Be patient. This is absolutely critical. Depending on what industry you’re going into, realize that it could take a long, long time to get things off the ground. You’ll need to be patient, humble and have a high degree of resilience to deal with the inevitable early setbacks, failures and missed opportunities to keep going.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gabrielle McMillan.
Gabrielle is co-founder and CEO of Equiem, leading the business from its 2011 inception to become the world’s leading tenant experience platform. The company, which employs more than 200 employees in four countries, has been rolled out across some 215 class A office properties worldwide and is used by 9000 companies worldwide.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up in a rural part of Victoria, Australia. As a child, I milked cows and climbed trees; I certainly had no plans of ‘growing up’ to become the CEO of a real estate tech company (now) based in New York City.
I began my career at Advance Marketing, an Australian marketing agency with a diverse client base. After working in the hospitality marketing space for nearly 15 years, I was starting to think about my next career move. While I wasn’t sure exactly what that would be, I knew that I wanted to do something with technology.
In 2011 I was introduced to Lorenz Grollo, a third-generation real estate developer. The Grollo Group is synonymous with real estate in Australia; they developed the majority of Melbourne’s preeminent residential and office towers. At the time, The Grollo Group had a 50% interest in the Rialto, one of Melbourne’s signature office towers, and was looking for ways to reposition the building to stay competitive and attract tenants. Lorenz was keen on repositioning the asset using technology to activate a community within the building, supercharge its retail and improve the amenities and services provided to tenants.
That conversation was the catalyst for Equiem. I quickly realized that landlords, property managers and leasing agents worldwide, even the most successful ones, had no way of communicating with the thousands of workers occupying the office towers they own. The concept of opening up communications between owners, retailers and tenants had never been explored at the time, so I left the marketing world and co-founded Equiem with Lorenz.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I love thinking back to those very early days. Lorenz graciously allowed Equiem to occupy unleased space at The Rialto — which meant we were spoilt with some of the best office space (and views) in Melbourne. However, each time a company leased the office Equiem was occupying, we had to move the entire company. We must have moved four or five times in that first 18 months. At one point, we were actually set up inside an old walk-in freezer!
More recently, moving my family from Australia to New York to expand Equiem globally has been an absolutely incredible experience and adventure.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As many entrepreneurs know, you kind of fly by the seat of your pants during the startup phase. I remember a time when our internet stopped working one afternoon — not good for a tech company. I was at a meeting and my team didn’t know what to do, so they relocated to the hotel next door with free wifi. With a lack of any meaningful, centralized administrative support, it turns out that we had forgotten to pay the bill!
Needless to say, that never happened again.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
As Equiem grew, we made more headway securing bigger buildings and landlords as clients. After many months of hard work, we finally landed one of Australia’s biggest landlords to roll out their portfolio. We were over the moon. Everybody came together to make it happen and we were riding high. The deal was done and the deposit was in the bank…
A few days later, the client called me and explained that unfortunately, they would not be proceeding. The reasons were not related to Equiem, or our product, but nevertheless, telling the entire team about the loss was incredibly difficult.
However, you just persist and as it turns out two years later we eventually did roll out that portfolio. I’ve always been a believer that successfully scaling a business is as much about patience and resilience and humility as it is about anything else. We decided we wouldn’t let the loss define us and never gave up. It was one of the first times I realized the enormous personal responsibility I had to my employees. They had put their faith in me and were relying on me to come through for them.
While it’s true that as CEO you sometimes lose sleep and fear failure, giving up is just not an option. When you have a passionate, loyal and committed team in the trenches with you and investors banking on you, you have to find a way.
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?
There are so many people that have contributed to Equiem’s (and my) success.
From a very young age, my father taught me self-confidence. He was incredibly encouraging and supportive. He also taught me to see the world through the other person’s eyes, to look at things from different angles and perspectives.
As a CEO and leader, one of your most critical jobs is bringing in the right people around you to help the business succeed, whether that’s Board members, advisors and the right talent. Organizations go through different stages. What you need at the 0–5M revenue phase is different from the 5–10M and different again at 10–50M and so on. Fortunately, we’ve always managed to meet, partner or hire incredibly talented people to help Equiem become the success it is today.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you have seven hours to chop down a tree, spend six hours sharpening your ax.”
Preparation is everything. Spending the requisite time to prepare, no matter the task, makes all the difference.
Another favorite is: “Pressure makes diamonds.” The challenges we face each day, while often uncomfortable, make you do your best work. Don’t lose sight of that.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Equiem is a tenant experience platform that transforms office properties from mere brick and mortar structures into vibrant, connected and engaged communities with services and experiences that enrich occupants’ lives.
Through engaging content, on- and off-site events and promotions (such as yoga classes, wine tastings and guitar lessons, etc.), tailored services, amenity space booking management tools and tenant surveys, Equiem provides owners with direct feedback and data to help them make more informed decisions at their buildings. The platform empowers owners and property management teams with a complete suite of tools to streamline communications with tenants, connecting them with all users/occupiers rather than just a handful of tenant representatives. It also connects users with each other, creating collaboration and community through messaging, community boards, posts, polls, and surveys.
In addition, Equiem supercharges the retail, amenities and experiences available to tenants. The platform features easy-to-use event management tools, a booking system for events, services, facilities and spaces (including dry cleaning, shoe repair, bike mechanic services and more), food and beverage delivery, exclusive deals and discounts, a services marketplace, and an online store and e-commerce platform to name a few features. The bookings and e-commerce features also allow landlords to unlock vital additional revenue from their buildings.
Equiem works with commercial landlords to help them meet tenant retention and leasing challenges head on by creating engaging and satisfying workplaces that appeal to the modern worker, while providing data-driven tools and analytics owners need to measure the effectiveness of their tenant engagement strategies.
Equiem can also provide owners and tenants with direct access to in-demand features like air quality levels, space usage data and touchless entry for tenants, among other popular services.
Today, Equiem is the most widely adopted and proven tenant experience platform in the world.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Equiem’s employees and culture are the two pillars of our brand. I’m very proud of Equiem’s diverse 200-plus person employees located around the world, but it’s that palpable mix of enthusiasm, creativity, drive, competitiveness and the way we communicate with clients and each other that really stands out — it runs top to bottom and across the organization.
Equiem’s client managers have also been key to our success. Because Equiem focuses so much on data, it’s important that each client have someone to help them understand and act upon the information and insights gathered. Our staff is authentic, honest and fun to deal with.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The arrival of COVID-19 meant that tenants were suddenly working from home. That means they weren’t buying coffee in the lobby any more, using the gym or conference center or attending any on-site events. As a result, we created and added new features to the app that would benefit both end users — the landlords and the tenants.
Pivoting quickly in March 2020, Equiem launched Remote by Equiem, shifting all regularly scheduled, in-person events and experiences to digital and/or virtual experiences in order to keep tenants engaged with digital communications, virtual amenities and work-from-home services. We also created a special ‘Work From Home’ store offering products for tenants to purchase in order to set up their (new) home office.
Equiem’s shift to virtual services kept landlords’ newly remote communities connected and engaged. Landlords that implemented the service saw an average 20% increase in active users, 30% increase in unique users and a 60% increase in the consumption of digital content, including Equiem’s news feeds and virtual amenities. Equiem also offered, on behalf of landlords, support to retailers — providing integrated e-commerce and marketing tools to share deals, offers and promotions from building retailers to tenants, thereby creating a community of support during a time when it was most needed.
In addition, Equiem helped landlords execute daily surveys and polls to track their community’s attitudes toward working remotely, helping them discover tenant’s paint points such as concerns about returning to the office that assisted landlords in creating reintegration plans as COVID-19 cases declined (depending on the location) and workers began returning to the office. The findings of the survey were released in Equiem’s 2020 Global Office Tenant Report, which received significant attention and media coverage worldwide.
As landlords and tenants began considering their return to the office, Equiem again sought to provide additional services to its clients and tenants alike with the launch of the company’s robust Return To Work solutions, providing a seamless experience for tenants as they cycled from working from home to in-person.
Equiem’s Return To Work solutions allowed landlords to continue to further engage tenants remotely through virtual activations, on-demand content, polls and surveys and more, while expanding the offering to include: an HR corner pre-loaded with return-to-work templates; interactive re-entry guides, a communications toolkit and smart dashboards for measuring occupancy, building air quality and more.
In addition, Equiem leveraged technology to help landlords overcome operational challenges. Using the Equiem mobile app, tenants are now able to book their daily entry times; deploy touchless entry to the office via their cell phones; access touchless retail ordering, amenity space booking, work order requests and touchless visitor management. Any properties that featured onsite concierge services were also shifted to mobile.
I expect 2021 will be much of the same, at least initially. Equiem will continue to listen to its clients and users to add features and services that best-serve them. We also expect to expand the platform’s presence to new US cities and countries worldwide.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I think it starts with the people in charge at the moment, and that’s usually the men. The effort needs to be consistent and come straight from the top. Men need to support women and women need to support each other in order to continue to drive equality and gender diversity.
Each company needs to consider multiple strategies to achieve more diversity in the workplace and in the boardroom, from creating recruitment guidelines to setting specific targets for hiring. Tech firms should also support, as Equiem does, programs like Girls Who Code, and work with local schools and universities to educate women of the career opportunities available in the tech world.
I consider myself fortunate that throughout my career, I have been surrounded by men who weren’t biased. However we all have unconscious bias — and it works both ways. For example, several years ago I realized that the majority of Equiem’s executive team were women — something I’ve since corrected.
From my perspective, there is no job that women cannot do. Collectively, the world is making progress, especially over the past decade. I hope to see more female founders and CEOs out there, and we (all) need to break apart gender stereotypes that have existed for far too long.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I believe men do a better job of establishing networks for themselves that are vital to starting a new business. Having a strong, deep network is crucial to opening your doors, getting that first customer and getting your first funding check. This is yet another way that men need to support women and women need to support each other.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
The first thing I’d suggest is to look at the data. What is it telling you? Are there new competitors in the market? What do the customer satisfaction scores tell you? You have to unpack everything to make sure you’re solving the right problem. Then, pull the lever that’s going to have the biggest impact first.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Equiem, like most product companies, focuses on its product above all else. The thinking is this: if your product is amazing it should literally sell itself, right? We want our clients to say that Equiem is so good we need to roll it out across our entire portfolio…and to tell their colleagues about us. Focusing on making your service or product the best in its category should be a priority.
Beyond that, in terms of creating a high performing sales team, I do think that a strong performance reward structure is important, and that a strong culture that is collaborative and collegiate is a non negotiable. Don’t let toxic people damage culture.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
Equiem was the first of its kind — we created the tenant experience platform category within industry — that certainly helps attract customers. Simply put, we have more hands-on experience, more data, more relationships, more content, etc. than anyone else. But again, it’s all about providing robust, actionable data to our clients — and a fun, easy-to-use product that tenants will keep coming back to because it makes their lives better. This is why we focus so much on the innovation of our platform and tracking how long it takes our clients to unlock value.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Focus on solving problems and delivering value to your key customers. Make sure you understand who your customers and stakeholders are and what their individual needs are so that every time you look to make an improvement or release a new feature, you understand who is the primary user for that feature. Then, structure your organization around that information. In the real estate industry for example, the tenant’s needs are very different from the landlord’s or asset manager’s needs. Having clarity in your sales, account management and customer success teams is critical — you need to know who will be responsible for each stakeholder involved when issues arise.
Data is king. You should constantly be collecting and analyzing the data you receive from your website, CRM, Net Promoter Score (NPS), customer experience management (CEM) program at all key points in your customer’s journey.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
Absolutely. Maintaining your existing client base is crucial to realizing exponential growth, especially when you’re small or just starting out. For Equiem, our main goal is to expand or grow existing clients, which are the owners of class A commercial office buildings. We focus heavily on creating value as quickly as possible for our clients so they’ll roll the platform out across their entire portfolio. Again, it comes back to delivering a product that provides value. If your product is providing value it will continue to sell itself.
It’s also really important to get feedback from your clients — this is something we do constantly. Knowing what’s working, and not working, well in advance of a renewal really gives you the opportunity to close that gap. You’d be surprised how many companies miss this step.
Fortunately, over the past 10-plus years, Equiem has rarely lost a client.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- All companies start with great people.
- Focus on customer value. Focus on time-to-value for each customer and creating a product that delivers value and can sell itself.
- Raise early. Make sure you’re well capitalized and that you raise more than you think you might need.
- Be patient. This is absolutely critical. Depending on what industry you’re going into, realize that it could take a long, long time to get things off the ground. You’ll need to be patient, humble and have a high degree of resilience to deal with the inevitable early setbacks, failures and missed opportunities to keep going.
- Never stop innovating. Never lose sight of the needs of your customers and as such, never stop creating new features or services.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂
At any given time, there are millions of square feet of vacant office space just sitting — especially in tougher times like these. There is also, inevitably, a great deal of need. This is a tricky one, and I know it involves a lot of legal barriers, but I would really love to see landlords find a way to use a portion of that space for good, like helping the homeless, or helping women that are in a dangerous home situation.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Satja Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, is someone I would love to meet. The company’s successful transformation to cloud-based software, its acquisition of brands like LinkedIn and Github, and its built environment technologies are incredible. Moreover, his push to revise the company’s mission statement to, “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more” is inspirational.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!