RentRocket, led by CoFounder and CEO Klara Flisnikova, joins StartupYard as a member of Batch 8. The team behind RentRocket comes from Zonky, the Czech peer-to-peer lending platform that pioneered the concept in Central Europe.
What is RentRocket? It’s more than a real-estate platform, or a property management system. Flisnikova intends to digitize the rental process from end-to-end, allowing property owners to list properties, screen and manage tenants, and handle all aspects of the transaction in one place. To do that, RentRocket is starting with a simple core value proposition: an easy to use, effective screening tool for prospective renters, that provides a reliable history of an individual, and ensures that they are trustworthy and capable of keeping commitments.
RentRocket is currently in the final stages of development for its public platform, which will launch in the coming weeks, and be available to landlords in the Czech Republic as a first step. Klara will pitch RentRocket at StartupYard DemoDay Batch 8, on November 22nd, in Prague.
I sat down with Klara to talk about the thinking behind RentRocket, her experiences as a landlord, and how she founded her first startup:
Hi Klara, tell us a bit about yourself, and how you came up with the idea behind RentRocket.
My dad was in the construction business since before I can remember, and I grew up around the construction sites. To see things always under construction and undergoing massive change, I think, gave me insights into the hidden workings of the world around me most kids don’t experience.
Later on my family acquired some properties in Prague, and when I moved to Prague for university it became my job to take care of them. Having grown up around this business, I could see right away that the property management companies and real estate agencies my parents had used were not providing a lot of value. I got rid of them both, and started renting the properties out myself.
So I learned the hard way, and met lots of different kinds of people in the process. Many of them nice, some of them not so much. One of the things about being a property owner that you don’t realize at the beginning is that it’s a very personal thing. You deal with people’s homes and their personal circumstances. You see things others don’t see, and you deal with people’s problems, including the ones they don’t show to others.
So RentRocket is based on your experiences?
Definitely. Property management is a business, but it’s also very personal. It is the renters home, but your property – that is a situation ripe for conflicts. You see people’s bad sides as well and I began to wonder how to fix this. So I started to choose my tenants more carefully, evaluating them and setting the right expectations from the very beginning. There is nothing worse than a promise you cannot keep. This is a business I think a lot of tech people don’t understand the way longtime owners do.
That’s why RentRocket is focused first on establishing a basis of trust between renters and owners. That basis is in data: letting owners and renters both know that their agreements are on a good footing, and that both parties have a good background, and can be trusted. We do that right now by providing background checks of tenants, but in the long term, the qualities of the owners are also very important. Good renters deserve good landlords, and vice versa.
After university I went through KPMG to Zonky, still renting in the meantime. At Zonky I worked as a data analyst and was responsible for reporting. And it hit me, that the process I used for tenant selection is totally similar to loan approval. The same data that affects someone’s credit obviously also affects their ability to pay rent. In the US and other countries, credit checks are standard for renters. Bad credit is a big problem.
At Zonky I also met Petr, without whom I absolutely couldn’t build RentRocket. Petr and I worked closely while analysing data flows in the backend systems at Zonky. And one day I told him about my project, and that I would like to finally launch it. He immediately took interest and I knew from my experience, that he is hard worker and someone I can trust. When I proposed the opportunity to join Startupyard he did not hesitate to jump on. And here we are.
We struggled together for a long time to come up with the name RentRocket. What about the name really appealed to you, and told a story about what you’re doing?
Finding a name was really hard for me, because originally I thought I was good at names and that creativity will solve everything.
But being realistic, real estate is an unbelievably crowded space. There are all kinds of services, good and bad, and it’s very hard to differentiate. So we came up with more than 100 names, and checked the viability of all of them.
I wanted something that would not be too closely connected with flat or homes. I also wanted to highlight our scientific approach and the new sort of renting experience we want to promote. That’s why chose to be a Rocket. RentRocket!
You mentioned you were a data & reporting manager at Zonky before founding your own company, how did that experience inform what you decided to do with RentRocket?
Zonky was totally the most challenging, complex and enriching experience I could get and perfect foundation to start my own thing. I learned so much about product creation, leadership, development, customer service and much more.
Working with so many hard working people, together with Lucie behind the wheel setting up a truly motivating atmosphere, was an amazing journey. Also the way the whole community was created – the honesty and transparency – is something I would love to replicate in my own company.
You could literally see people became so engaged in creation of the platform, that it became a part of company culture to cooperate on the development with the most engaged ones. That culture as it was developed at Zonky is a big influence on me now. The whole grand idea of “from people to people” really came true in that sense.
In a two-sided marketplace, companies tend to focus on one side or the other: Renter or Tenant. What is your focus, and how did you conclude that it’s the right one?
It is always a chicken or egg question, right? But if you look at companies who do it well – such as Airbnb or Uber – they always start with supply – eg. homes or cars. You start with the scarce side of the marketplace, try to get on board early adopters and build a critical mass of supply. Once you reached your critical mass you may focus on pairing up the demand.
We have to think about how different stakeholders in the property market are motivated. Renters have more short-term motivations, and owners think more long-term. So long-term is where we need to be first.
You mentioned how crowded the market is. Airbnb, other short-term platforms, not to mention agencies and management companies. What is different about your approach? What do you see as your competition?
You are totally right, but I am glad that so many players are doing well in this market. It proves that there is a lot of demand for better solutions. We are rather at the beginning of big changes, than at the end, in my view.
The rental market is still very unstructured and uncultivated, in the Czech Republic especially, compared to western markets. That is probably true of many regional markets that are not under the same pressure as bigger cities like in New York or London. Still there are problems, but there are also more clear expectations from all sides. In smaller markets like Prague, it has not been really systematized.
Our goal is to completely digitalize the rental process. Moreover, there is a lot of potential to be unlocked once you’ve done that.
Of course I am aware that companies such as Ulovdomov or Flatio could be our direct competition, but I think that maybe we can help each other too. They solve slightly different problems, and like many players, they see their value in short-term problem solving. We see our role as a long-term value creator.
On the other hand, I am not so keen to work of rental agencies – our traditional competitor. . But even here, I see a chance for us to have an impact. My aim is to bring the best service possible to our customers, whichever way they choose to manage their properties.
What have been some of your direct experiences with being a landlord, that have most informed your decisions about RentRocket, and what the company focuses on?
As I mentioned previously, I’ve had some pretty tough experiences as a landlord.
The flats not being returned in a good state, flats deserted in the middle of the rental period, and I could go on and on. The first aim of RentRocket: to stop that situation from happening from the beginning, by helping landlords pick tenants they can trust.
As they say, some people always have a story about why they can’t pay, or why damage isn’t their fault, or why they need to leave suddenly, or whatever it is. All this sparks frustration and anger on both sides. What I learned that most of these situations could be prevented – either on the owner’s side by better screening, or on the tenant side by better education and communication.
Most renters and landlords have their own horror stories. What is your worst story about being a landlord?
The worst one comes from the times when I started with property management, and this particular tenant was supplied by an agency. One of our flats was devastated by a Great Dane, which was regularly left by its owner in the flat for days. It was horrific, incredible cruelty for no reason I could ever understand. Why have a dog if you refuse to take care of it?
Anyway, you would not believe how hard it is to get the competent authorities to do something about it. Once the flat was opened by the Police and Vet Administrator, the dog was not there anymore, the flat was totally wrecked, with crazy holes scratched on the inside of the door. Total disaster, complete reconstruction was necessary.
Which types of customers are you interested in addressing in the near-term? How will you reach out to them and engage them now?
At the beginning we are focusing on semi-professional owners; those who already have some experience with renting, and to agencies which want to do a better job on tenant selection.
What is important to us is a close connection with our customers, especially now at the beginning when we need to establish ourselves and gain the trust.
We plan to exploit our networks first, get feedback on our product and then continue accordingly with long tail user acquisition. We want to build a sustainable, long term business that can be replicated in other markets.
Looking toward the future, how do you see RentRocket’s path forward? Will you focus on certain types of markets (like cities), or go instead for geographic regions with similar legal systems and traditions?
Definitely I see RentRocket as a purely online service focused on medium-sized to big urban markets with an excess of demand, which will allow us to expand rapidly.
Once we reach a critical mass of users and learn how to acquire a meaningful share of the Czech market, we would like to try other cities in the CEE region. Still, our ambition is to be global, and available in many markets.
Cracking how to win over a single market is a key thing. There is no global leader in long-term rental “proptech” the way there is in transportation or short-term rentals (Uber, Airbnb), and I think this is because it is a more complex day-to-day problem. Airbnb’s big innovation was the way it allowed people to discover destinations, and management was an afterthought to that. It was about opportunity, not necessarily long-term thinking.
Our focus is on great management experiences from the beginning, and long term value.
What has been your experience at StartupYard? How has your view of your business changed during the acceleration process?
Startupyard is the best kickstarter ever for a startup.
We joined StartupYard with just a small team, and our ideas. The accelerator focuses you, gives you a mission and puts you in the flow of building your company. The mentorship is a big challenge, but it makes everything about what you do more urgent and more clear over time.
The accelerator is a very tough experience, and there are a lot of moments where you question yourself and what you’re doing. But I think we have become stronger, and we have moved much faster and in a clearer direction than we could have done alone. I have found the mentoring and feedback to be motivating. Hard work pays off, and here you definitely work as hard as you can.
If there is one piece of advice you would give to landlords, and one to tenants, what would that advice be, and why?
To landlords: Choose your tenants wisely, you would not marry someone after a blind date, so why should you sign a year long contract with someone you see for 15 minutes and know nothing about?
To tenants: Know what you need and want up front, be open and honest about yourself and your requirements. Be realistic about what you can afford. Landlords will totally appreciate that.
Actually this part about honesty and transparency goes both way. If you are honest, not greedy, fair, and vigilant, then you will be fine most of the time.
How can potential customers start using RentRocket today?
Customers can sign up for our service through our website www.rentrocket.io. I personally will contact them and see how we can help. Right now we are testing the first version of the product, therefore we offer more personal service and on-hands approach.
We are looking for people who are ready to help us get the service just right, and want to be part of a new way of managing and renting properties. It’s just the beginning!