Before former pro-surfer Nick Romito paddles out, he likes to spend some time standing on the beach watching the waves break. He observes the wind and the rhythm of the swell. He looks for the easiest openings to paddle out without getting bashed by waves. He notices who else is out there in the line-up. Experienced surfers? Kooks?
Romito, a commercial real estate broker turned tech entrepreneur, understands that being mindful of the nuances of his home break, is a lot like navigating the business world. He’s conscientious of the forces shaping the market, looking for a point of entry and sizing up the opportunities and competition.
“Surfing is one of those sports where you have to be really dedicated to improve,” Romito explains. “You have to do it often but it also takes discipline. The waves are usually good really early in the morning. You have to be a strategic thinker because you’re dealing with all kinds of variables. Water moving, wind, tides, swell. It’s like a chess match with nature.”
In 2011, Romito and his buddy Ryan Masiello poured every dollar they had into building a business called View the Space, an online platform that offered video tours of New York City office space. Initially Romito thought they would attract small brokers and grow the business slowly but their first client was SL Green Realty Corp., the largest office landlord in the City.
As all surfers learn, it’s important to catch the right wave at the right time. It’s a tricky skill to master. Make your move too soon, and it will roll right under you, too late and you’ll get sucked up the face and go over the falls. With SL Green, Romito found a rogue wave, bigger than he expected, but being the aggressive type, he turned and started paddling.
“I grew up surfing competitively since I was eight years old. It’s just in my blood,” says Romito. “There’s nothing that I do in life where I don’t feel like I’m not being competitive.”
Growing up in Toms River, New Jersey, Romito spent his summers playing in the waves on the Jersey Shore. One of his favorite movies is the eighties surf classic North Shore about a wave tank surfer from Arizona who naively travels to Hawaii to make a living for himself as a professional surfer. Determined to make his dream come true, the outsider challenges local attitudes and pushes himself to succeed.
As View the Space won over clients with its innovative approach, they also impressed investors, raising $700,000 in seed funding in 2012 to help develop the enterprise. Over the next couple of years, the company would raise additional money, to the tune of $34 million to date. They also pivoted into a service geared toward managing lease portfolios and rebranded as VTS.
Prior to founding VTS, Romito had never been anyone’s boss so he sought out team members who he describes as “smarter than himself.” “I’m a firm believer that you are really only as strong as the person next to you. I try to hire really, really strong managers. You always want to find someone who could essentially fire you.”
It’s a big task to change an entire industry so every single person in the company has to live that, otherwise it probably wont happen.
He describes the company culture as super collaborative. VTS looks for people who are not just creative about product but also in the way they interact with each other and manage their teams. “We also have a very competitive environment. Everyone here wants to win,” says Romito. “We are the leader in this space and there is a reason for that. They eat, sleep and drink VTS and technology. It’s a big task to change an entire industry so every single person in the company has to live that, otherwise it probably isn’t going to happen. That’s kind of the DNA of the place.”
When you first learn to surf, you start on kid waves — long, slow rollers, and a thick board. Romito says that contrary to what some people think, the bigger the business gets, the more difficult managing it becomes. “When you first start surfing you use a really big board. As you get better the board gets smaller so things get harder. It’s like building a business. When you’re really small, the business is easier to manage because you have less people.”
Keeping a growing team focused is a challenge, says Romito. “We do all kinds of things as a company to make sure everybody is aligned. One is we change seats all the time so they are constantly sitting by new people who aren’t doing the same thing you are so you’re forced to collaborate and to think outside the box and get other people’s opinion.”
He also makes sure the team is bonding over shared experiences, like riding waves. Romito’s home break is just twenty-five minutes from his apartment. “We go out literally anytime there’s waves — one person leads the charge. We meet up at 6:00 AM and we surf.”
Riding is not a prerequisite though, Romito insists. “We also do happy hour every other week — the whole company. You want to get people together outside the office because a lot of times that’s where the best ideas come from when you’re doing other things that stimulate your mind. These are things you have to focus on because as you grow it’s really hard to maintain that culture. In business, silos tend to develop so you’ve got to put work into maintaining that culture.”
Today VTS has over 7,000 users and is approaching 2 billion square-feet of commercial space on the platform. In fact, it’s one of the fastest growing companies in the PropTech ecosystem. The service is only available to landlords and brokers. Landlords pay between $2,500 to $10,000 per year depending on the number of buildings and service options. Brokers pay $120 per month. Teams use it to track deal flow, manage space and collaborate in real time from anywhere.
Landlords can easily filter through their assets to understand what’s available along with leasing activity in those units. They can also monitor the rent roll at the portfolio, building, and suite level and manage property budgets. In addition, VTS now offers an interactive stacking plan, detailing floor-by-floor occupancy data.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that VTS has its sites set on industry domination. “We said from day one that we we’re building a billion dollar business. We want to be the place where all commercial real estate happens,” asserts Romito.
A life spent sitting on the beach is not the life of a real surfer. The late Andy Irons, winner of multiple surfing titles, and one of Romito’s heros, said, “I don’t want to be one of those guys who says they don’t care, just staying somewhere in the top ten for a few more years. I want to win everything, or I don’t even want to be there.”
It’s that type of determination that also inspires Nick Romito. He’s intensely focused on building a radical real estate technology company and he’s sharply aware of his surroundings. In business, like in surfing, he has honed his skills while wiping out, learning and adapting.
Good surfers understand the need for preparation and quickly getting ready for the next wave and the next opportunity. When you’re sitting out there scanning the horizon, watching the set build, every once in a while circumstances will converge to create a magical moment. You’ll have a brief window to make a critical decision. You can wonder why you never saw it coming and bail before the inevitable impact, or you can spin around, start digging, and ride that epic wave.