Bennett Washabaugh of TenantBase: “Everyone wants to tell you how to do things”

Everyone wants to tell you how to do things. When you are young, everyone wants to give you advice, but they don’t always have the right answer. I have any number of examples, but the key point in this, for me, is that you have to be confident in your own decision-making. It’s your business […]

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Everyone wants to tell you how to do things. When you are young, everyone wants to give you advice, but they don’t always have the right answer. I have any number of examples, but the key point in this, for me, is that you have to be confident in your own decision-making. It’s your business and you know it better than anyone.

As a part of our series called “My Life as a TwentySomething Founder,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Bennett Washabaugh, Co-Founder and CEO of TenantBase.

He is an entrepreneurial trailblazer with a vision to create a modern experience for local businesses traditionally underserved by commercial brokerage firms. TenantBase is a tech-enabled commercial real estate platform designed to simplify the process of leasing your next office, industrial or retail space.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Mich., and after graduating college I worked as a commercial real estate broker in downtown Chicago. In that role, I saw the challenges of efficiently matching clients to an available space. I was specifically shocked by the fact the traditional brokerage model was especially broken for addressing the needs of SMBs. It was an actual problem. I started talking with my co-founder and partner, Mike Zei, who was a great friend of mine (Mike was working with Cassidy Turley in Dallas at the time). The energy from the initial conversations about TenantBase was incredible — we started looking into the numbers and realized 80% of the local business market is SMBs, and began obsessing about how we could create a technology platform that could digitize the commercial real estate leasing process for such an underserved segment of the market. It sounds simple, but there were so many nuanced reasons why it had not happened yet in the industry at that time.

In mid 2013, I quit my job to start TenantBase. We ended up recruiting our third founder and partner, Andy Kish, to join us as our CTO. Andy was working at Google in Seattle as a software developer and was one of my childhood friends. We moved to Ann Arbor where both of us were from, and during the day I would cold-call law firms to pitch lease restructures to fund the business from brokerage fees, while at night Andy would code the initial TenantBase software as I sketched out plans. In 2014, we moved the business to Nashville, where Mike was living at the time, and we launched the operation. The company then expanded in 2015 to California after being fortunate enough to be accepted into EvoNexus, a technology incubator in Southern California (whose largest funding partner was the Irvine company). Today, TenantBase is seven years old and we’ve raised approximately 22 million dollars in capital from incredible backers, which has helped us to grow into 13 markets in seven states and change the commercial real estate experience for local businesses.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company? What lessons or takeaways did you take out of that story?

In 2014, we decided to host our first company trip. There were only five of us on staff at that time, and we took a road trip from Nashville to Rosemary Beach to stay at a home owned by Mike’s wife’s family. We had no money for an extravagant trip, so we all piled into my SUV and headed out, traveling well into the night when we stopped for a fast-food dinner. Right after, our VP of Business Development had an allergic reaction to something he ate. We were debating whether we needed to find a doctor when suddenly the transmission actually dropped out of my SUV. It was 1 a.m. in the middle of nowhere in Alabama, and we had to get the car towed and ultimately had to rent a vehicle to get to our destination. We wound up having to rent a small car for each couple (think Smart Cars) at the Huntsville airport because there were no cars left on the lot, and formed a tiny car caravan for the rest of the trip through the middle of the night.

If you would have told me the trip would include a ton of worry about our friend and colleague, a broken down SUV in the middle of nowhere, and topped off with a late-night tiny car caravan through Alabama for our first company trip, I’m not sure we would have gone in the first place. But the trip was fitting. Once we got through it, our VP of Business Development was fine. It was an absolutely amazing trip and later we could laugh about all of the crazy things that happened. But looking back on it, I realize that experience also represented the journey of entrepreneurship — you may have a destination and a goal, and a roadmap to achieve it, but the path you actually take always looks different than what you expect. If you ask any entrepreneur, the journey isn’t always ideal either, but the journey is what you will always remember.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What I think makes us unique is that we help the people that no one else helps. With our platform we can work with any size of company, but we started out focusing on the smaller businesses who struggle to find someone to help them lease a property. One of our first clients was a small contractor who became one of our biggest advocates because we helped him find what he needed, and we were there with him every step of the way through the process.

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?

I am grateful to my two co-founders, Mike and Andy, certainly. I’m also grateful to my uncle, who was our first angel investor. He’s always stood by us and I’m so grateful for that.

Are you working on any exciting projects now?

In addition to expanding within our current markets, we have developed a third-party platform to partner with brokers in the markets where we seek to grow. We’re confident this will allow us to scale quickly and help tenants in many more cities in the United States. We are simply leveraging our proven technology platform and processes from the last seven years to create the same online leasing experience for tenants through partner tenant rep brokers providing great local service. These partnerships allow us to help more companies find and lease their perfect space faster.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I think this really goes back to the comment I made earlier about our uniqueness — we are very passionate about working with clients that don’t fit the traditional brokerage model — local businesses that struggle to find good representation in the process. Local businesses are the engine that drive local economies, and when they succeed, we all succeed.

Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

When I was very young, I read Life of Pi by Yann Martel and it had a real impact on me. The key takeaway for me was that, when you are at your most uncomfortable in life — when you face a big struggle, that is when you learn the most. And when you look back on those moments, they are the ones you appreciate the most.

Can you share 5 of the most difficult and most rewarding parts of being a “TwentySomething founder”. Please share an example or story for each

  1. Everyone wants to tell you how to do things. When you are young, everyone wants to give you advice, but they don’t always have the right answer. I have any number of examples, but the key point in this, for me, is that you have to be confident in your own decision-making. It’s your business and you know it better than anyone.
  2. Everything takes longer than you think, and you are always under-resourced. It truly does take years to become an overnight success. When you have an idea you know will work, you think things will happen faster, but it takes time to build a solid business.
  3. Work-life balance. A lot of people talk about this and how to achieve it, and I have to honestly say I don’t quite have it figured out. Along the journey of starting this business, I got married and we have two children, with a third on the way. I love the business, I love my family and I want to do it all — I just have to take it one day at a time and do my best. I believe that, if you’ve done your best, that’s success.
  4. There isn’t any limit to what you can do, but you are only one person. One thing I recognized early on in our journey is that you have to have a team in order to be successful. As one person, there are only so many hours in a day or days in a week; with a team, you can do so much more. I was grateful to have Andy and Mike as co-founders and continue to be grateful for the team we’ve built over the last seven years.
  5. One of the greatest rewards of our journey is that we have built a team that genuinely cares about one another. I trust every one of my colleagues and they are my best friends, my second family. By being close-knit the way we are, we can always be open, honest and real with one another. That’s especially important during challenging moments — you want to know your team has your back, and that you have theirs.

What are the main takeaways that you would advise a twenty-year-old who is looking to found a business?

You have to keep perspective during tough situations you will encounter in building and growing a business. You need to remember it’s a growth period and a defining moment, and that if you don’t encounter those uncomfortable things, you won’t look back and consider yourself successful.

I would also say, “just do it.” I think everyone manufactures anxiety about whether they should or shouldn’t go for something. You have to take risks, and also remember, what’s the worst that can happen? I think it’s worse to always wonder what could have been. For me, I didn’t want to be on my deathbed regretting not starting this business.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

I would love to have breakfast with Warren Buffet. He is a brilliant person, and that’s one reason. But it’s also because of how he handles himself. I am a big fan of understated people — those who can be humble and who want to leave the world better than the way they found it. He is a great example of that.

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