(Photo Credit: Rentalutions)
Ryan Coon and Laurence Jankelow, both managing properties as a side job, noticed there were no available programs or software in order to make the tasks of property management smooth and easy. They wondered why there were only "duct-tape", home-grown solutions for property management that didn't work. Those two men asked the question, “Why isn’t there something out there for landlords like us?" Ryan and Lawrence, with lots of hard work and diligent learning, created Rentalutions as the answer to that question.
In Episode 4 of the Chicagoland Small Business Stories Podcast, Hear Ryan's dedication to customer service satisfaction shine through as he discusses not only his business but how the customer's needs drive the very essence of the company. Finally, hear Ryan's take on the importance of sustainability for his company and employees.
Read the transcript below:
Jamie: Welcome back to episode four of the Verde podcast. Every week we talk to local business leaders and entrepreneurs to understand the real story that doesn't make it to the spotlight, but is how actual businesses are actually built here in Chicago. Today we have Ryan Coon, whose the co founder of Rentalutions. I've known Ryan for about five years now. We both were a part of the introductory class at 1871, the first people to move in before they had furniture and everything like that, and we've gotten to know each other pretty well over the last few years, so that's been cool and it's really fun to be in his office right now and see what the business has grown, because it's really impressive and I'm actually a customer of Ryan's business.
So Ryan, tell me a little bit about .. So welcome, first of all.
Ryan: Thank you Jamie. Thanks for having me.
Jamie: Glad to have you here. So tell me a little bit about how and why you started the business, and what gave you the idea and what motivated you to take it from the idea stage to the actual business stage.
Ryan: Absolutely. So my co founder Lawrence and I started the business back in 2012, and we did so out of personal experience. Before starting the company, Lawrence and I both worked at large investment banks, and we were both managing small rental properties on the side. And we weer managing properties with Excel, Craigslist, Chase Quick pay, and it this duck taped together home grown solution for property management that didn't really work, and Lawrence and I realized there's got to be a better way. We started looking into the market and realized that the big institutional owners who owned hundreds or thousands of units, those owners have had software for decades. Now, it's shitty, it's clunky, it's expensive, and Lawrence and I had said, "Why isn't there something out there for landlords like us?"
So at the time we did some research, we said we can do this, we left our full time jobs, taught ourselves how to code, and them moved into 1871 with you and launched the company from there.
Jamie: Yeah. I love that story that you guys taught yourself how to code, because I remember at 1871, that was the biggest challenge for everyone was finding good developers because there was such a deficit in that. So you guys took the really admirable route of fixing that problem yourselves.
Ryan: Yeah, it was really hard. Truthfully, in the beginning we didn't have any other choice. We didn't have a budget to go out and hire people, and we certainly, at the time, didn't know how to do it. So the only thing we could do is learn it.
Jamie: What were the first web languages you learned?
Ryan: [Rubion Reld 00:03:00].
Jamie: Yeah, that was the hot one.
Ryan: That was the hot one, and that's still the backbone of what our software is built on.
Jamie: Yeah, that's awesome.
Jamie: Yeah it's cool. And so today, you told me you're nine employees and I know you guys raised a lot of money last year and you're really kind of taking it to the next level, which is really cool to see. Tell me a little bit about that. What's that like being this space that's all yours, versus just you and your co founder a couple years ago.
Ryan: Yeah, so it's been a very fun journey, and going from having no product to having a fully functioning product today with 55,000 individual landlords from across the country who are using our software.
Jamie: That's awesome.
Ryan: It's been a really fun, fun journey for us. And I think one of the benefits or one of the most exciting parts has been really building and growing a team of talented people. Lawrence and I, a few years ago, didn't have any skills, any resources to do anything, and now to have this team of talented people and to have raised some outside capital has been a really fun, exciting journey for us, but we're also really excited about what's to come in 2018.
Jamie: Yeah, great. What is your favorite part of running the business? And what do you feel like you personally bring that's unique to Renolutions?
Ryan: I think the most fun, or the most exciting part about the company is the team. It's the people that we've built around us who spend all day building software for our users and the customer support team that we've built, and that they're there to answer questions all day every day. That's really been the most fulfilling for me personally. Person on our team who rotates customer support. So you'll actually see there on the wall who has support responsibilities, and what we've found that's been really unique is it has a powerful way of drawing people into understanding the customer. We've actually had a lot of experiences where someone like Kyle, who's our lead engineer, will be on support for a weekend, he'll get the same question two or three times and it's the same bug that happens in software, and rather than come in on Monday and write that down and put it on the [Trello 00:05:32] board, he'll actually say, "I encountered this two or three times, I actually just fixed it."
Jamie: That's awesome.
Ryan: And that's really cool. And then I think more we can keep our entire team engaged with our customers, the better.
Jamie: Yeah, I find with the team, you start to compartmentalize and segment as you grow, and the sales team doesn't necessarily talk to the inventory folks and it is really great to have people to interact with different parts of the business, and that's a super smart way of doing it. I've never thought about doing it that way, but that would be ... Because customer complaints are valid, and you and I both learned that early on. That's what drives a business and how you build your model.
Ryan: And I think as much of that, but it's just understanding that you're not just building a product. You're not just filling orders. You're not just doing this for the sake of it. You're actually doing it because there's an end customer out there who needs your products or needs our software, and that's what at the end of the day we're all working for that customer.
Ryan: And it's powerful.
Jamie: Right. That's awesome. What is the most challenging time you recall in your ... How many years now have you guys been?
Jamie: Five years at Renolution. What's the most challenging time that you recall? What's a particular event that was just really challenging?
Ryan: Yeah I think the most challenging part of us was ... The start of phase was challenging, but at the end of 2013 we got to a point where we knew that we were on to something. We had a few hundred, maybe 1000 landlords using our platform to manage their properties, but we weren't sure, and this is what terrified us, is we had no idea how would we go from 1000 users up to five, and that period of not knowing and the unknown was really challenging for us.
Jamie: So in that challenging time of kind of unknowing, tell me a little bit about what ... Once you got through it, looking back, what got you through it? How did you get through the end on time and then grow to 5000 from 1000?
Ryan: Yeah the big thing that we did during that time period is we actually, touches on what we talked about earlier, but we actually went back to the customer and we went back and said ... We actually pulled up a spreadsheet of all 1000 users we had at that time and said, "Why are they using us? What do they care about? What is it that we're delivering to them?" A lot of people who use our software don't just ... They don't want software for the sake of software. They want it because it fulfills a need in their life, and so we went back and we understood what that need was, which ultimately helped us better tailor our marketing and our messaging to make it more applicable or other people out there who have the same need and the same challenge.
Jamie: What were, I'm just curious, what were some of those needs? What surprised you out of those?
Ryan: Yeah, so I think to take one example, so landlords today use our platform to post rental listings on to other popular websites. So they create the listing with our service, we pop it on to [zillo, trulia 00:09:14], apartments.com, other sites. I think for the first year that we existed we focused all of our messaging around posting your listing. Well, no landlord, yourself included, you don't really give a shit that your listing is posted. You just want tenants. You want prospective tenants.
So I think where we learned a lot was focusing more on the value that we're delivering, not just the feature that gets them that value.
Jamie: And has that changed a lot? Have the major players since 2013 changed a lot, like Trulia, and Zillow, or has it been pretty much consistently the same feel?
Ryan: It's pretty much been consistently the same for us. I think that we were fortunate early on to partner with some of the bigger companies in the space, so on listings it's Zillow and apartments.com. On the tenant screening we partnered with TransUnion. To process rent payments we partnered with the largest business bank in Chicago. So I think early on we were fortunate to be able to work with some of the biggest companies in each of those industries.
Jamie: Gotcha. So the last question I always ask people is about sustainability because that's just a personal passion of mine, and you know, we overlapped a bit with intern Emily Bowersfeld.
Ryan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jamie: Who I know that was her personal ... She's basically running Brain tree right now I think. So in lieu of my passion for sustainability I always ask this question. Just to really try to understand qualitatively what drives business owners in decision making, and so tell me your experience about making sustainability a priority in your business, whether it is a priority or not, and how does it affect your planning, and what are some of the benefits your seek today and in the future?
Ryan: Yeah, so I think as a lean tech startup, resources are scarce and we've had to make decisions and trade offs along the line, and what we've always come back to is saying employees are number one, we're going to do whatever it takes to hire and retain the best people. And fortunately for us, being a tech startup, that means that we're mostly employing people who live and work downtown. Our office is in River North, it's close to public transportation, because that's really what our employees value.
I think that in terms of office space, 1871 was amazing, we didn't really have to think and worry about the different furniture, the lighting, any of the utilities or anything. It was all provided. I think that sustainability to me is really just making smart business decisions and not having a lot of excess.
Jamie: Yeah. Well that's interesting. Obviously the 1871 co-working space is really valuable because I think it was 20,000 square feet. No it was more than that.
Ryan: It was 50,000. Yeah.
Jamie: There was 800 bodies packed in there so that was ... 800 companies packed in there with a lot of different people coming and going. So I think you find shred space is per company, much more efficient than non, but your same company could have moved out to Libertyville, the suburbs, and found much cheaper rent and everyone could have drove a Prius there, but you're actually, without even ... By trying to attract talent you inadvertently created a very efficient office space that people arrive to very efficiently, which is pretty cool. You don't ... I know, part of my full time job is looking at energy, and you guys don't use very much here, and it's a very efficient use of the space. So that's cool to see.
Well cool Ryan, well I enjoyed catching up with you. I admire a lot of what you've done. I've been in ... You're one of the first people I met at 1871, back when it was just myself and just you and Lawrence, and what you guys have accomplished is really admirable. I wish I could have taken some of the risks you guys did, but love your product, and I'll continue to be a client, so thanks for being here.
Ryan: Awesome. Thanks for having me Jamie.
Jamie: Alright, take care.