1 of 9
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Podium CEO Eric Rea poses for a photo in their front lobby in Lehi on Monday, June 26, 2017.

LEHI — Even in the often hyperbolic realm of tech startups, Utah's Podium is on an incredible growth arc since launching its reputation and customer interaction software in 2014.

Just 2 ½ years ago, Podium was housed in a spare bedroom of co-founder and CEO Eric Rea's apartment. A year-and-a-half ago, they'd graduated to a space above a Provo bike shop — without heat or air conditioning — and had a staff of 15.

Today, Podium has almost 200 employees, is set to make a $10 million capital investment in a new Utah headquarters, is on track to hire over 400 new employees in the next five years and has earned a $1.1 million tax credit from the Governor's Office of Economic Development for the $124.7 million they'll be paying out in wages over that time.

Oh, and they've become the darling of some very heavy-hitting Bay area tech investors, including Accel (famous for being early Facebook funders), Summit Partners, Y Combinator and GV (formerly Google Ventures) who just completed a $32 million round of investment in the company.

The secret to Rea and co-founder Dennis Steele's meteoric rise?

"The reason we’ve been able to go from an apartment bedroom to a bike shop to now is our product works, and it works really, really, really well," Rea said.

That product, which is continuing to evolve, helps offline businesses attract, communicate with and retain customers through the careful management of their online presences.

"Two years ago, the heart of what we did was make it easy for customers to generate a review of the business in real time," Rea said. "Today, what we found is through working with these businesses, it’s the interactions that are so important, offline to online and online to offline.

"It’s way more powerful for the business if we do more than just collect a review at the end of a transaction."

Chris Carson, marketing director for Draper-based carpet cleaning company Zerorez, said engaging Podium about a year ago has had signficant, and measurable, positive impacts on his business.

"When people are looking for a carpet cleaner, they have no idea the difference between one company to the next," Carson said. "So, the decision about which carpet cleaner to choose typically comes through online reviews and about 80 percent of the people we talked to said they were going by reviews they read on Google."

Previous to using Podium, Zeroez franchises typically had just a handful of reviews that were discoverable online. But now, Carson said, all of that has changed.

"We’ve seen growth in our online reviews of 100 to 200 percent," Carson said. "At Zerorez in Dallas we’re approaching 1,200 reviews and Salt Lake City, which hasn't been using it as long, is moving toward 600 reviews.

"In that area, we're blowing our competition out of the water."

Carson said the Podium tool is also enhancing the kinds of relationships they have with their customers, and improving the company's ability to spot any problems or negative trends. Rea said easy customer communications, using tools like text messaging, is necessary in a world where businesses can't get by any more by just being the biggest.

"Back in the day, whoever could spend the most money on billboards and radio and TV ads would just win because they'd get all the calls," Rea said. "Now though, if you're a legitimately bad business, that word will get out and you won't be around for long."

Rea said many factors have helped grow the new business reality where online customer reviews are a critical factor in any purchase decision, whether it's a product or a service. And the idea for how to help local businesses with that challenge, regardless of what they offer, was born of a conversation he had with his father, who was a small business owner at the time.

"My dad owned some gas stations and a tire shop in Calgary," Rea said. "When all this discovery, reviews and comments, started coming online, he didn’t know how to deal with it.

"It was showing me how out of sync the average local business is with technology."

The seed took some years to germinate, as Rea finished an information systems degree at BYU then took a job in Austria as a programmer for the International Atomic Energy Agency. But he didn't find the fulfillment with the work he was doing in Vienna.

"It didn't take me long to figure out that working for one of the largest bureaucracies in the world really wasn't for me," Rea said.

The focus he and his co-founder would find in launching Podium is what helped draw the attention of Peak Ventures, the Provo venture capital firm that made a bet on the company well before it was on the radars of deep-pocketed Silicon Valley firms. And, Peak Ventures managing partner Sid Krommenhoek said Podium's subsequent success was not at all a surprise.

"Eric and Dennis put their heart and soul into everything they do," said Krommenhoek, who is also a Podium board member. "As an entrepreneur myself, having built and scaled a business, you never quite know how things are going to go, and there is some serendipity, but the foundation of Podium a great product and a lot of hard work."

Krommenhoek, who has heard thousands of pitches from would-be startup efforts, noted that one of the things that distinguishes Rea and Steele is their energy and commitment to forward momentum.

"These guys have a hustle that permeates everything they do," said Krommenhoek. "From building their product to selling their product to being really close to their customers."

While Rea demurred to his co-founder and the "amazing and talented people we've been able to draw to Podium" as helping power growth and expansion, he recognized that being satisfied with the status quo isn't part of his playbook.

"When we were still in the bike shop, we shared space with another startup and one of the guys said to me, 'Why do you keep hiring so many engineers? You've already got your product,'" Rea said. "And I told him, 'The product is never done. … We can always make it better.'"

While Rea declined to cite the company's valuation or current revenues, he did note that Podium had experienced year-over-year growth in the neighborhood of 600 percent and has a current client roster that includes some 11,000 businesses that accounts for around 100,000 customers.

He also noted that while Podium has new tools under development that would be bringing artificial intelligence/machine learning to bear on continuing to help their clients build even better relationships with their customers, their goals were quite far from being met.

"We’re going to become a multibillion-dollar company and help hundreds of thousands of businesses," Rea said. "And, even then, we'll still be trying to be better."