For most entrepreneurs, launching a startup three months before a global pandemic would just be bad luck. Not so for Realm founder Liz Young, whose real estate platform helps homeowners maximize the value of their home by guiding them through decisions like how much to spend on a kitchen renovation or when to refinance. During the pandemic, when millions of Americans began working remotely from their homes, Realm started receiving hundreds of inquiries per week from homeowners looking for advice.
“We’ve had a really captive audience of people sitting in their biggest asset and not spending on travel and other discretionary expenses,” Young says. “They’re saying, ‘Help me figure out how to interact with my home in its new use.’ “
Young, 33, first took an interest in real estate at the age of 6, when her parents bought their first home. From then on, during every trip to the grocery store, she would pick up all of the real estate listings magazines. Prior to founding Realm, she served as the head of growth at Reonomy, a commercial real estate data and technology company that helps investors make better decisions.
“The whole time I was there, I thought, how do I put this in the hands of the average person?” Young says.
New York City-based Realm recently raised a $12 million Series A round led by GGV Capital, an investor in Airbnb, but Young isn’t letting a splashy fundraise get to her head. She’s determined to grow Realm into a household name and focused on making key hires.
When it comes to dreaming big and growing fast, few real estate founders have more experience than Compass CEO Robert Reffkin. Over the past eight years, he’s built that New York City-based company into the largest independent brokerage in the nation. In April, Compass went public, raising $450 million in its IPO.
Today, when the 42-year-old Reffkin isn’t running the business, one of his greatest passions is mentoring other entrepreneurs. “You actually get more from mentoring than you give,” he says. In 2009, he founded the mentorship nonprofit America Needs You (formerly New York Needs You), which helps ensure that first-generation college students earn their degree and find employment after graduation.
A former White House Fellow in the Department of the Treasury who later spent six years at Goldman Sachs, Reffkin credits much of his own success to seeking out advisers. Having a mentor can be pivotal for help with issues like carving out a career path, he says: “It’s one of the fastest ways to learn where you should go and how to get there.”
Reffkin brought his experience on both sides of the mentoring relationship to bear in his recently published first book, No One Succeeds Alone: Learn Everything You Can From Everyone You Can. In Young, he has a like-minded mentee who’s eager to learn and has a vision of growing Realm into a large, publicly traded company — but who first needs to hire an executive team and establish her brand’s identity.
“The weeks and the months are fine. It’s the intraday roller coaster.” –Liz Young
Young: I’m 18 months into building this business and it’s an emotional roller coaster. I’m constantly switching from one thing to the next. I read that you don’t believe in multitasking. How do you stay true to that when you’re running a company?
Reffkin: What I try to concentrate on are results, not activities. Results are things that drive the financials of the company or drive customer values. What I focus on most is the customer and really knowing what they value and how I can deliver that value for them. So the question is, how can you — throughout the day — organize the company to give the customer more and more in as scalable a way as possible?
Young: Talk to me about how your role evolved. Were there certain phases where you thought you really thrived? Are you the best CEO you’ve ever been right now?
Reffkin: In the early days, I was out there renting apartments as a licensed agent and I was doing basically every job. As time goes on, you hire people to do those jobs. You’re always pushing yourself out of your last job as the company progresses. You have to know what your strengths are and not try to make your weaknesses strengths. Hire people who can take care of those weaknesses. It’s going to be very hard to build a truly world-class company from nothing if you’re not doing what you’re best at.
Young: We have all this really interesting data, and sometimes a big company will ask to license it. My response is that our customer is the homeowner, and if we start focusing on someone else, it will change everything that we do day to day.
Reffkin: It’s amazing to me how easy it is for people to lose focus. You have so many stakeholders trying to take your focus away, whether it’s competitors, investors, or other potential partners. We have a lot of people who want to do strategic partnerships with us. They’re all distractions. Why would we do a strategic partnership that our agents aren’t asking for? I take the position that they know what they want, and the more we can build for that, the better.
Young: I read that you said, “A clear, compelling vision will give everyone the courage to leave comfort behind and leap into the unknown.” I think I’m getting better at pitching Realm to prospective hires, but you have to be really good if you’re trying to persuade someone to leave a big company and join your little startup. Our vision is really big and exciting, but we’re a 13-person company and stuff breaks, so how do you balance that?
Reffkin: There are people who get energy from building things that don’t exist, and there are people who get energy from scaling things that already exist. In the early days, I focused on the people who I knew really wanted to be builders and who wanted to create something from nothing. It’s not trying to convince people that it’s something it’s not. It’s trying to find people who are inspired by what it is.
Young: Without asking for names, who were the best hires you made in the early days?
“You want to overinvest in HR, because your primary client is your employees. They can best support the customer.”–Robert Reffkin
Reffkin: Our head of marketing really helped contribute to the culture of Compass. Early on, hiring the kind of people who can help create the cultural identity and brand identity really matters. I also think most founders don’t understand how much they need HR. You want to overinvest in HR, because you want to make your employees happy and help them run fast. In a way, your primary client is your employees. They can best support the customer.
Young: What’s an example of something you wish you had known earlier?
Reffkin: One is to get an executive coach who focuses on founders. I actually think it’s almost irresponsible to not have an executive coach. They have pattern recognition from other people who have done what you’re doing and are basically sharing insights on how to solve your problem. They’re also listening to you over and over in a way that’s kind of hard for you to do to yourself. They might say something like, “I don’t think this person is going to work out and you should find someone else.” You might respond that you think the person’s great, but the coach might say, “Well, you’ve been complaining about this person every time I’ve met you for the past year.” And you didn’t hear that before.
Young: A lot of founders talk about the ups and downs of running a startup, like having a bad week or a tough month. In my personal experience, the weeks and the months are fine. It’s the intraday roller coaster. How do you handle that, both personally and professionally?
Reffkin: One of the most important things as a founder is to maintain your positive energy. There can be so many ups and downs in an average day. You have to be really good at putting the past behind you, being present in the moment, and moving forward. What empowers me with positive energy are dreams. I like to dream big and think about what we can do and how we can be better. When something difficult happens, if I’m in another meeting after that talking about creating new products for the 22,000 agents we have now and the 100,000-plus we’re going to have in the future, that gives me energy. I say goodbye to all the negativity from the last meeting and move on.
From the September 2021 issue of Inc. Magazine