Eric Rea: Building a $3B Company from the Attic of a Bike Shop
How a Young, Scrappy BYU Grad Changed Local Business
My gap year was marked by serendipity and small, random events that helped things fall into place. The most important one was deciding to call a friend and former neighbor, Than Hancock, about intern roles at his company, Podium. Than managed to convince the EVP of Strategy to hire a high school intern (he’s not known as the best sales leader in Utah for nothing!), so I packed up my Jetta and headed for Salt Lake City.
Podium is a B2B SaaS company powering messaging and payments for local businesses. The triple unicorn is led by Eric Rea, a high-energy, gritty leader who took an unconventional path to entrepreneurship. Through small interactions (I actually sat a few feet away from his office) and watching him lead the company through a period of tremendous growth, I learned some incredible lessons about leadership, communication, and entrepreneurship. Here are four key takeaways from my podcast conversation with Eric:
1. Solve a problem you know and understand.
Eric grew up working at his dad’s tire shop, which taught him the ins and outs of operating a small business. Fast forward to college, and Eric was generating $80K in revenue from running an iPad accessory business on Shopify, a software platform for e-commerce. He started to ask himself why his dorm-room side-hustle had access to 10x better technology than his dad’s tire shop, a much more complex operation that did $3.5M in gross revenue.
This realization — that no one was building software for brick and mortar local businesses — ultimately led Eric to start Podium. Along the way, many investors told him to focus on Enterprise given the price sensitivity and volatility of the SMB customer segment. While he was tempted to pivot when he got to Y-Combinator, Eric’s unwavering belief in small businesses and dedication to helping them grow is at the core of Podium’s success. He notes that the greatest opportunities for impact are often found in underserved, unglamorous markets that most people overlook.
Eric encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to solve a problem they know and understand — if you’re going to go all-in, go all-in on something you care about deeply. Podium originated from Eric’s experience helping his dad, and he continues to leverage his perspective as a small business operator when making product decisions for the company.
2. Scrappy, hands-on entrepreneurs are the ones who succeed
For the first nine months, Eric and his co-founder Dennis Steele spent their days selling door-to-door and their nights learning to code. Their first office was a tiny attic above a bike shop, a building so old that they had to beam wifi from the college students across the street. They were incredibly frugal and only spent money on building the product and acquiring customers. In fact, when someone asked for a business card to approve them for credit card processing, they faked one by screenshotting a preview image on Vistaprint.
The original product was a basic software tool that made it easier for local businesses to get more reviews and build their online reputation. When they launched in 2014, positive online reviews were becoming an increasingly important part of search engine optimization, Apple and Google Maps rankings, and generating inbound interest. Reviews were also personal — business owners like Eric’s dad had to deal with the fact that one bad review could tarnish the integrity and reputation of something that they dedicated decades of their lives to. From the constant pitching that comes from door-to-door selling, Eric and Dennis found that better showcasing customer experiences online was top-of-mind for small business owners. They quickly developed traction and were even dubbed “the kings of product-market fit” at Y-Combinator.
Even though the software started as a point solution for reviews, Podium continually expanded into adjacencies and found success in areas such as messaging, payments, and voice. It is now a platform that powers 100% of communications and payments for local businesses and helps them more meaningfully engage with their customers.
3. Learn to articulate your vision and get people excited about it.
As a company grows, the Founder CEO must delegate responsibilities to people who can specialize and run point on a given business function (marketing, engineering, sales, etc). The role of the CEO evolves into one of vision and communication — discerning the best direction for the company and ensuring everyone is aligned and working towards that shared vision.
Eric is a gifted communicator, and his excitement about Podium emanates from every slack message, update video, and town hall. He can clearly articulate Podium’s path to becoming a $10B company, and his energy is contagious.
Great founders are not differentiated by things like engineering chops or domain expertise; they are differentiated by their ability to set and deliver a vision. A compelling, ambitious vision — not necessarily financial upside — is what leads great employees to upend their lives to join a startup and venture capitalists to respond with the elusive yes.
4. You don’t need to fit the mold of an entrepreneur to start a world-changing company.
Eric and Dennis didn’t hail from Ivy League schools or have experience at a Bay Area FAANG company. In fact, the two Co-Founders didn’t know what the acronyms “SaaS” or “VC” stood for when they started pitching their idea. Eric emphasizes that no one really has it figured out, so you shouldn’t be afraid to get out there and start something new.
That said, the duo didn’t succeed by chance; they outworked everyone else and refused to quit when all the signals told them to.
Podium — now a $3B dollar company backed by Accel, Y-Combinator, IVP, and Google Ventures — is the product of embracing entrepreneurship at its most pure, organic state: Identifying a problem that matters and working insanely hard to solve it.