If you're a boss, there's one simple way you can distinguish yourself, and it's open to everyone although not everyone chooses it--you can be the nicest boss there is. That advice comes from Glenn Kelman, who has led two startups to successful IPOs. The first was Plumtree Software, which he founded and took public in 2002. The second is the online real estate agency Redfin, which he joined a year after it was founded, and which went public in 2017, at a valuation after one day of trading of $1.73 billion.

"I think most leadership traits are really hard to emulate," he said during a recent conversation at Redfin's Everett, Washington, office. "I used to want to be like Steve Jobs and be inspirational. That was the role model for everyone." 

The problem with Jobs, of course, is that while he was extraordinarily innovative and inspiring, he could also be condescending and abrasive. And, in fact, Brian McAndrews (who is currently Grubhub's chair but was then CEO of marketing company aQuantive) took Kelman to lunch and basically hit him with a hard truth: "You can't be Steve--you're not a genius--so you're going to have to try being nice instead."

Kelman took the lesson to heart, to his benefit, he says. "I just think the leadership trait that's available to everyone--whether you're a good speaker or not, whether you're a genius or not--is humility," he says. "You can go to a town hall and ask people, 'How could we be better? What can I do better? What can other parts of the company do better?' If you're humble, you'll actually learn something."

Don't get hung up on self-image

Another lesson Kelman says he learned is not to let your preconceived notion about who you are or what your profession is dictate the decisions you make about your company. Prior to Redfin, Kelman spent his career at software companies, including Plumtree, which after its IPO was acquired and is now part of Oracle. Redfin sought to be different from the usual online marketplace by actually taking part in the transactions as a real estate agency. Still, Kelman says, "In the early days, I didn't want us to deliver any kind of service at all, because I viewed myself as a software entrepreneur, and that really prevented us from giving the customer what she wanted. I think I was too guided by a definition of who I was."

In fact, Kelman recalls having someone refer to him as a real estate agent at a party, and getting really angry about it. "I felt that was condescending," he says. "I would wear that badge with pride today." 

Not only that, in some markets, Redfin offers services that are very far away from software, such as Redfin Now, in which the company buys houses immediately, at a reduced price, instead of listing them, and Redfin Concierge Service, in which the company will spruce up a property and "stage" it for sale. "I just think going out into the world and figuring out how the real world works and creating partnerships between engineers and other types of folks is not only a great commercial opportunity, it's a great cultural opportunity," he says.

Be an ambassador for your customers

Figuring out what customers really want should be the main concern of every founder and CEO, Kelman says. "Your main job is to be chief demand officer," he says. "Our job is to create success disasters where customers want something and we have to figure out the best way to deliver it."

At Plumtree, one of the company's first products was one nobody wanted to buy. "It was so depressing," Kelman recalls. "And then we just stopped and said, 'Well, let's figure what people do want, and even if it's very hard or perhaps impossible to build, let's work on that.'"

Knowing what people want gave him authority as a leader at Plumtree, he says now, and it works the same way at Redfin. "Knowing what people want, knowing the real estate consumer, is still how I win arguments at Redfin," he says. "I don't win every one, but when I do it's because I feel like I know what our customers want better than anybody else."