Jenn Denouden is the President and CEO of Avana, a purpose-led real estate development company in Saskatchewan that has grown by 9888% in five years, holds 45% of Regina’s new development permits, and was named Canada’s tenth fastest growing company on the Profit 2020 Growth List. Transitioning out of a career in private banking to real estate, Jenn founded Avana in 2014, intent on disrupting the male-dominated space of real estate and property development while providing people with quality housing. Additionally, Jenn is passionate about helping women and children that are victims of domestic abuse find safe and affordable housing with privately funded housing support through her work with the Avana Foundation.
How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?
Sadly, during the pandemic, women and children needed our business more than ever. Due to the economic downturn, homelessness has been on a steady incline in Saskatchewan. This meant that the need for affordable housing is at an all-time high. With that being said, our team has continued to grow at a rapid rate. Not only did we not lay any of our employees off, we extensively grew our team in order to continue to provide housing to people in need. Although we experienced slight disruptions due to lower processing times, we did not see a significant impact on cash flow.
The only government program we utilized was the Canada Emergency Business Account loan of $40,000, which we repaid the same year. Because we continued to grow and expand so aggressively through COVID, the financial institutions’ hesitancy to provide assistance during the peak of the pandemic posed the biggest risk to our strategic business plan, but we were able to navigate that successfully.
Has your approach to sales and marketing changed?
Like most businesses, when the pandemic initially hit, we were forced to pivot what had once been done in-person to online or virtual spaces. When you’re a rental home company that traditionally would rely on potential residents seeing themselves in the space, the pandemic made things more challenging. However, the reality is that you can either pivot and try something new, or you can attempt to stick to old habits that no longer fulfill their purpose. We chose to pivot, ensuring we still could give our potential residents the Avana experience in-person or virtually: socially distanced viewings, 3D tours of our homes, better video and photography on our listings, and a more holistic, personalized approach to every single inquiry.
Our marketing strategy has been changing non-stop over the last seven years of business. As we grow and work our way through hypergrowth, our marketing needs change. The pandemic was simply another factor to consider when we thought through our strategy for the next few years to come. Over the last year and a half, our digital presence has grown exponentially. Sure, the pandemic put added stress on ensuring your digital marketing was where it should be, but that was inevitable. Digital marketing, social media, and engaging online content are at the forefront of the new marketing era, and COVID-19 just expedited that transition. We’ve begun investing heavily into these channels and will continue to do so. Not only have we put a heavier emphasis on our digital efforts, but we also decided to bring on an in-house marketing team.
How has technology played a role in your business during this time?
In our efforts to implement more efficient and effective procedures, we’ve upgraded the technology and systems we use immensely. We leaned heavily on our property management platform. We needed to quickly provide leasing, maintenance, and resident support services, with as little in-person interaction as possible. This meant that we needed to digitize our interactions with residents. Our software system allowed us to communicate and engage with residents through the platform. This helped to lessen our in-person interactions and contact while still providing the care our residents needed.
Without these platforms, we would have seen a significant drop in our ability to support our residents properly; however, we saw our positive ratings and feedback rise. This pandemic was a direct opportunity to show us some of our blindspots. A more automated, less manual cadence to our resident support processes has benefited our team and residents.
How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?
I avoid burnout by ensuring I still found moments for myself. My moments are my time with friends and family, the glass of wine before bed, the “geeking out” over spreadsheets, or cooking a meal. No matter how busy or chaotic things may have been or will be, I will always take opportunities to do the things I enjoy most. It also helps if you love what you do while driving with your purpose and ethos first. Before anyone starts with Avana, we ensure they have similar values and beliefs; this helps them succeed in the long run at Avana. If we do a good enough job in the recruitment process, the work rarely feels like work for the team hired.
It is a rigorous process to find people who are so purpose-led in their own beliefs that they wholeheartedly believe in Avana’s mission, but it has proven to be the most critical step. We look for big picture thinkers who can aid in our journey towards a better future. When an organization has employees who understand that the work will lead to more significant social change, they will stay motivated. Our relentless pursuit of gender equality is inspiring and rejuvenating to our employees. Standing side-by-side every day with people who share this same passion is an immense motivator. On top of this, regular check-ins and as much communication as possible were and are vital for our team during the pandemic and beyond.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?
In order to pave the way, to do something that has never been done, to change the status quo, you need to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. In order for your business to be extraordinary, you’re going to have to make hard choices — the type of choices that may keep you up at night. Stick to your values, lead with your purpose, and push past fear. Take calculated risks and trust your gut. Be unapologetic in your pursuit of becoming purpose-led. Our business changed forever when we “pivoted to purpose” a few years ago, and our hypergrowth truly began. Throughout the pandemic, it was more important than ever to stick to this approach.