How a Toronto startup is bringing renting into the digital age
For folks who are not familiar with it, Everest is a program offered by MaRS’ Information and Communications Technology Venture Services to help early-stage founders scale their startups. The program focuses on filling the gaps in a startup’s business plan via intensive discovery, business model testing and validation, beachhead segmentation, rapid product iteration, team building and innovation accounting (that is, identifying metrics that matter).
The program is called Everest because being in a startup is comparable to climbing a mountain—you need to know how to best use your limited resources in order to succeed. Everest exists to help startup founders through the tough times or, as Paul Graham puts it, through “the trough of sorrow.”
From time to time, I’ll be interviewing some of the Everest program’s exceptional founders who are struggling through the trough of sorrow, striving valiantly and daring greatly to make their startups work. It’s a real honour to present Toronto-based startup Casalova in this month’s Everest showcase.
Everest Showcase: Casalova
- Startup name: Casalova (pronounced ka-suh-low-vuh), which means to “love your home”
- Co-founders: Ray Taaéb, CEO, and Curtis Layne, chief technology officer
- Year founded: 2014
- Sector: Software as a service: enterprise collaboration
- Team size: 6
Elevator pitch: Casalova is a software service that streamlines the rental process for both tenants and landlords from the search to the signing of the lease. Casalova enables tenants to search for rental properties, schedule viewings, make offers and pay their rent all using a single profile online. It also enables transparency in the market through the use of reviews and ratings among members, so that users feel safe sharing their information online or attending rental viewings by themselves.
The platform also helps landlords and property managers to promote their listings and to acquire qualified tenants in half the time it would normally take. The intuitive and easy-to-use dashboard reduces the workload for property managers by streamlining the workflow, including listing units, scheduling viewings, screening tenants, accepting offers and collecting rent.
Q&A with Ray Taaeb, CEO of Casalova
Nathan: Why did you start Casalova?
Ray: It’s a funny story. Prior to starting Casalova, I was an aspiring accountant “doing my time” at one of the big firms in downtown Toronto. A couple of months before I quit, I actually won the firm’s Donald Trump Award as the person most likely to leave the company to begin a startup. They were right. I’m not sure how they discovered that about me, but it was a peer-voted award, so it must’ve been the way I spoke about new ideas or business opportunities. One of those ideas was Casalova and so in the fall of 2014 I joined forces with my co-founder, Curtis Layne, to revolutionize the renting space.
If you’ve ever been a tenant looking to find a new rental home, you know that it can be an absolute nightmare. Traditional sites like Kijiji and Craigslist are becoming overloaded with outdated listings and scam artists, causing concerns for safety and quality. This has increased the pain that consumers feel when renting.
When you do finally find a place that you like, you often have to fill out several paper applications just to make an offer. The whole process is very outdated and has yet to see any positive advancements. Nothing out there today really solves these problems and we believe that technology and renting haven’t really come together to create a simple and reliable solution.
For landlords and property managers, making sure that they secure qualified tenants is a massive undertaking in the first place. One bad tenant can equal thousands of dollars in lost damages—not to mention time—that the landlords can’t get back. We’ve heard horror stories from some landlords who’ve incurred over $20,000 in damages, unpaid rent and court fees just for one tenant who they tried to evict. In Ontario, the Residential Tenancies Act is not generally in favour of landlords, so it is critical that they ensure they bring in the right tenant from the start.
Managing the mountain of paperwork that comes from attracting, signing and retaining a tenant is also difficult. This is why Casalova is concerned with references and reviews of tenants, as well as managing the entire tenant-landlord relationship from end to end.
Nathan: How important has the lean methodology been to your startup?
Ray: We operate with a very lean/agile methodology, inspired by great reads including The Lean Startup, Running Lean and Lean Analytics. It allows us to constantly innovate and meet market demands, test new features and iterate on hypotheses within the day and/or the week. If you’re testing out new ideas, then you have to be lean. We deploy something new to test every day.
My advice to those who are looking to start their own company, but don’t know where to begin, is to pick up some of these books and to learn how to test new ideas. The beauty of the Internet is that, if you don’t know something, you can find the answer in under an hour. If you want deeper knowledge of a particular subject, you can start following prominent bloggers within that space or simply pick up a book about that topic. There is no excuse for not having an answer to something and one of the things we look for when hiring a new team member is their ability to be resourceful and to find answers on their own.
So far, the results of Casalova have shown that there is a high demand for a new renting solution. Since we officially announced our platform, we’ve had over 6,000 users viewing our site, sharing our links and emailing us their ideas and support. Since launching our public beta on May 8, 2015, we’ve seen growth of 37% week over week, and we haven’t done any paid marketing. It’s all been through word of mouth and our social media presence.
Nathan: How do you hold your team accountable to building?
Ray: There are always challenges when growing a company. We’ve been very selective in our hiring and have made sure to bring on not only the right talent, but talent who are also passionate about our idea and who can see the greater vision of where we want to go with Casalova. In that regard, we all motivate each other and hold one another accountable.
We hold weekly team meetings where each team member goes through their progress from the previous week and we discuss strategies and milestones for the week ahead. We use tools like Producteev and Targetprocess for agile development and Slack for team collaboration.
Nathan: How are you funding Casalova?
Ray: To date, we’ve mainly bootstrapped Casalova using lean methodologies. We’ve only recently started raising investment and one of our first investors was actually a customer of ours who loved the service so much that he called me and asked how he could invest. It’s a great sign of confidence when your customers want to be partners with you in growing the company and we’re very grateful for the support we’ve received.
A lot of property managers are looking to invest as well, and we’re currently working to close a seed round led by another Casalova advocate who’s been championing our product to other investors.
We know we’re solving a major problem because on the day of our public beta launch one of the biggest property management firms in Toronto offered to buy our company. However, we see this as a major problem for not just one property management company, but for many globally, as the problems in the rental market affect people around the world. We want to solve a global problem and so it’s our mission to work with property managers and landlords to bring that solution to the market.
Nathan: Talk to me about the Casalova brand. I freakin’ love it.
Ray: When deciding what our brand stood for and the message we wanted to get across, we realized we really wanted to bring a new rental solution to the market and not just be another rental site. So we’ve designed Casalova to be the guide to finding your next home with a focus on community and matching you with the neighbourhood that’s right for you. This is why we use the tagline “Love where you live.”
Many rental sites miss the point that when someone is choosing a new rental home, they’re looking at more than just the square footage or the tiles used in the kitchen. They also want to know about the neighbourhood and, more importantly, they want to feel like they’ve chosen a neighbourhood that matches their personality and lifestyle. We’ve got some really exciting features in the works that will actually help tenants find just the right neighbourhood to suit them.
We also give back to our community, which is why we’re creating localized and neighbourhood-based events like Poochella, an event for people who love to go to festivals and who also love dogs. We want to create events that give back to the community—the proceeds of Poochella go to local animal shelters in Toronto.
We also run a blog where we do a weekly series of “Meet the Neighbours.” We go out to different neighbourhoods in Toronto and interview people on the street about their favourite things in the neighbourhood. So if you’re looking to live in Liberty Village, for example, you can see exactly what the locals are saying about that area and decide whether it’s the right neighbourhood for you.
Nathan: What has been your experience at MaRS? Please speak honestly and critically.
Ray: Everyone at MaRS has been super supportive. They’ve helped us in all sorts of directions, from advice in market intelligence to marketing. Having access to the Everest program and using the program’s tools and strategies has been really important in terms of customer development and developing a business model/lean canvas. It’s great to have an organization like MaRS supporting our startup and other startups in the Toronto community. With resources like MaRS and the Everest program, we’re able to tackle challenges with a collective effort of individuals from various backgrounds.
Nathan: Where do you see Casalova in two years?
Ray: The grand vision for Casalova is to be the end-to-end solution for tenants and landlords. We’re currently operating in the downtown core of Toronto and will start expanding to the rest of the Greater Toronto Area by July. In two years, we hope to be in all of the cities in Canada and operational in the bigger rental markets in the United States.
Nathan: What three words define your company and its people?
Ray: Community, transparency, simplicity.