Disrupter? Innovator? Adapter? Leader? We say yes. From his time as an airborne ranger in Afghanistan to playing defensive end for the Portland State Vikings to founding a vacation rental company unlike any other, Jordan Allen knows how to lead a team to success through dedication, innovation, and drive.
In 2011, Jordan saw an opportunity to enter the vacation rental space, starting with one apartment in Spokane, WA. Just a few years later, he turned that opportunity into a 400-unit, nationwide, 73-person, $25 million business whose model is disrupting and shaking up the hospitality industry.
Recently recognized as one of the fastest-growing companies by Inc. Magazine, much of Stay Alfred’s success can be credited to Jordan’s ability to adapt and innovate not only the products he delivers but how his business operates. Case and point, when faced with the need to understand rate projections and the truth that the vacation rental industry was completely underserviced from a technology perspective, Jordan developed a proprietary rate-yielding software which subsequently sold to RealPage, Inc. in 2015 and now supports other vacation rental companies.
Prior to founding Stay Alfred, Jordan was an airborne ranger and captain in the United States Army. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a fifteen-month deployment on a special forces outpost. Jordan is the recipient of a combat action badge for outstanding leadership after his troop was struck by a roadside bomb, and a bronze star for the duties performed during his tour in Iraq.
Jordan is an active member of the Spokane business community and a sought-after speaker on how to innovate, build a successful start-up, and work with millennials. In addition, he mentors Gonzaga Business School students through start-up funding competitions helping to build the future workforce and ideators of the region. He was also recognized as one of Catalyst Magazine’s 20 Under 40 2016 winners.
A 2005 graduate, Jordan attended Portland State University where he played defensive end for the Vikings and majored in business administration. In his free time, Jordan enjoys attempting to beat his wife at racquetball and teaching his two little girls, Sofie and Stella, to be “army tough.”
Tell me about your early career.
While I always had a job (or two or three or four) during high school, including short stints as a milkman and repo-man, and even a job where I picked up dead bodies (seriously), I was under the youthful delusion that I would be a professional football player. And, while I was fortunate enough to be asked to play in college, it was the first practice as a Portland State Vikings that told me that my dream was nothing but that. I needed a new professional future. That’s when I discovered the ROTC program and what would be my first professional love: the military. ROTC was perfect for me with its focus on training, leadership, and responsibility. I was hooked. After graduating from college, I chose to pursue my military career and attended Airborne and Ranger School which ultimately lead to a short stint in Alaska and multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. My experience as an Army Ranger was immeasurable. I couldn’t be more grateful for the lessons it gave me, including the importance of humility, the power of a team, and how important building up and motivating your people is.
How did the concept for Stay Alfred come about?
I was on a 15-month deployment in the Army on a special forces base in Afghanistan while my brother was deployed to a special forces base in Iraq. We made plans to see each other during our leave. We decided to plan a vacation to see the Colorado Rockies play. The vacation sort of grew to be more of a group trip with our high school buddies, all descending on the Mile-High City. It became too hard to negotiate getting a hotel big enough for our group. We ended up getting a vacation rental a block from Coors Field in Denver. It was a really great experience and one that I realized I could help bring to more people. But, I was also aware of the lack of product consistency that can exist in the vacation rental space. It was from this concept of marrying the quality and consistency consumers understand you get from a hotel with the convenience and “local experience” of a vacation rental that Stay Alfred was born. So, after I was honorably discharged, I tested my theory in my hometown of Spokane. Our guests loved it. Now, a little less than six years later, we have locations in 14 major U.S. cities with plans to continue expanding nationally and, eventually, internationally.
How was the first year in business?
Honestly, it was hard but exhilarating. We had no idea what we were doing or what we were getting ourselves into. In fact, if we went back and put a business plan together, we probably would have talked ourselves out of building Stay Alfred passed one unit, let alone the 400+ it is today. We didn’t have any of the standard pillars of business people say you need, no vision or mission statement, no core values or taglines. And, it was my military training that kept me going and gave the confidence to just “do” stuff. We treated our first year of business like phase one of a military operation, we “stormed the beach.” One day, I might be driving a U-Haul with furniture to a new location and the next I might be answering the phone for a guest getting ready to check in. We did whatever we needed to do. Not a lot of rules, policies, or procedures, just the mantra “get your team to and off the beach.” Don’t get me wrong. Those business pillars are important, but at that time, we weren’t ready yet. We needed to try things and hopefully only repeat the ones that worked. So far, so good and I’m happy to say, we know exactly who and what we are, mission statement and all.
What was your marketing strategy?
Pretty simple, go where the people already are. We leveraged huge OTA’s, or online travel agencies, and their massive audiences to introduce Stay Alfred’s new way of “staying” to the world. We worked to optimize our properties as well as our business approach to be the “best” on each channel. Eventually, we built our own website and direct online booking platform. As we continue to grow, so does our footprint, and the need to develop a strong brand. We figured out how to find our guests, now we want to make sure they have something to fall in love with before, during, and after their stay, which is why we’re working hard to define our unique brand. We’re not Airbnb, HomeAway, or Expedia, and our guests should know it. That being said, I can’t imagine starting a company again without being able to leverage a major marketplace to get your revenue going.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Growth in the first few years can be defined as so many things. The growth of learning what worked and what didn’t. The growth of adding a first employee. The growth of adding another city. It was all growth. And, the first year was the worst taking the proverbial one step forward, two steps back. Ultimately, we ended year one with an 186% compound annual growth rate and the drive to keep going.
How do you define success?
Success is the continuation of trying new things until something works. Success is building something that is bigger than you, something that can sustain itself.
What is the key to success?
I can’t pick one thing. For me, it’s a combination of four things:
1) Be humble.
2) Show grit.
3) Build culture.
4) Care for your people.
When you do that, sh*t gets done.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Complicated and scaling don’t mix. If it confuses Elmo, it doesn’t scale. If you have kids, that’ll make sense.
What are some of your favorite books?
Great By Choice by Jim Collins, and all of the For Dummies series, because they break down complex subjects to a 4th grade level. I need that. To be honest, everyone knows that I have trouble getting through an entire book. Not because I don’t like to read or because I’m not interested, but because I get too damn excited and want to start implementing ideas before I even get to chapter three. It’s kind of a joke around the office.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
The day I had to talk to my former partner about moving the business forward without him. Loyalty is huge to me and to have to tell him that it would be the best thing for the business broke my heart. And, while extremely tough, I knew it was the thing the business needed to grow.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
That’s easy. Grit, embracing change, enjoying the challenge, and being comfortable with being uncomfortable. When you’re trying to build a product that doesn’t exist and scale the resulting company, you’re constantly facing adversity… like every 25 minutes or so. To be a disruptive company like ours, you have to live outside the bubble and bring on people who are willing to pop theirs. One of the things I’m most proud of is challenging my team to understand and love change. Startups aren’t for everyone. There are risks, challenges, and no recipe for success. Or you could see it like I do, as the opportunity to do something different. And, hell, if it gets really bad at the office I remind myself, at least I’m not getting shot at. Not bad for perspective, right?
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
My advice is running a business is not a hobby, and if you can’t get a customer to pay for a product, or you’re afraid to ask them to pay, then you might have a hobby on your hands.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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