When my company, Entrata, started in 2003, we were unusual for a tech startup. We had no venture capital funding, no money. We had a vision to make online product listings more accessible to consumers and make purchasing online easier. Since then, we’ve worked hard, had many, many late nights, and finally received our first capital infusion 18 years after we started. So how did we win the space and climb to the top?
We listened to the customer.
By paying close attention to customer wants and needs, we understood what would work. Larger, older companies assumed they knew what the customer needed, and their roadmaps were designed according to their priorities. Instead, we focused on what the customer wanted and changed our business model and services. Without our flexibility and willingness to adapt, we would not have had this level of success.
Fluidity encourages innovation
Across every single industry, there is a golden age of innovation driven by consumer trends of ease of use, instant gratification, and self-service. Originally, Entrata helped realtors make viewing a property online more accessible to consumers, a novel idea in 2003. By setting ourselves up as a Platform as a Service, we were able to improve the user experience. Suddenly, looking at the details of a property, buying, leasing, and managing could all be done in one place, making the consumer’s life more simple and streamlined.
We started in 2003, in the middle of the dot-com bubble. We wanted to make showing off a product online more accessible – revolutionary at that time. Consumers wanted to be able to see what they planned to buy online, so we focused on images in listings and making the features of the properties easy to find and understand. Today, consumer desires have changed. We’re heading in the opposite direction. Lately, consumers have wanted to be able to purchase or rent a property without viewing it. The imperative now is to simplify the process as much as possible and enable multiple functionalities in one place. Staying current has been iterative as we’ve followed the trends, working to stay on top of consumer demands.
Other companies have also adopted a customer-centric approach, including Starbucks and Amazon. According to Forbes, 89% of companies that focus on the consumer perform better than peers that do not. To be consumer-centric, companies must be fluid and adaptable, ready to change the moment (or even the moment before) the consumer has a new priority. Consumer trends drive innovation. Product-driven companies should focus on innovating around what the client wants or needs, but a common pitfall is assuming that the client wants or needs one particular thing and focusing only on that.
Especially important for fluidity is a smooth-running product. This makes a huge difference to the consumer and to the company. If the product is good, the company can focus more on the next change rather than the next fix. Successful companies also make it personal. Bring people in. Consumers want to feel valued, and companies should value their feedback. This is also relevant for talent. By bringing on new people with diverse perspectives, a company is better positioned to innovate.
Innovation starts with realistic expectations
Much of our success and ability to understand what the consumer needed came from an all-hands-on-deck approach. Companies often need to fill a position quickly, and they need someone intelligent, competent, and dynamic. To attract the best talent, they offer a substantial salary and a complete benefits package. In contrast, again, our first round of funding was after 18 years, and in the beginning, we couldn’t afford five more people, let alone high salaries for employees we already had. Instead, we all ordered pizza and stayed until midnight. The cost was burnout and losing people because of long, hard hours, but we backfilled money. That was the only option. We didn’t have the money upfront, and we had to do our best with what we had.
To keep talent, we needed buy-in. Our employees had to choose to be part of building the company and securing their jobs, or to make money immediately. Talent is looking for a company that is doing something important or building something, solving hard problems and being innovative. Innovative thinkers are drawn to companies that embrace the future. Salesforce is a great example of a disruptive, innovative company with high buy-in from talent. Many people from Entrata’s early days have stayed because they bought into the idea of where we were going. However, this works both ways. Unfortunately, some people sell their team on the vision, but then the vision doesn’t go anywhere, as happened with Theranos. A healthy, innovative company must be realistic about its own technology and capabilities while being visionary.
Entrata went from the top of a bubble to the bottom of a recession, and tech companies are always waffling between those. Tech companies operate at a high growth clip regardless of the economy. Money in 2003 for a tech startup was cheap, and investment companies had to throw money somewhere. Now, cash is king, and tech companies aren’t always profitable, so investors are seeing the game change. The Rule of 40 is returning. Growth is still high, but now company health and sustainability are part of the equation. In 2022, money is still available, but companies have to be more realistic about what they can and cannot afford.
MORE FOR YOU
MORE FOR YOU
Businesses stuck in a set market with a set product or service will likely find themselves struggling to survive in a consumer-centric environment. As business trends change, so must our mentality on how we interact with customers and recruit top talent. Innovative thinkers want to be a part of a team that encourages fluidity, recognizes trends, maximizes opportunities, and knows their limits.