In this age of information, where it's easy to find facts and statistics about nearly anything, Temple University graduate Ofo Ezeugwu found a gap: Renters struggle to find information about landlords and their properties.
"We are constantly looking for affirmation through information," Ezeugwu said. "On Amazon, you read reviews before you make a purchase. You look at Yelp before you go to a cafe or restaurant."
"You always want to make sure that you are going to spend your time the right way and not waste it," he said. "… That's never been thought about in the housing space."
Ezeugwu, 25, said his classmates thought he had a point. Between security deposits, application fees, and first and last months' rent — sometimes all due at once when moving — "people are giving a landlord sometimes $4,000 or $5,000 upfront, and you don't have any info about them."
So in 2013, Ezeugwu and his co-founders launched "Whose Your Landlord," a service designed to offer reviews about Philadelphia's landlords and properties.
Four years later, Ezeugwu's start-up is growing. In early October, Whose Your Landlord — yes, it's spelled incorrectly intentionally — launched a fund-raising campaign on SeedInvest, a crowdfunding platform that connects startups and investors.
We caught up with Ezeugwu, the company's CEO, to learn more about the platform and its progress. His answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How did you come up with the idea?
A: I was vice president of Temple's student body in 2013, and one of the biggest issues for students was housing. There was a ton of gentrification happening and a lot of new private student housing. We saw that some landlords were not necessarily providing services the way they were supposed to: They were charging exorbitant fees, or there were bad property conditions. We thought, what if there was a way you could review landlords? The entire premise is about giving power to renters and informing the rental community.
Q: What demographic did you initially target?
A: We mostly focused on Temple. Then people started saying, 'I could use that downtown' or 'I live in Northern Liberties and want that.' We discovered we were onto something bigger than we initially thought. Now, we mostly focus our time in Philly, New York City, and Washington, D.C. But we have reviews in over 180 cities.
Q: How have you expanded?
A: We do four things. On our website, you can search for housing. We now have half a million listings across the U.S. Second, you can fill out a "renter snapshot," with your name, your income, and move date. We partner with TransUnion, and through that, you can add your credit and background information, and when interested in a property, you can immediately send that information to a landlord. We're cutting down the time you spend on paperwork.
Our third big component is a review. Compared to other sites where you are supposed to give someone a designated star ranking, we ask a question, with answer options. Every response has a numeric value tied to it on the back-end that renters don't see. Renters can then read through the reviews.
We also offer other content, such as videos on topics like public housing. Today, we have about 325,000 users on our site.
Q: What is your business model, and why have you survived when many startups fail?
If I create an app that ties my shoes for me, but I don't need that, it doesn't matter. For us, people are legitimately having this problem that is not being addressed — and we knew we had to do something about it.
We generate revenue through corporate partnerships and our TransUnion partnership. Whenever renters opt to submit their credit information, it's a $30 fee, and we split the revenue. Also, it's currently free for landlords to post listings. As we grow, we will charge for that.
Q: How much fund-raising have you done, and what do you hope to accomplish with the money?
A lot of times, in communities of color, the whole concept of a "friends and family round" of funding is completely different. We don't have the same access. If you're a black entrepreneur, it might be a situation where your uncle gave you $500 and your parents gave you $2,000. We started off with about $80,000 of bootstrapped capital.
We recently closed a $200,000 seed round led by Maryland-based CorLyst Group, including $50,000 from Benjamin Franklin Technology Partners. The remaining fund-raising will come from our $250,000 SeedInvest campaign. We'll use that money for four things: creating a more engaging platform that allows renters to message each other, producing more content, beginning the production of a mobile app, and hosting more events.