Glenn Kelman knows something about steering a company through tumultuous economic times.
As chief executive of Seattle-based Redfin, Kelman led the discount real estate brokerage through the extreme boom-and-bust cycles that that roiled the U.S. housing market the past two decades. That includes the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the worst downturn in housing since the Great Depression.
Redfin provides listings of homes for sale online and via a mobile app users can use to search for properties and find information on pricing, neighborhoods and other details. It also employs agents to work with buyers and sellers in more than 80 U.S. markets.
Kelman shared some of his insights and experiences as CEO with The Associated Press. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity:
A: Redfin is the ultimate example of this. We basically got our start right when the financial crisis hit housing and destroyed the whole economy. And everything we tried didn't work. I really felt that it was a personal failing. It's so important to be steady. And here's the source of steadiness: If you start talking about some highfalutin mission for the company when the shiitake hits the fan, it's too late.
Q: What advice do you have for small business owners right now given that most economists expect growth to slow in 2019? If you've always been about the money and now that you're not making money you want to motivate people with something else, it's too late. You constantly remind people in the best of times that there will be hard times, too, but what this hot dog stand is doing is fundamentally good because we're feeding people.
Or what Redfin is doing is fundamentally good, because we're trying to make real estate about consumers and not agents — whatever it might be, if you have a true north and you stick to that, people need to hear that in the hard times, because otherwise the cycle will just drive you crazy.
Q: How much do you pay attention to your competition, and what do you try to learn from them?
A: I should probably pay more attention to our competition. I pay much more attention to our customers. What you really want to pay attention to is if a customer likes somebody else's products more than yours, and why. If a customer has a problem that nobody's solving, what is it? And you want to pay attention to your culture. I just spend all my time trying to figure out if we're focused on the right customer problems and then recruiting people who are really good to do that.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self about managing people or running a business?
A: The most important quality of a human being is the quality of her energy. I used to judge myself by how many keystrokes I performed in a given day. I used to come home and complain that we shouldn't call it work, we should call it talk, because all I do now is talk. But once you have more than one employee, once you have three or five or 50 or 500, the impact you're going to have is mostly driven by the impact you have on those people, not what you do directly. So, whether it's getting enough sleep or exercising or having a bowl of oatmeal in the morning, you have to put yourself in the position to be your best self. To energize the people around you. And I would pay attention to the diversity of the workforce. It's really hard to fix diversity and culture problems early on, but if you get that right, it is such a killer competitive weapon.
A: You need to translate a problem into a medium that's your strength. I used to have a hard time thinking about some kinds of problems, but I like writing, and so I would just start writing out a definition of a problem and the solution. Our CFO likes numbers, so he translates that into spreadsheets. Our head of product is a visual person, he translates that into drawings. I would just say, if you're a poet, make it poetry, if you're an artist, make it a drawing, but find a way to use your special power to break that down. There are so many ways to solve a problem and you should use the one you're best at.
Q: What have you learned about problem-solving over the years?