In September, 2015
Conducted an Online Interview with
Robert Reffkin ʼ00CC, ʼ03BUS is founder and CEO of Compass (formerly Urban Compass). Prior to Compass Robert worked at Goldman Sachs as Chief of Staff to the President & COO following five years working in the firm’s private equity arm. Prior to Goldman Sachs, he worked at Lazard and McKinsey & Company. In 2005, he was appointed as a White House Fellow to serve as special assistant to the Secretary of the Treasury. Robert is also the Founder of New York Needs You. He received a B.A. and M.B.A. from Columbia University. Outside of work, he recently completed 50 marathons, one in each state, to raise $1 million for nonprofits.
COLUMBIA ENTREPRENEURSHIP (CE) Please describe Compass’ business, how it has evolved and where you want to be in two years.
ROBERT REFFKIN: We are a technology-based real estate company that develops proprietary tools to optimize our agents’ business. Our product and engineer teams is tasked with building solutions to increase efficiency, insights, and data access for our agents, which in turn attracts the best talent in real estate. Our goal is to constantly learn from and improve our technology, while scaling to other national and, eventually, international markets.
CE: Your experience before founding Compass included stints at the US Department of the Treasury, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs and Lazard. These are large, longstanding institutions not known, at first glance, for their innovative and creatively destructive ways. How did you experience there help and guide you in founding and scaling Compass?
RR: The key components I took from them were largely organizational and systemic in nature. For a creative model to work, there must be an underlying structure to support and ground the innovative arms of the company. These are all very efficient, intelligent organizations that have successfully scaled, which is very much aligned with what we hope to achieve.
CE: Anyone who’s ever rented an apartment in NYC or any other big city knows how fractured and cumbersome the broker market is in that space, and yet Compass appeared literally out of nowhere to innovate the market and disrupt the status quo in New York, Washington DC and Miami. What was it about that market, and your experience, that led you to target this industry?
RR: This was a process that very much stood to benefit from regulation. We had seen other companies apply existing technology to this industry, but no one who had actively BUILT products in its service.
CE: Tell us about “America Needs You” and your engagement with social entrepreneurship.
RR: I believe deeply in the importance of giving back. I was raised in a single parent home and was a student in 7 nonprofits that helped guide me at a young age. I founded America Needs You to give similar support to others, specifically low income first-generation college students. It’s a 2 year program that provides career development, college support and 2 summer internships.
CE: You’re the proud holder of two Columbia degrees (CC’00 and CBS’03). How did your Columbia experiences contribute to the man you are today, and what more do you think Columbia could and should do to advance the entrepreneurial spirit in our community.
RR: Attending Columbia made me feel like anything was possible. Specifically the energy and accomplishments of New Yorkers made me want to pursue a great career. Columbia could do more to encourage its students to interact with great entrepreneurs in NYC, who could help them identify and implement their own entrepreneurial paths.
CE: You’ve been extremely successful recently in raising new funds for Compass’ expansion into new markets. Was that fun, torture or someplace in between?.
RR: I am one of the rare and lucky co-founders to have a strong partner in Ori Allon. Between the two of us, we were able to shoulder fundraising while each remaining very much rooted in our on-the-ground leadership. While the process can be stressful, one of the most rewarding parts of a startup is earning the support and belief of the business community—which we feel fortunate and proud to have done.