Interviewed by Yingying Zhu,
Interviewed November 20, 2019
Poonam Mathis is a serial entrepreneur with a passion for innovating around the built world. Currently CEO of Raise, she is building coworking for parents with fully licensed childcare on site. Previously, she founded StealthForce, (the gig economy of real estate; a resource and project management platform for CRE), which was exited in early 2019. Prior to StealthForce, she was Deputy to the Head of Global Real Estate Asset Management at Partners Group AG ($40 bn AUM), and earlier employee 13 at The Gerson Lehrman Group, which was the world's first institutional expert network. Poonam earned her BA at Harvard and MBA at Wharton and spent over a decade in real estate development and investment. Twice named a top female CEO in CREtech, she has been featured in The New York Times, Inc. Magazine, Harvard Business Review, NBC News, and more. She is also an author and experienced public speaker (ULI, ICSC, CRETech, etc.) who has published four books in five languages.
How did you get into entrepreneurship?
I grew up in a family where both of my parents were entrepreneurs. My dad was an engineer and my mom had her master’s degree in economics. They spent their whole life starting new businesses. I saw them “rolling calculated dice” -- losing and then winning and then losing – and they would do it again. At our dinner table, we used to joke that the Sharma family comes up with 25 new businesses and then closes them the same night. So I always thought I would do something entrepreneurial, but to me, that was a high bar. I went into real estate after Harvard and Wharton. I did everything from arguing with and firing contractors, getting a Department of Health license, construction financing to asset managing for a multinational private equity firm. At that point, 50% of my time I was on a plane and I started thinking – how can any one team know all of the intricacies of a deal in China and also those of a deal in Ohio? When I fly out to Australia to look at a deal, I would love to be able to hire a local expert on a project basis. At the same time, I was reading all about the gig economy. Entrepreneurs had started TaskRabbit, HourlyNerd and Rent-an-MBA.com. You could hire someone who worked at Skadden, Arps & Slate, a reputable law firm, with top level law expertise without paying for the overhead. I am thinking, wait a minute, nobody is doing this for real estate. That was the genesis of my first startup, StealthForce.
How did you grow StealthForce and eventually sell it?
I launched the company in 2016 and ran it for about three and a half years. We had about 1,000 consultants and clients ranging from large public REITs down to family offices and small developers. Our consultants did everything from underwriting to investor relations, and their level of experience ranged from analyst level to former CEOs. We built a software prototype to match the clients and consultants, and track projects. When I was out raising money to build that prototype into a full SaaS product to also white-label for talent management, I started to hit a wall in getting early clients for my software. I am not the kind of entrepreneur who is going to spend millions building something without validation and just pray people will come. I got an offer to sell and decided to open up and talk to more buyers. Seigga had the right combination of knowledge in real estate and human capital management to move the business forward, so I officially sold StealthForce in January 2019.
How did you find the clients?
We started advertising on social media and a lot of LinkedIn. I previously was a writer so I wrote a handful articles on the gig economy and why it fit commercial real estate. We did articles for family office magazines. Family offices were interested in our business model because they were doing more direct deals instead of being LPs, but they don’t usually have someone on staff for real estate; they understand the value of talent. I also started speaking at conferences. I would speak at private equity conferences, CRE tech conferences and developer conferences. They would give us free tables and free marketing in return, so our marketing budget was almost zero. And of course we would research the hell out of the other companies at the conferences so that we could add value. After each of those conferences, there was a lot of demand and then people started telling people.
How did you find the consultants?
Supply is always easier than the demand side. I went to Harvard and Wharton. I started writing emails about how the gig economy is coming to commercial real estate and sent them out to alumni lists specialized in real estate. I wanted 50 responses, but I was shocked how many people responded that they wanted to do this kind of project-based consulting but didn’t know there was a place for it. I was also shocked by the number of high level candidates that were interested, like a former MD of Trammel Crow and a former head of asset management for a REIT in Brazil. It was not just millennials who wanted a different life style. Having this caliber of talent was really powerful to build up trust and we started to feature them on the website. Word of mouth really expanded our consultant ranks from there.
How did you match the clients and consultants efficiently?
At first my team had to do it manually. The process was not long because the clients had a specific project and no time to waste, unlike when they recruited a full time role. They typically had very specific needs, like they wanted someone with major REIT experience who was able to handle office asset management in New York City.
Later on, you developed a software prototype to automate the process, correct?
We did two things: one was to automatically match the job to the top three candidates in the network that matched the job requirement. Number two was to break down the job into manageable phases. If the job was a due diligence for a multi-family project, we knew what is involved: step one, review the model; step two, test for key assumptions; step three, review all secondary documents, etc. So the system would match the client with the consultant and then walk the consultant through the project steps and track deliverables. That took out any confusion and need for a project manager to ping people back and forth. The clients got their deliverables and the consultants got paid with full transparency.
“ Being an entrepreneur is an extraordinarily validating experience, in tiny and hard-won increments. It's your thoughts. Your vision. Your plan. Your strategy. To see the world believes in it means so much. Creating actual financial value, especially with a new product or service…”
What did you learn from StealthForce for your next gig? So much. Working for yourself, you will feel more self actualized than you could ever feel working for anyone else. It’s also an extraordinarily validating experience. In tiny and hard won increments. It’s your thoughts. Your vision. Your plan. Your strategy. To see the world believes in it means so much. Creating actual financial value, especially with a new product or service…feels like manifesting some part of yourself.
But there are also days when you bang my head against a wall saying – what am I not seeing, what am I not seeing? If you have the right idea, if you really care about it, you can’t stop believing. Even on your bad days, you still have to believe in it. I know a lot of entrepreneurs in this situation. Maybe they sold their company, shut it down, got acquired or did whatever, and ironically eventually became more attractive to recruiters and more marketable for a lot of corporate jobs. But for most entrepreneurs I know, the postmortem choice to either reenter the job market or launch another business is a gut decision, and it’s immediate - I will keep going for my next swing because I am addicted to the idea that if I could build this much this time, what I could do next time…knowing what I know now?
How is the fund raising going for your newest venture, Raise, where coworking meets childcare? I can’t talk about it much yet but I have got considerable commitment. I received a lot of support from the investors from last round. There are those that believe in the idea more and there are those that believe in you more. You want to give those who believe in you better terms because it means so much that they’re betting not on the idea of you having the right plan…but on the idea that you are the person who will make it work, period. I am going to win bigger this time, and I want them to win with me. I was joking with a potential partner the other day. He said I know that this deal didn't go the way you wanted it to yet but I knew I'd be hearing from you again. I said you’re right; I'm going to keep calling until you stop answering the phone. He said, I have no doubt.
“You have to run as fast as you can until your children come. Because that's about 80% as far as you're going to get professionally. People don't talk about it, but I grew up assuming, like a lot of women, that motherhood was going to slow me down.”
I know you are preparing for a speech about how motherhood makes you bolder in entrepreneurship. Can you give us the highlights?
There are many women, like me, who grew up thinking that there's a phase of life before you have children and there's a phase after you have children. You have to run as fast as you can until your children come. Because that's about 80% as far as you're going to ever get professionally. People don't talk about it, but I grew up assuming, like a lot of women, that motherhood was going to slow me down. But when my baby was born, after around six months, he started to look at me like the sun came out. He trusts that I will handle everything for him. The truth is, even though I am a confident woman, I have never been more sure of anything in my life, than that he's right. I would bite someone's face off before I would allow any harm to come to this child. Where is that level of boldness in my life outside of being a mom? How dare I not take that into the rest of my life? How long before he realizes I was just a person who didn't attempt what they really wanted to do with their lives? I don't want him to think that. My parents did some businesses. Some were successful and some business lost money, but I've always been most impressed that my parents kept swinging. My son is not going to see any less in me.
Who are the women who inspire you the most?
When I am trying to be practical, there are a couple of women entrepreneurs who I know on a personal level, and some more that are just amazingly brilliant women who are practical about the way they think about life. We have scheduled calls as we live in different parts of the country. It is helpful to talk to these women about what’s happening in work and life because they are going to think about it differently than other people. When I am trying to be bold, on the other hand, I think about my great grandma. She was widowed with three small children in a small village in India almost 100 years ago. She was apparently very beautiful, which was not the best or safest thing back then. My grandma’s big sister told me that she remembered my great grandma would work all night and take care of the kids all day. She was a widow before 30 and for the rest of her life. She would sit there the whole night with a kerosene lamp sewing to make money and crying when she thought nobody was looking. If she could work and cry at night in some village so all three of her kids turn out so well, I can pitch another 500 investors with my nice steaming latte in hand. Easily.
That is a beautiful ending. Thank you.
Edited and condensed for clarity.