The boldness was there from the beginning. In 1999, when Joe Poulin found himself knocking on the doors of lavish villas in Barbados, he was a 17-year-old from the outskirts of Montreal. He had never been outside Canada before, but he had an idea to make the villa owners some money: a website that would market their vacation homes for rent.
Even though he was brushed aside by the owners as just another naïve teenager, he remained convinced there was money to be made and built the site anyway.
A few months later, Poulin flew back to Barbados. This time, he offered his service for free in exchange for 20 percent of the rental fee. "Next time you hear from me," he told the owners, "it's great news because I've got money for you." He returned to Montreal with seven properties to list.
Fast forward 14 years and today Poulin's villa-rental startup, Luxury Retreats, has 150 employees and lists more than 2,000 properties in more than 50 destinations around the world, from Oahu to Umbria. By focusing obsessively on quality and learning the hard way what it means to hire the right people, Poulin has made his company an under-the-radar success story in the crowded space for vacation-home rentals. His traction has come from the high end of the market, where just a week's rental could range from more than $40,000 on the French Riviera to more than $400,000 on billionaire Richard Branson's private island. Clients want nothing left to chance.
And Poulin sweats the details. Properties listed by Luxury Retreats go through intensive vetting: Quality inspectors rate properties on more than 100 points, such as amenities and proximity to neighbors. If a property falls short, the owner must improve it before listing. Once a property is ready, the company sends a photographer to take pictures for the website. The goal is not only to curate an elite selection of homes but also to cultivate a consistent mark of quality.
It's a system that has paid off handsomely for him. With no college degree or formal training, Poulin led the company to $100 million in revenue last year. "I'm not an academic guy," says Poulin, who speaks quickly and in a choppy cadence, continually biting off one thought to offer the next. "There was no real plan B. It was just: 'This is going to work. And if doesn't work, I'll just do another business.' "
His entrepreneurial aspirations have a long foreground. His father worked in the pulp-and-paper industry, which meant recycling magazines, and at age 11 Poulin began reformatting the floppy disks and CDs of free software that came bundled with some of these magazines. After turning them into blank disks, he would box them up and sell them.
At 13 he began taking apart computers, and two years later taught himself to build websites. It was as a freelance web designer that he would travel to Barbados. A client wanted a website to market his beachfront villa, but he didn't have any pictures. He flew Poulin down to take them and see the villa firsthand. That trip to Barbados determined his course -- one that would bring a set of challenges common to young companies.
About four years into Luxury Retreats, Poulin says he found himself relaxing his grip on customer service as he was scaling the business. Before long he realized the need to consciously slow growth, until he could manage it without sacrificing the service that was so critical to his success.
"At the end of the day, what it comes down to in ultimate validation is that [a] family goes and does the trip and comes back [with] a smile on their face," he told himself. "So if something's got to give, it's not that."
Like many shoestring founders, Poulin micromanaged everything until he found himself confronting his own limitations. By the mid-2000s he realized he needed a mentor. He found one in Peter Kern, a managing partner of InterMedia Partners, a Manhattan-based private-equity firm.
Also a board member of Expedia, Kern rented twice through Luxury Retreats and eventually asked to meet the chief executive. "Anything you need, I'll help you out," Poulin recalls Kern saying when they met in New York, "but if there's a way I can get a little skin in the game, I'd love to do that."
Kern came on board in 2007 with what initially was a three-percent ownership stake. Together, he and Poulin hoped to build Luxury Retreats into a leading brand.
Their eagerness led to a serious mistake. In 2008, influenced by outside advisers, Poulin hired a full management team for Luxury Retreats. It was the right move for growth at the right time, he says, but he failed to define "the right DNA" for the company. While he hired seasoned managers, they didn't fully support the company's mission. "This passion was missing and very apparent," Poulin says.
Between 2008 and 2012, a time when the house-share market was exploding, he replaced his entire senior staff. "I could have moved that much higher, that much better, that much further or faster" if the right team had been in place, he says. Only in the past 12 months has he put together that "right" kind of team, "people that are relationship driven and genuinely looking to improve the lives of others," he says. He requires executives to work "side-by-side in the trenches" with anyone below them to build camaraderie and an understanding of the business.