Wisconsin Startups Join War of Apartment-Hunting Websites

3/27/14Follow @XconomyWI

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a Find My Spot “neighborhood expert,” who shows the customer around the area and helps pick a suitable neighborhood. Then the customer enters his or her job start date, along with desired neighborhood and apartment features, into Find My Spot’s Web tool. The website spits out suggested apartment matches drawn from listings provided by local property managers and apartment developers, including vacancy data.

“We can literally tell a renter that unit 701 in Park Lafayette is vacant on your move date and has, say, 85 percent of what you’re looking for,” Johnston says.

The property managers pay a one-time, up-front fee to list on Find My Spot, and in return they get referrals for “optimal tenants” who have “reputable jobs,” Johnston says.

The startup’s “neighborhood experts” also pre-screen all the apartments in person to make sure they’re of a certain quality before Find My Spot lists the units, Johnston says. She admits this requires time and effort during the initial launch in a city, but she says the screening work decreases after that.

The promise of finding the highest-quality apartment match for customers within four days is the key selling point for Find My Spot. That quick turnaround is important since most employees typically have a tight time frame with their start date, and a successful apartment search ensures that employers don’t need to spend money on temporary housing at a hotel, Johnston says.

Milwaukee is the pilot city for Find My Spot. The startup so far has signed up several companies and organizations. It helped more than 100 educators move to the city last year for the Teachtown MKE initiative, an effort by the Greater Milwaukee Committee and Milwaukee Public Schools to attract and retain new teachers amidst a wave of retirements. This year Find My Spot is expected to help more than 250 teachers move to Milwaukee through Teachtown, Johnston says.

One satisfied customer is Mary Ann Taylon, who relocated from Omaha, NE, last fall with her husband, Charles, a surgeon who took a job with Medical College of Wisconsin. The couple sought an apartment because his job is a three or four-year commitment (with a potential extension), and they chose to keep their Omaha house. A local realtor connected them with Johnston to find a rental, Mary Ann Taylon says.

Taylon, 63, remembered previous lousy experiences helping her three children move to new apartments while they were in college, a process that could take a week of online searches and in-person tours. With Find My Spot, it took virtually one day. Taylon filled out a two-page form with desired characteristics of the apartment and surrounding area. Johnston came back with three suggested apartments (this was before Find My Spot’s Web tool, which launched this year), accompanied Taylon on a tour of all three units while she visited Milwaukee for a day, and Taylon and her husband settled on an apartment on Milwaukee’s east side, she says.

“I dreaded this process of finding a place. I knew it could take a long time,” Taylon says. “We got it done in a day. That was great.”

Johnston wants to expand Find My Spot to three more cities outside the state, assuming she secures enough funding through a seed round that she plans to start raising in May.

Find My Spot was profitable within four months, and revenue from contracts signed this year has already exceeded all of 2013, Johnston says.

Find My Spot’s competitors include Chicago-based UrbanBound, Johnston says, which raised $5 million in venture capital last year. It’s not exactly a direct competitor, since it provides a Web-based platform that educates moving employees about their new city and connects them to service providers, like moving truck companies, rather than finding apartments directly.

The long-term challenge for Find My Spot will be moving past early adopters and convincing traditional businesses that this is a useful tool they should pay for. But Find My Spot is getting some early interest from larger corporate relocation firms that could turn into business partnerships, sources of investment, or potential acquirers, Johnston says.

“They see that this technology is needed,” Johnston says. “Some [of their] clients haven’t realized technology can impact the relocation industry in a big way.”

Even in this crowded field of apartment-hunting websites, the three Wisconsin companies have found niches and strategies that give them a shot at succeeding, according to the founders and their advisors. The tougher question is why there’s such a concentration of these startups in southern Wisconsin.

“It validates that Wisconsin really was underserved in the apartment listing market,” says gener8tor co-founder Joe Kirgues.

Cordio, the RCP advisor and Startup Milwaukee co-founder, says it demonstrates that there’s no perfect solution for apartment seekers—yet.

“Maybe one of these three companies can be that perfect solution,” Cordio says.

Jeff Engel is the editor of Xconomy Wisconsin. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @XconomyWI

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