This is my interview with Vijay Mehra, Founder and CEO of Rethink CRM, an Enterprise-level Commercial Real Estate software company based in Austin, TX. REthink is now poised to blow past it’s 10-year anniversary with aggressive growth goals for 2019. Vijay is a client, a mentor, and also a good friend of mine. He is humble in his accomplishments and allows everyone he speaks with feel at ease and feel appreciated. We recorded in November 2018, and we talk about business, traveling, Burning Man, and other fun stuff 🙂 I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.
This is the first episode of my ‘Interview Project’ I started back in 2015. I had no goal of doing anything with these, other than to sit down with a leader whom I respected and pick their brain on their career and life. I follow a sort of Tim Ferriss formula, and even ask some of the same questions.
When people ask you what you do, what do you tell them?
Sell Commercial Real Estate software.
Explain to me your thought process as you started your career after SMU, and how did that evolve into becoming an entrepreneur? Was the decision easy?
I graduated from SMU with a Mathematics and Electrical Engineering degree, and I wasn’t really sure of what I wanted to do. I did have some pressure from my dad to do engineering at a big tech company, but I couldn’t really see how that was for me. I couldn’t really get motivated to work, so I decided to take a year off to travel around the world. I helped with the tsunami relief in SouthEast Asia, gave back to the community, and really got a sense of the world. It was an amazing experience that helped shape me tremendously. After about a year, I got the urge to start working and flew back on Christmas day to surprise my family. I didn’t really have a plan, but 2 days later I was driving to New York City with my two best friends and put my resume up on Craigslist. Blue Wolf called me back, I interviewed, and they offered me the job. It was $40k for the first year in Manhattan… so I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I decided to learn literally everything there is to know about SalesForce. I worked hard, and quickly grew through the ranks and started PMing huge companies and clients. I got to a point where they just couldn’t pay me more, and I managed to get an offer from a large Real Estate Investments Trust. After about a year, I realized I just couldn’t do the corporate thing with suits and all and went back home for Christmas. I did a lot of thinking and talked to my influencers and friends and pretty much saw the writing on the wall with Salesforce and real estate. I just knew it was going to be very important in the future. The decision was actually pretty easy as a 24 yr old- I didn’t have much to lose.
What’s one thing you really excelled at early on?
What were your biggest concerns?
Failure. Not so much failing myself, but failing everyone who had seen me make that leap.
Who were your biggest influencers?
Ooh good question. At that time, I would probably say my Dad, he’s helped me a lot. Umm, who else? Besides all the cliché ones, you know, like Steve Jobs and these big names… Marc Cuban has been a big inspiration. When I was in college, I would follow everything that he was doing, and I said, “that’s what I want to be”. And he’s a Dallas guy. Yeah, he’s a pretty cool dude.
What was your first official hire like?
Oh man… My first official hire was rough. I don’t remember the exact one, it was over a decade ago, but I remember trying to decide where I was going to try and build out this business and I didn’t really have a home yet. I was just working out of my apartment. I started in New York City, then I moved to Dallas, I moved to Miami Beach, and at one point I was like, man I need some focus on where I’m going to hire. I knew Miami was limited in tech talent, I just could not build a company there. So I looked at Research Triangle in North Carolina, I looked at Austin, I looked at Dallas, I looked at Detroit, Michigan, and I looked at Ann Arbor, Michigan. I literally picked 5 cities and I posted up in them and I put a Craigslist ads out…
[David: …Craigslist, the same way you got your first job.]
Exactly, I mean it’s what I knew! It had only been 18-24 months before I was like, “Oh yeah that worked for me let’s see how it works again!”. I put it on a few job boards as well, went to these different cities, and got a hotel room the night before at like a Marriot Suites or whatever those are called, and I would use their conference room as a place to interview. I’d say, “tell me, why do you think this job is for you?” and they were like, “who the hell are you?”. So I’d be in these rooms with a suit and tie and tell them about my tech company and all my ambitions in these different conference rooms in these cities and I’d just interview people. And I remember I met this one guy who was just a little bundle of knowledge and I said to him, hey I want to build this company and I want you to be my first hire. This was in Michigan, and he was like “yeah sure sounds like a great idea, great opportunity” and off we went. We started building this thing together for about 2 years and neither of us had any idea of what we were doing and that’s kind of how it started. Wow what a flashback… that’s funny.
What would you have done differently?
Man, it sounds a little cheesy and cliché… ah you know what, it doesn’t. I was going to say, “I don’t think I would change anything because everything has been a learning lesson for me”, but there have been some really painful ones early on. I would say I would’ve partnered myself with a legal counsel, and I would’ve partnered myself with a very strong accountant. And they don’t have to be full-time, these are just folks that you have as resources to help you grow and scale your business. And I decided to foot all that and try to draft my own legal documents and try do all my accounting and that hurt. It definitely catches up with you.
What’s a common misconception about being a CEO?
Yeah, that’s a good question. So, I talk about it and think about it the way people see it from the outside. They think it’s like that widely known graph or image that shows point A and point B with a straight line that goes in this very steep incline that represents success. In reality it’s: here’s point A and here’s point B and there’s a bunch of zig zagging, upwards, sideways, backwards… everything that could possibly go wrong happens. It’s a constant roller coaster, it’s never the smooth sailing that people on the sidelines or outside thinks it is.
Is there a difference between being an entrepreneur and a CEO?
Yeah, there is. In my opinion. An entrepreneur tends to have much more the vision but lacks more the ability to execute. Not to say that an entrepreneur cannot be a CEO every single time, but a lot of times entrepreneurs are big visionary ideas people and they surround themselves with the right people to help execute on that vision. Whereas if you look at a number of the Fortune 500 companies out there, the CEO is not the original entrepreneur or founder of a company, right? And they have tons of experience, and they’re invaluable. They take the idea or vision of the original founder and they execute against that. Again, a lot of times that CEO and that entrepreneur are one and the same and it’s not uncommon, but I do think that there can be a distinct difference between the two.
When you think of the word successful, who comes to mind, and why?
Warren Buffet. This is someone who is the epitome of success and wealth in our world and generation. As it relates to what I do, if you take every company that he owns under his portfolio, whether its Nebraska Home Furnishings or Dairy Queen, and you were to take all the real estate transactions in any given year, not only would he own a vast amount of companies and businesses, but he would also have the world’s largest corporate real estate firm, just based off of the transactions that is needed to service his company. They didn’t even see that at
one point, and they’re just now recognizing that… it’s astonishing.
How pivotal has travelling been to your life?
So pivotal. I think that ties back to earlier to one of the things that’s made me successful: I’ve been able to appreciate and understand different people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, of different cultures, and allow myself to relate to them. To find empathy, to find connections with all sorts of people and travelling has definitely helped with that… But also, it helped me understand how small this world is. It shouldn’t be farfetched for me to pick up the phone and call someone. At the end of the day we’re only here for a short time, and there shouldn’t be anything that shies away from that.
How do you navigate through big transitions in life?
Oh, man, a lot of alcohol. Haha, I’ve gotten better at this. It was difficult in my 20’s… I didn’t, well, I’ll step back: I think Having a plan and understanding what that plan means is huge. And also having a backup plan. Then, focusing on that plan and not be afraid to pivot if it’s not working.
I imagine some days are overwhelming running a company, how do you find clarity and focus on what matters? Does it come naturally?
No, it doesn’t. This is something I’ve become more self-aware with. It’s natural for you as an owner of a business—as someone that the rest of your team looks to you for guidance and leadership—it’s easy for you to get into the trenches with the rest of the team and then just get lost. You get so focused on the granular it’s kind of hard to get back into that big picture. It’s not necessarily forcing, but I try as much as I can to get my head out of it by either travelling, getting out of that mindscape and saying let’s go here an shut it off. I exercise when I can, even if it’s just a short run where I can just clear my head. Those are the big ones for me.
[David: Yeah, it definitely gives more of a purpose to travelling instead of saying “oh this is going to be just a blank space where I just enjoy myself”. Which isn’t wrong in itself, but if it also ties back to business it has much more of a purpose.]
Totally. And for me, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really appreciated the escape it’s given me and the clarity to come back and say ok… y’know, here’s what we need to do. And it’s not every time. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and you’re like ok I’ve just got to weather this one through.
What books do you or would you give as gifts the most?
For any entrepreneur, I would recommend Traction. I think I may have mentioned this to you before, but so far it’s been game changing and very rewarding. 4 Hour Work Week was game changing for me and was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back after I read that, I knew I couldn’t go back to the corporate world after that. And a non-business related is Killing Pablo, I picked that up on my travels, and obviously he’s been dramatized and in Hollywood for the past few years. When I first picked this up, I saw the life that he went through, and as terrible of things he did, he did an equal amount of good, and it made you love and hate him at the same time, so it was just a mix of emotions. I had a lot of appreciation for the empire that he built, but he did it on such negative terms so it was in a weird way inspiring.
Top 3 reasons someone should go to Burning Man?
1. Appreciation for mankind
2. Perspective on culture & arts
3. Challenging yourself mentally and physically
Is there a particular reason that one shouldn’t have for going to Burning Man? Is there a wrong reason?
There’s no specific reason why you should go to Burning Man. Every time I’ve gone I’ve had a completely different experience and I’ve learned a completely different thing about myself and about people I meet out there. There’s no one reason why… Even if you go in with a wrong reason, you’ll come out with a completely different perspective.
Favorite purchase of $100 or less
I would say Apple Ear Pods. These have changed my life. Other than that, my white Superga shoes. They’re an extension of my feet. Nothing fancy, just clean and simple. I’m very particular, there are some things I have to have stocked up. What else? Uhh Waterloo? Yeah, Waterloo in the fridge.
Ohh wow. Umm, that’s a good question. This one has me stumped. You know what, I would put it in the most highly trafficked corner in the world, and I would have some message on there about what the world looks like without love. Or maybe take it the other way and show the positive influence of love. There’s too much hate in the world right now.