JF2159: Creating Software For Landlords With Laurence Jankelow
Laurence is the Co-Founder of Avail, an all-in-one software solution designed for DIY landlords. He initially was handling his real estate investment process with excel spreadsheets and after a while, both he and his partner figured there must be an easier way to be a landlord. They searched for different software and found that the majority of the ones out there were made for bigger landlords, so they decided to create their own for the smaller landlords.
Laurence Jankelow Real Estate Background:
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“You make all of your money essentially on buying the right properties” – Laurence Jankelow
Theo Hicks: Hello, Best Ever listeners and welcome to the best real estate investing advice ever show. My name is Theo Hicks and today I’m speaking with Laurence Jankelow. Laurence, how are you doing today?
Laurence Jankelow: I’m doing well. Thanks for having me on. How are things going with you?
Theo Hicks: I’m doing great. Thanks for joining us, looking forward to our conversation. A little bit about Laurence’s background – he is the co-founder of Avail, an all in one software solution designed for do-it-yourself landlords. He’s also a long-term real estate investor with a passion for three-unit multifamily properties; current portfolio consists of two three-units and a carwash. He is based in Chicago, Illinois, and you can say hi to him at his website, which is avail.co. So Laurence, do you mind telling us a little bit more about your background and what you’re focused on today?
Laurence Jankelow: Absolutely. So my background– thanks for mentioning the three-flats. I’ve been a real estate investor for a while; the portfolio, it shifts and changes. Before I got into that, I had started down the finance track after college, now probably 15 or so years ago, and started with business in risk consulting, did that for just under five years, going from company to company, just taking a look at their operations in using data analytics, would try to help them determine where they can improve their business. From there, I went on to Goldman Sachs and did somewhat much the same for their portfolio managers and supported their hedge funds, alternate investments and private equity groups. I did that for so long that at some point, I wanted to try to get out of corporate America. So I tried to do the Rich Dad Poor Dad strategy, which was start building up some passive income through real estate, and almost worked my way through those quadrants; I can visualize it in that book now… I added the real estate and then eventually I thought, “You know what, the recommendation is to become a business owner.” So I started to think about, “Do I want to take my real estate from the six units to 1,000 units, or do I want to do something different?” and at that time, I saw that the way I was managing my rentals was totally ineffective, and I saw an opportunity to leverage software to make it better, and found that the best path for me was to quit my job at Goldman and focus on building a business around providing landlords of my size software that they otherwise didn’t have access to.
So that’s what I focus on now at Avail, is providing the tools and process and education for smaller landlords; those with nine or fewer units, to help do the day to day tasks of being a landlord and including listing syndication, to finding tenants, screening renters by hooking into TransUnion for credit reports, background checks, letting the tenants pay their rent online, drafting and signing leases online, those kinds of things. I spend a lot of my time just evolving that software.
Theo Hicks: So you mentioned that this company grew out of your own inefficiencies in management. So do you mind walking us through what those inefficiencies were, and then for each of those, how you were able to use software to solve those problems?
Laurence Jankelow: Yeah, it’s actually almost embarrassing now when I think about what I used to do. The person I started Avail with, Ryan and I used to share Excel files back and forth, and we’d make an Excel file where I’d merge cells together and paint them, and that would be our rental application. We’d print that out, we’d hand that to tenants, and that was how we screened them; we didn’t even realize that we should be pulling a credit report or eviction checks and those kinds of things… And it all evolved from that. At some point, we realized, “Hey, this is not working. Excel doesn’t make sense.”
We went looking online for software that would do what we wanted and we saw stuff like Yardi, which was really powerful, but Yardi’s really designed for a landlord with 1,000 or 10,000 units, which I’ve got six, Ryan had two, and the starting price of Yardi’s something like $10,000 a month. So that’d be more than our combined gross rents; it didn’t make sense. So we felt like if we wanted to solve these problems for ourselves, that there’s probably a business to be had here for others of our size. So that’s what we set out to do, really targeting, helping landlords with nine or fewer units, I’d say.
Theo Hicks: Perfect. So you had all these issues with your property, you went online to see if you could find an existing software, and there were software out there but they were too much, too much money or it’s for these larger buildings, whereas you wanted to find something for smaller. So take me from there to the start of the business. Did you and your business partner just sit down together and say, “Hey, here’s all the pain points of smaller landlords,” and then, “Okay, so here’s the different software that could potentially resolve those. Okay, let’s focus on these [unintelligible [00:07:17].27] ” How does the process of creating this type of company work?
Laurence Jankelow: Well, creating a company is pretty hard, and I think we didn’t realize that going into it. Everyone tells you it’s really hard, and then it’s something you don’t really acknowledge till you do it. But we started this in 2012; that’s when we quit our jobs. We quit with nothing but an idea on a napkin. We felt that we didn’t want to work on it while full-time. It wouldn’t really go anywhere if we had a full-time job elsewhere, and it wouldn’t be fair to our employer or ourselves to let our dream sit on the side. So we quit and we started day one, and then what we tried to do is find an engineer to help us build it, and you can imagine, we couldn’t find an engineer who wanted to build our dream for free or for equity, which was worth nothing at that point.
So Ryan and I decided we were going to have to build it ourselves, and we had no experience in that. So we ended up having to roll up our sleeves, we taught ourselves to code. In 2012 to 2014, I essentially wrote the first 500,000 lines of code that allowed us to syndicate listings to Zillow, or Trulia or hit the TransUnion API to get a credit report or those kinds of things… And we spent that first two years fumbling around, I’d say, trying to figure it out, really took that just do what it takes mentality. End of 2014, we felt like we had a pretty good product and we started getting traction, started getting customers, started hiring our first employees, really started seeing it as a business and starting to grow, and then from 2015 to 2020, we really saw some growth,. We’ve now got 600,000 landlords and tenants who use our system for the everyday purposes of being a landlord.
Theo Hicks: Wow. So what did you do for money in those two years while you were doing all that fumbling around, as you said? Did you have money saved up ready?
Laurence Jankelow: Yeah. Ryan and I consider ourselves to be super privileged in a way. I was at Goldman Sachs and he’s at a different investment bank. So we had some savings, not as much as you would assume you get out of investment banking, particularly because we were just coming out of the financial crisis of 2008. So we didn’t really get bonuses those couple of years, but we had enough where we could each put $20,000 into starting the business, and that $20,000 was essentially, for us to live on for those years. So those two years were very much the ramen noodles years, but we at least had something to feed ourselves. But I don’t look back on it as regret. I feel like we’ve learned a lot. I think learning how to code was probably one of the greatest achievements for me. It completely changed how I think about almost everything I encounter now.
Theo Hicks: Did you self-teach yourself on Google or did you take courses?
Laurence Jankelow: Taught myself. This is probably a popular programming language for anyone who does this, but it might not resonate with some of your listeners. I taught myself Ruby on Rails, I downloaded a tutorial, and essentially that tutorial just walked me through creating my own Twitter from scratch, and replicating that. What was awesome about it is you really start to realize, “Look, I’m getting stuck at this point. There’s no one to help me, and I can either give up or I can spend four weeks trying to solve something that a real engineer could probably do in two minutes,” and you spend those four weeks trying to solve a two-minute problem, you tend to grow by leaps and bounds, I’d say. That’s what happened for me, and I feel like that just fueled my hunger for learning more and attacking harder and harder problems.
Theo Hicks: Wow, that’s awesome. Did your business partner write any code or was it all you?
Laurence Jankelow: I’d say I wrote 95% of it, and Ryan did do 5%, but Ryan also had a really challenging task for him as well. So while I was writing that code, he had to convince a bank to allow us to pull money out of any account in the United States, essentially, to do withdrawals. Tenants want to pay their rent. So yeah, we have to get approvals from those tenants. It has to be super documented. So he had to work on convincing a bank and figuring out that process of what that has to look like, how does it meet regulations, all those things. He had to convince TransUnion to allow us to pull credit reports and sensitive data on people, and we’re not famous, we don’t have a pedigree to go and earn these things just by nature. So he really had a lot of convincing yet to do. So I applaud his efforts on doing that. It sounds impressive for me to go write 500,000 lines of code, but honestly, for him to convince people to take a chance on us for those other pieces – much more impressive.
Theo Hicks: So you said around the end of 2014, some of the code or the software was written, you started getting customers and hiring employees, and then flash forward six years, you’ve got 600,000 landlords. So you got your code written, the banks allowed you to pull money out of anywhere in the US, TransUnion allowed you to pull credit reports. How do you find your customers?
Laurence Jankelow: That’s always been a challenge for us. Our customers are the smaller landlord, nine units or fewer. So they’re not listed in a phone book. It’s not like I can go find them somewhere and oftentimes, they don’t identify as landlords. I didn’t either when I was at Goldman. If I went somewhere and people would ask me what do I do, I’d usually tell him I work at Goldman Sachs or I would not even mention Goldman because at that time, and even now, there’s just a lot of animosity maybe towards some of those investment banks. So I tell them, I work in finance. I would never mention I’m a landlord. So it didn’t resonate with me as that’s who I was as a person. So that’s always been a challenge, and so what we’ve had to do is figure out where are landlords going, looking for help, and I think in some ways, we’re lucky because they go to the internet for that.They’ll go to Google and they’ll search for ‘what should I do if my tenants’ rent is late’ or ‘how do I get a credit report on a tenant?’ or– I’m in Chicago, so this resonates with me, ‘how do I get a Chicago standard lease agreement?’, and we put out so much educational content that they’ll often find us through those Google searches. We tend to think of our product having a sixth arm in a way or sixth major service, which is the educational component, and we spend as much time on our educational piece as we do on any other part of the product. So they’ll typically find us by– it’s commonly called inbound marketing; that way.
Theo Hicks: So you didn’t pay for any Google Ads. It was all just SEO. You said you figured out what these type of people will be searching for on Google, and then you just wrote those articles, and then eventually, over time, people started finding your blog posts, and in theory, from your blog post, they found your service.
Laurence Jankelow: Yeah, our go-to market strategy has evolved a lot. So it started off with content marketing, which is geared at some of those keywords that they search for organically, and we don’t have to pay for it, but it did evolve. We do pay for high converting keywords now. We can recognize which ones are likely to be profitable for us. So we do pay for those now, and then we continue to pay for those. But by far and large, most of our customers are coming from some of that educational content.
Theo Hicks: Who is writing your content? Is that you and your business partner or is it somebody you hired?
Laurence Jankelow: Well, that’s also evolved. 2012 to 2015, 2016, Ryan and I pretty much wrote most of it. Around 2015 we hired some writers to help us, and you could see a huge improvement in the quality of writing when we hire people. The hard part is oftentimes you’ll find a writer and they don’t know much about landlording and Ryan and I just knew so much about it. So then the challenge is how do you impart a lot of that learning to the writer so that they can write really high-quality, effective content? Because last thing you want to do is put out 2,000 words of dribble. It has to add value, it has to solve a problem for someone.
Theo Hicks: How does your company make money?
Laurence Jankelow: That’s actually interesting. So our software is free. You can have unlimited number of units and use our software for all the features. So tenant screening, listing syndication, the leasing, payments, all that’s free. We do have a premium tier. So if you need a little bit extra, then it’s $5 per unit per month and extra meaning something like you want to set up automatically fees. So if a tenant is more than five days late, it automatically charges 50 bucks. On the free tier, you’d have to log in and manually do it. So there’s a whole bunch of things like that, that push someone into the premium tier or the plus plan as their business evolves, and they need more automation.
Theo Hicks: So the only way you make money is on that premium tier, subscription-based model?
Laurence Jankelow: We have a bunch of ways; that’s our largest way.
Theo Hicks: Okay.
Laurence Jankelow: We also make some money on some of the transactional stuff. So when we pull a credit report, tenants will oftentimes pay $55 for the credit report. Now the benefit to them [unintelligible [00:15:05].09] so it doesn’t hurt their credit report, and then they can also share it with other landlords, so that a tenant isn’t having to pay $55 for this landlord and $55 for another. They can pay it once and share it with any landlord, even though it’s not on our system.
Theo Hicks: Was the premium model the plan from the get-go, and then also, obviously curious, how do you know what’s included in the free plan and what to include in the premium plan?
Laurence Jankelow: That’s evolved a little bit, too. So initially — our pricing has changed a little bit, but we tend to think of breaking the tiers down by landlords who have essentially one unit, and those who have two or more, and tailoring the plans to them. So although the plans are both for unlimited units, we tend to see that landlords with one unit on the free plan or landlords with two or more are on the premium plan, and the reason for that is just how you think about your rentals. For Atlanta with one unit, oftentimes, they’re an accidental landlord or it’s just something they have, and then maybe they’re dabbling, they’re not sure if they want to be real estate investors or not. But folks with two or more units tend to be more deliberate. They didn’t just happen to become a two-unit landlord or more. So they may view themselves as a business a little bit more, and realize that tools and software are part of business, part of how you reduce expenses and maybe push up income. So for that reason, those folks tend to want a little bit more out of the software, a few more features and are also willing to pay. So we bifurcate it that way.
Theo Hicks: Alright Laurence, what is your best real estate investing advice ever?
Laurence Jankelow: So many things to choose from here… I guess, I would start with– because we tend to focus on novice landlords or new landlords… Best real estate investing advice is when you buy the property. So one obviously, if one of your life goals is financial independence, then getting a rental property is great to do that, but you make all your money essentially, on buying the right properties. And if you’re looking into getting into it, you should really buy properties that are going to be cashflow-positive for you. There’s a tendency if you’re a first-time rental property purchaser to purchase in a manner where it’s akin to if you were buying a single-family home or something that you’re going to live in, and oftentimes those are emotion-driven. Here, you really want to focus on the numbers. So buy a rental property where the gross rent covers all of the operating expenses and the debt payments and has enough of a return where that’s your best usage of the cash, I would say. And if that property isn’t that, you put the cash somewhere else or in another property,
Theo Hicks: Okay, Laurence. Are you ready for the Best Ever lighting round?
Laurence Jankelow: Yeah, let’s do it.
Theo Hicks: Perfect. First, a quick word from our sponsor.
Theo Hicks: Alright, what is the best ever book you’ve recently read?
Laurence Jankelow: Well, I mentioned Rich Dad, Poor Dad, but that’s from a long time ago. So recently, the best one for us is Measure What Matters, and that’s essentially about a goal-setting framework that was developed maybe 30, 40, 50 years ago at Intel, and it’s essentially a structure that you can use to set up goals and how you measure the success towards that goals. And just for me at Avail, that was a pivotal moment for us adopting that framework and setting goals. And even if it’s not Avail, if it’s with your rental properties, you should set goals for the rental properties and how you want to measure them. So the key takeaway from that book is the measurement of those goals and making sure you have something that has a strict KPI in that measurement.
Theo Hicks: If your business were to collapse today, what would you do next?
Laurence Jankelow: Great question. Well, I’ll probably start another one. Once you get bitten by the startup mosquito, you tend to want to get bitten more. So if Avail fail today, man, you’d have to take a hard look at why I failed, because I think we’re doing all the right things. But I would start the next one. I don’t know if it would be real estate, but I’ve got some ideas around investing in stocks that are similar to what we do for real estate, but for a stock investor. I think you’d have to keep going and keep building. Once you’re a builder, always a builder.
Theo Hicks: What’s the best ever way you’d like to give back?
Laurence Jankelow: I’ve got two kids, a six-year-old and a four-year-old, both little girls, and for me, I try to teach them some things. One of the things that we try to do now that’s really small is we take the little red wagon and we go around our neighborhood and we use one of those little claws to pick up trash. We walk around the neighborhood and we pick up trash and we try to fill up a trash bag every so often just to clean up the area.
As far as real estate, I try to participate in online communities. I feel like there’s a lot I’ve learned just from the six units, but then also, from seeing how our 200,000 landlords manage their properties there’s a lot that we’ve learned, and I try to take the knowledge we’ve gotten there and I try to push comments out. We have our own community on our website that I try to get it to some of those Facebook communities where you see a lot of landlords trying to interact and figure out what to do.
Theo Hicks: What’s the best ever place to reach you?
Laurence Jankelow: You can learn anything and everything you want about what we do at our main website avail.co, but I also like people reaching out to me directly. I’m always happy to have a conversation. So if anyone wants to do that, they can reach me at my email laurence [at] avail.co. I encourage anybody to do it. I’ve done a couple of podcasts now and not one person has reached out to me and that’s disappointing.
Theo Hicks: Best Ever listeners, make sure that you reach out. I might have to email him just to make sure someone reaches out, but I think one of our Best Ever listeners will reach out especially after listening to this episode; very powerful. I really enjoyed the conversation.
I stopped taking notes in the middle of it, and was just asking questions. It was so fascinating to me how you’ve been able to build this business and learn how to code and go from really having no idea how to write software, how to run your own company to having 600,000 customers; that’s great to hear. So definitely worth re-listening, just to hear his process from quitting with an idea on a napkin, to learning to code, to his business partner working with banks to figure out how to let them pull money from any bank, and working with TransUnion to pull credit reports, to finally 2014 when you started getting customers.
We talked about how you were able to get customers through content, so through your thought leadership. It was always great to hear because we talked about that on this show a lot. Then you mentioned eventually you ended up evolving to paying for stuff, but that’s like a theme, where you start off doing everything yourself and eventually it evolves into being able to outsource some things. And then your best ever advice was if you’re gonna buy real estate, realize that you make money on the front end and that needs to be cashflow positive.
So Laurence again, I really appreciate you coming on the show, I learned a ton, and I’m sure the Best Ever listeners will as well, and if they have more questions, take advantage of him giving you his email address. It’s not every day that our guests do that. So Best Ever listeners, as always, thank you for listening. Have a best ever day and we’ll talk to you soon.
Laurence Jankelow: Thank you so much.
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