One of the marks of true entrepreneurs is curiosity, says Lucas Haldeman, Founder and CEO at SmartRent. We recently chatted with him on The BragWorthy Culture to get his take on this curiosity and other factors that can drive success.
SmartRent offers smart home automation to property managers and renters. The platform allows users to control the smart devices in their properties, including functionality such as locking doors, controlling lights and thermostats, etc.
Lucas got his start as a software developer writing code for a business that worked with apartment owners and thus spent years gaining industry knowledge from people investing and managing real estate. When he saw recurring problems with no available solutions in the marketplace he was perfectly framed to eventually start SmartRent.
Lucas doesn’t advocate curiosity for curiosity’s sake, it needs to be directed at solving problems. He shared an example of an early issue he and his CTO were trying to solve in Excel. Rather than just fix the problem and be done, they tried to find the root of the problem. This eventually led to the creation of a macro that would ensure the issue wouldn’t reoccur. The long-term solution took a lot more time to develop but unlike that one-time annual fix, it was a lasting solution. Therefore, the time spent was not wasted but invested in problem-solving.
For Lucas, curiosity is a trait to be sought after in potential employees. This can lead to employees going down rabbit holes that may not be immediately relevant to a product or project at hand, but that’s okay. What matters is allowing team members to continue exercising that curiosity, which is at the heart of problem-solving.
Fixing the Problem No One Else Was Fixing
It was with that problem-solving mindset that Lucas originally went to a big player in the property management space to tell them the things that were missing from their platform. But they weren’t really listening, so rather than continue to point out the problems, Lucas decided to create the solutions instead.
This wasn’t something he could bring to market right away. He knew that he couldn’t launch with an MVP — minimum viable product — there had already been other competitors in the market with their own versions of the product. Rather than be the fourth or fifth line, he wanted to launch with a robust, reliable product from the start.
By taking time to develop the platform — but not too much time — Lucas and his team impressed customers with a solid first version of the product. That led to credibility, which then led to durability.
Hire in the Industry
Right from the start, SmartRent prioritized hiring people with real estate experience, particularly in property management and maintenance. For these people, the problems that SmartRent deals with on a regular basis are not purely theoretical. The chances are that they had faced similar issues in the industry themselves. This hunch proved to be correct, more than a decade on and many of those early hires are still with the company.
In fact, Lucas doesn’t mind bragging that any member of the executive staff could, if asked, go to an apartment unit and install the product. The CTO still writes code, even though the company now has over 100 engineers. These skills also lead to a player-coach ethos in leadership.
Maintaining Culture through Growth
SmartRent used to be a private, six-person company. Now it’s a public company with over 700 employees. But that means that the culture has changed.
When it’s a company with a single-digit number of employees, culture is completely inclusive. Everyone knows what is going on all the time.
But that’s not sustainable, even if you decide to stay a private company. It’s just not possible to loop everyone in on everything at a certain size.
Instead, Lucas sees culture as an output, or byproduct, rather than as the end product itself. For example, SmartRent covers 100% of the cost of health care for all employees and their dependents. That’s a big expense, that gets bigger every year, but Lucas keeps advocating for it to the board when it comes up for review. Benefits like that, Lucas says, show employees that they are important and that develops a culture in which employees feel valued.
Lucas also enjoys company town halls and video updates in which the leadership isn’t reading off a script but is sharing naturally.
Maintaining Culture Through Covid
The healthcare benefit outlined above is an example of “show me your actions, not your words,” a concept Lucas champions. Another chance for SmartRent to demonstrate their commitment to their employees came during Covid.
A company providing home installations obviously had its operations restricted during Covid. Lucas felt pressure from the board to let his technicians go. Instead, he advocated for them, emphasizing their skills and pointing out that they were not easily replaceable. A dip in productivity would be far more bearable than the larger problem of understating if and when demand returned.
The board heard him out and for six weeks those techs were redeployed in different aspects of the business where possible, or volunteered, or didn’t work, but they stayed on the payroll. When the demand came roaring back after restrictions were lifted, SmartRent didn’t lose business by being understaffed, more importantly, they demonstrated how they valued their team.
That same sort of long-term thinking will likely be embedded in the way SmartRent navigates rocky waters in the real estate sector in the future. This thinking doesn’t only serve them but also their stakeholders.
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