“Who the hell are you?” It’s a question we often heard when calling New York City landlords upon first arriving here. Then, landlords were trying to understand how three guys from Texas had any business in New York’s commercial real estate market. Who we are has since changed, but as we expand our products, refine our goals, and hire new key team members, the question persists. The answer—for us and many other startups—is bound to change, especially in the early stages of a startup’s lifecycle. We’ve learned to handle this identity crisis so we can better understand our audience and what they want from us. Here are four ways you can take hold of your startup identity so you too can better serve your customers.
1. Don’t reinvent the industry
Even before we were a tech-enabled brokerage, we always wanted to change commercial real estate, and be a new breed of company altogether. But, as we pursued this unique identity and tried to differentiate ourselves from traditional commercial real estate businesses, something kept drawing us back. It’s the fact that, ultimately, we are part of the CRE industry. Instead of trying to reinvent the industry, we realized we had to position ourselves as improving it, starting with one facet.
We had to be blatantly honest with ourselves that we certainly weren’t creating a new game but rather playing the game better than anyone else because of our use of technology. At least we had to play the game so that everyone around us (landlords, clients, other brokers) could understand how we could help them.
2. Zero-in on your primary revenue source
Most businesses have their hands in many parts of an industry, or even in many industries. And they typically find their identity by reading and re-reading their marketing messaging. But this isn’t an honest representation of identity. Rather than identifying your business by its unique selling proposition, or what you say you do best, focus on your primary revenue source. Don’t dote on the things that your company hopes and intends to do; your primary revenue stream will be a quantifiable metric, indicating where and how you do most of your business. The point is, your customers pay the bills, and therefore they define who you are and what business you are in.
Take us for example. We’re partly a technology company with a mission to modernize an age-old commercial real estate industry, but at the end of the day, being a brokerage pays the bills. Knowing this helps clients identify and understand what we can do for them. We are what our consumers want and need us to be; we adjust to the desires of the market. And while we don’t abandon the tech side of things (and we’re not advocating that any company abandon their USP) we are positioning ourselves as a brokerage so we can generate the most business. Our technology focused USP is secondary; it lets consumers distinguish us from our competitors.
3. Let your employees define you
Startup hiring is tough. And it gets tougher when your company flip-flops between multiple identities. If you don’t have a static identity, it becomes close to impossible to find candidates that are dynamic enough to fit all the versions of your budding startup that you’ve created. Out of inexperience, we initially sold ourselves as a tech startup to some candidates, and a commercial brokerage to others. This led to many confused employees and even more confused candidates, which resulted in a lack of a unified vision within the company. Collaboration became difficult and people weren’t sure how their roles fit into our ever-changing identity.
Stick with one story and sell the company’s mission and goals instead of trying to be who you think you need to be solely for recruiting purposes. Once we started aligning candidates to our mission instead of trying to tell them who we were, our identity began to emerge by way of our employees’ actions. Instead of our company telling our employees who we were, it was our employees and their work that defined us.
4. Know that you are not your partners
Only you can determine who you are. When we first decided to get involved with brokering deals, we initially believed that our investors — who usually invest in technology (SaaS) companies — wouldn’t like the idea of a brokerage model, so we introduced ourselves as a technology company.
We’ve come to realize that no one knows our business better than we do, and no one’s opinion of what we’re doing matters as much as our growth, momentum, and results, which help define us. In the end, market opportunity and return on investment are the most important factors for our investors and us, not anyone’s opinion.
It’s problematic to allow your partners to define you, but that problem doesn’t only occur with startups trying to woo investors. As an up-and-coming commercial real estate startup, people often speak about us in the same breath as collaborative consumption companies like WeWork and PivotDesk. We have a partnership with PivotDesk and love what they do. We’re fine with working with PivotDesk to guarantee sufficient working space for any stage entrepreneur or startup. But we’re not a coworking company. We’re still a commercial real estate brokerage.
So, who are you?
Every startup will go through some sort of an identity crisis during the early course of their development. Being able to handle that identity crisis, play the music that your consumers want to hear, while maintaining some sense of brand voice is a difficult (but not insurmountable) task. The more consistently and accurately you develop your identity, the better you can serve your customers. So who the hell are you?
Jonathan Wasserstrum is CEO and cofounder of TheSquareFoot, a tech fueled commercial real estate brokerage and listings aggregator. He has nearly a decade of commercial real estate experience, having begun his career at Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL).