Neighborhoods.com CEO Bill Ness on bootstrapping, culture and Chicago's take on tech

February 13, 2017

When it’s time to buy a home, details like the number of bathrooms or the total square footage are just small parts of the equation. Buyers also need to know about the local schools, area institutions and community spirit before making a purchase. Neighborhoods.com offers homebuyers a resource for finding the community that best suits their needs.

CEO Bill Ness founded the company after the success he saw in offering community-based real estate search with 55places.com. We talked with him about the challenges of launching a new site without VC funds, how to build great teams and more.

How do you define success for your company?

There are a lot of metrics we could look to to define success, but the most important question I ask myself is “Have we built a service that can help change people’s lives?”

Our websites, neighborhoods.com and 55places.com, help millions of people who are navigating one of the single largest decisions of their life: where to live. The neighborhood you live in is just as important — if not more important — than the home you live in. If we can guide just one person in this decision process, I think that makes us successful. To me, our continued success is defined by providing guidance to millions of people.

What’s a major challenge you’ve faced as a leader, and what did you learn from it?

In 2014 we made the decision to launch neighborhoods.com. Our original site, 55places.com, was proving to be very successful, but it targets a niche market of people 55 and older who are looking for active adult retirement communities. We knew providing a great resource for people to find and research neighborhoods would be useful to anyone looking for a new home, so launching neighborhoods.com was a logical next step.

Our main challenge was figuring out how to procure the right people and the money to build and operate neighborhoods.com. It seemed like a daunting challenge, especially given the fact that we are not a venture capital-backed company and we didn’t want to rely on outside funding to launch the new site. We ultimately knew that if we were committed to the vision we could make it happen. We used profit generated by 55places.com to build neighborhoods.com and worked diligently to get the right people on our team and grow our company by an additional 40 people. The experience has taught us that as long as we commit to something, we can find a way to make it happen.

How do you build and sustain great teams?

Build a great culture, and everything else falls into place. Our culture helps us attract talented people to join our organization. To me, it’s important that people are always having fun, being challenged and doing work that they find meaningful. What makes for a truly great culture is getting the right people in your organization: those who want to make a difference and enjoy coming to work every day surrounded by other dedicated and passionate people. As a company, we offer a work environment where people feel their contribution is valued. We have a set of Championship Team Principles and core values that we live and work by. On day one with neighborhoods.com, new employees learn these principles and values. And at company meetings, there is always a dedicated time for acknowledging team members who have done awesome work.

What advice would you give your past self just starting off in the tech industry?

Plan on being in this for the long haul. Everyone hears the story about “that one dot-com guy who made a bazillion dollars.” But the hard truth is that most companies will fail. Even the ones that do succeed take a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make it in this industry.

If I could go back in time, I would have told my younger self that to get an accurate picture of what this business can be, I should multiply the amount of time and money it will take to make this company successful by 10, then divide the estimated traffic and revenue by 10. What you have left over is a more accurate picture of what your business can be. If you can still live with that, get started.

What are your big plans and expectations for 2017?

We are focusing on growing our coverage area and improving user experience on our websites. We are a tech company that also happens to be a real estate brokerage. As such, our presence in markets around the country is limited to where we have brokerage operations set up. Following our plan for 2017, neighborhoods.com will have a presence in markets that would help us service over 50 percent of the population by the end of the year. Additionally, we are enhancing our user experience by testing, gathering feedback and making improvements to our websites.

What is your favorite part of the Chicago tech community?

I love that the Chicago tech community is built on Midwest values. It dreams big and works hard. We may not be as well-funded as other tech markets on either coast, but that doesn’t stop us rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.

Ten years ago, our company was a boot-strapped real estate startup operating out of my living room. Even though 2007 proved to be one of the single worst years to start a real estate company since the great depression, we still haven’t taken a dime from any investors. Yet we’ve grown into a profitable organization of over 50 employees and 400-plus partner agents. I think there are a lot of companies like ours in Chicago, and it’s great that not everyone in this tech community has the mindset that you need millions in venture capital money to be considered a success.

 

Image via neighborhoods.com. Some answers have been edited for length and or clarity.

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