Sean Black | Crain's Raleigh Durham

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Sean Black

Background:  

Launched by the founding team members of Trulia.com, Knock.com is an online home trade-in platform that uses data science to price homes accurately, technology to sell them quickly, and a team of local licensed experts to guide consumers through every step of the process. Knock.com currently has offices in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and Charlotte, with more on the way.

The Mistake:

My Knock co-founder (Jamie Glenn) and I were on the founding team of Trulia, which is now part of the Zillow Group. Both are effectively where homebuyers go to find the information they need to make the biggest purchasing decision of their lives.

Knock is really more focused on the sellers and on trying to democratize the sell side, which is almost entirely offline. It is still, however, a marketplace because we are doing the same thing Trulia did, which is connecting buyers and sellers and making the transaction easier, faster and cheaper. But when we started Knock, we actually didn’t want to work with buyers at all because we had already done it with Trulia.

When you are creating a marketplace business, you are kind of creating two businesses at the same time. On the one side, you have to go out and find all the sellers, and you have a whole bunch of tactics, initiatives and channels with which to do that. On the other side, you have to find all the buyers. It’s like the chicken-and-the-egg problem. But the idea is that you should first focus on one side of the market, and then, ideally, you’ll fix the other side.

We had already fixed the buyer side with Trulia, and were ready to focus on the sellers with Knock. We were pretty adamant about not talking to any buyers, despite people telling us otherwise. We only wanted to focus on the sellers and were creating algorithms to figure out how to price properties and help sellers sell.

Fast-forward a little bit, and we ended up doing this home trade-in thing, where we help you not only sell a home, but also buy your next home. So we kind of had to hurry up and build a bunch of technology around the buyer, making it easier to take them around and show them houses.

In hindsight, we were pretty stubborn not to listen to the people telling us we should consider focusing on buyers. Had we been more flexible about that earlier, we might be where we’re at now a year-and-a-half ago.

Everyone’s ideas are worth listening to, regardless of how much experience they have.

The Lesson:

I came across this book about culture, and the first page I opened to was exactly the lesson I took away from this experience, which was: Never say no.

I think there is so much out there about how to do something, or how certain companies achieved certain things, so you think, 'Okay, I’m just going to follow that playbook and say no to everything else.' That’s what we did, and we ended up shutting a great idea down.

We’ve since learned our lesson, and have agreed to not automatically shut people’s ideas down –  even if it’s an idea we might have tried before, we’ll hear it out. Maybe we’ll eventually get to no, but at least we’ll have been open-minded about it. Everyone’s ideas are worth listening to, regardless of how much experience they have. That’s especially true of our employees, who we know to be smart and resourceful. It’s why we hired them.

I do this with my kids, too. While it’s easy to say, 'No, you don’t know what you’re talking about,' I just try not to say the word 'no' – especially when it’s the first thing I want to say. Instead, I’ll say, 'Tell me why you think that. Let’s have a conversation about it.' And I’ll learn something.

I make so many decisions, and because I want to be very efficient, I can be quick, blunt, and sometimes curt. But it’s important that I stop to listen to people’s ideas more, especially when it’s clear they put a lot of thought into them.

Sean Black is on Twitter at @SeanBlack

Photo courtesy of Knock.com

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