher cost of living.

From the outside, everyone thinks that China has a great future, but internally they are terrified of the brain drain and desperate to invest in other countries to get their money out of China.

Optimistic and Indefinite

A society with an optimistic and indefinite vision foresees a better future but only builds more of the same, so it does not make ambitious plans. Instead of working for years to invent something, optimistic and indefinite people like bankers, lawyers and consultants improve the processes of existing companies. In this quadrant, a few new startups are founded.

An indefinite person exclusively values money per se. In contrast, a definite person perceives money as a means to build ambitious goals.

Peter Thiel Graph on types of careers

Indefinite Finance: The financial industry represents indefinite thinking because it is one of the most significant ways to make money when you don’t have a concrete plan.

Indefinite Politics: Voters are more interested in how a politician reacts to an event or if he says something controversial than in their 20-year vision.

The US government used to coordinate solutions to big problems like nuclear technology and space exploration. Today, it focuses primarily on insurance and money distribution.

In politics and business, debating marginal processes or improvements has become the way to avoid working on ambitious master plans.

Indefinite Companies: Entrepreneurs are told to listen to the customer, make a minimum viable product, and iterate on that product until success. But, the lean methodology process has to be accompanied by a daring vision to get from 0 to 1.

Let’s take Apple as an example of an ambitious plan. Everyone has experienced good Apple product design. However, the most important thing that Steve Jobs designed was his company. He devised a multi-decade master plan to create products and distribute them. Steve Jobs changed the world by planning and understanding human needs from first principles.

A company with a definite master plan will consistently be underestimated by companies with an indefinite master plan — which are the majority.

Optimistic and Definite

A society with an optimistic and definite vision can imagine a better future, plan to achieve it, and work together towards a clear north.

From the 1800s to the 1960s, the optimistic and definite led the West. Scientists, engineers, doctors, and merchants built richer, healthier, and more productive societies. Each generation had more inventors and visionaries than the previous one.

Examples of feats they executed:

  • 1843: A tunnel was built under the River Thames in London.
  • 1869: The Suez Canal was built.
  • 1889: The Eiffel Tower, the tallest building in the world for 40 years, was built in 793 days.
  • 1914: The Panama Canal was built.
  • 1931: The Empire State Building was built in 410 days.
  • 1937: The Golden Gate Bridge was built in 4 years.
  • 1945: The Manhattan Project produced the first nuclear bomb.
  • 1942: The Alaska Highway, consisting of 2,700 kilometers, was built in 234 days.
  • 1965: The United States Interstate Highway, consisting of 32,200 kilometers, was built in 9 years.
  • 1972: NASA put 12 people on the moon. The Apollo program started in 1961.

You can study more examples of optimistic, definite, and fast projects on Patrick Collison’s website, co-founder of Stripe.

In that era, the government did not only propose daring plans. Around 1940, John Reber, a school teacher who taught himself engineering, designed and promoted the Reber Plan — which consisted of constructing two giant dams in San Francisco, California. Building this would result in gaining 20,000 acres of land. Newspapers promoted this plan, and it went all the way to the United States Congress to discuss its feasibility. The army even built a 1.5-acre model. Unfortunately, they concluded the plan was not viable, so it was not built.

Nowadays, if a teacher designed and proposed such a vision, no one would take it seriously. If the vision came from someone powerful, they would tell him that his arrogance had clouded his sight. Until the 1950s, society welcomed big visions. Bold and grand visions of the future have become curiosities of the past.

You Are Not a Lottery Ticket

We must return to an optimistic, definite world, and startups are the most powerful tools to achieve that change. It starts with rejecting luck and daring to invest many years of effort into a clear and ambitious master plan.

Societies have shifted quadrants over the years. We must strive to move and stay in the optimistic and definite quadrant. Therefore, as a Panamanian citizen, the question I ponder is:

What quadrant is Panama in?

Before 1990, during the military repression of the dictatorship, the vision was pessimistic and definite. During this time, corruption was widespread, businesses could not operate freely, and there was a lot of oppression. It was clear Panama would become a shithole if it continued in the direction it was heading.

From 1990 to 2014, it was optimistic and definite. During that time, Panama expanded the Canal, built the first metro line, founded Panama Pacifico, increased immigration greatly, facilitated the creation of many new companies, and enacted a special regime for the establishment of multinational headquarters (Law SEM), which resulted in intense economic growth.

An important caveat is that at any given moment, some countries, like Panama, can fall in any quadrant, depending on the state of mind of the person giving the opinion. I’ll make a brief argument of opposite quadrants.

From 2014 to 2022, Panama had a pessimistic and indefinite vision. A big concern is that Panama might catch the “left-wing virus” and demagogues seize power, leading to a “second Venezuela.” I know many friends and business leaders investing internationally or taking out passports abroad “just in case.” Panama also has too many bankers, lawyers, or consultants and too few computer engineers or scientists.

From 2014 to 2022, Panama had an optimistic and definite vision. Panama can execute big plans. Let’s think about the organization and collaboration that took place to receive the Pope in 2019. Churches were renovated, thousands of new temporary homes were created, the biggest event ever in the country was executed, the subway expansion was accelerated, and much more.

In addition, Panama has a lot of entrepreneurs per capita; it is one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America; it is building out a multi-decade master plan of metro lines and roads; it just built a cruise terminal in Panama City, expanded the airport, immigration is increasing, and every year we have more startups accepted to Y-Combinator.

Sometimes the quadrant depends on the eye of the beholder.

How can Panama become more optimistic and definite?

Building new companies and startups, growing tech, engineering, and scientists workforce, and betting on government leaders with bold master plans. The first step is to recognize that change is in our hands. We must create and work on concrete, ambitious, and aspirational master plans for our lives.

Those with the ability and desire to take business risks should dare to undertake them. Those of us who graduated from good universities should avoid the comfort of optimizing processes of the companies of yesteryear and help improve education for the rest.

My first job after college was within the old guard — a process consultant. I knew that path was not for me. So, inspired by some friends who founded a company, I ended up working in a Venture Capital fund in Panama. I learned about Silicon Valley from Paul Graham’s Essays and founder mentality during that time.

Founders are contemporary philosophers dedicated to changing the world with their companies. I tell recent graduates that getting a job at a big company or getting an MBA aren’t the only alternatives — you can start a startup or work for one. In his essay A Student’s Guide to Startups, Paul Graham explains this in-depth.

After meeting many entrepreneurs and learning about them, I decided to undertake a new venture myself. In 2014 I co-founded Porta Norte, a new-urbanist solarpunk master-planned community of 650 acres (262 has.) with a multi-decade master plan. The mission is to expand Panama City so that the residents of Panama can live in walkable neighborhoods connected with nature and with public spaces full of culture. It is a definite and optimistic vision.

We should applaud, support, and invest in startups like Cuanto and Panadata, the first two startups to go to Y-Combinator in Panama — which is harder than getting accepted to Harvard. I am honored to be an angel investor in both startups in their first round.

Let’s encourage entrepreneurs and governments to think big. Let’s brainstorm, support, and bet together on daring, definite, and optimistic plans such as:

  • Building Startup Cities.
  • Building a beach in Avenida Balboa.
  • Creating a ferry system to connect the coasts.
  • Developing a top Computer Science university.
  • Producing local energy to achieve energy independence.
  • Building energetic self-sufficient buildings and neighborhoods.
  • Connecting America with a highway between Panama and Colombia.
  • Connecting Panama, Colombia, Central America, and America through a high-speed train.
  • Increasing immigration of scientists, engineers, doctors, artists, entrepreneurs, and builders.

What other plans can you think of? Which startups, companies, or existing plans are worth supporting? How can we help build a definite and optimistic society?

If you have an ambitious, definite, and optimistic plan for Panama or the world, please share it in the comments, talk about it among friends, help it become a reality and ideally execute it. Let’s become optimistic and definite to build a better future together.

Subscribe to my blog:

Success! You're on the list.