It’s common among Philadelphians to complain about everything involving their beloved home city. But when we spoke to two companies in the Philadelphia 100 2019 list of fastest-growing privately held companies in the region, they choose to look at all the positives Philadelphia has to offer.
Milder Office fittingly sits on the second floor of the former Bok Vocational High School in South Philadelphia. Where kids once took shop, they’re now making furniture.
Well-built, modern, functional furniture.
Milder came to Philadelphia from Brooklyn, in part, because founder Jonas Milder had gotten to know the city while teaching at the University of the Arts.
“I was happy to escape Brooklyn,” he said. “It was insane.
Although he says the taxes are too high, “Philadelphia is lovely. It’s like Brooklyn used to be. It has the benefits of a large city, but we live in a neighborhood. We know the people around us. They planted trees on our block.”
And the Bok space is an extension of that.
“I’m happy that instead of condos, they have a vibrant community of makers here,” said Avigail Milder, the company’s director of operations and Jonas’ wife. Milder doubled its sales from 2016 to 2017 and expects growth of up to 60% from 2018 to 2019.
“We were one of the very first tenants,” she said, back when the former school’s higher floors were closed off due to water damage. “Now there are over 160 tenants. And there’s a real buy-in here. Over 40% of the people who work here either walk or ride their bikes. It’s done a lot for property values in the neighborhood.”
The Milders have also bought in, living in the city and with a daughter in the public school system. Jonas Milder said that Philadelphia absolutely needs to do a better job with education, “but in New York, you need to be a millionaire to send your kid to school.”
“There’s also a good spirit here,” Jonas Milder said. “And as a small manufacturer, we like that spirit.”
Although the Milders would like the city to do more to promote apprenticeships and hands-on work as opposed to treating high school only as preparation for college, Jonas Milder said that unlike in some cities, “there’s a great pool of people here to do the work, and there’s a big pool of schools here that produce people with skills.”
Another cool thing? Having offices at Bok — which Jonas Milder calls the “battery.”
The Bok space is big enough to house Milder design and production, and the presence of other businesses allows for networking. It’s a good fit for the company, which is presently making a series of matching art and storage pieces for the Rotunda at the Community College of Philadelphia.
“Everything is made to order from solid, sustainable materials,” Milder said, “and it’s great to have manufacturing in an urban area where manufacturing used to be huge.”
When Mike Maher founded Benjamin’s Desk, he disrupted the way start-ups and small businesses in Philadelphia rented office space.
With his latest venture, Houwzer, founded in 2015, Maher is hoping to change the way Philadelphians — and eventually everyone — buy and sell homes. His hopes seem well-placed, as company revenue grew from $658,510 in 2016 to $2,637,182 last year. He’s projected double growth for 2019.
All this, he said, has made him “the least popular person in residential real estate brokerage in Philadelphia and beyond when it comes to agents. But ... I think we are very much loved by consumers, and I do think there’s a growing segment of the real estate agent population that recognizes that Houwzer is not a bad guy — we are not the big bad wolf on the block — we are an enabler of the human being to remain in the real estate transaction.”
“So despite the fact that we have reduced the fees of the transaction that are borne by the consumer,” he continued, “the reality is that we’re creating a platform in which real estate agents no longer have to focus on where their next deal or meal is coming from, but can focus on delivering high customer service as advisers and counselors to clients.”
Maher says Houwzer relies on a contrarian business model, which changes the way real estate agents get paid. Unlike the traditional brokerage model, Houwzer is a “next-gen brokerage ... or a modern discount brokerage.
“We charge a flat fee for home sellers, which is $5,000 to list their homes, and we use salaried real estate agents as opposed to 1099 independent contractor agents. And our technology platform is really trying to streamline the entire transaction. We do that by integrating services like mortgage, title, and insurance. And our goal is to have users save when they sell and trust when they buy.”
“Brokerages don’t make any money in the residential real estate world,” he said, adding that this leads to a lot of residential agents bailing out of the industry.
Houwzer was founded in Philadelphia and the city serves as the company’s home market. It also has a presence in South Jersey, Philly-area suburbs, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington.
A disadvantage to being in Philadelphia, Maher said, is that “there’s not a lot of institutional venture capital here. There’s not a lot of money for business-to-consumer start-ups.”
So far, Houwzer has raised $7.5 million, with a goal to repeat the business model in many more markets.
The great part about being based in Philadelphia, Maher added, is that the city’s residential real estate market offers a better representation of the national market than Manhattan or the Beltway. “It’s a very normalized market,” Maher said. “Middle class. Homes in the $200K to $800K range. That’s a huge advantage of Philadelphia.