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[00:45] 614Startups Nation, welcome to another episode of the 614Startups podcast. My name is Elio Harmon. I have the privilege of being your host and I have an even greater honor of interviewing my man Calvin Cooper of Rhove. Calvin, welcome to the show.
Calvin: [01:00] Thanks, and I appreciate it so much. I love listening to your podcast. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Elio: [01:05] Yeah, man, it’s been a long time coming. It’s been at least a couple of years since our initial introduction. You were working on some other things at the time, so I’d like to kind of go through the journey, your personal journey of where you got started in entrepreneurship and where you are today.
Calvin: [01:23] Yeah, so I grew up here in Columbus. After graduating college at Capital University, I worked in entrepreneurship for eight years, first with the Ohio Supplier Development Council, helping minority-owned businesses connect to our corporate members. And many people don’t know this, but corporate America spends $100 billion with minority-owned companies every year. Too often when you hear minority business, people think a barbershop, but there are tons of companies that are multi decamillion dollar paper companies, multi-hundred million dollar petroleum companies, many of them located here in Ohio. So we represented corporations like Procter & Gamble, Honda, Toyota, and others that did business with those companies. So our job was to certify, develop and connect entrepreneurs to opportunities. Then after working in that space for a few years, I worked with a local venture capital firm investing in technology companies. So I’ve spent a good part of a decade working with people as they brought their ideas to market before starting Rhove.
Elio: [02:28] All right, well, I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am at the hundred billion dollar number. If you think about media and you think about narratives, that isn’t the prevailing narrative. There’s always that black businesses don’t maybe get those kinds of opportunities or the black businesses that are off-scale who do access those opportunities are few and far between. Just taking a moment to explore that, given the climate that we’re in right now with everything else that’s going on in the world, working in that position, what were some things that maybe you didn’t think were true, that you uncovered are true? And what are some things that we could do a better job of as a media company to talk about what’s happening in black business?
Calvin: [03:12] Good question. So the council has been around for over 40 years. There’s a national Minority Supplier Development Council and then there are regional ones in most major markets. A lot of people don’t realize that in the private sector, corporations don’t have a set-aside or quota, they just want a diverse supply chain. Diverse globally, so by location, diverse by size of vendor, but also diversity in type of entrepreneur. So in that space, our job at the council was to identify vendors that could reply to RFPs, requests for proposals. And to the question about telling stories, every year minority vendors that were certified by our council submitted tax documents and other documentation to certify or update their certification, and so we had all this information in our database. Nobody had looked in the database to publish that information when I worked there and so I’m just curious. I love data. I love research. I love publishing and getting access to interesting data and insights and telling a story around that.
[04:23] The president of the council at the time has a journalist background as well and so we just collaborated. I asked the question, “How much money in aggregate do all the minority businesses in Ohio make per year? How much do they generate?” And it was $5 billion in our region. Then we published the magazine to tell the stories of so many great entrepreneurs in our region, stories that hadn’t been told in that way before.
Elio: [04:50] That’s amazing, man, and I’m sure very fulfilling, right? So it’s one of those things that we all dream about. Having a job that you can make some money doing it, but you also can help people and you get that fulfillment feeling at the end of every day that you’re doing something important, meaningful, helping people. So you’re doing that, when did you start? Did you lift up your head one day and say, “Hey, I’m looking for some new opportunities?” Did the opportunity come find you? How did you get into this whole world of venture investing?
Calvin: [05:16] I mean, anything that I’ve done in my life has always been just solving problems. So one thing that I was starting to explore was the access to capital problem among minority-owned companies. So after identifying that there are billions of dollars being generated in this region, and surveying entrepreneurs to see what are their challenges, access to capital was a recurring theme. And because I studied finance and classical economics and I’m just curious and I know a lot of people, I had a little bit more awareness around venture capital and what that was. What I found is that a lot of entrepreneurs are brilliant at solving the problems that their business was set up to solve and deliver their products to market, but they are not experts in finance.
[06:02] On the other side of the marketplace, you have private equity managers, venture capitalists, high net worth individuals looking to invest in companies, and many of them are just not aware that these companies existed. Those two networks didn’t know each other just because of systemic challenges with race in America, those networks just didn’t overlap. So what I started to work on was:
1. a report on that issue, but
2. a solution proposing creating a fund to bridge that gap.
[06:33] In that process, I was introduced to venture capitalists who asked me to join the team, but they were in between fund one and two at the time. So I just enjoy diving deep into a problem, following it wherever it goes. And so in the process of getting to know the VCs and working on side projects, nights and weekends, I offered to join the team but to take a big pay cut so they could afford me and I made a bet [with] the partners like if I don’t raise capital for fund two then just fire me. So I did raise money and I was able to keep my job as a VC.
Elio: [07:12] All right. Well, you must know something that maybe a lot of people don’t know when they are risk-averse, right, so that’s a big risk to take. I mean, you’d studied it [but] it’s one thing to know the theory of the thing, it’s another to be a practitioner and taking the pay cuts in order to be able to help this fund grow. What was it about being an investor? What were some of the lessons you learned investing in companies that you think prepared you so that when you were ready to transition to Rhove that you felt like you had what you needed in order to be successful?
Calvin: [07:44] Yes, so many great lessons. Venture capital is an apprentice business and so while I came with many skills around research and marketing and building out market landscapes, developing an investment thesis, I really learned to hone those skills in venture, not just from the firm and the partners that I worked with there, but also from my colleagues throughout the country. Really digging in to understand and expand my knowledge base on the coasts and learn from other people who had reached even greater levels of success. What were the common themes and lessons learned from serial entrepreneurs that were successful or some of the best venture capitalists in the world? So I got to learn a lot about those best practices there as well as some practical tools to execute like, OKRs, Objectives and Key Results and how to pull a team together and just all the execution that goes into building a company from the start.
[08:43] So those tools really helped me in building Rhove. I didn’t start this company because I wanted to be an entrepreneur. In fact, I still don’t really see myself as an entrepreneur. I see myself as just a problem solver. The seat I’m in right now happens to be as an entrepreneur, but I’ve always been solving problems from whatever seat I’m in and whatever I’m called to do to execute against solving that problem. So that’s what led me into venture and then that’s what led me into starting Rhove. And I guess one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that that’s the best way to start a company. It’s really to be a problem solver, not somebody who’s trying to sell a product. You’re really selling a problem or really trying to understand a problem and opening yourself up and having the intellectual discipline to just test and iterate any solution towards solving the problem.
Elio: [09:36] We’re going to take a quick break and be right back after this message from our sponsor.
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Elio: [10:31] You and I have probably sat down and had two in-depth conversations – the very, very first time I met you several years ago, and then I think last year – and you didn’t say this is one of the key lessons that you learned being an investor. Maybe you had this skill initially, but every time I sit down with you or I’m about to have a meeting with you, I’m like, “Calvin’s going to ask me a bunch of questions. He’s going to ask me a bunch of questions. I think that’s one of the reasons I love meeting with you because you’re genuinely curious but you’re also in your conversations, helping people to think through problems or the problem that they’re attempting to solve. So I think that’s a brilliant skill that you have and something that I’ve gotten a lot of value out of. So, Scott Sumi has been on the podcast and he talked about Rhove from somebody joining the team, maybe not coming up with the original idea. From your perspective, what were some of the questions that you were asking? What was the problem that you saw? And how did you come upon the idea for Rhove?
Calvin: [11:30] So at the time, I just got done leading the launch of the Smart Cities Accelerator, and so I was really investigating the problems that would arise out of humanity going from a majority rural society to a majority urban society. There are all kinds of problems that arise out of that shift. I was also investigating FinTech, changes in financial technology. So banking as a service platform, blockchain technologies, new, innovative ledger technology, so blockchain-like technologies as well. And I was starting to investigate PropTech, these three property technologies. So there were these three market landscapes I was really deep in. Made several investments in the Smart Cities space, made two investments in the FinTech space and was joining the board of some of these companies. So I just had a lot of awareness of one, the problems in housing and all the things that you read about in the news related to how people live in our urban centers, as well as an awareness of shifts in technology to better deliver financial solutions to the market. And lastly, the willingness of the real estate market and players in the space to adopt new technology. So Rhove was the convergence of those three landscapes, in addition to my own personal experience and passion for this space.
[13:01] I was turning 30 at the time, and like many people, a few years removed [from] college, you start to do the math on how much money you spent in rent, and the average person is going to spend over $200,000 in lifetime rent. But even knowing that, buying a home isn’t the right solution for most people. In most US markets, it is more affordable to rent than to buy a home. If you don’t intend on living in a space for more than five years, you’re probably going to lose money on purchasing a home because of the transaction costs and all the commissions that go into the home purchase. So when I was doing that math, it just really pissed me off. I’m like, “Wow, I’m in a catch 22 position. It’s just not feasible to keep spending money on rent with no value creation financially, but buying a home didn’t make sense either.” And when you dive into it, you realize that the millennial generation has zero dollars in net real estate wealth. Zero, like zero dollars. That is astonishing and much lower than Gen X and Boomers at our same age. So the problems that are going to exist because our generation has no real estate wealth, which is where most people in previous generations built their wealth was in their home, you realize that we’re going to have really big challenges in the future.
[14:33] So I just got obsessed with this problem and how to solve it and wanted to find a company to invest in and couldn’t find a company to invest in but I found people who were passionate like Scott Sumi, who became our CTO who was on the podcast, as you mentioned. He was at IBM at the time. Jonathan Nutt was working with him at IBM as well, he was a mutual friend. He came on as our head of product. And Jonathan Slemp was consulting one of the portfolio companies that I was on the board and he came on as our head of marketing and Biz Dev, and we just started jamming on this nights and weekends.
[15:08] I had zero intention of starting a company. I resisted it until I met Brett Kaufman. I was really just researching this market, understanding the viability of the space, trying to find the company to invest in [but] there weren’t any at the time. As a backup plan, I’m like, “Well, we could just invest in a company and pull a team together”, but within five minutes of meeting Brett Kaufman – he’s a developer in town, has built some of the most interesting community-based projects in the country, but happens to be here. He just in five minutes said, “Why don’t you do it? If you quit and start this company, I’ll invest in it and help you launch it within our portfolio.” And I’m like, “No, I’m just being offered partner at a venture fund, that’s crazy. Why don’t we find a CEO?” And he was like, “Absolutely not. You’re the one, you got the passion, you’re obsessed with this.” And I took a night to think about it and he’s right. There was nothing that I could imagine working on that was more important than this and so I took that leap once again to solve this problem.
Elio: [16:19] Well, let’s talk about demographics because you raise this very important statistic that millennials have zero dollars in net real estate wealth. Is that purely a generational thing? Meaning the same thing like car ownership, something very similar happening in terms of car ownership rates across the millennial generation? Or is there something fundamental about the way the economy works? Meaning outside of just demographic choices, is there a pressure – economics, debt, housing costs? Is there something more to it than just a demographic choice? What did you find in your research? I’m really curious about that.
Calvin: [16:57] Yeah, good question. It’s all of the above. The price of a starter home has doubled over the past 10 years, so it’s harder to enter the market. You’ve got to come up with larger down payments and it’s harder to save for a down payment when you’re spending 25 to 35% of your income on rent. That’s true for people all across the country. A hidden truth that a lot of people don’t realize is that the rent to income ratio in Columbus is about the same as the rent to income ratio in San Francisco. Now, add onto that 10s of thousands of dollars in student loan debt and you can see that it’s really hard for millennials to save enough money for a down payment to live in the neighborhoods that they can rent in, and so we have a huge barrier of entry. Gen Xers are doing all right when it comes to real estate wealth. They have about the same net real estate wealth as Baby Boomers did at the same age and they didn’t have the same challenges that we have when it comes to student loan debt and the cost of rent.
[18:07] In addition to that, there are some changing preferences among our generation. When surveyed, you find that 10% of millennials prefer renting, they don’t plan on ever buying a home, and that number is growing. The most recent survey I saw, that number grew from 10 to 12% in a matter of just a couple of years. Part of the reason is that we value community. We want to be a part of the experience of living next to a diverse group of people. We want to be able to walk to community assets like beautiful parks. We want more amenities, and there are a lot more amenities that are available to you as a renter now than ever before. You can get a gym in your building, you can get a pool in your building, you can get all these great experiences that you don’t get as a homeowner unless you’re very wealthy. So buying a home, for many people, in terms of just your pure experience is a step back. You have to move far out from the neighborhoods that you love and commute through traffic to get to a job. And some of that’s going to change because of COVID and remote work but I don’t think that is going to fundamentally reverse this shift that we’re seeing in preferences.
Elio: [19:25] And the cultural movements as well like the minimalism movement.
Calvin: [19:31] Absolutely.
Elio: [19:31] This idea of owning less that really resonates with the millennial generation. So there are a whole lot of factors contributing to this and I’m glad you were able to go into that. So let’s talk about the solution. So we get the problem. It’s particularly pronounced for the millennial generation. How does Rhove solution for that?
Calvin: [19:50] Yeah, good question. Just imagine if every renter was an owner. That’s the world we’re going to create, and so the solution is what we call Rentership. It’s a way for everybody who lives in a building to have the ability to own a stake in their property. Much like how you would buy a share of any asset through a mobile app. Many people are used to using Robin Hood and other apps to buy assets on the market. So our app allows you to turn your rent into a vehicle for savings and ownership. We’ve rolled out our products in almost 10% of the units in and around downtown Columbus and we’ve got a big pipeline of owners all across the country ready to roll out our first product which allows you to automatically save and earn cashback from your property.
[20:42] But what we’re rolling out this year is the ability to level that up into an ownership stake in your property. Which your stake, your Rentership units, (RNT), the value of that stake appreciates with the value of that property, but unlike traditional homeownership, you don’t have to go through all these hurdles to take out a big loan and park 10s of thousands of dollars in cash in one asset. You could just buy as much or as little as you want to through our app every month and the value of that will appreciate with the value of the building. And just for holding a Rentership unit, you’ll get paid current. So you’ll get 5% return in cash deposited to your Rhove account. So quite an attractive product that expands access to ownership in a way that’s never been done before.
Elio: [21:28] All right, now, does my ownership move with me or is my ownership tied to my leasing agreement? Meaning as long as I am in an apartment, my shares will equal whatever I’ve invested, and when I move, does that move with me and I continue to receive payments? How does that work?
Calvin: [21:46] Your Rhove account is your Rhove account. So any money that you put into the Rhove account is yours. When you buy Rentership units, that’s yours whether or not you live in that property. So if you move out, you hold on to your units, you don’t have to sell them. If you want to sell them, you can sell them through the Rhove app, we’ll redeem them, but you don’t have to sell.
Elio: [22:06] Thank you for listening, we’re going to take a quick break and be right back after this message from our sponsor.
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[22:44] Okay, so not only can I acquire, I can grow my “portfolio”. I don’t know if you use that word, but let’s call it that for now, for our purposes, something that people will be familiar with. I could choose to sell that portfolio, keep it, I own it for as long as I would desire to, but you have two customers here. So you have a clear value proposition for the renter, right? You’re going to spend all this money, you don’t intend to own or even if you do decide to own at some point, it might not be anytime soon. Why just spend this money and not gain any equity? I get that part. Then you have another customer. So on the building side, on the landlord side, I don’t know if you refer to them as landlords but on the landlord side, what’s the benefit? What is the problem that you guys are solving for them?
Calvin: [23:29] Yeah, so good question. We do distinguish between the two sides of the marketplace. Our customer is the renter. We exist to solve problems for renters in the market but we do have partner properties that offer Rhove. And why they partner with us is because this is a really competitive market. When you look at the multifamily rental space, you see properties offering one, two, three months’ rent to acquire a renter. They’re also paying Apartment List, apartments.com thousands of dollars to market their property, and ultimately those dollars compete for search engine marketing, (SEM) and SEO dollars on Google. So ultimately Google, apartments.com, Apartment List rent in that marketing scenario. And this is a way for owners to more directly pay their customers, the renters.
[24:21] So instead of spending money on marketing to acquire tenants and then remarketing to them every couple of years when the renter moves out – because on average, these portfolios have 40 to 60% turnover rates – Rhove is a more efficient way to market, acquire and retain renters. So they’re paying for it out of their marketing budget when it comes to any of the cashback or other incentives but when it comes to the ownership stake, renters are buying in, they’re paying for this stake in the property. So the owner is able to sell a fractional stake in their building, which they already do. Most multifamily developments have several limited partner investors, (LPs) that earn a return and have a stake in the sale value of the property. So this just brings more of the community into the financing market for properties, which is a more democratic and equitable way to do it.
Elio: [25:23] Yeah, and especially when you think from a landlord or an owner perspective, a lot of times projects will be stalled because all of the benefits accrue to a very small group of people, right? So you’re going to basically change the face of a particular community and sometimes the community is not all that supportive, whether it be for historical reasons or for issues of gentrification. There’s always this idea that this big development is going to move in, they’re going to get all of these incentives, tax breaks, etc. and all of those benefits are going to accrue to a few. Are you hearing some positive feedback from maybe this model that addresses some of that where it–?
Calvin: [26:05] It addresses all of that. It completely breaks the old model…
Elio: [26:10] Correct.
Calvin: [26:10] …And the “us versus them” mentality. This brings the whole community into the value of real estate development because real estate development is good. It’s good that properties are built in our communities because it creates jobs, it creates safe places to live and it lowers rent across the board. If we don’t build housing, then rents are going to continue to increase because of just pure supply and demand – there’s more demand than there is supply. So we need to build more properties. But the downside, the thing that’s been missing all these years is the ability to bring the community into the financial value creation of real estate development. And so this is that path to really bridge the gap between all the communities and the renters and owners. It turns renters into stakeholders.
[27:03] Just imagine if 10 years ago Rhove was available and people in Franklinton owned a stake of the places that they lived in. Then when that community started to develop around them, what if they participated in that value? That would be amazing. Imagine if people had 10s of thousands of dollars saved up through their Rhove account, they were going to use the value that they’ve accumulated to pay their rent. They wouldn’t just have more capacity to pay their own rent, they would also want to help their neighbors pay rent because we’re all in this together. It changes the mentality like a stakeholder owner mentality binds us together. It ties us into more of a mindset of mutual responsibility and destiny and value.
Elio: [27:51] Yeah, and shaping a healthier community where people actually genuinely care for each other. I think that’s amazing. Now, Jonathan Slemp, that’s the homie. He’s in charge of business development and marketing and getting the word out. Traditionally, rent-based programs, incentive programs, maybe you won’t find out that a property has Rhove as an option until you are interested in renting. Are you guys taking a two-pronged approach where you’re going direct to consumer and saying, “Here are the properties that have Rhove in it”? Or are you relying mostly on the buildings themselves to tell people that they have Rhove available to them? How are you going about talking to the market?
Calvin: [28:29] Both. Renters find us both ways. We have listings of all our partner properties in our app and on our website, so we get a constant flow of renters looking for properties that align with our values and our mission. And owners promote us to their tenants because they want to better engage and build relationships and attract and retain their renters. So we’re connecting with people both ways.
Elio: [28:56] Okay, that’s amazing, man. So what’s next for you guys? What’s on the radar?
Calvin: [29:00] Well, we’ve got a tall order. We’ve got to turn every renter into an owner and so we’re just getting started. We’ve got more demand than we have time to keep up with it. We’re just in Columbus really because we want to focus on going deep in this market, but there are people in Detroit and Indianapolis and Houston and when I say people, I mean property owners who’ve reached out who want to offer Rhove in their communities. There are renters in all those areas that want Rhove and so the next few years for us is just continue to execute getting this product out in the market and converting as many people as we can into stakeholders.
Elio: [29:39] All right. Now, here’s the big question. How do you guys make money?
Calvin: [29:43] Transaction fees when people become owners. So the Rhove account is free if you’re using it as a savings product or a tool to get cashback on your rent, but when you become a stakeholder, when you buy into the properties there are transactions fees. So we align our fees with our customer. We never want to take more money than we’re providing value and so our fees are less than the value you would have in your steak if you just hold on to it for a year. So you’re going to make more money than you pay us.
Elio: [30:17] That’s great, man. Everybody wins, right? All the customers win, and you guys win as well. And like I said that that is a very, very noble kind of mission and I think it really does– You know, on issues that are very important to the society, it’s like race touches everything. So everything that you talk about in this society, it touches everything, right?
Calvin: [30:36] Right.
Elio: [30:37] So it also levels the playing field in terms of accumulating real estate. We also know that black people in this country have much lower homeownership rates, and as a result, we’re net renters and so if there’s an opportunity to create more ownership by making more renters owners, that’s another thing that you’re doing to assist in that area as well. Are those things that you guys are thinking about?
Calvin: [30:58] Oh absolutely.
Elio: [30:59] Are you looking at certain types of properties that you invest in? Are opening it up to kind of have some more social entrepreneurship in terms of some of the properties that you choose to invest in or areas that you invest in?
Calvin: [31:10] This is a great question. Dr. King talked about the two phases of civil rights. First, the struggle for racial justice, and the second, the struggle for economic justice which really impacts people all demographics. So when you think about systemic challenges, you’ve got to change the system to solve those challenges. And so this is going to stand real estate on its head and turn every renter into an owner. Therefore, every minority community that disproportionately rents will have a solution that brings us into this, and this is something that’s near and dear to my heart. My great grandmother on my dad’s side of the family was in real estate. She was a black woman in the ‘60s in real estate, and one of her passions was when she’d buy a property– She got to start just out of a boarding room. She had a couple of extra bedrooms and there was a recession, there were people out of work, and she just would rent rooms to people. That turned into her buying houses and renting those to people. I remember my grandma telling me stories about people who would rent from granny and she would do lease to own options to create a pathway for them to become owners. So this is something that’s been in the back of my mind for as long as I can remember, and this is that on steroids. This is a way to build a bridge for everybody to own a stake in their community, something that the system was built to do the opposite of and so we’re about to just do a complete 180.
Elio: [32:56] Well, Calvin, thank you so much, man. I really appreciate you taking the time to share your story and the Rhove story. If you could snap your fingers and we’re five years from now, 10 years from now, wherever you’d like to set that long term vision for the company, where would you like to see Rhove? I mean, I already know maybe what the answer is going to be. “Every renter is going to be an owner.” We get it, yeah.
Calvin: [33:19] Yeah, that’s exactly it. In every city, you’re going to have renters who are owners. This is no longer going to be a radical idea. It’s going to be so common, it’s expected. Like why would you rent anywhere that didn’t give you a stake in the property? That’s where I want to be in five years. I want to move from a radical idea to just a basic expectation in the market.
Elio: [33:46] Well, listen, I close every podcast with my one takeaway. And I’ve done the “Hey, if you’re passionate about something, you got to go for it.” I’ve done that but I think I want to take a different tact. Advocacy takes a lot of different forms. We’ve seen the country take to the streets and we know change is coming but outside of advocacy and looking to downtown, entrepreneurship is another way to make change. And for what you’re doing and the impact it’s going to have, I think maybe we’ll create infinitely more waves in terms of Dr. King, what he said, “On the one hand, you want political power, but you also need to acquire economic power.” Thank you so much for joining us on another episode. Peace.
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