Given that Inkinen is a successful entrepreneur who is regularly quoted in the press, a Stanford graduate and an elite age-group triathlete, most people would likely give him the benefit of the doubt if he were a bit cocky.
But if you walked into Trulia’s corporate office while he was still working there every day, it would become very clear that Inkinen is a humble man—he didn’t even have a private office and instead worked at a desk on the open floor.
“I can’t imagine going into a company where you would have a hallway with thick doors and nameplates,” said Inkinen, who used an empty meeting room at Trulia’s corporate office if he needed to be alone for some reason. “The whole idea is freaking me out.”
He says that Trulia’s policy of no corner offices for any executive is one that allows the best ideas to win, no matter who voices them.
“It’s all about open culture,” Inkinen said. “So what we wanted to create was open communication, an open flow of information and most importantly this feeling of no hierarchy, no bureaucracy, openness, and a level playing field of ideas as opposed to hierarchy that dictates whose idea wins.”
Inkinen is a man who could easily be described as brilliant (in fact, Trulia employees, Stanford classmates and friends who were interviewed for this story used words such as “freakishly intelligent” when talking about Inkinen). He has co-founded two successful companies, speaks five languages, has advanced degrees from two of the world’s best universities, and he literally taught himself how to swim by watching video and seeking out open-water experts, working his way toward a 1:02:18 swim split at Kona this year.
He could have easily walked around Trulia as if he were the smartest person there, ordering employees to follow the bidding of their intellectual superior, and yet he chose not to do this, his employees said.
“He doesn’t micromanage you,” said Rob Cross, Trulia’s senior director of business development. “He’s supportive and there if you need him, but otherwise he’s more than happy to let you take the lead and drive the situation and make the decisions for the things you’re working on.”
Inkinen summed up this philosophy in one sentence: “It’s very easy to try to act like the smartest person in the room, which you shouldn’t do as a manager.”
At Trulia, Inkinen and partner Flint run the company with the philosophy that “people matter”—they measure employee happiness quarterly and insist that employees have lives outside of work.
“I’ve never worked at a company where I feel like it’s also my baby,” said co-worker Shuman. “Everyone has a sense of ownership around here. You see the company growing, and you see how your individual contributions affect the company.”
The humility that Inkinen demonstrates in business makes its way into his sporting life.
“He comes back from these races—forget Ironman, I mean all the other races that he does throughout the season—and he wins 98 percent of them, and he doesn’t even mention it to anyone,” said Dawn Farrell, who was Inkinen’s personal assistant at Trulia. “He goes, ‘Yeah everybody! I’m back. It’s good to see you! What’s going on? How’s work? How’s everybody?’ And it takes one of us stepping up and putting him on the spot and saying, ‘Sami, you just killed it! Congratulations man.’”
Most Trulia employees would probably never know Inkinen were an athlete if it weren’t for the smattering of medals he hung over his desk at the office.
“He certainly does not wear triathlon on his sleeve, and you really wouldn’t know unless somebody had mentioned it to you,” Cross said.
Inkinen’s wife, Meredith Loring, had no idea how accomplished an athlete he was when they first started dating—that is, until she flew over to Kona in 2008, when Inkinen finished 16th in his age group.
“I didn’t really realize how good of an athlete he was. I was like, ‘Well, everyone calls themselves an athlete. He’s just a wannabe,’” Loring said, laughing and later adding, “But that was the first time that I really got to see him in action, and I realized that he was actually very good.”
Inkinen focuses on the journey rather than the outcome, which may be why he’s so quick to dismiss his results.
“What I really love is the journey—the continued process of improving and trying to figure things out,” Inkinen said. “That’s very engaging and exciting for me. Every time I do a race, I write down three takeaways, learnings and then what I can improve and try to change. That’s just fun to me. That’s very much how I like to work and run my teams.”
Matthew Davie, a friend and fellow triathlete, recalls an incident a few years back at Ironman 70.3 Buffalo Springs Lake in Texas that speaks to this point. The weather was awful during the race, with wind, lightning and rain, and Inkinen “was sick as a dog the night before” with food poisoning, said Davie, who had eaten dinner with Inkinen that night.
Yet Inkinen went on to win his age group, and what struck Davie most about this accomplishment was the smile Inkinen had on his face while doing this.
“I was just going out to this turn, and I could just see him coming in, smiling,” Davie said. “You couldn’t tell he had food poisoning. You couldn’t tell it had poured rain or that there was lightning or that the wind was blowing 40 miles per hour on the bike. He was just out there running, having a good day.”
At the time of this writing, Inkinen said he’s not quite sure what he’ll be spending most of his time on as he breaks away from day-to-day operations at Trulia. But one thing is certain—he won’t be spending more time on triathlon.
“If I wanted to focus more and compete sort of at the professional level, it would require a whole other level of commitment, and it closes a lot of doors in your life,” Inkinen said.
On the off chance that he did decide to take a stab at going pro, he would certainly have the tools to compete with the best.
“He’s one of the most genetically gifted athletes that I’ve ever met, and obviously I’ve worked with a fair amount of pretty good athletes,” coach Dixon said.
But if Inkinen went pro, age groupers everywhere would miss the opportunity to get annihilated, just like I did in the forest, by an athlete who only spends 12 hours per week training.
And we wouldn’t want to miss that, would we?