Meet your new apartment: you’ll love her

Every entrepreneur learns that the company you envision at the outset almost certainly won’t be the same company you own a year or two later. Take Phillip Lee and Spottage, for example. With the help of the high-profile TechStars and greater industry exposure, Lee and his co-founder, Bryan Leptich, have turned their 2007 Business Plan Competition entry, Spottage, into Rentmatch.com, a rental housing “date match” business that is now the largest listing site.

For Lee, the stops, starts and re-grouping came with the economic downturn, which hit just as Spottage found its stride in 2008. Lee discovered that he was actually serving a lessor’s market rather than the previously hot renter’s market. That shift drove a new emphasis on providing real value and more refined search results for users – something akin to the algorithms behind Netflix’s “suggestions.”

This was also when Lee started to see Spottage in a new light. “Instead of just building another listing site, why don’t we become the intelligent layer that sorts through all those listings and efficiently matches them with renters?” he said. “The problem isn’t lack of inventory. The problem is how to quickly and efficiently match vacant units with renters.”

By working with rather than against the likes of Rent.com, Mynewplace.com and Apartments.com, Lee’s company, now using the more descriptive name of Rentmatch.com, has collected the largest number of listings (roughly 1.5 million) of any comparable site. With that expanded listings pool, the dating began. Rentmatch.com now offers greater levels of customization to match housing seekers with exactly the features they want. Furthermore, their cross-competitive partnerships allowed them to expand beyond university campuses into other urban geographic areas.

“What was surprisingly hard to get used to was the reality that, for a start-up, it’s a race to fail quickly, learn quickly and ‘do more faster,’” he explained. “If you’re too afraid of failure, you don’t take those big risks that can turn into big successes.” Lee’s experience in the TechStars process ingrained this “fail faster” theory in his thinking. With a broader perspective and expanded connections, Rentmatch’s start-up journey has helped set up even more successful “dates” between apartment seekers and lessors.

After saying no to an early buyout “marriage” offer at the Real Estate Connect conference in New York City in early 2012, Lee and Leptich have continued to grow Rentmatch.com. Without marketing or press, site visits went from 1,000 to 25,000 from December 2011 through March 20, 2012. And though the company has always had revenue, Lee notes, “most angel investors have told us to not worry about revenue at the seed stage and instead focus on product market fit and building traction.”

The lean, two-man team plans to add five developers and a sales/business development manager by the end of the year. Like dating, the energy they have put into failing has been worth it, now that they have found the perfect entrepreneurial fit.

Learn more about the world of start-ups via the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Making a difference

The Nutters, Lee and Darlene (UW BA alumni, 1967), have close ties to the Northwest and the University of Washington. Both graduated from the UW School of Business (now Foster) in 1967, and there are now three more Huskies in their immediate family. Lee also serves as a member of the Foster School Advisory Board.

“We wanted to give something back to this school and the people of this state that afforded us an education and, in doing so, led to the many opportunities we‘ve enjoyed,” Lee explained.

Born in Astoria, Oregon, Lee grew up in small towns in Western Oregon and Washington, where his father worked in the lumber business. He finished the eighth grade in a class of eight in a two-room schoolhouse and graduated from Clallam Bay High School with a class of sixteen. “It was a big change going from those small communities to the University of Washington and Seattle,” Lee said with a smile. He studied accounting and operations at the business school.  Darlene graduated with a degree in marketing.

Two days after graduation, Lee began his forty-year career as an analyst with Rayonier, a global supplier of high performance cellulose fiber and wood products. He retired in 2007, as Chairman, President and CEO. Darlene grew up in Cathlamet, WA, and initially attended WSU to study business, but finished at the University of Washington. Lee said, “She saw the light.”

Although Lee and Darlene married while in Seattle, his career eventually took them and their two children, to the East Coast and ultimately Florida. However, the Northwest and UW still hold a very special place in their hearts and lives and they often return to visit family and friends. The Nutters are also passionate about Husky athletics, managing to attend a few UW basketball and most football games.

Their giving relationship with the University of Washington started modestly and grew over decades. “I found our first check to the UW for $25!” Darlene laughed. More recently, Lee and Darlene have provided significant support to the Foster School of Business for undergraduate scholarships, MBA scholarships and a named team room in PACCAR Hall.

“We paid far less than the cost of our education and its value. The citizens of the state of Washington paid the balance…” Lee continued. “We feel obliged and honored to give back.” He and Darlene hope to inspire other Foster alumni to support scholarships that help future students achieve something that they could not have done otherwise.

“We hear from students who have received scholarships about what it meant to them, what they’re accomplishing and what they hope to achieve,” Darlene described. “It’s very satisfying to know that you have been able to make a difference.”

MBA Challenge for Charity 2012: sports weekend, 2nd place

Guest post by Jay Winzler (MBA 2013), 2012-2013 Foster School MBA Challenge for Charity president

Dodge ball…last time I played dodge ball was in 5th grade. If my memory serves me right, I was pretty good back then.

ZING! I managed to avoid the first ball, but the second one knocked me out of the game. The next three games were no different. Apparently I’m not as quick as I used to be. That’s okay, the women’s basketball game was about to start and I wanted to join the Dawg Pack as we cheered them in the championship game against Stanford.

Sports Weekend is an annual event in which Foster students join students from 8 other MBA programs including Stanford, UCLA, USC and Berkeley to celebrate our year of hard work in volunteering and fundraising for local charity organizations. The weekend is filled with sunshine, new friends, school spirit and competitions in every type of event imaginable. Team sports – football, ultimate, volleyball, trivia. Individual sports – swimming, running, spelling bee and just for fun – cheerleading, battle of the bands and challenge races. At the end of the weekend, there is an epic celebration and the program that has raised the most money, volunteered the most hours and successfully competed in the most sports is announced as the winner of the coveted Golden Briefcase.

Foster is famous at Sports Weekend. We are known for our terrific student turnout, fun-loving personalities and because the men arrive with creative and sometimes hilarious facial hair. After a sun-filled Saturday of sports, new friends and school spirit, we ended with the annual Battle of the Bands. Death Spiral, the favorite UW band, got the party started with a rousing song by Seattle favorite Nirvana before following up with the entire crowd singing along to Cee-Lo’s “Forget You.”

2nd place among 9 West Coast universities

UW has a history of winning the Golden Briefcase and yet again we were in the hunt! Everybody was on edge as the final announcement was made. UW took 2nd place in both volunteer hours and fundraising efforts and took 2nd place overall. WHOO HOO! Although we didn’t win Sports Weekend this year, our hard work (over 1,600 volunteer hours) and effort was justified with a 2nd place finish.

On Sunday, we took one last chance to sit by the pool and top off our tans, said goodbye to our new friends, traded business cards (we are MBA students after all) and shared a few more stories. It was hard to leave California, but I, for one, was excited to get back to Seattle. I had a speech to prepare. I finished my quantitative methods homework on the plane and after landing checked a voicemail from my friend and co-president:

“Hey Jay, it’s Jessica. I had a great weekend, so much fun. That football game was intense! We need to talk. It’s time to start strategizing about how we are going to win the Golden Briefcase next year. Oh yeah, one other thing. Please shave, your mustache is scaring the little kids.”

Undergrad learns from losing and winning a competition

Guest post by James Barger, UW engineering senior and UW Environmental Innovation Challenge co-chair, 2012, Grand Prize team member, UW Environmental Innovation Challenge 2011

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt, France, 1910

Completing the University of Washington Environmental Innovation Challenge (EIC) is a big arena for many people that enter each year. But it is actually a milestone on the way to becoming a successful entrepreneur.

When I came to the UW EIC as a sophomore I had no training, no experience, and no clue how to build world-class technology; along with the other members of my team, I just had a lot of passion for changing the way the world uses energy. In the beginning we believed we would be able to do everything, but it turns out that only three months of passion and blind experimenting isn’t enough to compete with PhD and MBA students with years of time invested. At the competition our prototype leaked and we had to shut down the demo after we got one of the judges’ shoes wet. After the competition we disagreed on the future of the technology and went our separate ways.

The following year I had no intention of entering the UW EIC and focused on being involved with class research at the UW. However, I became involved with a project in the Mechanical Engineering Department to convert a Honda Accord to an electric vehicle at a low cost. I met incredible people who were just as passionate as I, and we worked hard as a team to create a technology business that could make an impact in people’s lives. The judges thought so too, and we won the Grand Prize. Though, what we gained from the competition went far beyond any prize money.

Each year I competed, I began to see the common threads that made teams stand out and be successful. The experience of going through the entire competition once taught me so well, that by the second year I understood how a successful business plan was put together and how much development a prototype would need before being ready. A great businessman once said to me, “You learn business by doing business, the classroom can only teach you so much.” As EIC advisor and chemical engineering professor, Daniel Schwartz mentioned when he spoke at this year’s Challenge, it is experiences like the EIC that add enormous value to a college education. The UW EIC has given me a solid foundation to build on, so that when I start my own company, I will have the confidence and experience to go forward daring greatly.

2012 Business Plan Competition innovations inspire

Business plan competitions are never just isolated, one-off events. Instead, not only do they help advance the participant innovations along their entrepreneurial paths, but such competitions also help identify overall trends and patterns. What we learn from watching changes in participation, the width and breadth of the ideas and the increasing professionalism of submissions over the years may also serve as an indication of where our economy is (or will be) heading and how prepared our emerging innovators are to address it.

As the University of Washington Foster School of Business’ 2012 Business Plan Competition gets underway, student co-chairs Alan Blickenstaff and Annie Koski-Karell (both MBA 2013) wrote a submissions review letter noting key developments. Letter excerpts:

The first submission I picked up from the daunting stack of papers in front of me described an innovative online service that would connect entrepreneurs seeking funding to would-be investors. Out of the gate, I knew I was in for a fun and inspiring time. Indeed, I was: the entries I reviewed ran the gamut from high-tech cooking tools to DIY veggie gardens in wooden boxes. Across the board, participants demonstrated a remarkably creative, savvy ability to pinpoint business opportunities among a myriad of industries. In addition to the plans addressing some of the more familiar sectors such as medicine and fashion, I was introduced to businesses in fields that I was completely unfamiliar with, including drone aircraft manufacturers and crowd-sourced charity funds. Before I knew it, the stack had disappeared. I came away brimming with excitement for this year’s competition, and more glad than ever for the privilege to be a part of it.

This year, 101 teams of students submitted their innovations, visions and start-ups to the Business Plan Competition. While most entrants classified their idea as a technology or consumer product, the ventures continue to blur the lines between industries. Current trends include a focus on food (15% of plans feature innovations to help you source, cook and enjoy your favorites), crowd-funding platforms, language learning tools, and creating social networks for motivational and educational purposes (such as getting in shape or learning to program). Additionally, 2012 sees environmental innovation infused throughout all categories with focuses on local, efficient and sustainable ideas. Not only does this year’s field represent a wide range of ideas, but the entrepreneurs are already getting their ventures off the ground; more than 25% of entrants have incorporated their venture, raising nearly $400K in combined seed capital and generating more than $120K of earned revenue thus far.

This year’s cohort of young entrepreneurs also represents an amazing range of northwest schools. Nine regional universities are represented with their innovations: Bainbridge Graduate Institute, Eastern Washington University, Evergreen State College, Gonzaga University, Seattle University, Seattle Pacific University, University of Washington, Walla Walla Community College and Washington State University. Additionally, several teams include partnerships across universities, including team members from UCLA, UC Davis, University of Montana, and University of Tokyo.

Follow the 2012 UW Business Plan Competition on Facebook, or search #UWBPC12 on Twitter. The competition is the largest Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship annual event.

Native American Trading at the River

Guest post by Rita Brogan, CEO of PRR

On April 19-20, 2012, the Oregon Native American Business & Entrepreneurial Network, otherwise known as ONABEN, will be hosting its 10th annual Trading at the River conference and tradeshow at the Embassy Suites Hotel near the Portland Airport. Native American enterprises from every sector and of every size will be gathering to learn, partner and promote their businesses.

Tom Hampson, ONABEN’s executive director, says that the focus of the Trading at the River conference is really about what he calls Indianpreneurship. He says, “The challenges facing Native American small business owners is a litany similar to any you would see for a small biz owner, such as insufficient capital, equity and debt caps, and a lack of markets, especially in rural areas with more limited markets.” Since ONABEN’s start in 1991, it has continued to help Native American businesses grow by providing information and technology so they can manage a business in the current environment. ONABEN provides these services in a way that takes into account cultural context. Hampson says it is, “how to marry traditional values with contemporary business principles. Our entrepreneurs are literally walking in two worlds.”

Today, ONABEN’s reach extends throughout Oregon, Washington and Idaho. It has touched hundreds of Native American businesses in reservations and urban areas. In addition to offering business support and training, it partners with CRAFT3, a community development lender focused on providing technical assistance to nascent Native financial institutions and needed capital for business growth.

Hampson points out that trade flourished among the tribes before European contact. “Indians operated sustainable economies for over ten thousand years. We had elaborate monetary and bartering systems, but the web of commercial relations was disrupted by European contact, acts of war and genocide.” The system that replaced it values the accumulation of wealth by individuals above the overall wealth of the community.

Trading at the River bills itself as a celebration of the spirit of Native American innovation and a showcase for Native American enterprises of all shapes and sizes. Over a two day period, participants will engage in community discussions, workshops and symposia, as well as have an opportunity to gather at the Trading at the River marketplace of ideas, products and services.

ONABEN, and all those who participate in the Trading at the River conference, are focused on reestablishing a more inclusive definition of prosperity. “If one has access to resources and the support of community,” says Hampson, “commerce can proceed apace. Everyone can benefit.”

Rita Brogan is the CEO of PRR, a public affairs and communications firm based in Seattle, one of Washington’s 50 largest minority-owned businesses. Brogan was a recent recipient of the Foster School’s Business and Economic Development Center Asian/Pacific Islander Business Leadership Award. She writes the BEDC Brogan blog series monthly. Previously, she covered green economy issues with an emphasis on ways that businesses owned by people of color or women can create a competitive advantage. Her current blog topic focus is on innovation.