We had the opportunity to ask Ofo the following questions:
- You successfully raised a Seed round, got recurring revenue, and some interesting pilots in the pipeline. But, behind the scenes there are often a lot of challenges and hurdles you have to overcome for each of those achievements. Looking back, what have been a couple of your biggest challenges over the past year to arrive at where you are now?
- Did you have to go through any layoffs, personnel decisions, deferring payments, etc? How did you cope with that and your own mental health during those tough situations?
- What is your team most proud of? What are your favorite accomplishments from the recent past, and what have you learned from with those?
- Let’s go into a bit more detail about your particular product and business. As a marketplace, you need to have renters posting feedback and landlords tapping into that feedback; what have been your strategies for acquisition on both fronts?
- Is there anything that you have changed your mind on while building your company this year, especially with the impact Covid has had in the housing market?
- We mentioned this at the start, but you’ve successfully fundraised for WYL; could you share your do’s and don’ts with other founders listening in. What have you found are the best ways to go about getting introductions and capturing the attention of investors?
Welcome everyone to our first Transparent Collective LIVE event! For those of you that don’t know us, Transparent Collective is a nonprofit organization focused on breaking down the barriers that acutely affect the success of underrepresented founders at the early stages of their startups.
A little bit more on TC. We focus on tackling three areas where underrepresented founders encounter the most challenges in building successful technology companies and raising venture funding:
- First, we prepare founders to fundraise
- We connect investors to high-caliber entrepreneurs
- And, we contribute to the development of an ecosystem where all entrepreneurs can flourish.
So, we see a lot of early stage tech startups at TC, and in 2016 we had the privilege of hosting WhoseYourLandlord, founded by Ofo, who was actually the first founder to be signed up for TC. In this event we’ll be talking to Ofo about his founder journey so far, his recent wins, and his lessons learned. But first, let me start with introductions.
Ofo graduated from Temple University, and through his college housing experiences came to found the transformative platform WhoseYourLandlord. Recently he’s been #30Under30 on Forbes and BET’s list and he closed his $2.1M seed round for WYL last month
Ofo is very active in his community and speaks with local high schools and middle schools on leadership, college planning, entrepreneurship, and life skills. He participates in the Big Brothers Big Sisters entrepreneurial program. And, he’s also spoken on tech — entrepreneurship — and leadership at prestigious locations and universities such as The White House, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Wharton, Temple, Villanova, etc. He lives by the motto, “No steps backward; just forward progress.”
Ofo, welcome back to a Transparent Collective event! Thank you again for spending some time to chat with us and share your story. So maybe we can start there.
Can you give everyone a bit of background on you and how WYL came to be? What is your “founding” story?
Absolutely. And James, thanks for that intro. It is always kind of crazy. Like think about all the linkage points, like starting off a Transparent Collective. Now moving forward, we’re having this opportunity here, investing and working together, building this company together. I think we can lose sight of things so fast.
Everyone my name is Ofo, CEO and founder of Whose Your Landlord, otherwise known as WYL.co. Our entire focus is on empowering, informing the rental community.
We do that by providing landlord reviews and housing educational content for residents. And then simply simply put, just take that information, shake it up, make it look even sharper and nicer and more insightful. And we provide that to the home providers so that they can make more data driven capital improvement decisions, and increase the retention rates and the happiness of their residents overall in their buildings.
Everything kind of got started for me because I served as the vice president of the student body during my senior year at Temple University out in North Philly. I thought the issues students were facing would have been more school-related, and in actuality, housing kept coming up as the number one issue.
The reason being was that tempo was expanding so quickly, which invited the opportunity for a lot of outside landlords to try to make a quick buck, right? Get a property rented out to four students, and you’re making four times what you might make renting it out to one family, right?
And the parents are usually footing the bill for those student residents versus, you know, a single family trying to figure it out themselves and having to rely on their job or whatever the case says.
So, we just started hearing so many infestation issues, black mold being a thing and not being treated as male landlords harassing female residents. And this isn’t unique to the north Philadelphia university experience. I think it’s something we were observing in many places. Just Temple was where I was, and that’s where we started.
So now, you know, having built this company where it is today. I’m sure we will talk about it a bit more.
The fundraising journey has not been easy in the slightest. I think there’s been a few factors that play into it. I know we’re here in black history month, I won’t just default only to how we look. Although I know that plays a huge role in it, and that’s what you know, Black Operator Ventures is also here to solve.
But, we’ll get a chance today to talk a little bit about our journey and how we figured it out and got to this point, so we can now scale.
I mean, cool, that’s great to hear. Splitting out a conversation with another VC this morning, who is backing a black founder. And I did have to ask them, like, I’m not judging or trying to qualify you, I just want to qualify a little bit of your understanding of the working relationship and what that’s about. This was really the first black founder he invested in.
So it was about helping that guy know? You’re going to want some support from other people who look like these people. Because your assumption is that if you helped people hit certain metrics and velocity, they would be able to get more money. And that’s always a false assumption. There’s more to it than that. So yeah, that’s the conversation we definitely had. We’ll get down to the fundraising conversation in a little bit.
But as far as the business goes, what were some challenges over the past couple of years that you had to overcome? What were those real hurdles and how did you find a way around them?
Yeah, I think there are two things that I would acknowledge. One is, us realizing as we’ve been building our product. As we were building our product, knowing there had to be more to it. Right?
I think we were operating with, you know, a brand partnerships kind of centric model. That worked actually quite well for a little bit of time, but I think the more legacy companies as big as Allstate, for example, the more they’re trying to get more digital because now they’re competing with lemonade or whatever.
It no longer was enough just to have a big user base, right? Like now, they were really trying to figure out how to think like tech companies do and top of the funnel and bring it down to a closed sale? Like it started to shift.
And I think we observed that COVID did not make that any easier. Actually, from that vantage point. I think all these companies are trying to figure out who we are marketing to like no one can enter the doors at that initial wave.
So, it coincided with the year before COVID became COVID. We had had an offhand conversation with a real estate developer who had said he used our insights on our platform to increase the value of his portfolio by $42 million. So effectively, just let me break down how we did it.
We have a bunch of data from residents on our platform. His company was looking to acquire a student housing portfolio because that’s the area they knew very well. They had found a distressed student housing portfolio in upstate New York, identified it, and acquired it for pennies on the dollar because they had poor reviews, the occupancy rate was abysmal, all the things.
Then they just literally took that trove of data and adhered to everything they did from a capital improvements perspective and an operational perspective, and the residents’ insights on our platform to their actual operational processes. And they were able to have the building fully occupied, and they were able to brand it effectively.
So you know, their way of weightless now for the student residents, all kinds of things. And the overall happiness of the residents is extremely high because of that. So when we heard that story, and again, this was happenstance, I was speaking on a panel in Denver, Colorado, when he tapped my shoulder about it, when we heard that story, though.
Also when he was willing to sit down and record it on video and toward us at his property, he was like, oh, we definitely need the money because you’re not going to put this on camera. It’s not real.
So when those things happen, I was like, wow, we’re onto something pretty interesting here. So I guess the first challenge to your question was, how do you adjust the business where you’re not losing that ethos and energy you started with but still want to extend so that the company can grow larger?
I think what was fortunate for us was that, if anything, we were just closing the feedback loop, instead of hopping on our site, and just like hoping a home provider sees it if they come across who now that you knew they were going to write because you’d have them plugged in on the back end. Not to mention, we could use it from our sales strategy to go in and see all the top reviewed home providers, and then we talk to them first to get them as clients.
The second part of that challenge, though, was the money piece. While we could acknowledge those things were real, it takes money to shift anything. It takes money to build anything. And I think we found ourselves in a position towards the spring and the summer of last year where money was getting really tight.
As a company, it was like we’re going to start having conversations with people like hey, look, you know, it’s going to be a rocky winter you’re like mentally right. But what to that point earlier about, like, you know, Support Network. That’s what we’ve created in the last few years.
That point didn’t have to become that point because whether it was angel investors that were actually our clients, which was really dope, it closed contracts in the middle of the summer. We took a bet, and it was working, and then soon after the summer, the Google Black Founders Fund came through with their 100k check.
And, We ended up closing 2 million Black on Operator Ventures, you know, your team, and of leading that round like, and then our clients ended up investing. So it was this really cool thing to see.
Of course, as you know, once one shoe drops, everything drops. Other VCs were also willing to get involved because they saw you guys were involved. So it was beautiful in terms of how the arc of the story always looks treacherous when you’re living in it.
I mean, you kind of mentioned the COVID part as well. I think COVID is definitely as dire as it has been and continues to plague us a little bit. Even for business, I think it would be a historical moment. There will be case studies on that at the time because it proved who had a business and who didn’t, right?
I think that’s part of being an entrepreneur as well. Know how to make that pivot, and keep pushing, trying to find the tailwinds and something that you might see more dramatic than that. For me, it’s like people stopped making TV shows. So we were like, do we have a business? Does this work? You know, say like, we figured out very quickly, it became like a big tailwind. But, we really had to understand what our business was and how we came to market?
Absolutely. I mean, you know, look at other black LED firms, look at Squire and what they’ve done in this period, you know, look at Susu, the health-tech startup, and what they’ve done in this period of time.
Then I think of things like maybe not black-owned, but the Wealth Institute, which looks at mental health, wellness and buildings. Right. At first, I was talking to one of the original team members yesterday, and he was telling me, initially, they were doing well, growing as a business quite efficiently, then hit a slower part of their sales cycle where it was realizing, okay, some companies are lagging a little bit in wanting to care about this, but they had their certification.
Once COVID happened, everybody was concerned about air quality, and buildings. Their business exploded, so you got to hang around long enough for something to happen. And I think what surface amongst COVID is ESG?
That’s true in many industries, but real estate’s always the latest in the game. And now, it’s top of mind for all these real estate folks because their investors and lenders are asking them: What are they doing to reduce their environmental footprint? What are they doing to empower their residents? To have some money in their pockets at the end of each month, or to have more dignity in the spaces they live in? Right?
At first, especially for black people, there’s a legacy of being treated poorly, especially in more luxury communities, or things like red floors, poor doors, and things like that. So I think now that these things are top of mind, it’s been the perfect time for us to raise this capital, and it’s the perfect time for us to double down on what we believe as a company. Because now that people have always seen it, they don’t just have to act like it doesn’t exist, that it’s right in their face. They have to engage in it because there are financial implications for them. So that’s been really powerful to be a part of.
Okay, cool. So we talked at a high level about the business, and we’re breaking it down a little bit more. How are you? How do you guys acquire information on properties or acquire the renters and get the feedback? There’s always a chicken egg issue with marketplaces like, how did you kind of solve that? How do you handle that?
I mean, that’s our business. Right? I think one big part of it is our reviews that are indexed by Google. So at any given time for a bigger management company or building, you can search and see who your landlord is at five reviews, 4.3 out of five, right? So that’s one piece of it that helps our SEO ton.
Social media has been a big way of pushing and getting the message out. But I think one of the biggest ways we do it now is we partner directly with those home providers. So they come on as clients. They pay us a couple of bucks per unit per month. Then, they invite their residents to the platform to provide those reviews and insights. So we know when we onboard a building that has 600 units, that’s 600 emails at least we’re getting. Then we invite those residents to the platform.
That creates a really cool thing because we can leverage different incentive programs working with companies like a DoorDash or go puff to provide, like, hey, here’s a free dinner, just provide your feedback. Those kinds of things are really fascinating. And just from a unit economics perspective, I was telling a couple of gentlemen this yesterday that we’re talking about business here.
So, if you can structure your business where your clients pay for that onboarding or platform fee, it’s great, right? They’re paying for our growth, so those are the key ways we’ve looked at growing our user base. And now even diving into unit university partnerships and things like that. Those will be a little bit more detailed. I think right now, we’re just focusing on those initial home providers.
Okay. Very good. Yeah. I mean, that’s always a good way to do it. I’m just curious to hear a little about the time you tried to raise money, and it didn’t work versus the time that it did. What were your learnings? There were some of the do’s and don’ts when you feel like it took from an experience.
Do you know what I learned? Like, I always would see this, you go to a pitch competition or something. And, you know, I was pretty good at that stuff, right? I enjoy pitching. I’d rather build but you know, I can do it. But I will start to observe when a CEO would get up on stage, and they already had sales, they already raised capital before, their slide deck would be like five slides. My name is this. This is what I’m building. Oh, by the way, here are our customers, here’s our, you know, annual recurring revenue, here’s our investors, thanks so much for your time.
And when I see that, I’d be like, you don’t have to be the best presenter if your business is the best for slides and gets it done. That’s the reality. For me, one of the most fascinating things in the last six months or so pitching investors is rarely did we use our investor deck, like it rarely came up.
Once we actually figured out our business, it became like here’s our customers and who we’re talking to. Here’s how we’re planning on ramping up. Here’s our demo. So you can feel it and believe it too. We’ll send a deck just for support. That was reality. We spent so much time walking investors through this investment deck, only to find that once you figured out your business like that matters, I want to hold it to make sure I know when I can show my team and talk to them internally about how we might invest in this company.
But our facing that no longer was a big part of our conversation. It was really, where are you, who do you have on your team? Who’s already investing? And what does it do? And then, if you can show it way better than just telling you right, I think that’d be one of the bigger lessons I learned in that process.
Yeah, no, that makes less sense. I think that all ties back to when we start walking someone through a deck. I mean, it’s not a motion picture by any means. So it’s like, it can’t build the same emotion when having an in-depth conversation with someone you believe is going to do something. So I think it comes back to that emotional trigger.
How do you get these people really excited about you doing that thing? Those things? Are things exciting? And then am I excited about this person doing it? Like, exactly. So it’s definitely key. Other than that, I’m curious to talk a little bit about the forward path, what you can allude to if you can’t say certain things cool. But like where do you see yourself going over the next year? And how will you get the next level of growth towards the next phase of Series A?
Oh, that is funny. And James is saying that, because he knows things I can’t share yet. But no, I mean to that question, right? Like, I think I’ll put it this way. Figuring out a financial incentive instead of asking a landlord or property manager, you know, hey, could you treat your residence nicer? 10% might say, sure that that makes sense. I’d like to be treated nicely. But we live in capitalism, and at the end of the day, if you can show me monetarily, why it matters to do it that way, I’ll listen.
And that’s one thing. I think we started to really figure out that we’re going to get a chance to show some proof of concepts with some firms in a few coming months that we’re excited about. So we’re kind of all in on them.
As we think about the trajectory of our company, this is why it’s so dope to see black people make it and do it. Because if you look at Susu, every bit of me is so proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish. It’s because they have two founders of color running that company is valued at a billion dollars. We’re just following the footsteps of some of the same partnerships and things that they did, to where we’re going to be in the coming months.
So, this isn’t rocket science to me. I don’t need to recreate the wheel, I talk to smart people like you every day, I talk to my people like their founders. All of you poke holes at my experiments and thoughts, refine it, and do a good job of it. And that’s the mindset: to get into a more mental part of it for the team. You and James talked about not really having that poor founder syndrome, right, where you get so used to saving in just cobbling together some coins and making $1 stretch.
A lot of folks hate that phrase, but it’s one of those things that you get accustomed to as a black founder, and now to have your investors been behind you saying, yo, spend the money, that’s what we gave it to you for, don’t hold it, don’t wait, get the best engineer, get the best out of business, do the things that are going to move the business forward. And that’s that part. You know, that’s a start with me. So that behavioral and mental shifts have been happening.
I think it’s starting to matriculate through the company where the culture before was sustained. We tried to prove while sustaining, now it’s like, oh, we have some strong proof points, like, do it, grow, talk to that customer, pitch that partner. And the best way to do it is by synthesizing things into three or four buckets. Now our focus is more aligned because we have the resources to go out there and get it done. We know we have to get done.
Yeah, that makes sense. And that takes me to one last part of it. The founder journey is much less than we know, and you’re curious what kind of mental health practices we do for mental well-being. How do you kind of permeate that throughout your company?
Yeah, I’m glad you said that. Because if it was left to me, I would probably go Hollywood and go crazy. I’m that guy that the day might be over, but you’re still getting emails and messages from me at 10. Or sometimes one, sometimes six in the morning, like asleep.
But you know, I think the culture and the team are like we’re human first, right? What we talk about with our platform is true in the company. So you know, we’re all remote, we’ve all seen more of the inside of each other’s homes than we probably should have seen in the last two years. Like everyone deserves a break. Everyone deserves some grace.
Because of that mindset, I’m always happy, and I enjoy what I do every day with my work. I get up ready to tackle the next thing. I have my little whiteboard here with all my daily tasks on it. I love crossing them out at the end of the day. So that works for me. That’s not what everybody wants, and nothing has been really interesting and powerful through the Google Black Founders Fund.
Now, I think they’re more progressive in a lot of what they’re doing for the black founders in that cohort than I’ve seen from historical VCs. Right. And you’ve seen them before their tweets and memes on the internet about like, VCs will be like, hey, you know, Call me if anything. Then there’s a Drake meme going around, where he’s looking at his phone and discussing how VCs actually look at their phone when one of their founders call them right, so I think from that mental, it does mean something when there’s an effort being shown.
Google hooked up every single founder with a therapist. So for the last four months now, I’ve had a therapist. I’ve never had a therapist in my whole life. And it’s so helpful. I think founders give themselves natural therapy. But a friend of mine texted me two nights ago, and he said, yo, I’m so damn proud of you. He’s like, you kind of gotta be a bit of a masochist through all that. And I swear, that’s not me. But you can find yourselves with your founder peers by building each other up, or trauma bonding. It’s like LD not funding us, we’re not getting clients like it’s because of them. It’s always them. So, I’ve seldom had friends in the middle.
It’s either progressive groups on what’s happened in Texas or its devolving roots. So the therapy piece has been huge.
I think you, as a leader in 2022, have to be more empathetic than ever before. It’s different these days, and I think the last 20 or so years, social media and my thoughts on a lot of this stuff, but like, we’ve not always been exposed to so much information. Right? If I go to high school with you, I think about most of your parents, when they graduated high school, most of them never saw those friends ever again. Like ever. Unless they were in a grocery store, oh, you’re begging to come like, that was reality, or somewhere down the line. At playing golf, it’s like, we don’t know that guy. But we never left our high school friends.
Honestly, I’m 29 years old, so I’m speaking as someone on Facebook in high school, right? Like, in MySpace and stuff, right? I see my high school friends every day, and that’s really weird. When I say friends, I’m actually really loose with it, like they are tight with it. I just mean high school peers, right?
And when you’re seeing that level of information, that level of sensory input, not to mention college, not to mention people you walk into every single day, there’s just way more accolades. My life is perfect than it’s ever supposed to be like. So I think, you need to figure out your mental health routine. The last thing I’ll say is I pray a lot. Talking maybe five to 10 times a day, prayers are coming out of my mouth because I need them. So when I wake up, it’s the first thing I do. When I go to bed, it’s the last thing I do. I got an adult girlfriend, I got family, friends like you just need to invest in your friends, invest in your family.
Investment isn’t just an investor giving you money to invest in your business. Even realize that the energy around that. It’s like Black Operator Ventures is investing in our company, where they’re really investing in me to invest their money across the company to grow it. So when you start to change the dynamics of how you think about things, it really affects how you’re able to show up every day.
Oh, man, that was great. I think it’s a great way to just ramp it to anybody who has some questions.
So I will jump in real quick. My name is Elkanah Reed. I can’t remember my TC best right now. I’m the founder of WORKOPTI, a strategic platform for marketing leaders. So my question is, talk to us about the necessity for support systems, like we just talked about your girlfriend’s family prayer that carries you into success because of what we all are facing. As founders from underrepresented groups to hit milestones, we’re talking like, multidecker coins. It just takes time. How do you build up that resilience?
Yeah, I remember I was at this event in Philly, maybe three or so years ago, and I was getting on an elevator and catching up with a few friends at the same event. And one of them was talking about their company. They weren’t in tech, they just had a company. And they were saying it just wasn’t really selling much.
And, you know, I had a friend and another friend of mine asked me, why are you still doing it? And he was like, because I feel it should exist in this world. At that moment, I couldn’t remember who said this. But that moment resonated with me so deeply because I’m at that point where we’re a company that was seven years old, we raised our seed round. That is so against the norm, right?
The thought in tech is, one year into three years. That’s the sweet spot. After that, you’re a stale deal, and that gets passed around. People are talking about, ah, I saw that a couple of years ago. So even when you pitch something different, you don’t even get a chance to pitch something different because people assume you’re the same crap as three years ago.
So what I’m getting at is, I’m not striving to be great in life. I believe I’m great right now. So I do everything a great person would do when I wake up, go to sleep, and between the time I wake up and go to sleep.
The friends you feel will be there when you are really successful, you guys should start cultivating that now. The family that shows themselves, and the family that doesn’t, right. It’s up to you at this stage to identify those people — those peers, those friends. I call it my personal team. They give me life, and a lot of them aren’t entrepreneurs. Many of them are in the arts or just different from hospitality in different fields.
But I need them because I know… If you put James and I in a room, we could talk about being entrepreneurs all day long, 24/7, you know, and part of that fun and good. Part of that is when do we break out of that and talk about like? What is it like to go to the beach? From that vantage point, you have to cultivate a group around you of folks that pour into you as much as you pour into them. If you move with this mindset, that energy will just keep following you, no matter how high you end up.
Any other questions or thoughts out there? Well, thanks so much for joining us. This was great. I think people really enjoyed watching this back when we put it up online and keep building, man.
I appreciate you bro. Always appreciate what you guys are doing here at Transparent Collective. Look, I’m a testament to that. Keep up the great work on your behalf, and thanks for having me.
All right, man. Have a good one. You too. Take care.