I started RentVision in 2009 and learned some hard lessons about leadership along the way. I believe business leadership should focus on four things:
Setting the Right Direction and Making it Clear
Getting the Right People in the Right Roles
Implementing an Appropriate Financial Model
Creating an Excellent Culture
If you get these four things correct, you will succeed 99% of the time. In 2011, I realized our company did not have the right direction. If things did not change, we would have to close the doors of our business. I nearly laid off most of our staff before reading a Bible verse about considering others as more important than ourselves and changing the direction of our company. I would later come to realize that this would lay the foundation for our purpose.
Your “why” is your purpose.
Every founding entrepreneur should have their “why” in the same way every non-profit has their “why”. Knowing your “why” isn’t just important for you. In summary, Simon Sinek says, "It is important for a leader to start with 'why' to inspire others to action." If you say you are in business to make money, then ask why you want to make money. If you want to make money to provide for your family, then ask why you want to provide for your family. Keep asking why until you get to your “why of whys”. This exercise may help you uncover what you believe to be your purpose.
Our purpose became this: To consider others as more important than ourselves by providing remarkable experiences for our clients and their residents.
Next, you need to determine if this purpose will matter to your team and customers. For me, considering others as more important than myself became a clear purpose because of my faith background. But I had to ask myself if this purpose could be meaningful to our team members who come from both religious and non-religious backgrounds. Why would one believe in the idea of considering others as more important than themselves without believing in God or life after death? Why not maximize this life for yourself until the day you die? While my faith teaches it is more blessed to give than to receive, there are numerous non-religious studies like this one on how money can buy happiness, which teach the exact same thing. Academic research shows that it is in one’s own self-interest to put others first. Because this purpose should matter to all people, I realized it could work well.
Our clients love our purpose because it permeates everything we have done well for them. For example, we create marketing content that is helpful and educational—not just “salesy.” Also, we have flexible contracts that don’t force clients into terms. We even built a free tool called SiteScore that anybody in the industry can use to receive a free automated report showing them exactly how they can improve their website. These are only a few examples, but we expect that during every internal meeting and throughout the day, we are focusing on how we can help our customers and their prospective residents. Anytime we stray from this and focus on “internal projects” (self-focus) we hurt our clients, their prospective residents, and ultimately ourselves.
Knowing that we need to focus on others implies that you know how you are going to help people. This is the next step.
Your “how” is your mission.
When I looked back at the history of RentVision, I realized the driving force behind starting this company was our mission. I started RentVision because renting apartments was hard. When I was a leasing agent for smaller properties scattered throughout Lincoln, Nebraska, I had to handle phone calls from people who had seen no floorplan-specific photos, no floorplan-specific walkthrough video tours, and sometimes they hadn’t even seen a map on a website to know where a property was located! These people saw a classified ad that told them the address, rental rate, and bedroom count. I spent unnecessary time on the phone explaining basic details. Then I wasted more time on bad showings or driving out to an apartment to give a tour, only to have the person no-show. Renting apartments was hard!
Further, I remember shopping for my first apartment. It burned two Saturdays driving all over town with the same frustrations. I visited several apartments that I wouldn’t have visited had I seen floorplan-specific walkthrough video tours online. I never even saw the apartment my wife and I ended up renting, until the day we signed our lease! It wasn’t just that renting apartments was hard for leasing agents—renting an apartment was hard, even for a resident! RentVision needed to solve this problem.
Our mission became this: To make renting apartments easy.
This year marks the 10th anniversary for RentVision. We have made a lot of progress toward this mission. Most obviously, we have created easy-to-use websites and generated millions of website visits for our clients that resulted in millions of virtual tours (along with millions of hours saved) and thousands of apartments rented. While there are a number of other things we have done I won’t mention in this article, I realized we needed to chart our next path forward or progress on our mission would stop. So, between October 2017 and June 2018, I invested in many meetings with our leadership team, ownership, and management team discussing this. Further, I spent countless hours during the day and evening at home asking myself (and my very helpful wife) what we were going to do in order to advance this over the coming years. I realized this:
Your “what” is your vision.
Creating vision was by far the hardest step of the process for me. There was one thing I did prior to coming up with our vision that I think can be incredibly helpful for anybody to ensure they come up with a powerful vision: I took the time to ask myself what are the characteristics of an effective vision. First, what outcome does an effective vision have? An effective vision provides direction and engagement to the people in your organization in such a way that the mission is achieved. What are the characteristics of an effective vision? I came up with the three listed below, but your list may look different.
1) It is short in length. If a vision is too long, nobody will remember it. If nobody remembers it, it can’t provide direction or engagement. Keep it short.
2) It provides clear direction of what we will (and will not) do without telling your team how to do it. When you tell people precisely what to do, you squelch their ability to be creative. When you give people an outcome without a command of exactly what to do, it empowers them to exercise their creative talent. People are not robots and don’t need to operate in such a way. On the other hand, when you give people complete freedom, they actually lose freedom. Timothy Keller sums this up best in one of my favorite books “Every Good Endeavor”:
“Modern people like to see freedom as the complete absence of any constraints. But think of a fish. Because a fish absorbs oxygen from water, not air, it is free only if it is restricted to water. If a fish is ‘freed’ from the river and put on the grass to explore, its freedom to move and soon even to live is destroyed. The fish is not more free, but less free, if it cannot honor the reality of its nature. The same is true with airplanes and birds. If they violate the laws of aerodynamics, they will crash into the ground. But if they follow them, they will ascend and soar. The same is true in many areas of life: Freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, those that fit with the realities of our own nature and those of the world.” -Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavor, pp 38-39.
Creativity is best achieved with healthy boundaries. Let me give you a business example. You cannot have a great visual brand without boundaries around colors, fonts, and styles. Without these boundaries, every marketing piece created would cause your visual brand to suffer because it would look different. With these boundaries it actually requires more creativity to produce great marketing pieces and it allows a diversity of people to work together in harmony! The end result is a unified visual brand powered by human creativity that flourishes.
So, a vision must provide direction with adequate boundaries without telling people exactly how to do it.
3) It can be completed in 5-15 years. If a vision is going to give direction, then it can probably be accomplished. If it can be accomplished in 6 months or a year, then it is probably a plan and not a vision. Get back to dreaming and think bigger! However, In order to accomplish the impossible your team has to believe it is possible. If it will take a lifetime, then the vision may not be motivational enough to your team members, or you may actually be thinking about your mission. I believe a 5-15 year timeframe is probably the right amount of time. When you are about 2-3 years away from completing your vision, it’s time to start work on creating the next one!
With these three rules in mind, we created two vision statements. Why two? We created two because we felt like we were solving one mission for two unique audiences—our clients (property managers) and their prospective residents. I would encourage you to keep it to one vision if possible, but there really are no rules but your own, and that is why we came up with two. Our client vision is what we believe needs to occur to help make renting easy for them (property management companies).
Our client vision is to deliver a predictive leasing platform that optimizes marketing and revenue management.
This is short—something we believe we can accomplish in 5-10 years, and it provides boundaries. People know we are going to help our clients predict their future and optimize it. Until this vision is completed, we are not even going to consider pursuing any other product or service. We believe strongly in two basic principles articulated in the book, The Four Disciplines of Execution: (1) that there are always more good ideas than we could effectively implement, and (2) that adding more ideas only decreases our ability to accomplish any one of those ideas. If we want to accomplish our audacious vision, we must stick to the boundaries that this vision marks for us.
In summary, to help make renting apartments easy for our clients, we believe we need to help them predict future leasing activity. This means we must determine if the community will have too little, the right amount, or an excess of demand to fill their upcoming vacancy, given their current prices and marketing. After we make this determination, we must optimize marketing and revenue management for their future. What makes renting easier than knowing you have optimized your marketing and revenue management to fill your upcoming vacancy? Nothing that we could come up with and accomplish in less than 15 years! How will we accomplish this? Fortunately, we have an entire team that can now brainstorm together and be the answer to this question. You can go here to read more about the answer we have come up with so far.
While this vision will make renting apartments easy for our clients, it is less obvious how that will benefit their prospective residents. However, we know that by helping our clients, we will in-turn help prospective residents. Here is our vision for them:
Our prospective resident vision is to help people rent an apartment without needing to drive anywhere.
What is the hardest thing about renting an apartment? It is the fact that you are constrained to looking at apartments while they are open, resulting in wasted time driving all over town. This limits how many you can tour, meaning you likely won’t find the ideal apartment for your needs. If we can give people the confidence to not only shop online for an apartment, but to actually rent an apartment online, then we will have made renting apartments easy. Imagine being able to confidently rent an apartment 24/7 from anywhere in the world!
This phrase checks all of the boxes. Our team has been creative in coming up with the elements to make this a reality. It clearly tells them what we are trying to do and not do. We believe we can accomplish this in 5-15 years. Last, but not least, it is a short and memorable phrase.
Now that our vision has been in place for almost a year, I thought it was important to share my findings with other business executives and entrepreneurs. Our team has tremendously benefited from our vision—it’s brought in innovative ideas that align with where we’re going, tightened our marketing, and made decision-making very clear. I look forward to circling back with more insight that our mission and vision will bring in the coming years!