Laurence Shares the Inspiration Behind Avail and What It Takes to Build a Startup

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Laurence Jankelow is the Co-Founder of Avail, a platform designed to provide the part-time landlord with a comprehensive suite of tools for managing their properties and tenants. Prior to launching Avail in 2013 (then known as Rentalutions), Laurence spent seven years in data analytics first as a Sr. Consultant at Protiviti Chicago from 2006 to 2010, then at Goldman Sachs from 2010 to 2013. Connect with Laurence on LinkedIn.

How did you and your co-founder come up with the idea to start Avail?

We both had families that were managing two to three-unit buildings in Chicago and we laurence2were doing a lot of the work for them – posting vacancies on Craigslist, running background checks. We realized that if you have 10,000 units, you’re probably not doing what we’re doing. You’re probably using some sort of software. But when we looked, we didn’t find anything that catered to or was priced for landlords of our size.

So we said, we’re going to build it. We’ll build the tool for the guy or gal who manages properties, but it’s not their full-time job. We’ll give them all the things they need to be professional landlords when they’re not professional landlords. We launched in 2013 and currently have 85,000 landlords on and something like 200,000 tenants.

What was the building process like?

Our first challenge was that we needed to build a technology platform. It was just the two of us. We had no money and it’s really hard to convince a software engineer to build something for free. We realized we had to hunker down and learn code. We were both finance majors and pretty good at Excel, but not really anything else. So we taught ourselves to code and built the product together in that first year.

Fortunately, because of my data analytics background from Protiviti, I had a good feeling for how data should be structured; how it should be organized and stored. We were lucky enough that we built it in the right way, so when we finally brought on our first engineer, he was able to jump on board and make improvements rather than rebuild anything. The platform still contains 90% of the original code.

Can you talk to the growth of Avail?

The first two years, we spent a lot of time thinking how do we build this? We needed to get this minimal viable product out there and get feedback on it.

It wasn’t a perfect product, but we could see landlords were using it despite its flaws. Our first two hires were a community manager, someone who could listen to our customers and help them in areas the product was failing. followed by an engineer who could take that feedback and iterate the product faster. We also realized that we didn’t have a lot of experience or skill in designing responsive web applications, so we brought on an experienced web designer. Those were a really scary couple months as we took on our first employees and were mostly uncertain about the future of the company.

We spent a good year figuring out how to grow from 500 landlords to 3,000 landlords. And getting them to start paying monthly subscription fees for the service. We realized we could sign up landlords for $25 and earn $125 while they used our platform. Once we had that, it was time to spin it faster. We raised $2 million in venture capital to boost our marketing and hired 10 more employees to fill in a lot of the gaps we were still facing as a team. Before that raise, we were adding maybe 500 landlords per month and over the last year, we’ve been adding 5,000 per month. We’ll have over 100,000 landlords on the platform by end of year.

Who’s your target customer?

We call them do-it-yourself landlords. They are busy professionals typically between 28 and 37 years old who manage one or two units in addition to their full-time jobs. They’re usually in metropolitan areas – we have a lot of customers in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Austin, for example.

How do you keep up with the many changing laws for the different markets?

It’s painful and tedious, but we do it! Regulations and ordinances are different for each state and major city. There are some states, like Massachusetts for example, where landlords can’t charge tenants for background checks. Or in Chicago, where landlords are supposed to pay interest on security deposits and if they don’t, they could get sued by tenants.

laurence1We also go beyond looking at regulations and consider other things that might affect our customers. California, for instance, has had a pretty long drought. We added suggested clauses on when tenants should water the garden, so landlords aren’t getting exorbitant watering fees. So we’re constantly updating our lease clauses.

The great thing is that we’re also able to use this expertise to create original content so more landlords can find us online when they’re searching similar topics.

Avail rebranded earlier this year. What was that process like?

When Ryan and I started Avail five or six years ago, we were first-time entrepreneurs. We didn’t know what we were getting into and we didn’t spend enough time thinking about the brand early on. We launched as Rentalutions, which is “rental” and “solutions” combined together. It was a functional name at the time, but didn’t represent a lot of the core beliefs we had around educating landlords, helping them improve their lives, and ultimately doing the right things for themselves and their tenants. We’d also hear our customer support team answering phones and having to spell the company name, sometimes multiple times per call. Even our own bank misspelled our name on our credit cards! We knew a rebrand was inevitable.

So we hired an agency and went through a really long six month process of interviewing customers, partners, and vendors to ask how they felt about the brand, what they felt we stood for as a company. We interviewed our employees – we’re now at 15 – and asked what made them want to work here. Then we compiled everything and distilled it into what our brand really is. It came out as Avail, which communicates this idea of helping our landlords and tenants achieve their goals. It’s both approachable and aspirational.

Of course, any rebrand is never seamless. It’s had its challenges.

What happened?

As an online software provider, we get a lot of our customers through paid and organic search. Rentalutions was an established brand, so we almost had to reset and rebuild a bit in terms of online search. Now, six months later, we feel like we’re back where we were in terms of brand recognition.

We didn’t anticipate it taking six months. A recurring lesson we’ve found in the startup world: everything is harder and longer than you want it to be. And when you only have 15 people, any extra delay could really cost the company.

How has your background helped you in the startup world?

I feel like if I asked my team this question, they’d say I mention Protiviti on a weekly basis and basically have for, like, five years! A lot of what we’re doing here is creating stuff from scratch. The way we approach and think about things comes from all the different process maps I had to create for different clients while at Protiviti. Every time we start a new business function here, I think back and ask, how did my clients do this at Protiviti?

We also use the same methodologies around how Protiviti treats their employees: impact on community, contributing in a meaningful way, ownership, accountability and salary. It’s central to our culture.

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