Entrepreneurship and the Value of Curiosity

Lucas Haldeman of SmartRent shares his secret to problem-solving and retaining company culture through change.

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. 

Problem Solving

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.

Check Out the Full Episode

Learn more about Lucas, SmartRent, and the val­ue of curios­i­ty by lis­ten­ing to our full inter­view on Apple or Spo­ti­fy.

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