According to a study conducted by entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa and the Kauffman Foundation, the average age of a successful startup founder is 40. Jenna Zaza, Partner at The Interactive Abode, co-founded the company when she was just 24 years old. With fresh eyes and a dash of inspiration from her parent’s cottage renovation, Zaza developed an online platform that allows new home and condo purchasers to make their colour selections prior to their decor centre appointment.

Over the past five years, Zaza has learned important lessons about the real estate industry, predicting trends and trusting your gut. We caught up with her to get the scoop on the future of decor centres and to gain some insight on what it takes to be a female entrepreneur in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

BuzzBuzzNews: Did anyone or anything encourage you to become an entrepreneur?

Jenna Zaza: There wasn’t one person in particular, but it’s funny you ask because the other day I was looking through my childhood memories and I came across an assignment that asked ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and I wrote ‘entrepreneur.’ This was probably in Grade 8. I’m the oldest child so I’ve always been pretty independent. I like to make my own decisions. I’ve always watched Dragon’s Den and read books about successful women and wondered, ‘Why can’t that be me?’ I knew that being a female entrepreneur in the construction industry would be a pretty big challenge and it was something I wanted to take on.

BBN: We’ve interviewed you five times since The Interactive Abode launched in 2012, how has the market for the online design studio changed since then?

JZ: The market has changed almost completely in terms of technology. When we started out in 2012, builders were using pretty basic technology, and they were more reluctant to try something different. If you’re able to sell homes using the old way, why opt for something new? When virtual reality started gaining popularity and Millennials entered the market, builders quickly realized that it’s almost a necessity to integrate technology into your selling and decor process. We’re finding that year after year, it’s getting easier to sell our software and services because builders are now saying it’s not an added bonus — it’s a necessity.

BBN: What new features or updates has The Interactive Abode added over the past few months?

JZ: We’ve been focusing on new construction features. We offer construction reports, we create custom agreement sheets for every builder we work with, and we’ve added new upgrade features. For example, users can change walls and structural objects such as fireplaces, pot lights or kitchen islands — we’ve noticed those are selling a lot more. We’ve been meeting with decor managers and learning about the products and materials that buyers have a hard time visualizing. That way we can help developers sell more upgrades, while helping purchasers visualize the potential of their new home.

Analytics is a another big feature that we’ve added, we’re tracking the analytics of all the purchasers and giving that information to the builders to find out what materials sell best so that they can make better decisions when it comes time to build their next project.

The way we build our software is such that we don’t come in and try to change what builders are doing, we enhance the decor selection process. We don’t say, ‘This is how you should be doing it,’ instead we say, ‘How do you do it? Okay, this is what we can do to make it better.’ We take what they do, we put it online, and make recommendations based on trends in the industry. It’s completely custom, every builder has different requests.

BBN: What’s your current focus? What goals are you trying to achieve on a day-to-day basis?

JZ: We’re really trying to focus on the Toronto market. Our software is almost a no-brainer for Toronto condo builders. Developers don’t offer a lot of packages, and even if they do, people have a difficult time visualizing what those look like in real life. The technology is there, the market’s there, and Toronto condos are selling really well. We started in Toronto and now we’ve hired some people to break into the Vancouver and west coast market. By the end of 2017, we really want to focus on entering into the US and selling our software across North America. As far as cities and states are concerned, we’re looking at Texas, Seattle, New York and Florida.

BBN: In your opinion, what will become of sales and decor centres?

JZ: Even some of the builders we’re currently working with don’t have physical decor centres or colour appointments. Some builders choose to use our software and host viewing days, where buyers can come in, touch and see the materials, ask questions, and then make their final decisions from home. They don’t have to finalize their plans right then and there, they can go home, think about it a bit more, and make all of their selections online. You get the best of both worlds, and I think more and more builders are favouring this idea.

In some cases, the sales centre is also the decor centre, especially among builders who only have three to five packages. But there’s really no need to have a decor centre because we can take that concept and put it all online. We’re able to answer important questions such as, ‘‘What is this going to look like in my future home?’ No matter how big or elaborate a decor centre is, they can never fully answer that question. Buyers aren’t always able to visualize what a product or material will look like, they don’t know what a deep upper is, they’re not sure if a certain cabinet colour will match a contrasting kitchen island. Our program can take that, and for a fraction of the price of building a decor or sales centre, we can put it all online. It’s a great option for foreign investors, but it’s also great for the end user who really cares about their new home and wants to ensure that they’re making good colour selections, because it can be really difficult.

BBN: What advice would you give to other young people, especially women, who are thinking about starting their own businesses?

JZ: I started The Interactive Abode when I was 24, and I was pretty new to the industry. I would suggest doing your research and making sure that the product you’re selling is the best you can do. Put your best foot forward because sometimes all you get is that first chance. You often only get one meeting with clients, and that’s your opportunity to make a great first impression. I would also say, just give it a try — it’s a big decision to go out on your own and try something new, but when you’re young you don’t have a lot to lose. It’s also a lot of fun! Making your own decisions and just believing in yourself is really rewarding.

BBN: On that note, what advice would you give to yourself, if you could speak to 2012 Jenna?

JZ: What I’ve learned in the last five years is that you should believe in yourself because you’re smarter than you think. Just because someone is older than you that doesn’t mean they know more, or that your opinions aren’t as important or as valid as theirs. If I could give my 2012-self advice, I would say do more research and make sure that what you’re selling is the top of the line, the best you can do, and spend more time developing the product.

When you look at most business success stories, they almost always start off as one idea and then veer off into a different direction, and that’s what we kind of did. We took one idea and then we listened to the market, we took feedback from builders, and we added the features that they suggested. Some of the professionals we spoke to have been doing decor appointments for 10 or 15 years. We asked them ‘What are the issues here? What would your dream system look like?’ We have the resources and the skills to actually build it, so let’s make sure it’s the best.

BBN: Does The Interactive Abode have any big plans for the rest of 2017, or even 2018?

JZ: We definitely want to hit the US market, but right now we’re really just trying to keep up with demand. We have a really big summer ahead of us, plus a big fall. We’re meeting tons of builders around Ontario, and we’re now entering the Vancouver and Calgary markets, so our plan is to just keep going, keep adding new features and upgrades to the system, and focus on the visualization of the software. Our team has been growing, we’ve been hiring new people almost every six months. Overall, there are now about 15 people who work on these projects together.

To schedule a demo, contact Jenna Zaza at jenna@theinteractiveabode.com or call 416 420 9576. For more information about The Interactive Abode, please visit theinteractiveabode.com.

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