Technology

Matt Lerner: ‘We’d better disrupt ourselves before someone else does!’

Nearly shedding tears over the Apple Watch and how walkability built a business

Matt Lerner is the chief technology officer at Walk Score.

Age: 39

Degree, school: Computer Science, Brown University

Location: Seattle, Washington

Social media: Twitter, LinkedIn

Matt Lerner

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Walk Score assigns “bike scores” to addresses and neighborhoods, given Matt Lerner’s enthusiasm for biking. Photo credit: Dzung Vo

What’s your favorite activity outside of work and why?

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Bike commuting! I have a startup and two little boys so I don’t have much time to go the gym — and I need a way to work off all those Pacific Northwest microbrews that I drink! Bicycling is one of the cheapest, healthiest and most fun ways to get around town.

It’s really exciting to see the growth of bike lanes, bike-sharing systems and bike commuters. We have a product called Bike Score that measures how good an area is for biking and helps people find bikeable places to live. Biking is an aspirational thing for a lot of people, and it’s growing rapidly. It’s sweet when your commute can be one of the best parts of your workday.

What’s your favorite classic piece of literature and why?

I love a short story by Ray Bradbury called “The Toynbee Convector.” It’s about a guy who invents a time machine, travels to the future and brings back beautiful videos of vibrant cities with no poverty, beautifully preserved natural areas, and so on.

When he returns to the present and shows people these videos, they get so excited that they go out and start building this amazing future. Once they’ve built the future that they saw in the videos, they discover that the time machine never existed (time machines aren’t real!) and the videos were all faked by the inventor.

It’s a great story about the power of having a concrete vision to motivate people to action. Maybe it’s also a story about being a bit of an idealist and a huckster — which I guess is a useful skill for an entrepreneur, as long as you don’t push it too far!

Are you the first entrepreneur in your family?

I’m the first entrepreneur in my family. I come from a family of poets, writers and academics. I’m kind of like the Alex P. Keaton character from “Family Ties” — a business guy in a family of hippies! My dad still has long hair down to his shoulders, which was embarrassing for me where I grew up in Topeka, Kansas. Now I think my dad is a super-cool dude.

How’d you come up with the idea for your startup?

There’s a big technology trend towards quantifying and measuring almost everything. We wanted to quantify the old real estate cliche “location, location, location,” so that’s why we built Walk Score. Since then we’ve expanded what Walk Score does to be the best neighborhood information site for what’s outside the four walls of a home or apartment.

Describe a time when you felt particularly insecure about the future of your company. How did you bounce back?

As an entrepreneur, sometimes you feel like you can’t lose, and other times you feel like you can’t win. Usually, I feel both of these things about ten times each day. It’s easy to get batted around by larger companies or larger industry forces that you can’t control.

I know a lot of entrepreneurs who crash and burn because they aren’t taking good enough care of themselves and their personal relationships. It’s a tough balancing act and it’s different for every person — but taking care of yourself and your loved ones is an important foundation for me to bounce back from the inevitable challenges at a startup. You gotta leave a little gas in the tank in case you have to travel a little further than you expected!

What would you describe as your company’s biggest victory since launching and why?

I’m most proud of having Walk Score on 30,000 real estate websites and showing 20 million of our scores per day across our network. I mean, heck, that’s more than 200 scores per second. I’m proud that we’ve helped make walkability, short commutes and how you get around your city a bigger part of how people think about where to live.

What’s been the biggest obstacle your business has encountered, and how have you dealt with it?

When we started Walk Score, other real estate companies thought walkability was kind of a niche thing. Real estate agents would say, “This house is really walkable, it’s right on the golf course!” We had to overcome that initial skepticism with the power of persuasion that comes from having a mission we believe deeply in.

Now there’s a growing understanding that walkability is a mega-trend fueled by demographic changes (millennials not wanting to live in the suburbs, boomers downsizing), the economy (gas prices being volatile, walkable real estate performing better from an investment perspective), and growing consumer interest in healthy and sustainable lifestyles.

The Walk Score team

The Walk Score team

What puzzles you most about the industry?

It seems like every time I go to an Inman conference there is a panel called “The Death of the MLS” — so people keep predicting the death of the MLS, and they keep not dying!

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned about building a business since launching your company?

Passion. Many entrepreneurs think they’re going to create a startup and sell it to Google or Facebook in six months. But usually it takes longer and is harder than you anticipate. For me personally, my passion for the Walk Score mission keeps me extremely motivated and tenacious.

It’s something I could work on forever because I believe in the power of walkable neighborhoods to address our biggest problems like climate change, health, a strong economy and more. So when people tell me they want to do a startup that’s a new social network for pets (or whatever), I ask them if they are passionate enough about social networks for pets to work on it for five or 10 years. And anyway, pets can’t type, so I don’t recommend that startup idea.

What’s the most overrated real estate technology?

I’m a sucker for technology. I almost cried when the Apple Watch was unveiled because I loved it so much. The words “overrated” and “technology” don’t really exist together in my brain.

How will the role of the real estate agent change over the next five years?

The convenience of services like Amazon Prime or Uber is incredible, and only getting more incredible as delivery times shrink. In order to deliver Amazon-like or Uber-like customer experiences, I think we’ll see teams of real estate agents working together with technology to deliver near-instant service to their clients.

I also think we’ll see much more consumer-friendly versions of things like mortgages, which for most people are less enjoyable than walking on hot coals and more mysterious than a UFO sighting in New Mexico.

What motivates you more: power or money?

Mwwwaaa hah hah … power (Mr. Burns voice from “The Simpsons”). Just kidding, I’m a mission-driven guy. I want to make a difference in the world that I believe in and am proud of.

So the mission of what I’m working on is a lot more important to me than either of those things. But dang, the walkable neighborhoods I want to live in are getting really expensive because so many people want to live in them — so I guess I have to pay some attention to the money part!

What is your biggest professional fear?

Industry consolidation and the big players making it harder for startups to compete. For example, the mobile app store dynamics are very different from the web. On the Web, there’s a very long tail of traffic that a startup can go after. In the app store, there are winner-take-all dynamics where it’s hard to compete with the biggest players. This is what keeps me up at night.

What is your biggest personal fear?

I have an incredible wife and amazing 7- and 5-year-old boys. Am I spending enough time with them? Am I spending enough time with parents as they get older? Am I balancing my life in the right way? Will I have regrets that I spent too much time working? These are tough questions during startup life.

Whom do you respect most in the industry?

All of the people who are out there looking to buy a place that they can call home. I have tremendous respect for all the consumers who are trying to navigate the overly complex process of buying or selling a house. The real estate industry has a long and complex history (kind of like the taxi cab industry before Uber), so we better disrupt ourselves before someone else disrupts us!

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