April 25, 2016

Boomtown’s Allen: Find A Big Problem And Solve It

Ashley Fletcher Frampton  /  Charleston Digital News

The Charleston Digital Corridor's Leadership Profile series is focused on the individuals who are driving Charleston tech scene forward. This series is brought to you with support from Charleston Southern University.

Grier Allen is CEO and co-founder of BoomTown, a real estate sales and marketing software company with 212 employees. BoomTown was founded in 2006 and is based in downtown Charleston, S.C.

Where did you grow up? What was life like and what are your memories from there?

I grew up in Summerville, so pretty close here to Charleston. Life was good. Summerville was a great place to grow up. Oftentimes, we came down to the beach on Sullivan's Island. So I knew pretty much from the get-go this was the place where I wanted to live and grow the company, eventually.

Some of my memories were just riding around on bikes, and there was the Flowertown Festival in Summerville. I remember going around and getting in a lot of mischief while that was going on.

What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?

The first real job that I had was a lawn-service business. My dad was in real estate, and he had a lot of listings that needed yard work when they were on the market. I started to kind of branch out from there. I think the biggest lesson that I had out of that was that you can conceptualize and have a vision for what you want to do, but it takes hard work to actually get it done, to execute.

Did you have an entrepreneurial drive early on, or did you acquire it through experiences?

My dad always had an entrepreneurial spirit. He actually worked at my grandfather's car dealership for a while and then went off on his own, started a business and then ended up in real estate, which is a pretty entrepreneurial type of role to be in. That was kind of where I got the first glimpses of entrepreneurship, which eventually led me to start the business.

In your own words, what does your company do?

We build technology for real estate brokers and consumers. The real goal of the technology is to match the right real estate professional with the right consumer in hopes that they'll find their right dream home.

What inspired you to start BoomTown?

In 2006, I had just come off of another venture that I'd started with a buddy from college, Slant Media. We did that for about two years. Since early in my life, I've been surrounded by real estate, with my dad and helping him out at the office and doing odd jobs for him and really helping him as technology started to come into the world of real estate. I always loved technology from a very early age as well.

The genesis for BoomTown was I wanted to do something in the real estate industry because it's a big industry. It's an industry that hasn't really been affected much by the Internet, and that's still the case today. I really wanted to find a big problem and solve it.

The big problem that we found was that consumers were requesting information and starting their search on the Internet, but there were secret shopper surveys that were done with the big web portals that had all the home listings, and about 50% of those requests for information or requests for a showing were completely being ignored by the industry.

We felt like that was a pretty big gap there in terms of what the consumer was expecting and what the industry was providing in terms of service. We felt like we could build a system that would better match that consumer to the right real estate professional. We could partner with the best agents in the country and create a system that enabled the real estate professional to provide a better and higher level of service to the consumer.

How would you describe your organization's culture?

It's pretty laid back in terms of the environment. We definitely like to have fun while we're doing what we're doing. We have a set of core values. We established those core value when we were about 30 employees. I won't go through all of them, but really our guiding core principle or core value has always been "create amazing experiences." Whether that's through our technology for our customers or the consumers that are using our technology, or through the service that we provide to our customers, or just the way that we treat each other internally or work with vendors or work with strategic partners – it's always been really focused around that core value of create amazing experiences.

What is your management style?

My leadership style is to cast a vision that everybody can get their arms around. If you've got everybody rowing in the same direction, then it makes a massive impact. So just trying to really reinforce why we're here, what we're doing and what are the most important things for the business – that's the style that I like to use to motivate employees and get everybody aligned and rallying around the same goals.

What lessons have you learned from good bosses? Bad bosses?

I really haven't had any bosses. The first two years out of school, I did consulting work at Carolina One. I had people that were asking me to do things, but I didn't really have any boss. Becoming a boss was something new to me. That evolution was pretty interesting – what you need to do at different phases of the growth of a company and what your role should be and how that changes over time.

What's the hardest or most important lesson you've learned in business?

I think back to the early stages of BoomTown, and I think about the transition from being a doer into a leader. That transition of doing things yourself versus getting results through people. That was one of the biggest 'aha' moment for me and kind of took a while to really digest. I got through it by really leaning on mentors and other people who had been through those experiences before, and even hiring the right people internally.

What's the biggest misconception about being an entrepreneur?

A lot of people think, "Oh, you work for yourself, so you can do whatever you want whenever you want." I think that's a common misconception. Really, if you're going to be successful as an entrepreneur, it's really hard to balance your life. Because in the very beginning, it's just you or you and a couple of cofounders, and you're working around the clock. You're always thinking about work. So if you're going down the path of entrepreneurship because you want an easier lifestyle, what you'll find is that that's not going to be the case.

Do you have a routine that's important to your day? A morning ritual, meditation, etc.?

I do. I have to get exercise to clear my head. I will run two or three times a week and then I work out twice a week. I try to get as much exercise time in as possible.

What do you look for in the people you hire?

We think about, first and foremost, the values - do their values match up with our values? We have our core values for a reason, and one of the biggest places we use them is in the hiring process. We evaluate people based on those values and make sure that it's a match. If it's too far off from who we are, then typically it's not going to work out and you've made a hiring mistake. That's a big one.

Aptitude is another one we look for. We sometimes have junior positions that we have to fill, and we want to fill those with people who are ambitious and looking to grow in their careers, and we try to provide them the path to be able to do that. When I look to hire for the leadership team, it's how can we really calibrate on what we're looking for, and stepping out of the mindset of hiring somebody who you just like or who might have the right resume, and really thinking hard about what you and your business need.

What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?

The most important thing that we did in order to achieve success is to find a problem that is real and to focus. Most entrepreneurs have a tendency to be a little ADD, and you kind of chase the shiny new opportunity a lot. I think our success was based on the fact that we stayed very focused on the problem we were trying to solve. I'd say focus is paramount.

The other thing that I'd say is reach out to people that you are trying to market this product to. Really try your best to get feedback from them - really genuine, critical feedback from them - and don't be afraid to make adjustments to what you're doing. We were actually going down a slightly different direction, and we started asking the question, "Would you buy this for X amount of dollars per month?" And we found that the answer to that question was, "No." So we pivoted our idea slightly and added to it, added some services to it, until we found that we had a product that the market really put a lot of value on.

What advice would you give new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?

If you're looking to join a high-growth tech company, I think one universal trait that you need to have is the ability to really embrace and drive change. Things change so rapidly in a startup environment. You might have different organizational structures. Some businesses reorganize every six months. We're not like that. But being flexible enough to change because of the rapid growth is something that I think is very important.

From a technical perspective, in my experience, it was great learning the fundamentals of computer science and computer engineering in school. But really try to put your skills to test in the real world using more modern programming languages. One thing that we really look for is somebody who is always pursuing growth and learning. That's something that we definitely look for on the resume. Even if they're already in a position or have done an internship, you like to see where people are doing side projects or submitting code to open-source projects that can be checked out.

What do you see as the future of your company?

We don't have any aspirations to take the company public or anything like that right now. We just want to build a great business that continues to have a massive impact on real estate. One of the reasons why we started this business – the industry really not being responsive enough to the digital consumer – that's still a problem. We still haven't solved it. We're a long way from solving it. So I never get bored thinking about all the things we can still do to make this industry better. So for the future of BoomTown, I just see more and more opportunity for us to leverage new technologies, leverage the assets we have to create a better real estate experience for consumers and real estate professionals alike.

We're not looking to disintermediate the real estate agent. We feel like the real estate agent plays a major role in a successful real estate transaction due to their local knowledge, negotiating skills, things like that. But we want to continue to push the envelope and develop new and exciting technology that delights consumers and our customers, who are the real estate professionals.

What one person has been the biggest influence on your business life, and why?

I'd say my dad. Some of my more vivid memories growing up were when my dad started his own business. I was the kid who was like, "Daddy, can I come to work with you?" I just thought it was so cool back then. After graduating from college, I remember him giving me a lot of books that had guided him and helped him over the years. Books that kind of got me thinking differently about the world and what opportunities are out there. That expanded my mindset and got me thinking, "Why can't I build a great business?"

What is your biggest pet peeve in business or amongst colleagues?

How about the biggest challenge? I think one of the biggest challenges when you look at life overall is just work-life balance. I think that's the biggest challenge. I love what I do here, but I've got two little boys, 2 and 5 years old, so finding the time spend with them and occasional travel that I've gotta do – that's something that I think a lot of entrepreneurs struggle with.

Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?

I don't know when I actually made the switch, probably about six or seven years ago. But I was a hard-core, writing-code engineer after college and in my first couple of businesses, and even with BoomTown up until we actually launched the product in the middle of 2008, I was all PC. I had friends who were designers and were always using Macs, and I kind of thought they were all weird. It was this (iPhone) that changed me. So I started off with the iPhone, and it's kind of like a gateway drug into everything else Mac. I'm definitely an Apple disciple now.

What is your usual Starbucks order?

Medium roast black. Grande.

Outside of work what keeps you busy?The boys. I've got a 2-year-old named Walker and a 5-year-old named Grier Jr. My wife and I love to take them to the beach or go out on the boat with them. I'm going home in a little bit to go ride bikes around the neighborhood with Grier. That's pretty much what keeps me busy these days outside of work. I like to read; I like to learn new things. A little bit of physical exercise. There's not much time for anything else.

What has it been like building your technical team in Charleston?

In the early days, it was a challenge. Back in 2006, when we were trying to find our first engineer – first of all, we didn't know what we were doing. Second, there wasn't much of a tech community around here. The Charleston Digital Corridor was very helpful in the early days for us. It's amazing to see how much has changed around here since then. Hiring the right talent was difficult very early.

The company has grown to a point now where it's gotten a lot easier, and obviously the tech economy in general has grown quite a bit in Charleston. So it's getting a lot easier. Finding the mentorship and access to capital, if you're looking for that in the early stages – those were things that were nonexistent back in the early days.

What do you see as some of the challenges recruiting tech talent to Charleston?

It's still expensive to live here. People think that they're coming from a place that is an expensive place to live, like a larger city that might have more expensive real estate. But it's still kind of expensive in Charleston. I think another thing is finding the right skill sets. It's still hard to find some of the senior-level talent that has knowledge of a specific skill set. We've had challenges ramping up our mobile teams both on iOS and Android. So we actually started an office in Atlanta because they have a ton of mobile talent there.