Our Q&A series is an opportunity for our North American team to discuss all things Built Environment, Start-ups, and Career with different founders from across the region. Each week we will ask Built Environment innovators burning questions and quiz them about their products. We hope you find it insightful and enjoy getting to know the founders as much as we have.
Poplar Homes is a national property manager with local teams serving Homeowners and Residents across 16 states in the US. Founded in 2014, Poplar is at the forefront of the industry offering a full-service, tech-enabled property management solution for independent investors. With a proprietary AI-powered platform, Poplar offers zero-fuss leasing, management, and maintenance services to over 15,000 doors across 24 markets. Poplar’s coast-to-coast expansion is bringing national tools and expertise to empower investors on a local level, enabling them to manage and monetize residential rental property across disparate locations while increasing efficiencies by 5x and saving thousands in operating costs.
How did you find yourself in the Built Environment sector?
Greg Toschi, Rico Mok, and myself founded Poplar in 2014 when we were students at Santa Clara University facing a frustrating and broken off-campus housing process. At the time, property managers controlling inventory around the school were taking advantage of students and the local city council was attempting to pass legislation that would effectively raise rents on student housing. In response, we rallied the student body to oppose the legislation and built a platform that brought increased transparency and accountability to the off-campus housing experience. The platform quickly gained traction, and soon after, over 90% of the inventory around the campus was leased through it. This success attracted the attention of our first round of investors, a group of early Google executives, including Google’s Senior AI Chief, Jeff Dean, who supported our vision. In 2015, Poplar expanded to become a full-service property management company, combining the online platform with boots-on-the-ground property management services across the country. Today, Poplar manages over 15,000 homes in 16 states, providing high-quality service to homeowners and residents alike.
What was the mission when you set out to create Poplar Homes?
When we first set out to create Poplar Homes, our goal was to improve the rental process for student housing. However, as we built out our platform and relationships, our mission expanded. Today, our mission is to be a lifetime real estate partner for our customers, providing support and guidance through every step of their real estate journey. This includes helping our customers transition from renting to home buying, as well as offering nationwide investment opportunities in real estate.
The Property Management Software space in particular is one of the more saturated subsectors. However, your team has showcased consistent success and growth. What are some of the challenges you have faced and how have you overcome them?
Automating Before Understanding.
With technology at the core of our mission, early on we jumped to conclusions about how we could automate the work of property management. Particularly with residential real estate, a sensitive and valuable asset class, we learned through trial and error that it’s critical to observe and understand the human processes that underpin this industry before building the tech. The reality is, technology is defined by human logic. That’s why we strive to create tech-enabled solutions that complement and empower the humans who drive our business.
Today, the features of our products are defined and built by people who bring years of experience and creativity to the table, ensuring that our systems are built on the foundation of real-world knowledge and expertise. For example, the online experience of booking self-tours for our available homes is a digital representation of how humans book those same tours over the phone.
Our two takeaways from this learning experience are:
1) Understand and empower the humans that drive your business with grit and creative thinking to define how you use technology to scale.
2) Empower them with the resources to bring their vision to life.
What advice would you give to someone looking to enter the Built Environment industry?
If you’re looking to enter the Built Environment industry, my advice is to approach this industry with an understanding that it exists largely offline. Thus if you’re building technology, let the experiences of the physical world define how your technology works. Understand that while tech can unlock efficiency and scalability, it’s critical to keep the human touch where it matters most.
What does the coming year hold for your company? What are your expansion plans?
We intend to grow to over 25,000 doors in 2023, expanding into 24 new markets across the country. With that, we are growing our team and building scalable processes to ensure that we can continue to deliver a high level of service and performance to our clients as we expand. Specifically, we are investing in our proprietary AI-powered platform to improve efficiencies and enhance the user experience, while also expanding our suite of services to better position ourselves as a lifetime real estate partner to our customers. Our ultimate goal is to become the go-to property management solution for independent investors across the United States.
Tell us about your approach to talent acquisition and how it has changed over the past few years?
Our approach to talent acquisition is a global one. Our HQ2 is in Davao, Philippines, where we do the bulk of our talent acquisition. We look for people with grit, strong critical thinking skills and a willingness to learn. In the past few years, with the move to more remote or hybrid work, we’ve learned that it’s more important to find people that demonstrate strong personal work ethic, initiative, and motivation. We want people who go the extra mile to stay connected and engaged with their colleagues regardless of where they are in the world.
What have been your learnings when it comes to attracting and hiring the right talent?
We’ve learned that the strongest talent are those who embody the values that are core to our culture at Poplar: Innovation, Experience, Value, and People.
We believe that creating an environment that allows employees to reinvent and revitalize is essential. Just because something has always been done a certain way, doesn’t mean it needs to continue working that way. Innovation, enabled by insight, is the roaring engine of our brand. We recognize and reward employees who demonstrate grit and a willingness to roll-up their sleeves to get the job done without getting bogged down in bureaucracy.
We also look for talent that understands technology cannot solve all problems. The best talent are those who have strong critical thinking and creative problem solving skills, finding ways to accomplish a task in a simple and efficient way and with a gear towards moving quickly rather than working towards perfection. Lastly, we’ve learned the value of hiring talent that understands the intersection of real estate and technology. In a space that is so prevalent with technology, we admire individuals who can use technology to amplify the human experience rather than replace it.
Can you please share your predictions for the talent in the North American Built Environment sector?
As the Built Environment has matured so much over the past 10 years, I believe there is a growing pool of talent that is more mobile across companies. Individuals are looking to develop a more dynamic understanding of the Built Environment and it’s full lifecycle. We’ve seen talent that started their careers in construction or real estate brokerages, now exploring opportunities in all parts of the Built funnel, from financial services, to property management, and beyond.
In terms of predicting future trends for talent in the North American Built Environment sector, I expect to see a continued focus on interdisciplinary skills and a demand for individuals with a broad range of expertise, where soft skills are likely to become increasingly prioritized over technical abilities.
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