Matthew Whitaker – Founder & Director, gkhouses

Matthew Whitaker is a student of the book Good to Great and is passionate about building gkhouses to become the best property management company on the planet, maybe even the universe, if Elon Musk were to hurry up. To do that, he spent the first seven years of gkhouses in the trenches, but now focuses most of his time facilitating growth in other markets.

Entrepreneurship runs in the family. His wife runs a successful business called Engaged. You can usually find Matthew at the baseball field with his son, at a dance recital with his daughter, or at his favorite restaurant with his wife, when he’s not in the office. And if you can’t find him any of those places, it probably means he’s traveling. He lives with his wife and children in Vestavia Hills, Alabama.

Tell me about your early career.
I’ve always known that I wanted to start my own business since my dad made me read Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. When I got out of college, I worked a couple of years for a construction company in estimation and project management. On the side, I started purchasing and selling homes. I found myself making more money in the evenings and weekends doing that than working an 8-hour day at my job. So, I quit! I was 23 years old and in business for myself. I loved it. For the first four years, I teamed up with some investors, and we bought and sold almost 100 houses.

How did the concept for gkhouses come about?
Really more out of necessity, than some brilliant strategy. We owned around 30 houses in late 2007 when the first wave of the real estate market crashed. We couldn’t sell the homes, so we decided to rent them. Because we were in the home business, we knew of other people who owned homes they couldn’t sell, so they let us manage their homes as well.

So, our story is that we started with 30 rental houses and now manage over 1,500.

How was the first year in business?
Terrible! In fact, the first 2 ½ years were really bad. We had fun growing the business, but we made no money and it was tough sledding.

What was your marketing strategy?
We didn’t get strategic about marketing our business until about three years ago. We grew in the early days through referrals.

Today, we have a director of marketing, Spencer Sutton, who lives, eats and breaths landing owners and tenants. We have worked hard on having a presence in SEO and SEM, and attempt to be a thought leader in our industry.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Slow. I know it keeps sounding bad, because it was! It wasn’t until the last four years when we’ve really hit our stride and began to grow exponentially. In the last four years, we’ve grown at a clip of almost 50% per year.

How do you define success?
I used to define it based on how much money I had in my bank account or how much I earned every year. As I’ve gotten a little bit wiser, I’m learning I cannot control stuff like that. What I can control are my daily habits. Success, at least in this business and financially speaking, is my ability to stick to my daily habits that are within my control. Then, outward success is a byproduct of my daily habits.

What is the key to success?
I think the key to success is controlling the things you can control and not allowing the things you cannot control to bother you.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
I think it was said best in a story by Bryan Dyson, who was the president and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises at a Georgia Tech commencement address. He said:

“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them – work, family, health, friends and spirit – and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.”

I want to be successful as much as anyone, but will I do it at the expense of those closest to me? No way.

What are some quotes that you live by?
I’ve highlighted pretty much all of Good to Great. But my favorite quote, because it so eloquently describes our business, is:

“Think of transformation as a process of buildup followed by breakthrough, broken into three broad stages: disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action.” – Jim Collins

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, my favorite quote is:

“If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.” – Patrick Lencioni

Other favorites:

“You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of success is in your daily routine.” – John Maxwell

“Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation. Your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” – John Wooden

What are some of your favorite books?
This is probably my favorite question, because I love to read. At our business, we require all new hires (and interns) to read Good to Great by Jim Collins, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni, and Traction by Gino Wickman.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I think every day is tough as an entrepreneur. I used to let it bother me more than I do now. However, I was listening to an audio clip from John Maxwell and he said something that spoke to me as it relates to this. He said that he doesn’t go one day where he doesn’t hear some information he didn’t want to hear about one of his ministries or businesses. When he said that, I was like, “Whew! My life is normal.”

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
As I mentioned earlier, I’m an avid reader. I read something positive every single day. I’m a pretty positive person, so I try to see every problem as an opportunity. If something is going wrong, what can I learn from it and what corresponding opportunity did it create?

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
I think as entrepreneurs, we look at Mark Zuckerberg, Brian Chesky or Travis Kalanick and think we’ve failed if our company isn’t worth $1 billion in seven to ten years. We need to remember that these guys are the equivalent of LeBron James in basketball or Bryce Harper in baseball. They are the exception and not the rule. There are still guys who make a ton of money in basketball and baseball who aren’t named LeBron or Bryce.

Stay focused on what you can be the best in the world at and don’t compare your story to others’ stories.

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