Julie Brinkman, CEO
Julie Brinkman joined short-term rental revenue management platform Beyond Pricing in early 2020 as COO and helped lead the company’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was named CEO in February of this year.
Prior to Beyond Pricing, Brinkman spent more than a decade in various leadership roles at high-growth technology companies such as Hireology and Groupon.
As an executive new to Beyond Pricing – starting as COO in early 2020 – how did that role evolve to your current position as CEO?
I can't believe it's only been a year. I had gotten to know David [Kelso, Beyond Pricing co-founder] in the back half of 2019, early into 2020. There was a leadership shift pretty quickly after we raised money with Bessemer. In late 2019, Ian McHenry, who is the co-founder and CEO, stepped down and David had stepped into the CEO seat and knew that he wanted to find someone to help him run the business.
David is an engineer by trade and has done an incredible job with the product design and end side of the house, as well as just helping to shape the culture. I had begun my search and we started to get to know each other and really hit it off.
I joined the company on March 2, 2020, as the COO, and my plan was to start to get to know the team. I started off with just a couple of the teams reporting to me, namely customer success as well as operations. Our focus was really building trust, understanding how they're thinking about strategy and building out a near- and medium-term plan.
Then over the course of the next several months, with the backdrop of COVID, I began taking on much more responsibility on the go-to-market side. We didn't really have a marketing team, so I started some guerrilla marketing on the side, as well as taking over the sales team and helping to build out each of the different functions. If I had to start to categorize it, it's like a growth of responsibility with a very intentional desire to build trust and deep relationships with a team that had gotten us to this point.
COVID has obviously been a challenging time for the entire industry: What would you say were the top challenges you faced as someone new to the company and as its leader during the crisis?
On March 2, it was effectively two weeks later when the shutdown orders happened in the U.S. What we saw with our customer base, specifically with property managers, was a level of cancellation. People were canceling all of their trips that they had booked in Q1. A lot of folks book their summer vacations in Q1, and that's when we recognize revenue, so that's when we show the booking on our books.
Cancellations were coming in and no reservations were coming in - as a CEO, I saw negative revenue, which I'd never seen before. In April we refunded more money than we took in. That first board meeting was interesting, but at that point, nobody knew what was going to happen.
We were trying to do scenario planning and see patterns and kind of forecast the future, and really, it was impossible. In the early days, there was a high level of uncertainty regarding how long this is going to last and how this will affect us. A lot of the efforts were on what can we do today to just batten down the hatches and make sure that when we do start to emerge, that we have what we need in order to do what we want to do, which is grow and help short-term rental managers succeed.
What were the initial steps you took right away?
The first step was: Our customers were as uncertain as we were, but we have access to a plethora of data. We built a resources page where people could search their markets, understand what was going on because we wanted our customers to be able to have information, to see what we saw. We put a lot of effort behind that.
We have a product called Insights, which is more of a curated version of that resources page. If you connect your account, you can see a lot of your market's information. We offered that for free to any vacation rental owner or manager, just so people would have access to any information to help them see what might be coming down the pike in the next few months.
Any information is helpful as opposed to no information.
Exactly, exactly. A lot of our customers rely on historical data for decisions and, well, forget that. And then internally, a lot of our team members are in their mid-twenties, early thirties, so they hadn't experienced the last recession and the recession before that. I've been through a couple of these, so how do we make sure that we are communicating a sense of calm, a sense of it being okay, we will get through this. We don't know what's going to happen, but I promise we're committed to making sure that we have a company at the end of the tunnel.
Did you ultimately have to downsize?
Yeah, unfortunately. We had kicked the year off with some investments in key areas, namely marketing as well as building out our European operations. So we scaled back investment there as well as some folks on the sales side in the U.S. and delayed some offers for some folks in Europe as well, which we ended up picking up later in the summer.
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We ended up with about a 15% headcount cut. We knew we would have to reduce costs and we didn't want to do that two, three, four times. So we said let's do the hard thing first. Let's get it done that way. We can just focus on building and maintaining what we do have.
Looking back, what would you say was your biggest achievement over the past year?
It's not very frequent in the first really high-growth years of a startup that you get the opportunity to make sure that you are building the infrastructure and the systems and the processes that will help sustain future growth. You see a lot of startups sort of hit that $15 million, $20 million ceiling, and that's because they've written the product-market fit to a point where, okay, now you actually have to train and expand how you're doing things. People call that "the challenge of scale."
I feel so proud that the team was able to really go and focus and assess what's working and what's not within their departments, within their teams, and decide to make changes, knowing that this wasn't always going to be our status quo. This holding on for dear life was not always going to be the status quo. There was going to be a period of growth, so we took a lot of initiative to make sure we had the right people, the right processes, the right systems.
I just feel incredibly proud because, like I mentioned, I have a team that's not been through this kind of stuff before. The poise and maturity - I feel incredibly proud to be a part of that team.
On the flip side, what is one thing you wish you could have done differently?
It's two things. One, I would have started making investment decisions sooner. We are now seeing record level of growth across the short-term rental sector. And there was no way for us to predict this nine months ago. But when we started to see glimmers that the pandemic was potentially going to be in the rearview mirror, we started to pull some growth levers, but if I could have done it differently, I would have done it sooner.
The other thing: I struggle as a leader - and I'd love to know if there are other leaders talking about this - but this has taken a toll on our people. Lockdown after lockdown - we have folks across the globe and it's been really hard for them mentally and emotionally to balance the needs of their family, their job and the lack of social interaction. Doing more to invest and understand the impact of this on our employees' mental health is something I wish we would have done sooner.
Because the short-term rental market has proven such a bright spot amid the pandemic – what opportunity does that create for Beyond Pricing?
It provides an immense opportunity. David and the team saw that short-term rentals were here to stay seven years ago, but owners and managers were incredibly underserved from a technology standpoint, and that's where we focus and that's what we're really passionate about. So as not only demand for short-term rentals increases, but also the supply increases, there will be an ever-increasing need to make sure that these folks have access to tools and systems that allows them to compete with the Marriotts, the global hotel chains, because that's who their competition is. It's not just the Airbnb down the street.
How are you messaging this to property managers and owners?
Up until 2020 we really only had one or two marketing professionals, but in the fall we had a senior director of marketing join and she has crafted an incredibly powerful strategy that is global in messaging to short-term rental managers and owners about dynamic pricing and revenue management. It starts from just helping short-term rental managers and owners understand what the tech ecosystem is out there and how using a system like Beyond Pricing can help them get, grow and keep revenue.
For owners, it's about keeping the guest experience as cohesive as possible. For property managers, it's about getting and growing more owners and then making sure you have the demand on the guest side to fulfill that.
Generally speaking, what else do you see in store for short-term rentals in the year ahead? Will we see more consolidation in the space, for example.
Consolidation, absolutely. If you think about supply and distribution and the vendor ecosystem - supply being owners and managers - we are seeing a lot of consolidation. Vacasa bought TurnKey, they did three or four deals concurrent with that. They're very active. There's also more money being poured into the vendor side, so we're seeing short-term rental software vendors raise money. Usually you raise money with the eye toward a liquidity event in several years, so I wouldn't be surprised if there's more M&A activity there.
Then it'll be interesting what the OTAs do. I think Booking.com hasn't seen their short-term rental business grow as much as they'd like to on the U.S. side, so I look to see them make some moves there. On the European side, which is even more fragmented than the U.S. - especially with the number and length of lockdowns they've had - I wouldn't be surprised if there was a lot of consolidation on the supply side there.
When Beyond Pricing was named one of PhocusWire’s Hot 25 Startups for 2019, one of the goals at the time was to leverage its technology for other types of accommodations such as bed and breakfasts and boutique accommodations. What’s the status of that expansion?
A lot's changed since 2019. With the significant growth in the short-term rental space - that market in and of itself is a hundred billion dollars annually and growing. So there is a ton of opportunity when it comes to helping short-term rental managers succeed. We have a huge runway geographically. We started in the U.S. and we have a growing presence in Europe as well as APAC. On the product side, we have now six products that we're able to offer to short-term rental managers to help them succeed.
Where I'm looking for growth is still within our vertical of short-term rentals, but geographically, and continuing to expand the value we're able to deliver with our products.
Beyond Pricing’s latest acquisition was Blizzard Internet Marketing in June 2020. How do you assess buying versus building, and do you anticipate more acquisitions on the horizon?
I think any leader has to always have an eye toward potential and in organic growth opportunities. The build versus buy - it's a calculus between opportunity costs, real costs, time to launch, as well as product-market fit. With Blizzard, we saw an incredible opportunity to acquire the software assets to offer a booking engine and website business. That was very opportunistic and we were very excited to have that opportunity and bring the Blizzard team on.
I would imagine we'll see other opportunities as we look to expand functionality as well as geographically. But we have a 30-person product design and engineering team that is hard away at building, so I don't think of them as mutually exclusive, but as all part of the overall goal to help short-term rental managers succeed.
Though not technically a founder, you have vast experience in technology and startups: What advice do you have for startup founders – particularly women and people of color - in travel?
It's a great question, and I wish I had the perfect answer. I don't have the risk profile to be a founder quite yet, but I have been involved in startups and technology companies now for the better part of a decade, and I have done a fair amount of fundraising.
The advice I have is: Know your worth. Get smart on equity structures and valuations and don't you dare ask for something or settle for something that you know to be less than what you are worth. VCs are giving you money because they see potential. So you have to be as strong in negotiating what that return that you need is as you are passionate about the idea that you're founding.
Don't you dare ask for something or settle for something that you know to be less than what you are worth.
David has been an incredible mentor for me in terms of how to think about equity structures and what's fair and what's right, because it's not just the valuation - it's the terms, it's the voting rights, so I would very much advise founders to really do their homework there.
In terms of women and people of color in tech, I'd say, stay curious. What I've learned is that the beginner's mindset has really allowed me to learn more than I ever thought possible. I spent 10 years in consulting, and in consulting, you're paid to have the right answer. That's a different mindset than working in technology and working with really smart people who are trying to solve problems that necessarily haven't been solved yet. That requires a humility and curiosity that I don't know are necessarily talked about or championed. It's not just women or people of color; I would say that to anyone.
One thing that I specifically had to work on is having confidence and having a direct and transparent opinion. That scared a lot of people in consulting, but it was something I decided I didn't want to give up. And I've found different homes that have really allowed that my voice to be heard in that way. I've gotten feedback where it's like, "Oh, you just should soften that a little bit." And it's like well, I heard a man say something similar.
How can investors and venture capitalists change their perspectives to create more opportunity for founders?
I think Bessemer has been doing a fantastic job. I know they're our investor, but I see a lot of the stuff they're doing with female founders and putting them in the spotlight. For investors and VCs, I challenged them to look at the boards they're on, and if there isn't representation from women and people of color on the boards, then there should be.
At Beyond, we measure where we are with representation. It is our goal to be representative of the countries in which we operate. We're not there yet, but you can't make progress unless you know where you are, unless you make a commitment to fundamentally be hitting those targets.
What else have you learned from your past experiences at technology companies including Hireology and Groupon?
I've been very lucky to have allies in both men and women and mentors that I've learned from who have challenged me not to lose my voice and challenged me to stand up in circumstances that weren't necessarily conducive to a woman having a strong opinion. At Hireology we sold human capital software to car dealers. Not exactly known for its progressive stance on women. I've been incredibly lucky with that.
When I first started at Groupon, really growing in my professional responsibilities - I have two kids, I have one on the way - I thought, I don't want to do these things anymore. We're going to find some help because I'm not about to work crazy hours, be a VP and then also try to be this super-mom that does everything because the time that I do have I want to spend with my kids and get to know them as humans. I think a lot of times women would be a little shy to ask for help, but I'm not shy.
Since travel has been on pause most of the past year, how have you been spending any free time?
I have been doing a lot of indoor biking. We play a lot of games at my house, there's been a lot of contests, guacamole making contests. There's a lot of fun family stuff. Although my daughter is getting to an age where she like rolls her eyes and just wants to listen to Taylor Swift.
I'm terribly boring but there is a sport that I do enjoy playing a lot, which is tennis. And so without travel, I'm able to get out and play with my husband. He beats me every time and I try to catch him when he's not feeling good, but he still beats me. It doesn't damage our marriage too much.
What are you most looking forward to as travel starts to resume?
I want to get to Europe. There's an entire European team that I have not met in person yet. So I want to get to Lisbon. We've joked about doing a basketball draft before everyone gets to know how tall they are, but it's really getting over to Europe so that I can meet everyone in person.
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