Matt BarbaCofounder of Placester CGS´07, BSBA´09
Matt Barba is a software CEO who has helped raise $50 million in funding.
WHEN MATT BARBA tried to sell real estate, he couldn’t hit on a killer sales technique; when his tech company grew, his employees told him his coding was doing more harm than good. But he still made it into the 2016 Forbes “30 Under 30”—in the enterprise tech category, lauded for a start-up targeting realtors. In 2011, Barba (CGS’07, BSBA’09) cofounded Placester, which builds software for the real estate industry. It employs 175 people and has raised some $50 million in funding.
Placester helps real estate agents move beyond listing homes in store windows to hosting multimedia showings in a digital world; online listings company Zillow alone gets about 140 million hits a month. But Barba says the industry he worked in—realtor was one of his college jobs—was full of “traditional businesses that didn’t really run with software.” These days, realtors not only have to be online, their websites need to tie into a multitude of back-end functions, such as customer relationship management and marketing. Placester offers software solutions that check all of those boxes for brokers, agents, publishers, and associations. The potential market is huge: according to property data provider RealtyTrac, 3.1 million homes and condos—with a median home price of $206,500—were sold in the United States in 2015. That’s a lot of commissions.
Barba might not have been the best real estate agent, but his exposure to the industry allowed him to spot a gap in the market. After college, he and his cofounder started coding, building the first version of Placester’s software. In 2011, the company raised $826,000 after taking part in a business accelerator program; in 2013, it raised $2.5 million in seed funding.
Most entrepreneurs can rattle off a litany of risks they’ve taken in the dogged pursuit of an idea: a job quit, a funder turned down. When asked about the biggest chance he and cofounder Frederick Townes (CAS’02) took, Barba can’t think of one.
“When we were in an apartment five-and-a-half years ago, we could’ve wasted six months giving this a shot and said, ‘Ah, screw it, we’ll go join the finance industry or be lawyers or whatever,’” he says. “But instead we were two guys who knew how to code, and we were having fun, and we were like, ‘Yeah, we want to solve this problem and build something.’ And we just made very calculated bets from there.”
In 2014, Placester raised another $5.5 million in funding; a further $40 million would come in 2015. The company says it now serves 400,000 professionals in the real estate industry.
“The biggest challenge is you don’t want to scale too quickly,” says Barba. “You don’t want to push the boundary too hard and sacrifice something like culture or have it be a terrible place to work or build poor-quality products. That requires being really, really thoughtful about how quickly you scale and what decisions you make.”
After three years, his newly hired coding team suggested Barba step back from building the software. He concentrates his efforts on recruiting and keeping staff and talking to customers. And he has no problem hiring—and leading—people with decades more experience than he has. Townes was already a successful developer and entrepreneur when Barba reached out to him after graduation, working their shared BU connection to ask for advice with an unrelated business idea. The two stayed in touch.
“If you’re the best at everything in your company, unless you’re some kind of a miracle person, what an awful place to work,” says Barba. “The one thing you need to get really good at as a CEO is empowering people….If your superpower, the thing you’re really good at, is helping the best person be in a position to get something done or make the right decision, people love that and it attracts the smartest people.”
That’s sound advice for any newly minted Questrom alums looking to follow his lead: find someone one step ahead of you and ask for their help.
“Tell them what you’re doing, and ask them how they think you can do it. And that can be a very powerful thing to help you navigate what is very clearly a maze and not a marathon to start a company.”
He also encourages budding entrepreneurs to quit the hanging around: if you’ve got an idea, go do something about it.
“We started the company when we were children, you know? We had no obligations,” he says. “If I was trying to start this today, it would be a very different picture for me because I have a different set of responsibilities and that would be very hard. But when you’re 22…”
Getting Placester off the ground required some luck—good timing, fortunate connections—but Barba says a lot of grunt work was necessary to take advantage of providence.
“I figured it’s this big complicated chess match and you’re brilliant and you navigate through it—and it’s really not. You just show up to work every day, you type really hard, you talk to the people who you’re trying to sell to, you ask them why they like it and why they don’t like it, and what would cause them to spend more money, and then you do those things. And you do it every day. And you do it for 10 years and you’ll get a great business. It’s not rocket science.”