Benoit Lam launched his first real estate start up in 2010 with one of his best friends. At the time, they were pioneers in their industry; for example, they were the first to list flats and apartment buildings on Booking.com in Europe. Over the following ten years, Benoit demonstrated what could be accomplished with his empathetic approach to business centered on employee engagement.
In January 2020, before the pandemic and resulting regulations, business was booming, operating in five countries (with plans to open in five more cities), managing a team of over 100 employees and managing over 350 properties. We recently met up in New York City where he is now based to catch up.
Hi, Benoit. It’s been a while. How are you doing?
I’m doing excellent, thanks. We are still living in this weird pandemic situation, but I believe we are closer to the end of it now. Travel has started to pick up once more and tourism is slowly getting back on its feet.
The pandemic hit at a time when your business was at its peak. How has the situation affected your company?
The real estate and tourism sectors were one of the hardest hit. In January 2020, we had 100 employees spread across Europe and we were managing 350 properties. We had very bright prospects for expansion then, until the pandemic hit.
Reservations were cancelled and tourism went into a full stop. Initially, we adapted well to the situation. Remote work was not a new concept for us because half of our team had already been doing that since 2015.
I wanted to remain optimistic about the situation. I just had to accept that things wouldn’t be going back to normal anytime soon. We had to make several tough decisions, like laying off some employees. From 350 apartments, we reduced to 100 by the end of October 2020.
What are your key takeaways from this experience?
The pandemic forced us to slow down and redefine our priorities, and the situation allowed us to rediscover ourselves. It put us in a position in which we found a work-life balance that fits. The past two years have been a good period for self-development and see what is truly valuable in life. I don’t think I would have matured this quickly were it not for the pandemic.
We also understood the value of diversifying, never putting all your eggs in one basket.
But if there’s one important takeaway, it is realizing that I am passionate about the human side of the business. Your business can disappear any time, but if you are accompanied by a great team, it will be easier to adapt, rebuild, and evolve as needed.
What was the best thing to come out of the pandemic for you?
In October 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, I had an opportunity to move to New York City. In just 10 days, I made the decision to pack up my life in Europe and go with my wife, who was 7 months pregnant, and our 3 kids. It was a risk and a bold move, but I believe it was worth it.
I came to New York to learn and so far, I have gathered two important life lessons. First, that the more successful and wealthy people are, the more they want to give back, whether to their community, employees, school.
Second, in New York, being different is an asset compared to Europe where being different seems to be a liability because of the strong cultural pressures. In New York, being different is a mindset; understanding and valuing what makes you different can make you stronger.
You seem to know how to give a positive take on the pandemic. Where is all this positivity coming from?
I’ve always been excited about life. I know that things will not always go according to my plan and it’s something I just accept. So, instead of feeling down because of it, I choose to look at the bright side of every situation because it’s easier to adapt that way. I also have a curious mind that makes me want to explore things and it inspires me to develop new and bold ideas and try them out.
Did you ever think about quitting at all?
Absolutely not. Never. From November 2020 to April 2021, what we did is shift our focus and change our business model, evaluating how to continue moving forward despite the pandemic. Our tightknit team brainstormed, revisited processes, made refinements and changes where they are needed and introduced technology where required so we can be more efficient.
Well, you were very young when you decided to become an entrepreneur. What made you decide to take that path?
Being an entrepreneur allows you to put a personal touch on what you do and develop relationships with people. As an entrepreneur and investor, I don’t invest in projects. I choose to invest in people. I only work on a project if I believe and trust in the people involved in it. These are people I’d like to support all the way through the good times and even more through the difficult times.
So, what’s next? How do you envision your business ten years from now?
My focus has always been on scaling up and growing bigger, and the pandemic never made me lose that. We may have taken several blows over the past 24 months, but it won’t stop us from exploring new avenues to develop new businesses.
More than ever, I want to work on the human side of things, helping people to grow while allowing myself to grow in the process. I will continue to apply everything I have learned over the past 2 years and continue to invest in people, continue learning wherever I go – even in my hobbies, like poker.
To what do you owe your success?
It’s all thanks to teamwork. We grew up together over the past ten years and we would like to continue like that over the next 20 years and beyond. Sure, the business is no longer the same, but we are not afraid of change.
We have developed a strong, faithful team who believes in the mission, and we are ready to relaunch anywhere when the timing is right. We created something special that allows us to survive all these crises (COVID, Brexit, terrorist attacks). Our team has faced these situations with courage and resiliency. I am very proud of everyone.
You are really invested in your team, aren’t you?
Yes, because I want to create a positive impact on people. Like I said, I’d rather invest in people than anything else. Help other individuals become better. Life is too short. People need to be happy in their work to be happy in life.
I want everyone to succeed together. I want us to grow and learn together. I am lucky I knew how to be surrounded great people. Like in marriage or any other personal relationship, you must always work at strengthening your bonds with the people you work with.
We have a good solid team with a strong bond. I’d like my employees to become entrepreneurs who will develop their own personal projects. I’d like to see them evolve because it is so rewarding to see people grow.
How do you plan to change your team management once this pandemic crisis is over?
Before COVID hit, we were organizing biannual retreats for our teams. We would get together in a new location for brainstorming and team bonding. I look forward to doing those again because it’s really a good way to strengthen our team.
I would like to focus more on recruitment and management, while encouraging my employees play on their own strengths. What I’d really like to do is to create a karma of generosity in the team.
You mentioned something about work-life balance. How do you that?
I follow a daily routine. I get up at 4AM. to exercise, enjoy breakfast with my family then get down to work. I also allot some time for my passion, poker, so I strike a great balance between my family, my work and myself.
How would you sum up your experience during this pandemic crisis?
This period has made me stronger and even more confident for the next 10 to 20 years. I’m fortunate to have surrounded myself with the right people: my loving and supportive wife and family, a business partner whose personality and skills complement mine, and a trustworthy team of employees who has been with me for 8 years and have been like a family to me. All of these people keep me grounded.
Benoit’s mindset gives him the contagious optimism that has allowed him to build a team capable of thriving in the storm of the pandemic and that is well-prepared of tackling new and exciting challenges. For all his future endeavors, he does not want to succeed alone and succeeding together with those around him will be the ultimate success.
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