It’s hard not to belly-laugh when witnessing the sharp-witted repartee between Ben Kubic, a young tech CEO straight out Harvard, and Jude Rasmus, a seasoned real estate agent named nationally for her brokerage skills by the Wall Street Journal. The 20-something and 50-something flow in conversation like an old married couple, throwing out teasing jabs that resonate with mutual respect and total trust. Through that sass and energy, together, they are developing a dynamic real-estate-tech startup, Virgent Realty.
Kubic and Rasmus have a tremendous startup story – one that began with a job ad on Craigslist (if you can believe it) – that is shaping complimentary strengths into a booming business. Virgent Realty cuts out annoying real estate agents and allows homeowners the freedom and convenience of selling a pad through familiar tech turf. And they are growing fast.
These odd couple co-founders share over coffee how to find the perfect partner, go with your gut, and make an idea profitable.
A Startup is Born
Jude: My daughter was going away to college at Holy Cross in Boston, and, as a mom, I was like, Argh, what am I going to do? Maybe I will just do something in real estate in Boston. My company here kind of runs itself. I had some ideas, and one day I was looking for real estate in Boston to see what the market is like. I hopped on Craigslist and 45-minutes before that Ben put an ad out looking for a director of real estate. And I thought, What does a director of real estate look like? I have no idea what the heck that is. And so I sent him my website, telling him, I have no idea why I’m emailing you, but I have a company in Atlanta that does something similar to what you are looking for. We had a couple of conversations by phone and then I went up and met him at the Harvard Innovation Lab, where he was launching originally. And I think we liked each other a little bit.
Ben: Yeah. I was a little skeptical. Nobody believed it. I told my friends, who asked, Where are you going? I said, I’m going to go meet this potential broker. Is she from Boston? No, she is from Atlanta. She came to meet me. They were like, Are you kidding? Yeah, no, she is a Top 3 Broker according to the Wall Street Journal. I felt unclear. She seemed very into my ideas, although she seemed to be stealing all of them…
Jude [interjecting]: I don’t think there was ever that. Whenever you talk to someone about a joint business venture or you don’t travel in the same worlds, there is a healthy bit of suspicion. I don’t think Ben and I ever skipped a beat. I remember when Ben pulled out his laptop and was telling me about going to this funding meeting…
Ben: It was our first funding from a small VC firm. You came the day before I pitched them for money…
Jude: We only knew each other for a couple of hours, and he was like, Let me get my phone out and take a video of you, so I can prepare my pitch tonight. I was like, Can you stop? [laughing] This is ridiculous. I think I had been out running that morning and had my hair in a ponytail and that kind of stuff. Yet, there was always congruency with where we were coming from, from an idea standpoint. Our strengths are in such different areas that it is never a tug-of-war of whose platforms are whose. He forces me to look at real estate differently. We have something that works for us.
Ben: I can talk about her weaknesses [laughing]. Obviously, Jude’s real estate experience and knowledge are second-to-none. I will never even question a home evaluation or negotiation she does. I would never interject myself with that. I think with Jude, there is this finesse. We’ve had a lot of great transactions, but then we’ve had a lot that have not been so smooth. She is good at finding a place of agreement, even when people are on different sides of the table.
Jude: With his insistence, we are moving to a platform and allowing that to manage the process: I just did this as a human, how can we change this so it will work on a platform? We know it is a people business, but we want it to work as a transaction through a streamlined process.
When you have someone that you don’t really like to work with that’s always hard. But we don’t have that. I feel like every time we get together something good happens. There is just a natural chemistry. We get irritated with each other, sure, as co-founders always do, but there is a lot of respect.
Ben: My area of expertise is really the marketing end of it, the investor-side, and technology development. The day-to-day stuff happens through Jude. I don’t actually get involved in the transaction part of it. Jude and her team really manage most of it. I get feedback from them and the clients on what to build – how can we make this easier, how did you hear about us, things like that.
Jude: The technology base that he gives to us is incredible for someone who doesn’t have a degree in that. He is freelancing in building this thing. I’m a big Salesforce girl. It is so easy with process flow and to handle a larger volume with that. He’s good at translating what I say. Granted, he may whine about it, but he will make something twice as good than I could have wanted.
Ben: What is interesting about this business is that it is profitable. Now, it is about streamlining the process. We save the average home seller about 10 hours of work. Home sellers save a lot of time, which means that we can help a lot more people. It comes down to awareness of what we do. We are a full-scale agency. We just operate very differently and offer something more streamlined than a traditional agency. So, now we are looking for funding to provide scaling and moving into other markets.
Our leads, by people who request a home evaluation, are growing by 130% month by month. A lot of that is through us learning how people find out about us, and pushing out through social media meaningful and relevant blog content about selling homes. We find a lot is coming through friend referrals. People who have sold with us will tell others, Hey, these guys are great. You should check them out if you consider selling.
Jude: We have used very little of our own money. We have done it with PR, and have learned from the consumer on how to tweak things. Growth-wise, we are seeing a connection of the dots through people who are finding us, be it through Instagram or Facebook. People don’t want a sales pitch. They want to know what it is worth and connect with something easy.
Ben: Especially for younger home sellers there is this inclination of towards, like: I’m already on my phone, I already use it, why do I have to pick it up to call someone? We have even found clients who say email is too much. They just don’t want to email. All of our showings are automated through text message. I mean, look at me, I’m not really a phone talker…
Jude: Well, you talk to me all the time…
Ben: Okay, only you. Most people, clients, are really like, Just text me that you sent it out, and I will take care of it.
Finding the Right Co-Founder
Ben: The way we met was really one in a million. I don’t know if a lot of people can say that they found their co-founder through Craigslist [laughing]. The way we connected, and the fact it was such a great match…I think most people should probably look, and, this is the Harvard Business School answer, through their network and people they know…
Jude: I totally disagree.
Ben: I know you do. [laughing] Jude wasn’t the first person I was talking to, but it came down to gut. I knew I could work with this person and trust their skills, not only with understanding the real estate business but understanding the larger vision. Vision is a lot of it. It is more than two people meeting up. Having a vision is really important, especially as things move very quickly. You have to be able to work together to focus, being able to answer, How do we work today to get where we want to be? I think it is really key.
Jude: You have to be risk tolerant, and to trust your instincts. If you find a normal connection, even far reaching, you have to explore that. Look at us, what, 27 and 51? It is about respect. If you respect that person then there is a reason to explore it, even if you disagree. That respect allows you to solve discord and move on.
Ben: Look for someone with complementary skills. A lot of people from business schools team up with other people from business schools – classmates – and then have co-CEOs. Those companies have founders with the same kind of background and mindset in a lot of cases. I am not sure how that sets you up for success. Sure there are cases where it does, but then probably not. I definitely believe that you should look for someone who can be your technical expert, as Judy is in real estate for us. It is valuable to have such deep field-knowledge. If you don’t have that in yourself, you should find the person who can be that complement to you.
Photography provided by Johnathon Kelso, a talented photographer documenting the people and places of the South. See more of his work at http://www.johnathonkelso.com/