“The ability to orchestrate spaces in which employees love to work in, is going to be crucial”: Interview with Locatee’s CEO & co-founder, Thomas Kessler

Will hybrid work will become the more significant mode of working when the pandemic is over? There are already clear indications that it is here to stay and that it is not just a passing trend. A number of leading corporations have already made it a part of their post-vaccine, post-pandemic working mode. With hybrid working, companies face the challenge of how to utilize the office space more efficiently. This is the mission of Locatee, a workplace analytics solutions that helps companies transform complex data into insights about office space utilization.

Founded in 2015 and based out of Zurich, Locatee leverages office occupancy data from multiple sources, processes it with its patented technology, and presents it in a visual, packaged format. Since its founding, Locatee has built up a corporate clientele that includes some of the world’s leading businesses, including EY, Biogen International, Zurich Insurance, and Swiss Re. In May 2020, it received a €3.6 million in Series A funding  from San Francisco based FYRFLY Venture Partners and Zurich based Tomahawk VC.

We spoke with Locatee’s CEO and Co-founder Thomas Kessler on how Locatee was founded, his working relationship with Co-founder and CTO Benedikt Köppel, his advice for would-be founders, Locatee’s milestones, long-term goals and many more.

You co-founded Locatee with Benedikt and the current CTO, who you knew back in high school. Tell us the story of how you two came-up with idea behind Locatee?

Benedikt and I started Locatee when we realized that there were literal people, students, manually counting other people, employees at their desks, in office buildings. Benedikt couldn’t understand how such an effort wasn’t yet replaced or supported by technology. On my side, I couldn’t fathom how this cumbersome, manual process could really effectively inform corporations on the utilization of their office spaces. And we were both observing this in two of the most established, modern, structured banks in Switzerland and the world!

We were just having a drink together after work and realized, by exchanging these observations on office space utilization and occupancy data, coupling with our own experiences as employees in large organizations and the annoyances you still experience with the office space as such, that there was a massive gap that could be filled by a technological solution. We quickly established what should be the base criteria for our solution – global scalability – and researched the market for potential existing solutions: there was none.

We had an answer to a real-world pain, we still needed to find out the size of the problem. We quickly figured out the fact that real estate, while being the largest asset class globally, is also at the same time the least utilized. And this is how we knew we had to create Locatee.

The tech world is famous for successful Founder/Co-founder pairings (the two Steves of Apple, Bill and Paul of Microsoft, Larry and Sergey of Google etc.) who complement each other in skillsets and personality. Is this the case between you and Benedikt? What advice can you give to someone considering founding a startup with a friend?

It’s nice of you to put our names with those legendary founders! But there is a reason for this setup as a duo to be so effective. You need this complementary aspect, because founding a startup requires such an incredibly wide range of skills, traits and energies – it can’t be done without leaning onto a partner who you can trust. You don’t have time or energy to worry whether some parts of the company are performing or not. It just needs to happen, fast. So maybe more than the skills themselves, because as founders, your role and the things you’ll need to master will evolve dramatically in a short timeframe, it’s the trust that matters.

Can you close your eyes and dedicate yourself fully to what’s required of you, without having any second thoughts about the parts of the business assigned to your partner? You will have to. So find a partner with whom you have that relationship. Don’t necessarily think “oh he or she is good at this, I’m good at that, this will work”. The tasks you’ll have to share between each other go far beyond a simple “business/tech” dichotomy.

That being said, Benedikt is an incredible tech and product mind who has this ‘innovation through technology’ mindset. He’s won the robotics world championships twice! And me having a background in business innovation, and experiences in finance and the corporate world, us driving this vision together was and is creating this complementary emulation. We share the same drive to create something new, to innovate, to solve problems through technology. I don’t know that we would have been able to conceive the Locatee project and vision as clearly as we have if we didn’t bring these complementary skills together with this common passion.

What would you say to someone leaving school now, who wants to start their own business? Do you have any advice for first time founders?

My first piece of advice is: do it! If you’re thinking about it, if you have that ‘itch’, you should go for it. The decision criteria shouldn’t be the expectation of success or, on the contrary, the fear of failure. It’s the journey that is valuable – you will learn more and faster than in any kind of working environment.

My second advice would be on what you should prepare for. The trust factor I mentioned in the relationship between founders, it’s also relevant when you start growing, when you hire your first employees, and even more as you scale. In a very short time frame, you will go from having a literal hand in almost everything, to having a multitude of functions, projects and tasks happening under your responsibility. When this happens, you need two things: have a pristine recruiting success rate and be able to trust and delegate.

Again, most of the time a startup’s rhythm is meant to be fast. Fast growth, fast success, fast everything. You don’t have much time or margin to make mistakes when hiring, and you definitely don’t have time to check and course-correct what your team members are doing to ensure the delivery of your vision. So, learn how to recruit, and then learn how to trust. As Benedikt says, we as leaders need to frame the problems that need to be addressed in order to deliver our vision, then it’s up to our fantastic Locateam to come up with solutions.

What has been one of your biggest failures, and what did you learn from the experience?

I think, as a startup founder, you have to train, even brainwash yourself to not see things in terms of failures, and to not need to rank them or size them. So, there is no “biggest” failure which sticks more than the others, that would imply an emotional attachment to that experience.

Failures must be part of the plan. You shouldn’t avoid them to preserve your ego. What you need to try to do instead, is to make them happen in a way that doesn’t damage the business, but instead generates insights on which you can build further. If you’re going to try something new – a product feature, a marketing initiative – do it lean, but see beyond as well – if this doesn’t work, what will I have learned? What can I then do with that information that will support the business?

So I don’t have that one big failure in mind, but all these little ones which have helped us grow. But of course I should still give an example. I can talk about something that I guess happens to all startups: you have a customer in the pipeline, and that customer really needs that adaptation, that feature, that customization in order to seal the deal. And then you have to carefully evaluate whether this specific customer request fits into your plan, if the deal is worth the effort, and even more difficult, if the customer’s wishes are actually what they’ll really need and use. These are maybe the most difficult things to navigate, especially in a B2B context, it’s just more difficult to properly evaluate such requirements.

What differentiates Locatee from its competitors?

Since we started our business idea based on observing what we thought was an incredibly inefficient response to a real business problem – counting office occupancy manually – our value proposition needed to be smart and easy for the customer, while at the same time be conducive to a scalable business model.

We are compatible with many different measurement sources, and re-use already existing data within organizations. Concretely, this means that employees, who are moving around the buildings with their laptops and mobile devices, are already “creating” office occupancy data points. We needed to build our technology so that we are able to translate this opportunity, these data points, in actionable data.

On top of that, we understood that buildings and companies already have invested in a certain number of systems which also generate useful data for our platform. Locatee needed to be able to ingest those additional data points, regardless of what these are and the technology or hardware behind them. This makes us retrofittable, tech-agnostic, and this makes us scalable and sustainable (low lifecycle costs). Last but not least, our analytics solution enables both granular office occupancy view and portfolio-wide insights. This means that local teams get valuable information to manage their facilities, while global managers uncover data which are relevant to them.

Can you elaborate on Locatee’s “space utilization insight”?

In the construct and evolution of the culture of a company, particularly large corporations, office space is an underrated, but important element of it. Teams grow, contract, evolve, split, change names and change locations. It is up to management, local or global, to work with corporate real estate managers and facility managers and make decisions on office space – what type of design, what space to assign which team to etc. And these can be very emotional discussions. Without space utilization data, the discussion will remain on the emotional level. With space utilization data from Locatee, the discussion is about finding the right decisions and solutions, based on actual patterns, factual requirements. You can compare this to designing and managing a website with or without user analytics. It’s the same. Without analytics data, you can debate endlessly about a feature or a design. With data, the user’s behaviour will help you make that decision based on facts.

On the other hand, you now have a very different use case for utilization insights, something that was already growing before 2020, but that has obviously accelerated dramatically due to the ongoing pandemic. That case is the rise of hybrid work. Whether hybrid work will become the majority or not if and when the pandemic is over, we already know today that a number of leading corporations will make it a staple of their structure after we’ve returned to the office.

With hybrid work, you may be able to reduce the space required – although you need utilization data to confirm this. However this is only one part of the story. Your work environment needs to work for you as an organization, to attract the employee, to nurture the company culture, to foster collaboration. With the savings you may gain from reduced space, you will be able to increase the quality of the remaining space, and as a consequence, be able to impact employee satisfaction.

Locatee was founded in 2015. How have your objectives and goals changed since the company has grown?

The objectives have remained steady. We wanted to create a scalable, sustainable occupancy analytics solution to support business real estate decision making, and this is still the case today. If anything, the recent, dramatic circumstances that forced people to work from home for prolonged periods, has significantly increased the relevancy of our vision.

What we are doing has the potential to transform the dynamics of the workplace. It’s not just about space optimization or cost reduction. What we uncover is way more profound than that. We dive in the relationship between employees, their employers, the office, productivity, company culture, collaboration, and we contribute to quantifying that relationship, something that, so far, was completely unattainable.

This is what we strive to do: enable places where people love to work. We give corporations a way to understand their own performance as organizations towards their employees.

Locatee is an example of technology enabling human-centricity. For some time now, companies have realized that their employees and their satisfaction and their engagement, are as crucial as any other asset. But what they have struggled with, is to come up with true, unbiased measurements of these. We enable a piece of this puzzle to be measured.

What do you consider as Locatee’s most significant milestone so far?

We have had a number of great achievements since founding Locatee with Benedikt. Convincing our first customer to use our solution, and then seeing the number of buildings we are serving grow and grow, with our solution now being rolled out in more than 50 countries. We reached a big milestone with the opening of our US office recently.

The fantastic collaboration with our investors over the years and the support and wisdom they give to us on our journey to fulfilling our vision. Raising our Series A funding in 2020 was of course a very rewarding validation of all our previous work, as well as the $3.5 million (Editor note: around €2.8 million) Swiss Technology Fund grant which we received at the end of 2020.

And of course, hiring our first employee and then growing the team and seeing this group of people flourish and take ownership of the vision we laid out with Benedikt, making it their own challenges.

But I think that, as an entrepreneur, the most significant success you can have is simply when the customers validate that you are solving a pain for them. We regularly receive feedback from our customers highlighting how much the data we uncover is meaningful and valuable to them. Through these aggregated feedbacks, we receive the confirmation that we are at the core of the future of Corporate Real Estate.

What is your long-term vision for Locatee?

Locatee enables places where people love to work. As the role of the office evolves, it becomes less of an obligation, and more of a strategic asset to achieve very concrete and important goals in the areas of productivity and talent attractivity and retention.

The ability to manage, orchestrate spaces in which employees want and love to work in, is going to be crucial. This will change the dynamics of the corporate real estate manager function. Just like the marketing function received an enormous boost when digital marketing started inundating the whole organization with cold, hard data about marketing performance, a similar wave is about to hit the workplace, again thanks to technological evolution.

Expectations towards the employer and the office are evolving, quickly. We conducted studies which showed that after the pandemic, a majority of employees will want to go back to the office, but ‘differently’, and for different reasons. For collaboration, for social interaction, for culture-building, to grow and nurture a sense of belonging that is important to all of us. At the same time, companies will realize that their office isn’t an obligation nor a liability – it is an asset to foster collaboration, to build culture, to optimize efficiency and productivity, and to support employees in becoming their best selves at work. To achieve that, companies will need to discover what types of space work best for their people.

Going further, companies will even need to discover what ‘combinations of spaces’ work best for their people. The equation is not simply office / home. The demand will evolve towards even greater flexibility – access to satellite offices or shared spaces etc. Whether it is to reduce a commute, or work from abroad alongside a vacation period, or to collaborate with specific teams or people during a project. The motivations for choosing to work from a specific location at a specific time will become more diverse. And at the centre of this, is the company, the CREM, tasked with managing and orchestrating this. Complexity has gone through the roof, and data is required to make sense of it all, and to make the right decisions.

What was it like growing your team? What are the challenges and surprises you encountered? What tips do you have for building a solid team?

As a founder, it’s easy to have the naïve feeling that you’re the smartest person or that you know the customer’s problems and solutions best, so you instinctively tell your team what to do. They’ll get it done, but won’t do much beyond what’s expected, not because they can’t or don’t want to, but because you don’t let them. In this environment your team members become mercenaries.

In contrast, if you come with the initial business problem, lay out what the customer said, and then engage the team in the problem-solving process, your team now feels empowered and turns into a powerful group of missionaries. This leads not only to better solutions, but also to a better team and ultimately a better company. So, the team comes first.

Diversity in the team, yes or no? Why?

Yes, as we are a diverse team from a nationalities and cultures point of view. We have 21 nationalities in the team and speak 14 languages. But we also have our challenges, not unlike a number of tech companies, when it comes to diversity. It’s something we are aware of and are working on – this is part of the training we provide to hiring managers for instance.

Beyond enabling diversity in the recruiting process, we also make sure that diversity is embraced as a value in the company. This means we’re committed to creating a safe environment for any of our employees, at the professional and interpersonal levels.