A lift opens directly into Howard Lerman’s apartment, which occupies the entire sixth floor of a stately modern building at one end of Madison Square Park, New York. The structure fuses an 1898 mansion and a new eight-storey tower into an architectural hybrid of prewar formality and loft-like ethereality. Towering windows look out on to the bustling park and the former MetLife clock tower building — headquarters for Yext, Lerman’s centralised data service, which acts as a real-time Yellow Pages for the mercurial landscape of the internet.
Founded in 2006, the company seeks to bridge the gap between the online and physical worlds for clients, including FedEx and Citibank, by providing a means of updating information, such as store hours, across a multitude of secondary sites.
“If I’d been born in the 1800s, I would have started a shipping company,” says Lerman, 35. “I like to think that I’m an entrepreneur because I like to build stuff and make stuff and build companies, and that’s independent of time.”
While Yext grew 71 per cent last year and now has 400,000 customer locations (the local branches of banks and grocery stores, for example), it has reached less than 1 per cent market penetration. This excites Lerman who notes that Yext made $60m in revenue last year, has just opened an office in London and will be expanding into Asia later this year. In a series F (sixth) round of funding last year, the company received a $525m valuation.
“I’m a serial entrepreneur. I’ve started five companies and sold four,” he says. “The one unifying theme is that I don’t like to commute. I need to be able to fall out of bed into work.”
Lerman’s 2,600 sq ft home, which he moved into last month with his pregnant wife, Wendy, was furnished after a single trip to nearby Restoration Hardware. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but those people there spend so much time putting together complete room packages. That’s their job. Even if I spent a hundred hours, they’re still going to do a better job than me because they’re pros,” he reasons, adding, “I don’t have amazing taste in furniture either.”
The one piece he did pick out himself is an original black Eames lounge chair, which sits in his study. “I spend a lot of time in that. It’s really comfortable. I heard it described once as an old catcher’s mitt [in] the way it gets worn in. It’s actually comfortable for pregnant girls too,” he gestures towards Wendy, whom he met at Duke University in North Carolina when his a cappella group performed for her sorority.
“We came up with this idea we called the Speak Sorority Challenge where the sorority that got the most people to come to our show would win a free concert from us at my apartment. It caused a ruckus. All the sororities were competing, and Wendy was in Kappa which won.” The song that won her heart? Billy Pilgrim’s “Insomniac”.
While Lerman often works into the night, he and Wendy make a point of having dinner together. The couple joke that their well-equipped, eat-in kitchen is the emptiest room in the house as neither of them cooks. Most nights they order from Tiffin Wallah, an Indian vegetarian restaurant in Manhattan’s aptly named “curry hill” area, through the online delivery service Seamless.
Yext’s 350 employees can do the same because the company offers free lunch and dinner through Seamless as a benefit. Lerman believes the key to optimisation is creating an atmosphere that inspires contemplation. “There’s a huge trend towards open[-plan] and loft [offices] in tech, and I hate it. I think you need a balance. If you pack too many people into an open area, you loose efficiency,” he says. Most of the engineering work of the company happens in “project rooms” for six to eight people.
Lerman gives each new employee a copy of Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right to give them a shared experience to talk about. His own copy sits on his sitting room bookshelf, a large imposing built-in structure that came with the rental, and he begins every day by writing a checklist. “It lets me drive my day as opposed to having it driven by what happened last night in my inbox.”
Other favourite books include the Harry Potter series and A Computer Science Tapestry: Exploring Programming and Computer Science with C++, written by Lerman’s college professor Owen Astrachan. An interior designer Lerman hired had objections to many of his favourite books on aesthetic grounds. “All the ones I love, she thought were ugly,” he says.
Functionality is key to Yext, and Lerman is quick to name “doing it yourself” as the company’s biggest competitor. “The same way a car’s competitor was a horse for a while,” he adds. “You can go to a hundred sites and update your data or keep it in sync with us: better, faster, cheaper.”
During Hurricane Sandy, Citibank used Yext’s software to keep its customers informed on which branches were open. “We can update that data in real time,” says Lerman, who credits the company’s patented technology called PowerListing dual-sync. “Being able to manage 5m updates a month across a hundred end points in 78 different languages, you start to do some pretty big multiplication there.”
Lerman recalls starting his first company out of his dorm room at Duke and in the same breath admits “I was not much of a student”. Today his study contains a piano, a guitar and an electric bass, along with an autographed art print from the Washington National Opera’s production of La bohème. He grew up in the suburbs of DC and was in the opera’s children’s chorus, allowing him to “run around with opera stars. [Soprano] Pamela South signed that when I was a kid. That’s kind of special.”
Lerman identifies as an ENTP (extroversion, intuition, thinking, perception) in the Myers-Briggs personality indicator and he also knows into which category each Yext employee falls. After rattling off a few, he mentions that Wendy is an ISFJ (introversion, sensing, feeling, judging). “The exact opposite of me.” He jokes that he found this out on the first night they met. “To run a company, you have to be a J. You have to be on time and close things out, and that’s not my natural tendency, so I have to force myself to behave like that. “Getting up and writing that list is how I install that sense of discipline.”
It helps that he doesn’t have to think about what he is going to wear: Lerman’s side of the couple’s spacious walk-in wardrobe is monochromatic. “I used to buy clothes, but now I wear a black turtleneck every day because it’s just simpler.” A handful of suits complete the look. “It’s liberating to not think about what to wear. I know it’s weird,” he admits. He extends this logic to socks, reasoning: “Imagine if you had a hundred of the same kind. You wouldn’t know if you lost one unless you had an odd number.”
Photographs: Sara Hylton
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