As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Smith. He is the co-founder of Truss where he recently helped his company raise a $15 million Series A-2, led by General Catalyst. Truss is the only company to offer price transparency to business owners and entrepreneurs looking for office space, coworking, retail or industrial space. Two previous companies Smith co-founded were acquired for more than $50 million each. Smith started his career at Anderson Consulting more than 20 years ago.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My career path as a founder started through people I met at my first job at Anderson Consulting, which then led me to jump onboard at a start up in internet security in 1997 called Netrex. We grew it into the largest independent provider of internet security services in the United States, and then it was acquired by ISS Group (ISSX) for $57M in 2000.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
It’s been colorful. I once installed the security software on Hugh Hefner’s personal computer at the mansion. He was there, at 3pm, and supervising in his robe.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
Today, you can buy nearly anything if not everything online. We wanted to make leasing office space as easy as booking a flight or buying shoes. We launched Truss as an online marketplace to search, tour and lease office space right from your mobile device or laptop. One of the reasons we started Truss is because this is such a green field. We are the only company to offer complete price transparency to prospective tenants during the search process. Small business owners can take 3D virtual tours of the different spaces, which saves them time and helps them visualize the space without needing to visit it in person. We currently have more than 300 million square feet of space and we’re adding more options daily.
How do you think this will change the world?
Truss will change the world because it will make it much easier for small and medium-sized business owners to find, tour and lease space in a way they’ve never been able to. It’ll consumerize the entire industry — everyone else has forgotten who the customer is and we’re putting them first for a huge benefit for everyone.
We’re not the only believers — our lead investor in our Series A-2 is General Catalyst — a company that has invested in other firms that changed the world including Airbnb, Snapchat and Kayak.
Yes, we do — when a company is trying to gain market share aggressively, you still have to make sure it is done in sustainable ways. There’s a concern if any business is doing things so quickly or expanding so rapidly, it might be unsustainable. The carpet can get pulled out from underneath with the landlords, providers, etc. Businesses must focus on the customer and grow in a responsible and sustainable way.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
I had just received my 10th request from friends or friends of small business owners, asking me to help them find an office space. The last request is from a friend in Dallas who needed a dermatology office — a beautiful space — but she couldn’t get the attention of the broker. She couldn’t even get a call back from the large commercial real estate firms. In their mind, she was too small.
At the same time, some business owners do not trust brokers, which really create the perfect storm of owners ready to lease but can’t find the spaces.
After several deals as favors to friends, I knew there had to be a better solution and identified a massive problem. From there, I connected with Bobby Goodman. He had the idea to start Truss, and I jumped all over it.
We both knew there was a better way.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
We need more awareness — so thank you for chatting with me!
We are structured on the entrepreneur and small business owner side — with price transparency for them — and we need to get the word out and the demand is there. We need to let people know there is a new way to find commercial space, such as office space, coworking, retail space or industrial space.
They’ve never been able to browse space for free in this way before. The table is set — we just need to send out more invites for our dinner party.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- What’s the right mix of industry professionals vs outsiders for transformation? (still seeking the answer)
- It is difficult to find venture capital firms in the Midwest to lead early rounds on potential vs traction. You often need a coast VC to price it or lead the round and then many VCs in the Midwest will participate and support you.
- That just because a commercial real estate market is large doesn’t mean it is ripe for disruption (Houston).
- That just because a commercial real estate market is smaller doesn’t mean it can’t be one of your strongest (Austin).
- Fundraising takes twice as long and twice as much effort as you think it will.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
For those in entry level or mid-level careers, I recommend you embrace technology and learn how to code machines that will eventually be a bigger and bigger part in the future. There will be those who can code and there will be everyone else.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
I would invest in reconfiguration of office spaces and floor plates to accommodate in a very linear way the customer space needs. Many developers are trying to figure how to reconfigure parking garages for driverless cars of the future. They’re looking at new construction without the ramps so they can convert the parking into actual floors through lifts. We’re going to see more and more opportunities to invest in technologies or industries that are changing our future.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
In terms of philosophy, energy can be contagious. Having fun and being honest and open with everyone. Plus having real empathy — or being able to see things through the other person’s perspective.
For other career recommendations, particularly for young entrepreneurs — I recommend reading “The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World,” “Twitter Hatched,” on how Twitter started and “Bad Blood,” a guide on what not to do. And when I was younger, I read and still recommend Jack Welch’s autobiography.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
I rely on the time management advice of US President Eisenhower — he knew time management was being both effective and efficient and he spent time on priorities that are important, not just efficient. You prioritize first what’s important and urgent, then important but not urgent. From there, you evaluate priorities based on that and it limits distractions to let you focus on success.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
That’s a long time with the VC — I can do it in less time. I have a simple question: Do you want to transform the largest, least advanced segment of the global economy together?
How can our readers follow you on social media?