Ian Halpern of RentShare

How did you start your business?
It was a rocky start. I was young and naive, but a hard worker with nothing to lose. When I decided I wanted to start my own company, I was working at a later stage startup in New York. After working there for two years, I was looking to move on and was getting calls from Google recruiters and looking at other startups, none of which sounded exciting to me. So, I made a promise: To quit and never get another job. I believe that a lot of people never push themselves enough to see their real potential. So, I decided to purposely back myself into a corner and see what happens because again, I had nothing to lose. I quit, moved home and started working.

After working through a few ideas, RentShare came out on top. I started building a prototype, but the 2008 crash had left financial institutions and their payment processor partners skittish and they had no desire to work with a kid with no experience who was trying to start a risky non-traditional payment company. It took months and months to get my first account, which had high rates and low limits. As soon as that happened, though, I launched the prototype and would get on as many friends as my limits would allow, month after month having to prove myself and asking for higher limits.

The second hardest part to starting this business was finding the right co-founders. I had tried a few co-founders in the beginning that didn’t work out, but then one of my oldest friends and roommate, Chris, decided to leave the company he had started to work with me. This is when things started picking up. He then brought on our third co-founder, Trevor, and a month later got us into the Brandery accelerator. The Brandery was huge for us. They helped us create our brand, which we’re constantly complimented on, and they helped get us the types of payment accounts we needed to launch. At the end of the program, we launched our MVP and, with the Brandery’s help, pulled in some seed funding.

How did you come up with the idea for your business?
Most people assume the inspiration came from living with roommates. That isn’t actually why I started RentShare. It was more because the only check I ever wrote was for rent and the only letter I ever mailed was my rent check. All other bills were already online, so I wanted to figure out why rent was so behind other bills and if there was an opportunity there.

After researching the market, we found that about 70 percent of renters in the United States were paying via check. The rental industry is an incredibly fragmented market. Landlords range from big corporations, small companies or the random guy down the street. We discovered that current payment processors didn’t jive with the needs of landlords. On top of the challenges with payments for landlords, they’re also an “older” group most of the time who don't like change.

Also, the large real estate groups hold about 20 percent of the market, but the long tail of the market is the smaller landlords and individual owners. All these factors played in to why the market is so behind in the online payment space. It’s the last frontier. That’s how we got the inspiration.

What local resources did you take advantage of and how did they help?
We were lucky enough to be invited to take part in the second Brandery class. We entered the program with nothing more than a private prototype and we left with a public product because of the help we received from the Brandery and Cincinnati. With the Brandery’s help, we landed a partnership with PNC, which enabled us to release the product to the public. We also got to work with Landor’s Cincinnati team, who were incredible. They did so much work to help develop our brand into what it is today. Part of our initial seed funding also came from Cincinnati investors and our first landlord client was a Cincinnati-based company.

What would you do differently if you started your business again?
Being the first company I have started, surprisingly I made a lot of mistakes the first time around. I think finding the right people to work with in the beginning would have been a big help, though you don’t always have the luxury. I wasted a lot of time fumbling around until Chris and Trevor joined the team. Also in the beginning, I was a little too focused on creating elegant technology and learning new things than getting to market and building the company. If I did it again, I would be a little more focused in the beginning. For the most part though, starting a company is never a clear path and you have to be comfortable that you are going to make mistakes and waste time on things that don’t work.

What’s next for you and your company?
We have pretty big plans this year. What we launched a year and a half ago was a product for the tenants that allowed us to frictionlessly get to market. Now we are shifting development to building products for landlords and integrating with other rent tools and payment services. We made the initial product so frictionless for landlords that they have been coming out of the woodwork to get onto our premium services. Though we’re building a lot for landlords, a simple product for tenants is always our focus and we are adding more payment options, making it mobile friendly, integrating useful tools like Handybook (a service that allows you to hire a cleaner or handyman) and looking into integrating bill payments for Internet, cable and other shared household bills.

Interview by Sean Peters