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Grow or Die: Apartment Locating Startup Doubles Down on Denver

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By Cassie Brown, CEO/Founder Smart City 

Cassie Brown

Most companies approached the pandemic with a “cut back or die” mindset – and the reason why is obvious. It’s safe. Eventually, if they play their cards right, they will be able to make up all their losses. The problem with “cut back or die,” however, is that it treats employees as dispensable rather than as a critical resource. It puts the onus of economic instability on them rather than the employer that didn’t prepare itself for such a crisis. Businesses that took on this mindset forced themselves into a lose-lose situation.

“Cut back or die” almost always means layoffs, even though most executives know that hiring and retaining talent is one of the most important things that any business in any industry can do to set itself up for success. Laying off talent when times get tough only makes recovery more difficult. I refused to contribute to the growing unemployment rate based on who is and is not “essential.” At Smart City — a free apartment locating startup founded on a radical commitment to caring about clients —everyone is essential because everyone is a human being, not just a name on a spreadsheet. So, we chose a different approach: “grow or die.” It’s a stick-your-neck-out, no-holds-barred approach that only works if leaders are willing to lead by example and take the first hit. Sure, we still had cutbacks, but we made sure they were in the right places. I cut my own salary to zero. Not only because I could afford to, but because I couldn’t stomach laying anyone off just so I could keep a paycheck. Smart City is my baby, but it also means so much more than that to so many other people who work here and have helped us grow.

But that is only a small part of the strategy. The most important piece of a successful “grow or die” approach is growth. I would have lived out of a box to keep from laying off my team, but I knew it still would not be enough to take Smart City to the next level. We needed to actually put in the work. Rather than pause our plans for launching in Denver – our first launch outside of Texas – we pushed ahead, knowing that if we didn’t then we may never have the chance at all. Not only was this much
more exciting than playing it safe, but it was also the right thing to do for both the business and the people that have worked so hard to make it what it is today.

Almost a year later, I’m so glad we made the investment in Denver that we did. It was already a prime location for multifamily housing, with lots of jobs and natural beauty that you simply cannot find anywhere else. The way the pandemic changed the market in 2020 made it even more appealing. The small dip in rent, the transition to remote work and a few months cooped up in quarantine was as all the encouragement potential Denverites needed to take the leap.

I anticipate that the lower rent trend will continue into this year. Even as people flock to Denver in droves, there are plenty of new and planned properties to prevent a rent spike. That, coupled with increasing housing prices means renting, and our current renter-friendly market, is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Properties looking to gain an edge on the competition can look no further than the amenities they offer and how clearly they can market them online, especially through virtual tours.
Other than the monthly rent, gyms, free coffee bars, dog parks, pools, and other amenities have always had the most sway in whether a renter decides to lease at one property over another.

The death of the traditional office as we know it will also make amenity-driven decision-making even more important through 2021 and beyond. I expect that few companies in Denver, including Smart City, will require a return to business-as-usual once COVID recovery has begun. This shift in work culture means we will permanently require even more functionality from our living spaces. Not only must we be able to comfortably eat, sleep, bathe and relax at home – a tall order by itself – but we also must earn a living there. Considering this, properties should think about taking on their own “grow or die” mindset, with an understanding that seemingly small amenities like printing, dog walkers and valet trash services can go a long way to transform a property into a work-from-home paradise.

I said, “grow or die” and my team chose growth. As a result, since launching in Denver, Smart City has entered Atlanta, Nashville and Orlando with plans to launch in Miami and Chicago this spring. We have also created 300 (and counting) new jobs. It’s not because I cut my salary. It’s because of my team. It’s because they rallied, got creative, worked hard to save a company they love as much as I do.

Smart City started in 2013 as a small apartment locating service in Dallas, Texas. In the early days, Founder and CEO Cassie Brown just wanted to help her friends find great places to live, but her innate drive to offer an amazing client experience quickly set Smart City apart from the competition. Since then, Smart City has taken big strides to disrupt the real estate industry by choosing what’s right over what’s profitable.

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