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Trio of VCU alumni take their tenant-matching startup to Silicon Valley

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From left to right, Brandon Anderson, James Barrett and Chris Stewart.

Two years ago, James BarrettBrandon Anderson and Chris Stewart each took the day off from their respective jobs to meet in Barrett’s Richmond-area garage and discuss their future. That day, Tenant Turner — a website that matches rental property managers with quality tenants — was born.

Almost exactly two years later, the trio of Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business graduates found themselves in Mountain View, California, having been accepted into Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator, one of the world’s best business accelerators, which has helped launch a number of successful companies such as Airbnb, Dropbox and Reddit.

“It's an honor for Tenant Turner to be selected into the program,” Barrett said. “In addition to the investment, they also provide specialized mentorship and access to the entire YC network, which includes vendors, YC [alumni] and investors. With access to new investors, we hope to be able to raise more money faster the next time we open a fundraising round.”

Since 2005, Y Combinator has funded more than 800 startups valued at more than $30 billion.

Twice a year, YC operates a three-month session in which it invites selected startups to Silicon Valley to get their companies into the best shape possible and refine their investor pitches. At the end of each session, the entrepreneurs present their plans to an audience of specially selected prestigious investors.

Tenant Turner met with about two dozen investors, some of whom have already committed to invest. Perhaps more valuable than the monetary investments is access to an elite network of mentors and YC alumni.

“There's really no better place to be for a new company trying to get jump-started,” Stewart said. “It's somewhat surreal to be going through that process. The advice is direct, useful and comes from people who have been there before. … YC is also amazing from the perspective of the network effect. Hundreds of companies have gone through YC and even as a current batch company, you feel the sense of camaraderie and know that even in the future there’s an amazing network you can tap into.”

While most startups spend several weeks preparing their application for YC, the process for Tenant Turner was more of a whirlwind. After making a quick pitch to the Rise of the Rest investment group when it came through Richmond this spring, the trio was encouraged to apply to the YC.

“Joining for us was a really quick process,” Stewart said. “Thousands of companies apply for every batch — nearly 7,000 for this summer — and only 106 were accepted. We were a late application, as it really wasn't on our radar, but it was suggested we apply. So we did, and were flown out to have a second interview in person a few weeks later. We found out maybe an hour or two later that we were accepted and that effectively the program began the next day.

“We very quickly needed to … simply restart our lives 3,000 miles away from home. It's been a challenging experience, mostly being away from our families and our home, but one we're determined to make worthwhile,” Stewart said.

It's been a challenging experience, mostly being away from our families and our home, but one we're determined to make worthwhile.

Making the experience easier is the comfort the partners have with one another. More than a decade ago, high school friends Anderson and Barrett both studied information systems at VCU, where Stewart tutored them in Java. They became friends outside of school, years later serving as groomsmen in each other's weddings.

“A lot of our bond was created during our time together at VCU,” Barrett said. “Our long friendship and the respect that we have for each other has made this journey incredibly enjoyable.”

Similarities abound between the three. Each knew at relatively early ages that they wanted to go into business for themselves. Anderson, in particular, seemed destined for an entrepreneurship career.

“At a young age I had a talent for drawing, which I used to draw logos of fictitious companies I pretended I had,” he said. “I created ‘business cards’ and wrote company newsletters. I made and sold friendship bracelets at day care. And I regret to admit there was a period of time in fifth grade where I carried not a backpack but a briefcase.”

Their shared interests endured well past their school days. After graduating from VCU, each alumnus owned rental properties, an experience that often proved frustrating.

“There are plenty of sites to list a rental like Craigslist and Zillow but no tools that truly solved our No. 1 problem: finding quality tenants quickly,” Barrett said. They all experienced the pain involved in going from a tenant moving out to another moving in, Stewart said, adding that everything that needs to happen in between can be very time consuming. With careers, families and children, taking time away to focus on turning over a property was inconvenient. With their software backgrounds and experience in the tech industry, they knew they could create a better process. That conviction led to the creation of Tenant Turner.

“We shared a passion for the problem and had the complementary skills to build the leasing software of our dreams,” Barrett said.

We shared a passion for the problem and had the complementary skills to build the leasing software of our dreams.

Tenant Turner adds rentals to its site and then resubmits them to dozens of rental websites, pre-qualifying all tenant leads online or by phone before scheduling showings for the best prospects. Before Tenant Turner, Barrett said, property owners and managers would have to input listings into multiple sites, field all of the phone calls and emails, and track showings in a spreadsheet. With Tenant Turner, they now have one central hub for all of their leasing activity.

“We're in growth mode right now and expect to raise more money, hire more employees and acquire more customers,” he said. “Our mission is to make happier, more confident renters, owners and property managers by improving the leasing experience. We're off to a good start but have so much we can do to live that mission.”

With 43 million rental properties in the United States alone, Anderson said, there is plenty of opportunity for growth.

 

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