Ever wonder what it takes to make Inc. 5000’s list of the 10 fastest-growing private companies in America? Cliff Johnson, COO and co-founder of Vacasa, joined us for our February 2015 PubTalk to share the challenges, successes, and lessons learned in the six years since co-founding this wildly popular vacation rental startup.
Among the many insightful nuggets of wisdom that Cliff shared to a packed house of over 100, here are five key takeaways:
1. Get your hands dirty. Both Cliff and his co-founder Eric Breon grew up in rural areas – they were used to getting their hands dirty. Despite the fact that Cliff has a law degree and a former career as a tax attorney, he wasn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and find a way to get things done. He and Eric not only cleaned their first vacation rentals themselves, but also handled repairs and maintenance.
2. Be willing to admit your weaknesses and find people to fill in the gaps. Of course, in the beginning, entrepreneurs do most things themselves, but there comes a point when they need to step back and trust other people take on key responsibilities. There came a time when Cliff knew he couldn’t be cold-calling prospective clients, scrubbing toilets, and serving as an effective COO. It was time to evaluate his core strengths and identify others to step up to the plate.
3. Early on, focus first and foremost on building your customer base. When it comes to building a business, a lot of people think about funding first. Of course, money is important, but what often gets neglected during the pursuit for dollars is nurturing loyal, happy customers. Cliff and Eric’s intensive focus on growing, and retaining, their customer base has led them to be profitable without any outside investment.
4. Hire people with integrity, and invest in their growth and success. What is the #1 quality that Cliff looks for when he makes a new hire? It’s 100% character, he says. Early on, his interviews often exceeded two hours, as he tried to spur conversations that went deeper than the typical canned questions and answers that comprise most job interviews. In the end, says Cliff, you need people you can trust, and you need to keep them happy, challenged, and engaged once they’re hired.
5. Think ahead. If you’re serious about growth, you have to plan beyond your daily to-do list. Cliff says you not only need to think about how to reach the next level, but also about what level awaits you after that. Of course, the future is uncertain. Vacasa ended up scrapping half its business model within the first few weeks of launch; Cliff says it’s the “best business decision we ever made.” Both forward-thinking and flexibility are key.
See more highlights from our February PubTalk: