Go for the "dirtiest, unsexiest problems out there to solve," say Poplar Homes Co-Founder & CTOby@ricomok
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Go for the "dirtiest, unsexiest problems out there to solve," say Poplar Homes Co-Founder & CTO

by Rico MokSeptember 15th, 2021
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Rico Mok is Co-Founder & CTO at Poplar Homes, a tech-enabled property management service for residential real estate. The company was founded in 2014 and now counts over 2,200 doors under management and $20M in venture funding. Founder: “We founded Poplar Homes in 2014 after our own terrible housing experience as college students.” Founder: "If I weren’t building this startup, I’d be building another in real estate as well…” "Our team is not afraid of taking big leaps of faith and weathering the storm…”

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HackerNoon Reporter: Please tell us briefly about your background.

I was enthralled with technology and entrepreneurship from a young age. I was born in Australia but grew up in Hong Kong. One of my favorite past times was wandering through the bustling electronics markets of Hong Kong, searching for different games or computer parts. When it came time for high school, I had my eye on the entrepreneurial action of Silicon Valley, so I convinced my parents to let me travel solo to the US and attend school in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I ended up trying my luck on a few mobile app ideas after high school, including one that let people retrieve digital photo memories (before Snapchat, Facebook, and Google). I was accepted into a San Jose-based incubator called Teens In Tech. In the meantime, I fell in love with Santa Clara University after reading the story of a student named Diane Keng, who graduated after having built and sold multiple startups. That’s how I ended up at Santa Clara University, which is where we founded Poplar Homes (formerly Onerent).

What's your startup called? And in a sentence or two, what does it do?

Our company is Poplar Homes (formerly Onerent). We’re a tech-enabled property management service for residential real estate. Poplar makes renting a home as easy as buying a book off Amazon and helps property owners manage properties like they manage their stocks. We do everything from listing a home for rent to fixing the pipes when there’s a leak!

What is the origin story?

We founded Poplar Homes in 2014 after our own terrible housing experience as college students. My co-founders and I were all left without housing one year and figured that was a pretty fundamental problem also experienced by many of our peers.

We set up shop in a garage on Poplar Street (part of the inspiration for our new name) and got to work. Our platform ended up renting 90% of the off-campus housing inventory. Eventually, we realized the big opportunity in modernizing not just off-campus housing, but property management as a business model. In late 2015, we expanded beyond college campuses to the general market and started offering full-service property management. Today we manage over 2,200 homes across 10 major markets in the US, doing everything from leasing to maintenance and rent collection.

What do you love about your team, and why are you the ones to solve this problem?

Our team is not afraid of taking big leaps of faith and weathering the storm. We‘re serious and persistent in our mission to simplify the entire real estate lifecycle. As founders when we started, we personally managed a small portfolio of around 20 properties. We’d go out and take photos, answer calls, clean up the homes, and even handle tricky situations like evictions all on our own. This in-the-field learning was essential for young founders who didn’t have decades of past experience in real estate in our back pocket. I think it gave us a lot of perspective on how difficult it is to be a landlord--even with all the bad rep people give them. We saw how strained relationships can become between a tenant and landlord.

Eventually, we combined our organic experience with experienced real estate and tech operators, adding executives to our team from large US Real Estate Investment Trusts and some of the country’s largest property management businesses. Today, our executive team each carries over 10+ years of experience in real estate management, technology, and operations on portfolios as large as 50,000 homes managed across the country. Our advisory board includes Google’s Chief of AI as an investor and advisor.

If you weren’t building your startup, what would you be doing?

If I weren’t building this startup, I’d certainly be building another--likely in real estate as well. Real estate is a complex asset class. This is why it’s one of the lagging industries in technology adoption. Yet, it’s also the world’s largest asset class. I’m fascinated with building technology to bridge these complex offline-to-online experiences and I believe that’s the current era of innovation that we’re only beginning now. Even the most offline businesses can now benefit from technology and I see massive opportunity in that regard.

At the moment, how do you measure success? What are your core metrics?

Our primary measure of success is the number of doors (rental units) we have under management and customer satisfaction. As of this writing, we have around 2,200 doors under management and an 85% customer satisfaction rating (the industry average in property management is less than 40%). As we grow, more doors in our portfolio also means more opportunities for us to help renters and real estate investors in all steps of their journey—from renting, to buying, selling, and investing.

What’s most exciting about your traction to date?

We’ve grown 70% in the last six months as technology adoption in real estate was dramatically accelerated during the pandemic in 2020. We also added key new team members such as Travis Buchanan, our Chief Operating Officer who brings experience in managing tens of thousands of homes at American Homes 4 Rent (NYSE:AMH).

What technologies are you currently most excited about, and most worried about? And why?

The technology for anti-fraud and identity verification are critical in high-value transactions such as real estate. Over 5.2 million renters each year lose money in a scam when fraudsters spoof rental listings and pose as a landlord to rip-off unassuming renters. I’m excited and feel a sense of urgency around anti-fraud technology to stop the millions of dollars lost by renters. At Poplar, we built a tool called as one way to try and help renters identify scam listings. It’s important to put a stop to rental fraud.

I would not fear or worry about technology if it weren’t for bad actors such as scammers. In that regard, I worry about the tech that these scammers have at their disposal. Software such as face manipulation or filter apps are concerning as we’ve seen fraudsters attempt to impersonate a stolen identity and bypass facial recognition tools. These data manipulation products, when in the wrong hands, could wreak havoc on people’s wallets and well-being.

What drew you to get published on HackerNoon? What do you like most about our platform?

We’re big fans of HackerNoon’s editorial team and contributors. As a young startup founder, it’s unrealistic to expect you’ll learn the tricks of the trade in a purely academic setting. Publications such as HackerNoon and the communities built around it help young entrepreneurs absorb so many strategic and tactical best practices that have real application in the company yielding process.

What advice would you give to the 21-year-old version of yourself?

Go beyond flashy apps and look at the dirtiest, unsexiest problems out there to solve. Look at fundamental human needs and identify what part of the supply chain for that basic need is broken. Often there are fewer people taking action on those problems. Because of that, there is a massive opportunity if your solution is the right one and picks up traction.

What is something surprising you've learned this year that your contemporaries would benefit from knowing?

In the last year, I learned that the foundation of company culture is what gets you through extremely difficult times like those we all faced in the last year. We’ve been through many of the ups and downs of company-building, but my co-founders and I have worked together on this with full commitment for seven years. The foundation of trust we’ve built between each other is crucial to the success of our team and company. I learned that with the underlying trust, you can act more quickly when there are major changes to your business.