This article was originally published to our Forbes column on October 6, 2016.
We took our first big step as a startup when we moved TheSquareFoot from Houston to New York to participate in Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator. During this time, the accelerator program provided us with a place to work, and while it wasn’t our own office, it suited its purpose. We’d spend the next few months refining our business model and getting acclimated to an entirely new market.
As our time in the accelerator neared its end, we wanted to achieve two milestones: (1) prove that our new model worked, and (2) find our company a home to grow in. This was a unique, two-in-one opportunity for us. Before our first deal, we became our very own guinea pig.
The challenges we faced during our first search for an office proved pivotal in helping us develop a better product and service for our clients. Here’s what we learned:
Apartment hunting is hard — even with dozens of sites and apps dedicated to aggregating listings. Hunting for space is even harder. Virtually no similar resources exist for businesses. Commercial real estate is a highly fragmented market. Either you scour the internet and comb through countless brokerage sites — each with their own set of listings — or you commit to working with some unknown broker, and we all know how pleasant that can be.
So the stage was set. We tried our own product to find potential space. Even though we had tested our site from top to bottom, using the platform as our own first “client” revealed some flaws. For instance, we found that different variations of the same address caused duplicate listings, a problem best corrected before our clients started using the platform
Clearing the trail for our clients to have a better experience was both a valuable exercise in empathy-building and troubleshooting. We learned more about our product and how our clients would actually use the product. The latter, we knew, would determine the success of our company.
Lesson: “Testing” isn’t enough. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and taking their journey helps you gain insight about what you’re building and what you should be building.
Armed with more knowledge of commercial real estate than the average business, we thought our approach to finding space sensible: know your limitations, set realistic expectations and enjoy a relatively smooth process. With patience, we would find the right space in our preferred Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea.
If only. After looking through dozens of options and taking numerous tours, we realized we’d underestimated a critical component of our search.
We were so excited at the prospect of having our own office we lost time holding out for a rare find that never actually materialized. The longer our search went, our emotional high dipped into an epic comedown. We had to adjust our expectations even further than originally planned.
Lesson: You can have the most optimal process and logical decision-making apparatus in place, but you can’t remove “human” elements like desire and emotion from the equation so easily.
Separating some of the true necessities from the aspirational desires helped us get closer to finding the right space, given our circumstance. We wanted the perfect space, in a prime location, for a realistic price. In the process of aligning our expectations with reality, we gained a better understanding of our real priorities. That helped us make decisions and move toward our ultimate goal: finding a sufficient space that would facilitate our work without breaking our budget.
The details, as it turned out —size, price, accessibility, location—drove our decision so we designed our product to highlight such details in a way customizable to our customers’ priorities and criteria.
Lesson: Learn what’s truly important to your customer — and deliver on those needs first.
We found the office that checked all the right boxes, except it was slightly over budget. No problem, we figured. Our founding team has domain expertise in commercial real estate. Negotiating was second nature to us. Unfortunately, after two weeks of back and forth, we still weren’t able to complete the deal. So close yet so far away.
But we stayed patient and kept persisting. When we finally found our office, we were ecstatic. Our landlord was relatively easy to deal with, flexible, and believed in our business. After a grueling search, we had a place to call our own, and along the way, encountered all of the usual challenges of finding the right office space.
Lesson Learned: Keep going, and don’t lose sight of the goal.
Using our own product to find our first office was a learning opportunity like none other. Being our own guinea pig gave us rich insight into our customers’ journey, and it informed our thinking as we improved existing processes and developed new ones. All these lessons might never have happened without getting our hands dirty and actually using the product we’d created. When it proved that our model could work in a place like New York City, finding a new office in the process proved the cherry on top.