Bill Smith is coming back to Birmingham, but he never really left.
Thursday’s announcement that his newest creation – Landing – is moving its corporate headquarters to Birmingham from San Francisco, is yet another step in the dual stories of Smith’s rise, as well as his home city’s, in the world of tech startups.
A high school dropout, Smith started his first business when he was 16. He went on to manage his own cell phone businesses before founding Insight Card Services, which he sold in 2014 to Green Dot Corp.
Then came Shipt, the company he created in Birmingham and eventually sold to Target for $550 million.
The app-based shopping startup came to him one afternoon in 2015, he said, “standing in a parking lot, after my wife and I shopped for groceries with a crying toddler and a fussy newborn.”
But while growing his business, Smith also set his sights on growing Birmingham as a center for entrepreneurship, something he said at 2018′s SlossTech was “easier than I thought it would be.”
Now Landing, which supplies housing needs for on-the-go professionals through a monthly fee, is in more than 80 cities and growing. Landing looks to create 816 new full-time jobs in Birmingham as it continues to grow in a time when housing is at a premium nationwide.
Smith talked to AL.com about his decision to relocate to Birmingham, how he navigated his newest company through the pandemic, and what the future looks like.
This interview has been edited for style and length.
What’s it like, in essence, coming back to Birmingham?
You know, it’s really exciting for my team to open our headquarters in Birmingham. We think it’s a great opportunity for the company, and we also think it’s going to be really great for the city, and the county, and the state all the way around.
How soon do you expect to have things up and running in Birmingham?
We already have team members in Birmingham. This is something that we’ve had in the works for quite a while, and you know that will accelerate significantly over the next few months.
You started Shipt in Birmingham. You started Landing with a presence in Birmingham. Is this move something you perhaps anticipated?
I think COVID has changed the way that people think about work, the way that people think about living. It’s just been a big reset for a lot of the norms that existed before. There’s certainly been an effect on San Francisco that I would say is a pretty negative effect. A lot of talent has left. At the same time, we had the opportunity to partner with the city, the county, and the state to do something big, and it all came together at the right time.
You mentioned some of the talent that’s leaving California. Did any of that influence your thinking on this move?
It’s certainly independent. We’re ultimately doing what is the best thing for all of our constituents. In the end, I think what is happening with COVID has certainly made cities like Birmingham even more attractive and we’re seeing that with Landing. We are in over 80 cities, and we’re growing in the parts of the country that are seeing a lot of transplants – places like Austin and Dallas and Miami. Growth today is not in the cities that were growing pre-COVID.
You started Landing before the pandemic. What were your thoughts on how the company might fare when the Lockdown happened, and going forward? Were you surprised by the effect it had on your company?
I can’t tell you that I knew in March of last year that our way of living was going to change for so many people. I knew the pandemic was going to be a big deal, but you know, there was a time in March when we thought it would be solved in about two weeks. Here’s the way it played out: We had to make a decision in March of last year about how we were going to operate as a business. Particularly, were we going to grow the business, or were we going to retreat and really slow down and take a bunch of steps back? And my team and I decided to really press forward and continue launching cities, and continue growing the business. By late May and early June, when parts of the country started to reopen, our business really took off and we were well-positioned, because we had continued to grow during that period.
What is your vision about the path forward?
Our goal is to really reinvent the way that people live in apartments. We have brought a product to the market that allows consumers to have flexibility and live in convenience. That hasn’t existed before. Over the next few years, we think a lot more people are going to discover this way of living. Landing is the choice. We have created the whole category. I think we are in a similar place to where Shipt was when I first started that company. Then, all grocery shopping happened in the store for most of the country. Fast forward six years later, and there’s talk of 25% of grocery shopping moving online. I think we’re at a very early stage, and have a long way to grow in the future.
Have you stopped over the last year and thought to yourself, “I saw this playing out, but not exactly this way?”
When I had the initial idea of building Landing, I thought it would take a decade for people to en masse understand that there’s a new way of living that really is a better way of living. What has happened since the pandemic is that has accelerated significantly. People have realized they want mobility and flexibility and ease. People can work anywhere now. All those trends were there, but they were nascent. Now they’re mainstream. There’s a huge portion of the population that, I believe, will continue to work mostly from wherever they want to, in the future. The genie’s out of the bottle on that.
How was your experience creating Landing different from Shipt?
Landing and Shipt are very different companies. They’re different, of course, in product. Landing has a lot more operational complexity. We have distribution centers. We have supply chains. There’s a lot more operational infrastructure. Culturally, they’re different. The main thing is, I’ve been able to attract talent to Landing that I may not have been able to attract in the early days of Shipt. That’s because of the credibility of having built Shipt. That gives me the ability to get more people to take a risk that they may not have in the early days of Shipt.
Any thoughts on where Birmingham is as a start-up community?
Birmingham now, versus Birmingham when I started Shipt, is almost a completely different place. The startup ecosystem has grown significantly in Birmingham over the last five years. I can’t even name all the companies that you’ve got. There’s a whole ecosystem of entrepreneurship, and an ecosystem of talent that likes to work in startups. Frankly, there’s a lot of people that worked at Shipt that have now gone on start new companies. The other thing that’s happened is investors have realized that you can build great companies anywhere. There’s a lot more exposure around Birmingham, and building it as a brand related to technology, that just didn’t exist 5-6 years ago.
Is the axis also shifting Birmingham’s way in terms of the cost of doing business?
It’s always been that way, but I think now, if you’re a company in San Francisco and you’re looking at all the costs of doing business there, and in other cities as well, you say, “All of my workforce has been remote for the last year. Can I have an office anywhere? Can I go somewhere that has lower costs and are going to embrace business and growth more?” I think people are looking at that. In the last year, there’s been some major announcements of companies relocating to other cities around the country.