“Values. Resilience. Relationships.” That’s how co-founder Chou Hoytt identifies the heart of TMV’s latest investment, Watson: a digital banking platform that serves as a loyalty and rewards program for apartment rentals. Watson’s technology enables landlords to offer services and rewards that benefit the financial wellness and overall environment of apartment buildings — and the people who live in them — while improving the rental experience. This not only increases retention, but also builds better landlord-tenant relationships.
Why it Works
Landlords customize their Watson-powered program to designate a certain amount of cash per year to be paid to tenants, contingent upon tenant behavior. So, in exchange for being a responsible renter (e.g., paying rent on time, referring new residents) — activities not easily encouraged without specific incentives — tenants are rewarded with cash that they can access via a debit card and digital banking app. Soon, Watson plans to offer discounts at neighborhood grocers, retailers and other services, funneling rewards back into the community and offering local businesses the benefit of consistent traffic at no extra cost. The bottom line: renters get immediate cash to use for daily expenses and/or save for the future, landlords operate efficiently and increase retention rates, local businesses drive sustained traffic and potential for increased profit. A win win win.
How it Started
Chou and co-founder Andy Firestone met at startup incubator, Antler, and became almost immediate friends, bonding over their shared values and mutual interest in making real progress in the affordable housing market. After college, Chou moved to San Francisco and worked for an affordable housing non-profit, among other real estate ventures. He went on to pursue his MBA at Stanford, where he saw an opportunity at the intersection of construction tech, housing costs and policy-making. Andy spent his pre-Watson career in real estate development, as well as buying and managing low and middle-income housing in the Midwest and other areas.
Chou and Andy knew they wanted to build something together that would help to address affordable housing; they recognized the rising costs of both ownership and education, as well as the time and capital required to build new residences. They also saw an increasing trend in the real estate industry toward a hospitality-driven approach.
Andy remarks: “You can either have a very big impact on a small number of people or you can have a smaller impact across hundreds of millions of people.”
So, they set out to create a better experience that would transform renting into a financially responsible and reasonable decision, providing incentives to real estate companies, landlords and their tenants, and ultimately funneling dollars back into the local community.
After two pivots, not to mention a global pandemic, Andy and Chou created a model that resonates across the board. For landlords, who were previously incurring costs through pure acquisition offers (i.e. one free month of rent), Watson gives them a new way to engage with renters as they move into a community: the service helps these renters feel more settled, and in turn drives retention / grows renter lifetime value from the start. For tenants, their rental experience is valued, and their contribution to the health of the building and community recognized. For the community, Watson enables built-in sustainable traffic without any extra effort or cost. End result: happier community, fulfilled tenants, and effective, engaged landlords.
We asked Andy and Chou what advice they’d give to new founders. Here’s what they had to say: “If you have the co-founder relationship as a foundation, what you build together will come with time and effort,” says Andy. For Chou: “Be mindful of how you treat people, including yourself. Remember, as you’re going through the ups and downs of starting a business, that we’re all human.”
Written by Soraya Darabi, General Partner and Founder of TMV