A week and a half. That’s all the time that Rico Mok ’11 had to make a significant life decision. Should he take a job offer from an established company that offered a comfortable salary and benefits package or continue with the development of his startup, OneRent, which was generating next to nothing in revenue but held much promise in Mok’s eyes? “I didn’t want to work at a big corporation. I really wanted to keep doing what I love,” he said.
After deciding to seek advice at his university’s Career Center, Mok was disappointed to learn that appointments with career counselors were booked solid for two weeks – past his deadline to accept or decline the job offer.
But Mok persisted. He happened to notice a counselor standing nearby and asked him for five minutes of his time. “We started talking and I mentioned that I was working on a startup and he got super excited. He had been an executive with a Silicon Valley startup,” he said. “That five-minute meeting turned into a two-hour lunch session that led to my getting a lead investor in OneRent.”
With $500,000 in hand, Mok was able to grow the business that he co-founded with three Santa Clara University classmates in March 2014 from four to a dozen employees and move OneRent’s headquarters from a garage in Santa Clara to a 12th floor office building in San Jose.
Today, with second round financing of $1.5 million nearly secured from investors such as Jeff Dean, an early Google engineering executive who co-created MapReduce and other core functions of Google technology, Mok is forging ahead with OneRent – a property management platform that caters to tenants as well as landlords.
Mok credits O’Dowd faculty and staff with fostering his interest in technology and inspiring him to explore the world of startups. As a student he worked closely with associate athletic director Carlos Arriaga on creating an athletics live stream platform to broadcast games. “He was a great mentor to me,” Mok said of Arriaga. “And that’s how my passion for technology started.”
“The supportive culture at O’Dowd was extraordinary.”
Later, as a student at Santa Clara University majoring in Management Information Systems, Mok continually dabbled in the startup world, launching various apps including “Moments-remembering the past” that allowed users to reminisce the past with the use of location.
He subsequently started OneRent with Greg Toschi, Arman Dezfuli-Arjomandi and Chuck Hattemer. “The idea started when all of us had a really hard time finding off campus housing,” he explained. “So we decided to try to use technology to make a platform that made it easier for students to find housing.”
Within about four months after their initial launch, the young entrepreneurs had secured almost 80 percent of all off-campus housing in the vicinity in their system. “We were able to transact about $1 million in security deposits and rent,” he said.
Broadening the Scope
While tenants and landlords alike were enthusiastic about OneRent services, Mok said there was a demand from landlords for more comprehensive services. “So we pivoted,” he said.
OneRent now provides a full spectrum of property management services, including an on-demand network of “property concierges” who service properties all over the San Francisco Bay Area.
“We are using a lot of technology to automate and make the process for tenants and landlords more efficient,” Mok said.
Tenants can browse OneRent’s exclusive listings online, as well as pre-qualify for rentals, schedule viewings of properties at their convenience, sign documents, pay rent and submit property repair requests online.
“My core belief is that there is no such thing as a very unique idea. There’s always someone working on the exact same thing.”
For landlords, OneRent handles property marketing, tenant screening, showings and leasing, move in and move out inspections, rent collection and maintenance. “And we charge about 3.5 times less than traditional property managers,” Mok said.
A dashboard feature offers landlords transparency and convenience, allowing them to monitor things such as how much revenue they are receiving each month to how much maintenance is required to upkeep their properties. “It gives them great peace of mind,” Mok said.
Adds Mok, “This industry has been stagnant for many, many years, and we’re here to push it forward – to make the whole experience better for the tenants and the landlords.”
Mok says that while OneRent’s current direct competitors are traditional property management companies, he’s certain there are others working on a similar concept. “My core belief is that there is no such thing as a very unique idea. There’s always someone working on the exact same thing,” he said.
Serving two different kinds of customers – tenants and landlords – who have very different needs can be challenging, Mok says. “What we’ve learned is we need to be adaptable,” he said.
Challenges and Rewards
One of the most challenging aspects of getting OneRent up and running has been finding capable employees, particularly proficient engineers.
“It’s harder in Silicon Valley than in other areas because the tech giants like Google and Facebook are sucking up the talent with very high paying positions,” he said.
And startups have lot of ups and downs, Mok said. “In most cases there are more downs than ups. That’s why I believe it’s very important to have a good team. Without that you don’t have the mental support you need to go through the rough times – especially in the early days when you are working 90 hours a week. If you are working on your own, and you don’t see a different perspective, it can be hard.”
“I think my future would look very different if I hadn’t gone to O’Dowd”
Mok says OneRent team members all feel like they are living their dream. “Everyone is working around the clock to ensure this venture is successful and every call they make, every client they secure, has a direct impact on the success of OneRent,” he said. “I’m so glad that every single one of us still has that passion and dedication.”
An international student who moved to the United States when he was a sophomore in high school, Mok says that choosing to attend O’Dowd was the best decision he ever made.
“The supportive culture at O’Dowd was extraordinary. I don’t think you get that kind of opportunity in other schools. I think my future would look very different if I hadn’t gone to O’Dowd,” he said. “A lot of what I learned at O’Dowd is directly helping me now.”
His advice for young entrepreneurs hoping to launch a startup? Don’t be afraid to take chances. “You need to be somewhat naïve. If you are too critical you’ll never get anything done, and you’ll find 10,000 different ways to shoot down an idea,” he said.
“OneRent was nearly a victim of that. We had a problem that we couldn’t figure out and actually scrapped the idea and crumbled up our notes and threw them in the garbage,” he said.
After attending an entrepreneurial workshop that encouraged acknowledging and embracing risk, Mok and his fellow OneRent co-founders went back to the drawing board. “We accepted that we had a problem, but just kept going,” he said. “After a few months, we realized that problem really wasn’t a problem.”