Entrepreneur Spotlight: How the Contactually Team Built a World Class Real Estate CRM and One of #dctech’s Most Respected Companies
Q&A with Tony Cappaert, Co-founder and COO of Contactually
When Tony Cappaert founded Contactually with his friends, Zvi and Jeff, it was hard to predict how the company would grow. After all, they were all first time founders. “We set out to build the best company we could build,” said Tony. “We had an interesting problem to solve and just built the best company we could.” That approach provided a strong foundation for Contactually. “When you take a pragmatic approach to building your company, you do a lot of things that are good for the company and for the people in the company.”
Contactually started as an intelligent customer relationship management (CRM) platform for anyone seeking to better manage their personal or professional network. Over time Contactually grew to thousands of customers, but was still lacking the focus that would take it to the next level. “We decided to focus on the real estate market and that really created the alignment across the company we needed to unlock growth. We’re all very happy with the results” Tony provides an inside look at what it’s like to start a business, create focus and find success.
Q. Tell me why you founded Contactually. Where did the inspiration come from?
The high level is that there were three of us that started the company — myself, Zvi Band and Jeff Carbonella. The nugget of the idea started with Zvi, who was running his own freelance development business at the time.
As a result of running that business, he got a lot of referrals. But he struggled to systematically get more referrals or as many as he wanted. That’s where the idea started — could there be a better way to systematically engage his network or anyone’s network, to call up people you haven’t talked to in a long time and get reminded to follow up with them. That was a big pain point for him. And when we thought about it, all of us realized that none of us were particularly good at it either. And yet, everyone knows networking is important. So we thought it was an interesting problem personally and the more people we talked to, we realized it’s a problem that every professional has. So that’s why we doubled down on this idea and ran with it.
Q. You recently decided to focus on the Real Estate market. What led to that decision?
Given what I described about the company we wanted to start, at the time and even now, the idea of helping people nurture and engage their relationships effectively, spans any industry. But what we found was that realtors were coming to us in droves.
When we came to learn the real estate business better, we found that the typical real estate agent gets 95% of their business from referrals, from people they already know. Which makes sense. If you bought a home and you had a great experience with your realtor, and your neighbor or friend is looking to buy a home, you almost certainly would recommend your realtor. So they were coming to us. It was still a minority but a large minority.
Additionally, as a young company we always struggled with who we were building the product for and who we were selling to. We were always the bridesmaid, never the bride. People would ask us if we were a CRM, and we’d say we’re not a CRM. People would ask for a real estate focused CRM. We’d say we’re not focused on real estate, but we can work anywhere. So we were struggling with that and ultimately when we made the call to focus on just real estate and building the best CRM for real estate possible, it clicked with that audience really, really well. So we were no longer the secondary option, but the best option. It’s paid off from a sales perspective, from a marketing and messaging perspective, and everyone in the company is better aligned.
Q. What’s the biggest challenge you face right now as a company?
In general there are two different ways to answer that. On the one hand, not only are we focused on the real estate market, but we also made the decision to move up market and really focus on selling to brokerages, and that’s really different from where we’ve been historically. Historically, we’ve sold to lots of individual agents and teams of agents. So lots of our teams and systems were designed to drive leads at scale, thousands of leads per month and hundreds of customers per month. Whereas when selling to brokerages, the deal sizes are much, much larger. So the way we communicate to those brokerage executives versus agents is very different. How we sell is very different. The product even needs to be different. So that’s a major challenge and shift, a shift that’s been very successful for us and to continue to be, needs to be the #1 focus for the company.
The other challenge, and this is more of an ongoing challenge, I have come to realize over the course of building Contactually, that you can never have experienced enough, talented enough people on the team. There are always positions we’re looking to fill since we’re growing rapidly. So we’re looking to hire some key marketing hires today, some key folks on the customer success team. So it’s ensuring that we find those people, keep the talent bar high is definitely a major focus.
Q. What’s your favorite thing going on at Contactually right now?
It’s very exciting to go into large companies, big large real estate brokerages and know that we honestly have the best solution on the market. And knowing that 8 of top 20 brokerages in the country are already our customers. We just have the product market fit in that space. It’s the best it’s ever been. And our results show for it. We’re growing super rapidly. We just had our best month ever in May. So that type of success and feeling that things are just clicking is what everyone, myself included, feels really good about.
Q. You place a large emphasis on creating the right company culture. Why is that important to you and how has that contributed to your success? How do you stay true to that as you grow?
Let me start by saying that in the early days, I don’t know if we gave a ton of thought into what culture we would build. We were first time founders and we just thought, let’s build the best company we can. That may be a very naive view but it’s how we approached it. As a result of doing that, the really incredible part of that focus, is that the values that Zvi and Jeff and I really cared about and all the elements we felt would be the best way to build a company, we baked into the company’s DNA. So we’re a very down to earth, pragmatic company. We really value transparency. We treat people as equals, as owners and they are owners in the company. Those values were infused into how we operate and the people we sought to hire were people who resonated with those values.
So today we have this group of people who are really engaged with what we do. They really want the company to succeed. I describe it as people who are willing to do whatever to make the company successful, even if it’s outside their role, and people who you genuinely want to spend time with because they are so interesting and curious. To preserve that culture, we continue to seek to hire for it. We don’t just hire for functional expertise, we hire people who exhibit those similar values. As long as we continue to place as much emphasis on the values as getting the work done, I think we’ll be in a good place.
Q. What do you like most about being in the #dctech community? Why is it the right place for Contactually?
What I appreciate about #dctech is twofold. First, the entrepreneurs and founders I’ve met here. People outside of D.C. don’t think of D.C. as a tech community. They think of it as a Government town, and it is. But there are a lot of really awesome companies being built here. There is a lot of expertise from the AOL days, there is a lot of people who have been successful in the Virginia tech corridor and they’ve produced a lot of talent, a lot of second generation founders throughout the D.C. area who are doing really exciting things. There are a lot of company’s at a similar stage of growth as we are and we all learn from each other. For example, I do a regular dinner series with a bunch of local founders. We meet quarterly and we candidly share what’s going well and more importantly what’s not going well. And we can help each other. I don’t know if that’s unique to D.C., I’m sure it isn’t, but that’s where #dctech, I’ve found a community here that has helped me personally and helped me to grow the business.
I think D.C. also gets compared to New York and to San Francisco and the big difference there is that there are advantages to being a bigger fish in a smaller pond. We’re fortunate to be increasingly well known in the city and when you ask folks who are the companies you think about when you think about #dctech, I’d like to think we’re in that group that comes to mind right away. And there’s something to be said for that. We get a lot of really talented people who come our way who are looking to join a high growth startup and we’re always on their short list. I think that would be really hard to achieve in a place like New York or San Francisco.
Q. Any advice for your fellow entrepreneurs?
It’s hard to pick one piece of advice, but there are a couple things that I just fundamentally believe that are worth sharing. I like to use the word pragmatic a lot and I think it can have a dull or negative connotation to it. But what I mean by that is that if you ultimately try to build your business in the most pragmatic way possible, you end up doing a lot of things that are really good for the business and for the people in the company. Meaning, what’s the most practical way to build a business. You’re going to do the things that are most important, you’re going to do the things that are going to give you the most leverage, you’re going to treat your people with respect because if you do that, they’re going to do a really good job. I just think there’s a common sense in pragmatism, and the more you can display that in building a company, the better. That may seem obvious but I find that when I talk to companies large and small, that doesn’t seem to be there.
The second is more of a lesson learned. I don’t think I and we as a company appreciated enough the value of experience. Probably because we were first time founders, we hired a lot of first time people as well. It’s amazing in many many ways. But the drawback of doing that is that it’s the blind leading the blind and we made a lot of mistakes that we didn’t need to make. So if I did it all over again, the advice that I always give to first time founders now is that today, where we can, we always hire talent that has been there done that. I would seek to hire experienced talent wherever I could. You may not be able to pay them market rates, but I would have done what I could to make it happen. It’s been so impactful for us when we have hired those people.
Rapid Fire Questions: Get to know Tony Cappaert
- What song/music is most played on your playlist? I’m a total music eclectic junkie. I listen to rap to country to pop. What I’m listening to at work is low-fi or instrumental type stuff. When I’m not at home, I typically have my son with me and I listen to a lot of family friendly music, pop music from the 70’s or 80’s or random show tune type stuff. Anything that’s clean.
- Who is your favorite person to follow on Twitter? I don’t follow anyone on Twitter explicitly. I do use a service called Nuzzle which aggregates all the best content that’s been shared from my favorite Facebook and Twitter followers so I get a lot of the big tech guys. Marc Andreessen is probably whose content I consume the most as a result of that.
- What is the first website/app you access every morning? Swarm is one of the first apps I check every morning. Swarm is the Foursquare check-in app. I’ve been a very consistent user for 7 years. So it’s a treasure trove of memories every morning when I wake up. I love it. It always makes me smile.
- Three people living or dead you’d like to have over for dinner I’m a huge history nerd, so it would probably be major figures from history. I think it would be really interesting to have over one of the original American industrial titans. Someone like a Dale Carnegie or JP Morgan because I think the impact they had was huge, but the world was so different. It would be interesting to see how they think and operate. Similarly, it would be interesting to take a more modern day titan like an Elon Musk or Bill Gates. Then you’d want to throw a wild card in there that could be on the same level intellectually, but be a different flavor. I’ve always been a big fan of Richard Feynman, the late physicist. If you’ve ever read anything from him, he’s a really quirky guy. I think he’d be amazing to have dinner with.
About Contactually: Contactually provides a SaaS-based intelligent customer relationship management (CRM) platform for real estate agents and brokerages. In simply minutes a day, Contactually’s easy-to-use platform enables personal engagement at scale, resulting in more leads, referrals, and increased business. Proudly located in Washington, DC, Contactually employs approximately 70 people and has raised $12 million in capital to date from Grotech Ventures, Rally Ventures, Bull City Venture Partners, Middleland Capital, and others. Contactually has been named to Inc’s 5000 Fastest Growing Companies and the HousingWire Tech 100. For more information please visit us at https://www.contactually.com/.