“Good news, bad news… who knows.” When you are trying to start a business you live every little win or loss like it is life or death. Any time I would face what seemed like a major setback, my father would always say to me: “Good news, bad news… who knows.” Oftentimes, a big loss in the moment is really a small loss or not a loss at all. Whether it is losing a key deal or employee, sometimes these things open up new opportunities that you cannot see at the time. The lesson is that you are never as good or as bad as you think you are.
As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chase Garbarino.
Chase Garbarino is co-founder and CEO of HqO, the leading tenant experience software platform for commercial real estate. Prior to HqO, Chase was co-founder and CEO of AmericanInno (formerly Streetwise Media) where he helped build a local media network for the innovation economies in over a dozen cities in the US. The company was purchased in 2012 by ACBJ, a subsidiary of Advance Publications which owns Conde Nast and is a shareholder of Reddit, Discovery and a number of other media properties.
In his free time, Chase is an avid Boston sports fan and runner. He enjoys spending time with his wife Jess, son Dash, and newborn Grayson. Chase holds a B.A. from Hamilton College.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was in fifth grade, there was a game called Pogs where kids would hit these little cardboard stacks with a “slammer.” It was all the rage in elementary school. Though I wasn’t particularly interested in playing them, I was interested in selling them. My mother used to take me to buy Pogs in bulk and then I’d sell them to kids at school. I’ve always enjoyed selling things and building businesses. I had a few businesses in high school and college as well, and I enjoyed that more than classroom work. Both my father and grandfather were entrepreneurs, so I guess it’s something that just runs in my family.
I went to Hamilton College, where I co-founded and was President of the Entrepreneurship club. There, my co-founder Kevin McCarthy and I started an online publication. We’d become interested in digital media, mostly around the software piece of user-generated content. While we were watching Youtube’s growth and CollegeHumor’s growth, we weren’t particularly interested in their content production, rather more about how their software was scaling content from non-professional content producers.
We had created a site — called The Campus Word — where students all over the country could post content. In 2004–2005, online advertising was not particularly sophisticated. There was an ad network called AdBrite where you’d get flat fees of payment for a link ad, and it was pretty easy to make money if you had decent traffic. We learned a lot and made some good money for college students, and then when we graduated in 2007, we were hooked on startups and we wanted to continue doing that. So, we moved to Boston and tried to dive into the tech startup scene here.
Soon after we started a tech publication focused on the Boston area called BostInno with Greg Gomer. It eventually became Streetwise Media, a digital media company focused on local innovation economies. We then sold AmericanInno — the parent company to BostInno — to the American City Business Journal (ACBJ) in 2012, a subsidiary of Advance Publications, which owns Conde Nast and is a shareholder of Reddit, Discovery, and a number of other media properties. After leaving the company in 2016 — and taking a bit of a winding road to figure out what was next — we landed on HqO.
A few things helped us piece together the birth of HqO. The first was that BostInno was created with the purpose of highlighting how technology drives the local community. The second was that after it was sold to the ACBJ, Kevin, Greg and I were able to learn about commercial real estate (CRE); we saw how big of a market it was because it happened to be the publication’s largest ad segment.
We already knew that our interests involved how technology connects people back to the real world around them. After assessing the CRE industry, the built environment became a much more interesting platform for us. So, we embarked on developing technology that connects people back to their local community and the people around them in a more impactful way. After all, the workplace is just one setting. There’s so much more around an office building, beyond the physical workplace, in terms of how it impacts the local community. We’d been heading in this direction for a while — and the more we continue on, the more we realize how passionate we are about what we do.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Before HqO, my co-founders and I had taken on this endeavor of starting companies in our 20s and didn’t know much about maintaining a workplace culture, so we completely screwed up our company values. By this, I mean we didn’t proactively define them or think much about them at all; we figured that it would all work out as long as we hired talented people.
In the early stages of our last company, we got away with it — we got lucky and hired some great people who are still with us today. However, as the company grew, we never pattern-matched what made a good teammate or employee. As more joined the company and started getting involved in the hiring process, they didn’t know what to look for. Our culture inevitably suffered.
Therefore, we focused on being more deliberate when we started what is now HqO. We took the core group of people that had made it through the early-stage pivots of the company and asked them what they thought would make a good teammate. Sourcing this information from the entire team set a good foundation that reflected everyone’s values and ensured that there was a lot of buy-in from the very beginning.
We also knew that company values are often pretty generic and non-impactful. To combat this, we took our values and adapted them so that they were built for scale as we continued to grow. Our values became a part of our overall brand, and as we ran into the global pandemic this year, it definitely helped keep our workplace culture alive. This saved us from a lot of difficulties that other small, high-growth companies have been experiencing since shifting to remote work models.
So, how did we make our values brand-able? When we were defining our values in the early stages of the company, I had asked our core group if they could name our company values. As it turned out, nobody could because they weren’t very memorable. This led to me running a search query in Slack to figure out what language we were using the most as a company. One of the most popular phrases was “let’s go,” which we then converted into an acronym for our current values: Learning, Excellence, Truth, Speed, Goodness, and Ownership. Now, every HqO employee knows our values by heart and embodies them every day.
Can you tell us about the cutting-edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
The old adage, “location, location, location,” used to hold true for both the value and desirability of commercial real estate (CRE). Today’s worker now demands a technology-enabled workplace, bringing together digital tools and experiences to enhance physical space. With this in mind, the industry now requires new data sets about how their buildings are used — the combination of data, technology, workers, and buildings makes CRE a virtuous cycle business. Companies like Netflix and Uber leveraged data to create new business models centered around users (demand) rather than products (supply), thus taking the lead in what is now dubbed the “experience economy.”
At HqO, we’ve taken the user-centric model a step further by creating CRE’s first end-to-end operating system. Our HqOS™ technology helps property teams manage all customer-facing technology tools across the growing proptech landscape within their buildings; by activating real connections between people and their properties through physical-to-digital experiences, we empower leaders to get closer to their end-users than ever before. With real data to drive decision making and the acceleration of innovative asset strategies, any modern commercial real estate portfolio can now tackle the industry obstacles of attraction, fragmentation, and differentiation at the touch of a button.
How do you think this might change the world?
HqO’s product roadmap is in the service of enabling technologies for how we experience the physical world. We’ve been talking about making cities smarter for a long time, and we don’t believe we’ve made enough progress. We think property owners are our best chance to deploy technologies that can make our cities better, so we’re excited about our recent launch of HqOS — the end-to-end operating system for buildings — and how it enables a new wave of technologies for the physical environment.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
For many people, the concepts of industry transformation, digitization, and consumerization can seem daunting. However, they’re all actually good things when achieved thoughtfully. For example, much of what fintech is transforming is bringing more financial opportunity to the masses. With regards to HqO and commercial real estate, we’re working hard to enable CRE owners to evolve and become more nimble to better handle many of the growing challenges cities face, which have a big impact on a lot of people.
I think the most critical thing in preventing “Black Mirror”-like scenarios is ensuring end-user data is protected and not abused. To that end I do believe CRE is well positioned to develop a model of more distributed data ownership and aggregation. There isn’t a single Amazon or Facebook of Built World data, and I think if the industry is smart about how building data is anonymized before aggregated, we can be in a position to reap the benefits of smart cities without any one organization holding too much power.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
By March 2017, our previous company VentureApp was failing, and we were dead in the water — we were out of money, churning customers, and new sales had stalled. I credit our pivot to a series of early conversations.
During this time, I was having pretty consistent conversations with longtime friend and commercial real estate professional Colin Greenhalgh. I was learning how archaic the CRE industry was, and how it was slow to move on technology adoption. Soon after, I had another conversation with Dave McLaughlin, current Global Head of Member Experience at WeWork. He advised me to speak to WeWork’s product team, since they were looking to build similar business community functionality as we’d already done with VentureApp.
So, running on very little cash, I went down to WeWork’s Manhattan headquarters. Once there, I ended up speaking to a staff member that had looked at our VentureApp product and thought that what we had built had value. Through a few more phone calls I was connected to one of the people involved in the Softbank investment at WeWork. That call continued to plant the seed, because they also told me that we should be looking at selling technology to landlords.
When I returned back to my team, I put together a pitch deck that I called the “Reality Tour.” I walked everyone through the conversations I’d been having on the harsh realities of where we were as a company, and that several people noted that there might be opportunity in commercial real estate. We only had enough cash to take a shot at one minimal viable product or MVP, which is the leanest version of a product that you can put in the hands of a customer that is viable to go to market with. I was able to make the case that there was a trend in physical asset businesses — such as Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb — where the user experience was being facilitated through software vs. taking on management of the physical assets themselves (and the expensive leases that come with is). By facilitating the customer experience through software, they established new business models centered around aggregating user demand rather than controlling physical supply.
With this in mind, I told the team that WeWork proved the need for better experiences in commercial real estate, but they had the model wrong. Therefore, we needed to go to the owners of the supply, and tell them that they needed to own the relationship with the end-users of their buildings. Owners also needed to start collecting important data on how people were using their products (which are their assets) to inform better building experiences. Our team of maybe 15 or so people didn’t have much of an option. However, what we did have were the right people, good timing, and a willingness to get started immediately. So, we went for it.
Our connection to our first client, Jamestown, is also an interesting story. My wife works at Reebok, which is one of Jamestown’s key tenants in Boston. Soon after we pivoted away from the VentureApp product, we attended a Reebok work event together. I was standing in the corner, feeling a little uneasy about the shift in direction for our company. Over all the noise of the event, I was approached by a stranger. Very politely, he asked me about what I did for work. I managed to muster up enough energy to give a spirited pitch about SpaceWorks (the early name for HqO), even showing him some of our app designs from my phone. He began asking more pointed, informed questions, and handed me his business card. I didn’t realize it until I got home, but he ended up being the asset manager for Jamestown.
After realizing whom I came in contact with, I sent him an email and went back to our investors. I told them that VentureApp was dead, and that we were taking a new direction that showed more promise. They were reluctant to bridge us the money at first, and told me that i f we could sell to one landlord, they’d consider it. By January we had our first client meeting with Jamestown, and by mid-March we had closed on them and two other landlords — Bulfinch and National Development — which earned us the investments we needed. Thus, HqO was born.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
When it comes to widespread technology adoption for commercial real estate, it’s both top-down and bottoms-up. In many conversations we’ve had with our customers, they look to see who of their peers are also taking the leap by investing in our product, and what similarities they can draw between their needs and what has already been accomplished for others. On the other side of things, tenants as consumers have already begun to expect modern, tech-enabled experiences in the workplace. In order to drive tenant attraction and retention, owners and property teams will need to leverage office technology as a differentiator in an evolving, competitive market.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
We take several methods to publicize our ideas and technology, often in collaboration with our customers to show the positive impacts that our operating system has on the industry. Many of our clients see our product as a differentiator for their portfolios, and we’re grateful that they want to share it as part of how they promote their company and customer success values. Alongside these promotional activities — such as engaging webinars, PR, and other co-marketing materials — we do our best to engage both existing and prospective clients through content creation and account-based marketing strategies to help educate landlords about tenant experience and provide value.
Additionally, during one of our recent product launches, we “drank our own champagne” as a company and held HqOS Day — an entire day dedicated to digital programming and engagement for our own employees using our Tenant Experience Platform. Since we truly believe in what we do, it was a huge success that shined through with our entire team. HqO employees shared photos and talked about it on their social media platforms, and participated in registered classes and giveaways. This was great for not only showcasing our product to our customers, but for also showing employee appreciation in a fun and unique way.
Most recently, I actually just launched proptech’s first official podcast: The Let’s Go Show. Sitting at the intersection of technology and commercial real estate, it features guests from HqO and other industry experts who weigh in on various topics. Each conversation will be framed by the HqO values of learning, excellence, truth, speed, goodness, and ownership to help our peers and clients learn more about us as a company, while also showing them the impacts we can make for their assets.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I remember dating back to middle school, my father would constantly tell me stories about different entrepreneurs who built businesses. He’s been my informal coach from a young age. At one point, he ran a furniture business that had IPO’d but ultimately didn’t work out — so he made it work for a little bit, until it came down. I also watched him work his ass off while I was in high school to build an occupational healthcare business. He would always travel during weeks, at times living in different locations during the week. Now in his late 60s, I’m watching him build other healthcare businesses and still working hard. He and I trade war stories, and I’ve been fortunate to watch somebody constantly working to try to build something. I received an early education from him, just by osmosis and experiencing his growth.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
HqO is a forward-thinking company that makes sure to give back to the broader community. Some examples of its impact are as follows:
- HqO has joined several of its best-in-class Marketplace partners to elevate corporate volunteering and social responsibility initiatives. Most recently, HqO helped Building Impact roll out their annual food drive to HqO clients in 10 major markets as part of a new digital programming initiative. Together, they helped deliver much-needed support to local food pantries on the front lines of helping families during the pandemic. HqO is also planning on sponsoring a future Guppy Tank program (also run by Building Impact) focused on the development of middle school students.
- HqO is part of The Catalog Cares program in partnership with Blackstone to boost retailers and deliver meals to frontline healthcare workers in Chicago.
- HqO supports TUGG in its local community, which stands for Technology Underwriting Greater Good. They participate in Tech Gives Back every year, which is an annual day of service that connects tech entrepreneurs with local under-resourced youth in the Boston area. They also have worked in Boston classrooms to teach entrepreneurship skills to students.
- As the CEO, I’ve personally made it a mission for the company to help and support the military and its veterans. HqO has attended veteran-specific career fairs and focuses on hiring veterans in its overall recruiting process.
- HqO has also gotten involved with the following organizations:
- BUILD Entrepreneur Games
- Big Sister Chapter of Big Brother Big Sister
- Home for Little Wanderers
- Pan Mass Challenge — a team of HqO riders raised money for Dana Farber Cancer Institute at their Winter Cycle event in January
- She Geeks Out — many HqO employees are members, and the company is hosting an event with them in January 2021
- Color of Change
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Well I have been fortunate enough to have received a lot of good advice over the years, so here are five things I have learned and I should have listened to 🙂
- “Good news, bad news… who knows.” When you are trying to start a business you live every little win or loss like it is life or death. Any time I would face what seemed like a major setback, my father would always say to me: “Good news, bad news… who knows.” Oftentimes, a big loss in the moment is really a small loss or not a loss at all. Whether it is losing a key deal or employee, sometimes these things open up new opportunities that you cannot see at the time. The lesson is that you are never as good or as bad as you think you are.
- Building something excellent requires doing the little things right, day-in and day-out, over the long term. Too often we believe success comes from one major achievement or event when in reality it is a lot less sexy. It’s waking up early, taking care of yourself physically and mentally, and working both hard and smart every day even when it doesn’t feel like you are making major progress. Developing these small habits compounds (recommended reading: Atomic Habits).
- Parsing feedback is the most important skill in building a startup. Being able to block out those that doubt you while also remaining humble enough to learn in the areas that you need to is difficult. There are so many people with opinions about what you are doing. Some are well-intentioned but ultimately not helpful, some very well intentioned and helpful, and some with poor intentions. It is so critical to learn how to take feedback from a multitude of sources and be able to detach emotionally both from the messenger and the message, and to begin to test and iterate to determine where your best feedback is coming from.
- Focus much more on developing your areas of strength than your areas of weakness. Business building is ultimately about team building. Early in my career I spent too much time trying to improve areas of weakness that ultimately wouldn’t give me much leverage in terms of being a technology CEO. Finding people who are truly excellent in these areas has enabled me to hone my craft in the areas that are most important for my job which has created much more value.
- At the end of the day it is more important to be a good person than a successful business person. Thanks Mom!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I have always been driven to be of service to my country, and today I value more and more focusing locally. I believe our real worlds — the people in our local communities, the people we work and spend time with every day — are a much better reflection of what we can be as a society than what we tend to see on social media. My work through HqO touches this by building technology that brings people together in the real world, rather than keeping us isolated. If I could inspire people outside of HqO, I would love to start a civic movement focused on bringing people together in real life to unite us in healthy, positive, and kind ways.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m not sure they are quotes, but I have a few life goals that I measure myself on each week, which include:
- Put family first — I try to put my wife and two sons before everything else. I try to block time at the beginning of each week to make sure I’m there for them as a husband and dad, as well as a friend, son, sibling to my extended family.
- Build a world-leading organization — Oftentimes, entrepreneurs are asked what their “exit plan” is. I’m not really motivated by the “exit,” but rather am motivated by building something that can be defined as a category leader. I’d love for HqO to be the world’s best/biggest tenant experience company for a very long time.
- Help veterans — I was raised to be very appreciative of the freedoms we are afforded here in the US, which we owe to the members of our military first and foremost. I hope to make meaningful contributions to the lives of veterans at some point in my life.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
If I had 60 seconds to make a pitch, I’d quickly explain the changes to CRE and the urgency to act now. Pre-COVID our thesis — like many other people — was that digital technologies were changing the way people work. Offices needed to evolve in order to address the flexible and dynamic nature of how people collaborate, communicate, and engage with their work. Since COVID, we believe the shift we were seeing before has accelerated. The digital shift in real estate would probably have taken 5–10 years without the pandemic, and now we think many of the tenant workflows and property team workflows need to be digitized and cloud enabled within 1–3 years. The pressure COVID has put on landlords will remain — not in the form of abandoning the office altogether, but in the form of much heavier scrutiny of the ROI of the office and how much workers need to use an office environment. This is putting downward pressure on square footage and lease length. HqO can help property teams with all of that — from creating value in the office for the employees, to enhancing asset performance and informing better investments.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me on Twitter @cgarb, or connect with me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chasegarbarino/
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.