When Caitrin Williams was apartment-hunting with three roommates before her senior year at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, she quickly became overwhelmed and underwhelmed at the same time. She had to weed through hundreds of listings to find a few good properties; then the problem because unresponsive landlords and an unwieldy and expensive application process.
“It was honestly one of the most inefficient and time-consuming things I’ve done in a while,” she says. “In the end, we could only rent one place, so we wasted a total of about $720 in application fees just so each property could look at the same information on us.”
Today, Williams is the cofounder and operations manager of Knoxville-based Rentailor, an online rental portal that’s helping streamline the process for renters and landlords alike. Since launching in September, Rentailor has signed up 25 apartment communities and nearly 4,000 renters. It charges renters $24.99 for the rental application, but the real opportunity is with the properties, which are charged on a referral basis.
Another key component of Rentailor is its risk-based pricing approach. “We offer personalized pricing based on applicant risk factors, like credit history, credit score and rental history,” Williams says. “It’s just like how insurance companies or traditional credit lenders determine premiums and interest rates. When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, rental real estate leasing is unsecured loan lending, so it’s time the rental industry catches up to industry standards and best practices of risk-mitigation.”
Like with any startup, Williams has faced many challenges. Keep reading to find out how she has navigated some major roadblocks on her path to entrepreneur.
Starting a tech startup when you’re not a tech founder
“It did make this venture a serious challenge, not having a background in tech,” she says. “A lot of literal sweat, tears and being stubbornly optimistic went into building the tech component of Rentailor. It was just hard and frustrating a lot of the time, but in the end, a passion for the product and changing the industry kept me going. The biggest lesson I learned was that not everyone who says they’re a ‘web developer’ is actually a web developer. With no background in tech, website, software or Internet services, I felt like I was driving 60 mph in the dead of night with no headlights, seatbelt or car insurance. It was exciting at first, then terrifying, then just plain awful. If I could do it all over again, I would have found a tech lead with a long resume in building custom software to be a ‘translator,’ if you will, when choosing a development team and to help navigate and supervise the website development process.”
Changing an industry that is set in its ways
“The rental industry is mostly composed of big management companies with enormous portfolios of properties across several different cities and states,” she says. “Getting the corporate companies to try something new and relatively unproven was harder than I had expected. They have their ways of doing things, and for good reasons. We were really fortunate and worked extremely hard to get the 23 communities we started with. The properties that decided to give it a shot did so because they want to be on the front of a trend and offer their current and future customers the best and most cutting-edge options on the market.”
Realizing what it really takes to run a startup
“I had a great support system in my family who kept reminding me to not let my mistakes define my story, and to occasionally step away from the whole thing and take a break to remember why I started this business in the first place. Also, having a dog got me through the tough stuff. It sounds stupid to a lot of people, but pets are proven to help reduce stress and depression, so I have to throw some credit to my dog for keeping me on my feet and pushing forward.
The best thing about being an entrepreneur
“Cliche warning: I like being my own boss,” she says. “I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum, so I knew I would have a hard time in a ‘normal’ job, mostly due to boredom, but also because I like to rewrite the rules. Entrepreneurship is also my creative outlet. I’ve always liked creating new things, but I don’t draw, paint, sculpt or perform, so I wouldn’t call myself an artist. Traditional artists take inspiration and turn it into a visual or melodic representation of an idea, feeling, thought or whatever else sparked the creativity. In a way, entrepreneurship is a form of artistry. Inspiration comes from recognizing a need in the market; we conceptualize the solution; we develop the product, service or business; then throw it out into the world for critique and interpretation, just like artists do with what they create.”
Being a part of the Knoxville entrepreneurial ecosystem
“I honestly wouldn’t have dreamed that Knoxville would have any startup ecosystem when I was growing up here,” she says. “Now? It’s a totally different ball game. I went through CO.STARTERS at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center in the fall of 2014 with my idea for Rentailor and was shocked to find so many other creative and brilliant entrepreneurs in our city with amazing ideas. Knoxville has a lot of resources for small business owners and entrepreneurs to turn an idea into reality and it’s only going to get better. We have a really unique combination of a high-profile university, a national laboratory that cranks out cutting-edge technology all day long, low cost of living, easy access to at least five or six big cities in the South, one of the world’s largest media companies (Scripps Networks) and a neighborly culture. Truth be told, these last 3 years, I haven’t gotten out of my house or office very much. I’ve had my nose buried in spreadsheets and computer screens. But I do attend any startup, entrepreneurship or networking events every chance I get, because my greatest leads and connections come from those places. One of the biggest benefits provided to me by Knoxville’s growing economy and startup ecosystem is the camaraderie with fellow entrepreneurs and knowing that I’m not alone and I’m not the only one facing the problems and struggles that I do. Sometimes it just helps to know you’re not alone.”