Cribspot Wins Techweek Detroit Startup Competition
Since Monday, Techweek Detroit has taken downtown by storm, hosting discussions and keynote speeches featuring tech titans, a show highlighting local fashion designers, a town hall meeting, a “food truck face-off,” and cocktail parties galore.
Techweek’s two-day conference, held Thursday and today at the old federal building on Fort Street, was a fun atmosphere when I visited yesterday. And while I certainly enjoyed sipping a rum and Coke at 3 p.m. on a work day, I do have one bit of constructive criticism for Techweek organizers: It was often difficult to engage with the on-stage presentations because the noise from the startup expo and the bar DJ was bleeding over, and that’s a shame because the lineup was solid.
Yesterday evening, Techweek hosted the final round of its startup launch competition. Five startups made it to the finals: Cribspot, Are You a Human, Seat Side Service, Rapt, and TechTwurl. After a panel of investors finished judging, Cribspot was named the winner. The prize package included about $40,000 in cash and services.
Cribspot is trying to disrupt the admittedly crowded campus rentals market. Co-founder Alex Gross says as a recent graduate, he understands what students need, and it’s not sprawling, often out-of-date sites like Zillow or Craigslist. Instead, Cribspot entices property managers to post listings on its website by allowing them to do it for free—a departure from the traditional online rental business model—and it works with campus representatives it calls “founders” to penetrate each individual campus market and recruit both property managers and student renters.
“When you’re asking people to pay to be on your site, you only get a small piece of the market,” Gross says of Cribspot’s competitors. “We make it free so it’s a no-lose situation. We also focus on getting demand from students, so more property managers come on board. It ends up being a positive feedback loop.”
(To illustrate how crowded the online student rentals market is, Cribspot is using a strategy similar to that of Wisconsin-based competitor Abodo, recently profiled by Jeff Engel on Xconomy’s Wisconsin channel.)
Cribspot is currently focused on seven Midwest markets: Michigan State University, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, University of Iowa, Ohio State University, and University of Cincinnati. The site is not limited to students, but it does concentrate on rentals in close proximity to campuses. Users can search by budget, number of bedrooms, start day of lease, length of lease, and more.
“We don’t want to be a site that just happens to include student rentals—we really want to give it a local feel, like it’s meant for the school,” Gross says, adding that Cribspot’s website features a live chat option to answer questions.
Gross says Cribspot plans to monetize with a new rent payment feature it will introduce in the next few months. Most rent payment sites, he says, charge a fee between $5 and $15 for processing an online payment to landlords. Gross says Cribspot can do it cheaper and with a better-functioning system. “Most of those sites [belonging to competitors] were built in the early 2000s, and using them is almost as complicated as writing out a check and walking it over to your property manager,” he says. “We’re modernizing the whole process.”
Cribspot’s goal is to expand to 15 to 20 more campuses nationwide by the fall. Headquartered in Detroit, the company has five full-time employees and will be hiring more soon. It finished up a stint in the Bizdom accelerator in December, and Gross says the support from the Detroit startup community has been key to its growth.
“We went through the problem as students, and we’re committed to solving that problem,” Gross says. “I think we have the team and business model to do it.”